TagGavin James Bower

Gavin James Bower, Made in Britain (2011)

Gavin James Bower’s 2009 debut, Dazed & Aroused, looked at the collapse of one man’s glamorous dream in the world of modelling; for his follow-up, Bower takes a few steps back to focus on the time in life when such dreams may begin to form. Made in Britain follows the lives of three Burnley teenagers about to sit their GCSEs, each with a notion that they need to escape their immediate circumstances.

Russell, academically-minded but also timid and bullied, could spread his wings if he moved in with his cousin Jason in Leeds and went to college there, but that would mean leaving his mother behind when she has no one else. Charlie, who has neither the time nor the will to contemplate A Levels, turns to drug-dealing as a means of raising the money his family so badly needs. And Hayley, who lives alone with her father after her mother died, dreams of being famous; love may even be on the cards – perhaps with Charlie, perhaps with Mr Mitchell, the teacher on whom she has a crush, and who might just reciprocate.

Made in Britain has a very clearly defined structure; every chapter consists of three scenes, one narrated by each of the three protagonists, in the same order (except the last chapter, where the order is reversed). For one thing, this allows Bower to reflect his novel’s concerns at the formal level, with the rigid structure representing the intractability of the characters’ situations. But it also proves effective as a storytelling device, as Bower juxtaposes different characters’ viewpoints (such as Charlie’s and Hayley’s contrasting ideas about each other), and has what may be key events for one protagonist take place in the background of another’s scene. There’s also this neat segue in the first chapter:

Russell
[…]
Life is transient, I think as I walk through my front door.
Love is forever.

Charlie
Jenny’s passed out on my lap, a bottle of White Lightning in her cold, pale hand. [p. 8]

This nicely encapsulates the distance in the book between idealistic dreams and the hard realities of life for these characters. Bower nods towards the socio-economic factors which have contributed to their circumstances (Charlie: ‘I look out the window as we drive past the old shoe factory where Mum used to work, when she was about my age. It shut ages ago, course,’ p. 110); but his focus in general is primarily on the teenagers themselves – perhaps naturally enough, given that his protagonists have to deal with their immediate situations, and dwelling too much on the past isn’t necessarily going to help them.  The author makes clear what has caused all three of his protagonists to take their respective paths, and the difficulties they face; none of the three characters has a completely free hand, but they’re not entirely forced by circumstance into what they do, either. From that point of view, Made in Britain is a story of making what seems the best choice, and then dealing with the consequences.

Towards the end of the novel, Russell reflects on the difference between Burnley and the bigger local cities:

I love going to Leeds because, there, being different isn’t about listening to metal in your bedroom or, if you’re really brave, dyeing your hair a funny colour, like it is where I’m from. In cities like Leeds and Manchester, nobody looks at you funny or beats you up for being different – because there’s always someone who’s more different than you. You can just get on with being yourself. [pp. 146-7]

This is the real issue that the protagonists have with their lives in Burnley (if not necessarily with the town specifically): they don’t have the means to be the people they could be. Made in Britain asks what it is like to be at a point of transition in life when your situation makes it difficult to make any sort of change – and the book offers no easy answers.

Elsewhere
Hackney Citizen interview with Gavin James Bower
Quartet Books
Some other reviews of Made in Britain: Helen J. Beal; Sophia Waugh for The Guardian.

Firestation Book Swap on Tour @ London Review Bookshop, 3rd February 2011

There were five-and-a-half months between my first and second Firestation Book Swaps; but only two weeks between my second and third. Well, I reasoned, they don’t come to London very often, so I’ll go whenever I can. Back I went, then, to the London Review Bookshop (which, let me tell you, is a dangerous place to go browsing when you don’t really want to buy anything – so many interesting books!), where hosts Marie Phillips and Robbie Hudson (Scott Pack not being available for this one) welcomed William Fiennes (whom I remember from Picador Day at Foyles last year) and Nikesh Shukla (whose Coconut Unlimited was one of my favourite reads of 2010).

Marie began by distributing pens and paper to the audience for them to write their questions (mine was ‘Is February a better month than January?’ – alas, it wasn’t used), and explained how the swapping process worked – using One Day by David Nicholls as one of the hypothetical books, because, she said, someone always brings a copy of that to the Book Swap.

At this point, Marie paused and asked who had brought One Day with them this time.

But no one had.

And the logical impossibility of this caused the universe to spontaneously self-destruct.

Not really; I’m joking – but it is true that no one had brought a copy of One Day. I have to say, there were some epic swaps tonight: Will Fiennes had something like six offers of swaps for his copy of The Complete Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino (in the end, he chose a book of Frank O’Connor short stories); and I got three offers for my copy of Jasper Fforde’s The Eyre AffairThe Great Gatsby (which I already have); Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd (which I don’t); and the one I went for, The Cat in the Coffin by Mariko Koike. I’d never heard of the book, or its author; but, for me, part of the point of going to Book Swap is the chance to be introduced to unfamiliar books and writers.

The conversation was the usual eclectic mix, with questions ranging from ‘What would your hip-hop name be?’ to ‘Which is your favourite foot?’ And it was great to meet Nikesh in person, along with his felliow Quartet author Gavin James Bower, who introduced me to another writer, Niven Govinden, whose work I shall now also be investigating. A great evening, as always.

Dazed & Aroused by Gavin James Bower (2009)

41bm8MVUZGL._SL160_AA115_The exploits of a model in a glossy, superficial world of sex ‘n’ drugs ‘n’ photo-shoots do not, to be honest, sound like immediately appealing reading — which is rather the point. This is the world in which Gavin Bower has chosen to set his first novel; and it’s a world of which he has first-hand experience, having been a model himself. And it’s not a world that Bower paints very prettily.

Dazed & Aroused is narrated by Alex, who became a model straight out of university, and spends his days (and nights) shuttling between auditions, shoots, and parties. The agency pays his rent, and he can piggy-back for free on his father’s membership of a chain of exclusive clubs. In short, Alex has the kind of lifestyle that could easily be the envy of any young man with a taste for hedonism. The story of the novel is essentially one of how Alex messes up such lasting relationships as he has.

Bower set himself a difficult task with this book, which was to take a fundamentally unpleasant subject and write about in a way that was readable whilst still bringing home the unpleasantness. I think he pulls it off. It helps that Dazed & Aroused is so short (less than 200 pages), because it simply wouldn’t work at greater length. What Bower has done is construct the novel in a particular way so that everything — from ‘plot’ to prose style — is geared solely towards a critique of the world Alex inhabits, and of the protagonist’s response to it. There’s no room in the text for anything else.

Alex’s world is suffocatingly shallow: he flies from city to city, with barely any sense of what makes each place distinctive; meets beautiful people everywhere, who all blur into one another; he has a girlfriend, but thinks nothing of cheating on her… His life is one of drifting, albeit with a certain amount of glamour. There are celebrities and successes, but the really big break remains elusive for Alex. Names like Kate Moss are spoken like charms, as if to symbolise that golden moment which forever lies around the corner.

All this is mirrored in the prose: for one thing, Alex narrates in the present tense; but Bower has other, subtler techniques: every so often, when the hedonistic perks of the model’s life go to his head, Alex will retreat into long, breathless sentences where he’ll gabble about this and that and all the exciting things that are happening to him and all the people at all these places and he’ll do so without punctuation or pause… A very effective way of distancing us readers from the narrative, just as Alex seems distant from his own life.

However, Bower’s prose is not always so well judged. Particularly at the beginning, I was concerned that he was making the subtext a bit too conspicuous: in the second chapter, for example,  Alex listens to a Frank Sinatra song that talks about people being made and broken; and then overhears a conversation about the superficiality of modern life. Alex also has a tendency to notice slogans and beggars around him; and he notices them so often that it can become wearying. The former of these issues settles down eventually, as Bower embeds his critique properly in the fabric of his text, where it should be; the latter, however, never quite stops being intrusive.

Be that as it may, Dazed & Aroused broadly achieves what it sets out to do. No, it’s not a particularly pleasant book to read; nor does it necessarily have much to say that is new — in the sense that you probably had an idea that the fashion world could be superficial, which might in turn have a detrimental effect on some of the people who inhabit that world — but it’s a book that works. It works because it shows so clearly the consequences of Alex’s actions.

For, in the end, Dazed & Aroused is a very personal book — Alex is at least as much to blame as his industry for his circumstances, and probably more so. In keeping with his superficial narration, we don’t really get to understand Alex; but there’s a sense at the end that he might, at last, be starting to learn something. There’s hope after all.

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