Paradise City, Elizabeth Day’s third novel, comes with an accompanying essay on The Pool — an online magazine for the Instagram, iPhone woman. Day, a feature writer for the Observer, discusses the novel’s male protagonist (you couldn’t call him hero) Sir Howard Pink, an East End Jewish boy turned rag-trade multimillionaire.
Day urges women to stop being so self-effacing, people-pleasing, and permanently apologetic and instead to ‘Be More Howard’. ‘He sprung on to the page as unashamedly male and blessed with a defiant sense of his own entitlement,’ she writes. ‘He saw money, sex and power as his due. He took what he could, where he could get it and the world rewarded him for it.’
Day explains that many women could afford to be a little more ‘me first’ and a little less ‘no, no, after you’. Galvanised by her words, I went around for several weeks ‘Being More Howard’:’ not apologising constantly, not letting invoices go unpaid and not starting every email ‘sorry to be a nuisance…’
When I got around to reading the book, however, I discovered that in the very first chapter, Howard, in the worst DSK tradition, sexually assaults a chambermaid in a London hotel room. My resolution to Be More Howard collapsed. But the cleverness of Day’s writing of Howard is that she makes him sympathetic. After his rutting chimpanzee moment, he spends the rest of the book atoning. You warm to this schmutter-merchant made good.
Should I ‘Be More Esme’, then? Esme is the twentysomething hack sent to interview Sir Howard. She works in a newspaper office on Kensington High Street — as, until I left for pastures freelance a few months ago, did I. We are the same age, both journalists. I share Esme’s despair when a piece is spiked. Without a byline, ‘It felt as though she didn’t exist.’ What Esme wants is the story that will make her name. This isn’t so much a novel of the ‘perfect crime’ as of the ‘perfect scoop’. And Howard Pink may be it.
Esme half envies, half recoils from hardened interviewer Cathy who regales her with
a run-down of all the many exclusive, award-winning interviews she’d snagged for the paper simply by turning up on a stranger’s doorstep with a notepad, a killer instinct for a story and an appropriately earnest expression on her face.
Journalists will recognise much in the novel: the news editor who still uses a scrappy Rolodex, the intrusiveness of the ‘doorstep’, the academic studies from crackpot universities turned into page-leads. Those who’ve never been inside a newsroom will be struck by the unseemly competition and manic stress of deadlines.
The reform of Howard — a more likeable figure than the hacks — is richly written. Be More Howard — within reason.