The Heart Broke In by James Meek
January 18, 2013 § Leave a Comment
2012 produced a few books by UK authors that seemed to me to approach the recent traditions of the Great American Novel, or at least my interpretation of that. John Lanchester wrote Capital, a good yet uneven assessment of the financial state of things. Zadie Smith poured a lifetime of wisdom into NW. And James Meek, regular essayist for the LRB on subjects as unpromising–and yet somehow fantastically, novelistically interesting–as electricity privatisation, debt and the NHS, produced The Heart Broke In, a sort of lavish, intellectual soap opera of a book. That might make you think of Downton Abbey, but the only things the characters in The Heart Broke In have in common with Lord and Lady Grantham and their three delightful daughters are pots of money and an absurdly large, yet apparently socially appropriate, sense of entitlement.
It is, though, something of a period piece. A reference to Dickens seems almost inevitable, but it’s also something bearing the marks of its own time, with all kinds of cultural references and assumptions that will be hard for people to understand in twenty or even ten years. It opens with former rock star Ritchie Shepherd mired in an illegal relationship with a teenager who appeared on the TV show he now produces. Meek shows Ritchie engaged in what the latter thinks passes for deep reflection. He behaves like a child star, riding his tricycle around his loft studio, and telling himself that he’s a good person despite cheating on his wife and liking his children more in theory than in person. He only lies, he realises in a moment of particular insight, because he doesn’t want to hurt his family. How noble, Ritchie!
Ritchie’s sister Bec is a scientist working on malaria cures. She’s recently broken up with the vengeful editor of a tabloid newspaper she accidentally became engaged to: she kept meaning to say no, but there was never a good moment. Both Ritchie and Bec, then, are fairly pathetic at taking responsibility for their own behaviour. Bec at least is redeemed by her work, and by her ability to finally succumb to the charms of monogamy in the form of a relationship with Ritchie’s former band member. Ritchie, though, cannot help constantly telegraphing his own despicability. There’s nothing wrong with a dislikeable character, but when this unpleasantness is pointed up both narratorially and by Ritchie’s almost wilful narcissism, the effect is like that of an overpowering perfume that drives you from the room. Once we move away from Ritchie this settles down into Meek’s excellent observations and wonderful style. There are so many good sentences in this novel that I can’t even choose one to quote.
The plot fairly gallops along once everyone’s been introduced, with a complex and well put together tangle of betrayals and disappointments. Ritchie and Bec take turns riding what they think is the moral high horse until they’ve trampled everyone underfoot and knocked down all the fences. Can any be mended? We don’t have to wonder, because Meek has included, unexpectedly and a little disappointingly, an epilogue that reveals what happens next.
The Heart Broke In contains some great writing and makes for great reading, but overall it’s perhaps a little too loud for us to really hear the intellectual-emotional points Meek is making underneath the cacophony. A reflection on how keen we all are to evade responsibility for our own choices and actions is surely one of those points. Another is the depressing idea that whatever we seem to be to other people is more important than what we really are. These are crucial to the novel but get a little lost in the extravagance. Am I making too much of it? Isn’t a man allowed to use humour and hyperbole to convey something serious? Perhaps, but Meek’s wonderful essays persuade me that this is a writer with something really big to say about these times we live in, and I’d have liked a few more sober and somber moments to peep through the hilarious savagery of both the characters and their creator.
Really, though, these are small quibbles. The closer a book comes to being really good, the more there is to criticise.
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