Matt Thorne is pleasantly surprised by Glen Duncan's new novel, which delves into the secret history of Anglo-Indian Catholics
The Bloodstone Papers by Glen Duncan, Scribner £12.99
GAlen Duncan, the industrious nglo-Indian. Catholic-raised, 40-year-old novelist who has just published his sixth novel, first arrived on the literary scene with considerable swagger. Dividing his time between New York and London. he had spent the 17 years it took him to get published developing a fluent (Martin) Amis-ian transatlantic authorial voice. Although his debut novel, Hope (1997), was stylistically accomplished, there was a disconcerting gap between the libertine pose of his protagonist. Gabriel Jones, and the moralistic concerns of Duncan the novelist. Ostensibly a novel about the corrosive power of pornography (and readers should be warned that all of Duncan's novels are sexually explicit, although never in a prurient way and always within a philosophical or theological framework). it seemed instead a rather sad story about being expelled from the happiness of an early love. The other flaw in this novel (and this is one of Duncan's few recurrent weaknesses) was that his characters spent too much time reminiscing about their nights in the student union bar, which gave the novel a sophomoric quality at odds with the novel's hard edges.
He ironed out some of these problems in his superior second novel, Love Remains (2000). Having changed publisher and editor (and returned to England), he relaxed his prose style and developed the themes of his first novel with greater acuity. While he was still concerned with the dark side of romantic relationships, this novel owed less to Amis and explored the psychological impact of a bad marriage on two already disturbed individuals. This successful book was largely ignored by critics and Duncan changed publisher again, returning with the high-concept 1. Lucifer.
The conceit was potentially offensive. but Duncan handled it with tremendous aplomb, properly revealing, for the first time. how much his Catholic upbringing had influenced him. In this novel, shortly to be turned into a film by Dan Harris, the screenwriter of this summer's blockbuster, Superman Returns, starring Ewan McGregor, Daniel Craig and possibly Meg Ryan, Lucifer is given a chance for redemption if he can live out a sin-free life on earth. He is put in the body of Declan Gunn, a depressed writer living in Clerkenwell. "Declan Gunn" is an anagram of Glen Duncan, and the novel is an unusual mix of miserable autobiography and amusing aphorisms. Much of the book is concerned with getting a film deal, so it's not surprising that this slightly cynical advertising seems to have worked. Duncan followed 1, Lucifer with his finest novel to date, Weathercock (2003). Reportedly edited down from an 800-page manuscript, this 500-page masterpiece was where all of the author's preoccupations finally came together and all of his previous flaws suddenly became strengths. Dominic Hood. an ominously named Catholic, knows that his family and God are looking out for him, but when he sees Fr Ignatius Malone perform a miracle during an exorcism performed in India, it dislodges something dark inside that sets him off on a 20-year journey where he almost loses his soul.
The subject of exorcism is again a controversial one, and it's incredibly hard to navigate this sort of territory (also including non-religious explorations of black and white magic and sexual sadism) without causing offence or becoming risible. But Duncan managed it; at the same time writing a novel that was beyond the reach of most contemporary novelists. Although successful, the novel didn't quite find the audience it deserved, though, I hope, the film adaptation of Lucifer will encourage readers to give it a try.
Just a year later, Duncan returned with Death of an Ordinary Man (2004). Perhaps it was the strain of writing three sizable novels in three years, or maybe he was simply psychologically drained after the achievement of Weathercock, but this fifth novel is Duncan's only real failure. Another high-concept novel, concerning the eponymous ordinary man, Nathan Clark, who is able to see his family after his death while he works out how and why he died. The novel begins as a detective story but soon becomes self-indulgent, and the prose here is nowhere near as good as in his other books.
One of the biggest challenges for career novelists such as Duncan is to re-invent themselves as newly relevant with each successive book.
So, with The Bloodstone Papers, Duncan is turning for the first time to his Anglo-Indian heritage. The press release gives a list of other notable Anglo-Indians (Vivien Leigh, Robert Flaherty, Boris Karloff and Sir Cliff Richard) and suggests that The Bloodstone Papers is to the Anglo-Indian experience what Hari Kunzru's The Impressionist is to the Pakistani experience. This comparison seems strange as Duncan is by far the more accomplished of these two authors, and may soon be much more famous. It's also something of a red herring. The Bloodstone Papers is. in part, a historical novel, looking at India in 1940s, and how integral Anglo-Indian Catholics were to running the administrative side of the Raj. Anglo-Indians were mixed race and primarily Catholic, the "beige" people, as Duncan puts it. They were "created" as a buffer between the "native" Indians and the ruling British aristocracy and became
the country's de facto civil service. But The Bloodstone Papers is also a cunningly disguised revisiting of the main theme of Death of an Ordinary Man, only this time handled successfully. This theme. which is emerging not only as the central preoccupation of Duncan's fiction, but also the fiction of many important contemporary novelists. is surveillance. or more precisely how the religious sense of being constantly observed by God has a modern parallel in the endless observation that is part of contemporary life. Whether it is being observed on CCTV (Duncan's protagonist in the modern-day section of the narrative, another depressed novelist, named Owen Munroe, visits Heathrow and Gatwick so often that the security men watching the cameras take him aside for questioning), or being monitored on the internet (there is an amusing running joke about inappropriate news stories on internet server AOL). so much of modern life seems to be about accumulating information that will only become important in the event of catastrophe. At the same time, this makes it much harder to decide what is truly of value, making detectives of us all. Owen Monroe's quest is a common one in fiction: trying to find out the truth about his father's past. His father is a boxer who wanted to fight his way to Olympic victory, but became distracted and lost his title fight because he believed he was the victim of a cleverly engineered scam. Monroe's quest to find his father's enemy (which, unsurprisingly, given Duncan's preoccupations, is helped along by the discovery of a pulp fiction book. Raj Rogue) mirrors the author's own challenge: to take these disparate elements and dual narratives and make an interesting novel from them. He succeeds admirably, but this is not his best book. The contemporary love story between Owen and his childhood sweetheart feels like a less interesting reprise of similar material from Hope, and several scenes seem to draw on the same well of experience that has inspired the previous books (Duncan's two years of getting drunk at London clubs such as the Astoria seem to have inspired all of his subsequent pick-up scenes.) But none of this really matters: it's a good Glen Duncan novel and, as he is one of the very best contemporary British authors, this makes it an essential read.