Once upon a time, an untrustworthy story- teller seemed rather an enterprising creation — and some great books were written this way, like Lolita and The Good Soldier (from which Blake Morrison takes an epigraph). But nowadays having a fibber as compère seems painfully predictable. Only if our dodgy raconteur is strikingly engaging or funny do we, as readers, feel inclined to stay the course, to have it confirmed that our guide is actually a fraud, or killer, and his life a hollow sham.
The trick can still be pulled off. John Lanchester did it in The Debt to Pleasure, and Sebastian Faulks in Engleby, a book made interesting by the way it seems to be Faulks’s nightmare about how wrong everything could have gone for him in another life. Engleby is also well managed, the clues to the hero’s lunacy eked out carefully, so that the reader remains in some suspense, or at least uncertainty, for much of the book.
Blake Morrison’s new novel, The Last Weekend, however, opens with a statement so off-colour that you realise at once, with dismay, where you’re headed:
You know how it is with friends — the closer you get, the less you see them for what they are. They suck you in. They drag you down. You resist, but their allure’s too strong. Choked by their needs, you cease to see how mad they are.
That doesn’t sound at all right, does it? Chap must be barking.
Halfway down the second page, our host adds:
It’s not like I’m a rapist or a murderer. Even if I were, I would be honest with you. I’m trying to tell the story, that’s all — not to unburden myself, or to extenuate some offence, but to set things straight.
So, right from the off we know what we’re on for — with the whole book still to come.
It’s a tale of two couples, our narrator Ian and his wife Em, and their friends from university, Ollie and Daisy. Their lives have materially diverged, as Ian bitterly observes:
The essential contrasts, all to our disadvantage, go: large Georgian house in west London vs small modern semi in Ilkeston; Range Rover and BMW vs Ford Fiesta; Mauritius (Florence, Antigua, etc) vs Lanzarote (if we’re lucky); The Ivy vs Pizza Express; Royal Opera House vs local Odeon; Waitrose vs Morrisons; golden couple vs pair of ugly toads.
It’s worse than that, though. Ian, a primary school teacher, is facing a disciplinary hearing for assaulting a child. Lustful, violent and resentful, he’s also a compulsive on-line gambler who is deeply in debt. And he has delusions about his relationship to both Ollie and Daisy, both of whom he had angry crushes on while a student.
Ollie and Daisy, instead of running as fast as possible in the opposite direction, make the mistake of asking Ian and Em to stay for the weekend in the holiday house they have rented in Suffolk. Disaster follows, as the book’s title lightly hints. Ian behaves more than badly, lying and cheating, raping and murdering, while earnestly telling us how right he is and how wrong everybody else.
To pull this off, he has repeatedly to fudge key events. ‘Did I say that or did he? I can’t remember now’, for example. When he forces Daisy, he claims she asked for a hug. Then he retracts:
Or perhaps I was the one who suggested the hug. It doesn’t matter either way. We’d been friends for over 20 years, and the hug was simply to celebrate that.
Ian is a creep, just as his first sentences announced; indeed so obviously a creep, he’s hard to stay with. For Morrison has forgotten to give us any reason to like him or be interested in him. Not even a fancy prose style. To be sure, Ian has lyrical descriptions of the hot Suffolk summer:
Beyond the orchard, a heat haze trembled over the stubble. It was a day to make you dream of freezer shelves, blizzards, the down draught from helicopters, the spangled fur of huskies.
But these effusive passages — there’s another one about clouds — ‘clouds like galleons, battleships, barrage balloons, pillowcases, mares’ tails, dandelion clocks, shoals of mackerel’ — rightly belong to Blake Morrison himself, not to nasty Ian, and they add nothing to the novel.
Going through the motions like this, The Last Weekend leaves you reluctant to meet any more unreliable narrators ever again. Except, of course, where they belong: in the songs of Randy Newman, short and funny.