Eleven: A Novel by Mark Watson


It takes a certain kind of person to laugh at the world, professionally. I have never met a truly happy, or even upbeat comedian; they’re all clowns, crying on the inside. ‘Eleven’ is definitely a book that is crying on the inside, despite its cartoony, Dilbert-esque cover.

Ignore the back-cover précis that suggests you’ll be “humorously” exploring life. The plot touches on bullying, theft, obesity, stammering, halitosis, drugs, ill-temper, anger, infidelity, divorce… it’s a cornucopia of awkward situations and mortification of the flesh. It’s NOT funny. Or, perhaps it IS funny, since modern humour seems to have an insatiable thirst for casual cruelty.

As television sitcoms devolved from ‘Seinfeld‘s astonished disbelief at human folly to the gleeful exploitation of misery in ‘The Office‘, ‘Arrested Development‘ and ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm‘; so this book takes the admixture of joys and disappointments found in ‘Love, Actually‘ and decides that the moral of the story is NOT “love is all around”, but rather, “life’s a bitch and then you die”.

I did not love this, but it was a quick, smooth read. By the end I felt respect for the author’s ambition and technical proficiency. The emotions it provoked were not uplifting; mostly dread and embarrassment on behalf of the losers and loners populating the text. Still, it drew me in, and that speaks to skilled writing. Also, it contained Scrabble, which I love.

I suspect Watson is aiming at a sobering “Shakespeare’s Fool” angle: raw, caddish, exposing faults and proposing societal corrections. But who plays the fool? While Xavier doles out advice on his late-night radio talk show, he fails to embrace his own teachings, and is mocked and sorted out in turn by Pippa, who has problems of her own.

The third-person omniscient narrator takes omniscience seriously, delivering random Cassandra-like prognostications about the future of various minor players. Playing God, telling us that a man on the periphery of the plot will be dead in three years, or that a child will grow up to do something special decades from now, leeched away significance from their actions in the present. The loss of sequence lead me to feel a lack of consequence, left me unable to connect to characters whose fates had already been revealed / sealed by the author.

Tackling eleven story lines in 300 pages is also extremely ambitious; if you do the math, 11 divided by 300 works out to about 27 pages each, and actually it’s less than that, since the lion’s share focuses on Xavier.

(I never grasped the “significance” of the number eleven, as the author clearly hoped I would do, according to his self-penned reading group discussion questions. It’s a number, dude, not a “concept”.)

Following the threads of multiple characters with interweaving story lines is a harder sell in writing than in film. Without faces or other visual clues to help identify characters, it’s easy to get confused by the onslaught of names. I found myself flipping back and forth between chapters, struggling to keep track of “who’s who”, wishing I’d taken notes. I imagine reading this as an e-book would be a nightmare, unless you do it all in one sitting or have an exceptionally good memory.

Watson complicates things by tossing multiple nationalities and locales into the mix: the book takes place in London, England but the main narrator has flashbacks to life in Australia, and meets a girl with Geordie speech patterns. My brain had trouble switching accents.

I will conclude on a positive note: Mark Watson has a knack for writing good similes. He doesn’t overuse “like” or “as”, but when he provides comparisons, they are expressive and evocative.

Here’s a sample about a recently cleaned flat, with a string of similes that I enjoyed:

“The kitchen boasts an almost pained sheen as if it were a patient still weak from an operation: the surfaces look, superficially at least, like the untouched worktops seen on display in IKEA. The bathroom too is like a scruffy boy scrubbed up for a school photograph, grimacing sheepishly in new clothes. The overall atmosphere in the flat is healthy, glossy, but there is a sense of exhaustion, as if the inanimate objects are in a kind of shock at their treatment.” (p. 62)

Note: DO NOT read this if you are about to do any solo babysitting for a friend’s precious infant. (Which is what I’m about to do next weekend, naturally.)

3 of 5 stars / bookshelves: read, 320 pages, Publisher: Scribner (2010)
Read from September 29 to October 04, 2012

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