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Benjamin Obler, Javascotia (2009)
It’s 1994, and Mel Podgorski – still in his early twenties, with a failed marriage behind him, and a year spent in the doldrums – gets another chance to make something of himself. He lands a job as a market researcher working on behalf of a large coffee chain, and is sent across the Atlantic to Glasgow, to scope out the competition. Whilst there, Mel finds himself falling for an art student named Nicole Marston – and gets caught up in the group of anti-motorway protestors to which she belongs.
Javascotia is one of those frustrating reads which is never quite as good as one senses it could be. Benjamin Obler has a flowing prose style, tending towards lengthy expression, but only rarely in a way that outstays its welcome. However, some aspects of Mel’s first-person narration are more problematic: for example, he’ll note the differences in language (“[…]most of the listings were bedsits – in American English, studios or efficiencies – and the section of the paper was headed adverts”, p. 39); which is fine at the beginning, to show that Mel is still finding his feet – but he’s still making such remarks towards the end of the novel, when the technique is redundant and can be pretty irritating. I’m also not sure that the novel’s structure serves it all that well – Mel’s life in the US is dealt with mainly in one long section (over a hundred pages) in the middle, which I found to really disrupt the momentum built up in the earlier part of the book.
There is an interesting theme running through Javascotia, though, which I’d characterise as exploring the gap between impression and reality. It’s there in the way that Scotland doesn’t live up to its tourist-brochure image for the American characters (Mel isn’t the only scout we meet), and the way that Glasgow’s coffee outlets aren’t as Mel imagines them to be. It’s there in the way that Mel is shown not to have known his wife (and, indeed, his parents) in the way he thought he did. And it’s there in a nicely rueful ending.
There’s an interesting story told in Javascotia, but the way it is told doesn’t quite do it justice.
Ben Obler’s website
Extract and Obler’s “five favourite cups of coffee”, at Penguin Books
Obler’s top 10 fictional coffee scenes, at The Guardian
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