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Present Imperfect
September 2009

Observant Christmas shoppers will be able correctly to infer three things from the cover of Sebastian Faulks's new novel. One, from the image of the London skyline, that the novel aims to present a "panorama", or panoramic snapshot, of London life. Two, from the dark storm clouds brewing overhead, that in this story at least, all is not well in our fair city. And three, from the presence of the London Eye, doing its gross aesthetic damage there in that skyline, that Faulks has departed from the historical novel with which he made his name and applied himself for the first time to the immediate present.

In other ways, he has kept to familiar territory — romance, a gripping pace and mental illness as a dominant theme. It's established early on that the principal characters, though mostly strangers to one another, are due to gather at a dinner party at the end of this particular week in December. Meanwhile, their lives threaten to unravel in ways that complement each other well enough to persuade the reader that the dinner party will be worth the wait. But it's Faulks's talent for pace, rather than anything in the substance of the novel, that keeps one interested.

An illiterate first-generation Pakistani immigrant turned chutney millionaire discovers that he is to receive an OBE. He assumes that when he meets the Queen she will ask him probing questions on literature, and so hires a well-drawn bitter hack of a book reviewer ("He dismissed equally the offerings of famous old men, heavy with honours, and those of photogenic young women") to give him a bluffer's crash course. Meanwhile, his teenage son, Hassan, prepares to play his part in a suicide bomb attack on London. The motiveless malignity of a hedge fund manager engineers a global banking crisis while his son slowly goes mad on superskunk and reality TV. A female West Indian Tube driver, who is both hooked on an internet virtual reality game and an avid reader, begins a love affair with a depressed young lawyer. 

The strategy seems to have been to round up all the new phenomena suspected of auguring ill for our collective psyche and dump them into a novel. As well as reality TV, skunk, the various fruits of the internet, a banking crisis (the year's hot topic), Islamism and the plight of western Muslims (the decade's hot topic), political correctness and multiculturalism are also addressed. A cast of characters rounded out by MPs, media moguls, school teachers and footballers contributes to an occasional feeling that one is not reading a novel but a 500-page bumper edition of The Observer.

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