Here’s a chain of consequences: early last year, I was at a work conference where, one evening, a group of us went to see Mark Watson in stand-up. His name was half-familiar, though I couldn’t quite place it; but I love good comedy, so I decided to take a chance and go along anyway – and I’m glad I did, because Watson was hilarious.
A few months later, I was in an unfamiliar part of town, and popped into the local library, where I saw a novel by an author named Mark Watson. A quick glance at the biography established that this was the same Mark Watson; apparently he’d written a couple of novels several years previously. If his fiction was anything like as good as his stand-up, I thought, then I wanted to read it – so I borrowed the book and, sure enough, it was very good.
All this meant that, when I heard earlier this year that Watson was going to publish a new novel, his first in six years, I was very interested in reading it. And the reason I’ve introduced this review as I have is that Eleven is all about chains of consequence. The central chain of events begins when Xavier Ireland, the host of a late-night radio phone-in show, witnesses a group of youths beating up another boy and tries to intervene, but fails to stop them. The novel continues to follow Xavier’s life whilst, alongside that, Watson traces the seemingly random consequences of that one incident – the bullying angers the victim’s mother, who then writes a harsher review of a restaurant than she might have otherwise; incensed by the review, the restaurant’s owner ends up firing one of his staff, and so on. We also discover what it was that led Chris Cotswold to leave Australia, change his name to Xavier Ireland, and take such an unsociable job – and why everything comes back to the number eleven.
The fabric of Eleven is shaped by the theme of chance moments and their ramifications. It’s there in Xavier’s life, as the nature of his job means that most of his connections with other people are transitory – the callers to his show enter his life briefly, then dart back out again; and the odd hours Xavier keeps mean that his producer/co-presenter Murray is probably the person he sees most regularly. The theme is there, of course, in the main consequence-chain; but it’s also there in Watson’s many asides, which reveal connections between minor characters, or glimpses into their futures. These asides act as a reminder that, beyond the protagonist’s life (and, in reality, our own), there are countless webs of other stories which remain unknown to us.
Watson also captures the raggedy nature of life in his plot progression, as events don’t necessarily tie up neatly; what seems as though it’s going to become the novel’s key relationship actually fizzles out early on; and an apparently throwaway gag – one woman Xavier meets at a speed-dating event introduces herself as a cleaner, and before their three minutes are up, he’s made an appointment with her for that weekend – grows into one of the main plot strands.
The character development in Eleven is also smartly done. As I said earlier, Xavier’s relationships with other people tend to be fleeting; when someone does start to become more of a permanent fixture in his life, Xavier doesn’t know how to handle it – but he learns to so in a halting fashion which is very believable. More generally, Eleven could be seen as the story of how Xavier slowly breaks out of the old pattern of his life – but then comes the ending…
I really like the ending of Eleven. It reminds me of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, insofar as both books have endings which are no way to end a novel, and yet are completely right for the story they tell. But you’ll have to read this novel to find out what I mean. And perhaps, as a consequence, you’ll have found a new book to enjoy.