Monday, 16 November 2015

Book of the Month: Ordinary Thunderstorms (William Boyd)

William Boyd is one of the most versatile authors writing today. Starting with his debut novel, A Good Man in Africa, more than two decades ago (also made into a moderately successful film), he has published several novels, handling different genres with ease. Restless, the novel for which Boyd won the Costa (formerly Whitbread) novel of the year award, was a departure of sorts for him. It was an espionage thriller, something which he had not written previously. Written in Boyd’s effortless, at times frolicky, narrative style, Restless was an absorbing tale of deep intricacies of wartime espionage, a novel Graham Greene would have been proud to write. Perhaps buoyed by the critical and commercial success of Restless Boyd published another thriller, Ordinary Thunderstorms. And he does not disappoint. Ordinary Thunderstorms has everything the Boyd-fans have come to expect from him.

At the centre of the thunderstorm of Boyd’s novel is Adam Kindred, a climatologist. Kindred, a Brit, grew up and educated in America, where he rose swiftly to the position of Assistant Professor in a prestigious institute. However, after an ill-advised fling with an erotomanic student and the subsequent bitter break up of his marriage, he has decided to return ‘home’. Kindred applies for a job at the Imperial College, London. In the evening after the interview, Kindred has a light supper in an Italian restaurant where he strikes up a conversation with a fellow American, Philip Wang. In the course of the conversation, Wang informs Kindred that he is an allergist. After Wang has left the restaurant, Kindred notices that he has left behind a folder. The folder also has Wang’s business card, which informs Kindred that Wang, a PhD from Yale, is the ‘Head of research and Development’ in a pharmaceutical company named Calenture-Deutz. Kindred phones Wang on his mobile and agrees to meet him that evening in the apartment Wang is staying. It is only to be expected (seeing as Ordinary Thunderstorm is marketed as a thriller) that when Kindred reaches Wang’s apartment, he finds Wang dying. Kindred has inadvertently walked into and interrupted a murder. Wang dies in Kindred’s arms, and Kindred leaves the room, Wang’s file still in his hands, with his fingerprints everywhere, including on the murder weapon—a knife he has pulled out of Wang’s chest. Kindred is now a murder suspect, and, since he has written down the hotel at which he is staying in the visitor’s book, the police know where to track him down. Kindred is faced with two unwelcome choices: either he surrenders to the police, gives his version of the events, and hopes for the best; or he goes on the run, buys himself some time, and attempts to sort things out in an orderly way. It comes as no surprise to the reader when Kindred decides to go underground. What follows is a highly convoluted and intriguing cat and mouse game that puts Kindred in improbably hopeless situations which he (improbably) survives, takes him to parts of London even the police would think twice about going into, brings him in contact with people no respected climatologist would be seen dead in company of, and, to top it all, has him take on the identity of an asylum seeker (who in turn has ‘bought’ it from a dying Italian junkie). There are wheels within wheels, and stakes are absurdly high. Big (and appropriately evil) pharmaceutical company bosses, psychopathic ex-soldier and hit-man who is after Kindred’s life although he has only the vaguest idea as to who his real employer is (and his employers are equally clueless as to the identity of the organization hiring him), a prostitute with a heart of gold (is there any other type?), a clever policewoman who plays an extremely significant role at crucial junctions in the story (even though she does not know that herself), and a loony evangelist who believes that Jesus was the fall guy and John was the real Christ are just some of the colourful characters that bob in and out of the narrative. There are plots and subplots, and each character comes with his or her own story that is but a part of the big jigsaw puzzle. Boyd, the consummate storyteller that he is, weaves all the apparently disparate sections of the story adroitly and eventually leads the reader to a near perfect climax.

Ordinary Thunderstorms seems like homage, at times, to many authors, both contemporary and of the yesteryears. The protagonist, Adam Kindred, bears a striking resemblance in his character traits to many heroes of Eric Ambler, the celebrated British novelist of the 1930s: he (Kindred) is, in many ways, an ordinary man leading ordinary, even unexceptional, life and has quotidian ambitions, until he unwittingly gets drawn into a conspiracy by being the wrong man at the wrong place at the wrong time; and his life turns upside down. For a considerable time he is in dark as to what is at stake; however being possessed of quick wits he soon cottons on to what is going on and turn the tables on his adversaries. When Kindred goes on the run, he decides that the only way to disappear totally from the 21st century-society and its Orwellian electronic surveillance system, is to opt out of it completely. He discards all the paraphernalia of the modern life; stops using credit cards and mobile; and, in the middle of London, finds a secluded triangle of wooded land near Chelsea Bridge where he leads a fairly primitive, though effective, existence. All of this is very reminiscent of the themes Paul Theroux pursued in one of his novels (Mosquito Coast) as also  of the late J.G. Ballard. The difference of course is that whereas Theroux’s and Ballard’s heroes are disenchanted with the modern society and make a conscious decision to opt out, Adam Kindred is forced to jettison his up-to-then respectable, middle-class existence. Also, Boyd is writing a thriller, which means that he has to leave this interesting strand of the narrative after a while: the hit-man ferrets out Kindred’s hideout, and he is once again on the run, finding succour in the company of the down-and-outs and ne’er-do-wells. Finally, the name of the drug, the cure for asthma, that is being developed by the pharmaceutical industry, is interesting: zembla 4. Zembla is of course the name of the imaginary and slightly sinister kingdom of the mad narrator of Nabakov’s celebrated novel, Pale Fire.

E.M. Forster famously said that every novel tells a story. To that I’ll add that a good novel tells a good story. By this yardstick Ordinary Thunderstorms is a good novel, as it tells a good story that rivets the reader throughout. Boyd takes great efforts to develop his characters and flesh out their individual stories. He is in his elements when describing the world of the rich and the powerful. Some scenes in the novel, for example the party hosted by the feckless aristocratic brother in law of Ingram Fyzer, the CEO of Calenture-Deutz, would have Evelyn Waugh nodding with approval. Slightly less convincing are Kindred’s liaisons with the prostitute, the improbably named Mhouse (pronounced ‘mouse’, we are informed). It is also a tad odd that Adam Kindred, an eminently respectable and clever scientist who has held high positions in eminent universities and whose only act of derring-do until then was to have a brief fling with one of his students, decides to go on the run rather than surrendering to the police when he witnesses a murder. With great ingenuity and cunning (and also with a little bit of luck) he faces situations nothing in his life up to then has prepared him for, survives assassination attempts of professional killers, and, in the end, virtually single-handedly brings crashing down the world of machinating pharmaceutical baddies. All of this is fantastic, perhaps too fantastic. For a person of his intelligence Kindred is curiously not much given to introspection either. He has little to no problem in begging, dossing out with other homeless losers, sharing a flat with a crackhead, and stealing identity of an asylum seeker. Boyd provides no direct explanation as to why a big American pharmaceutical company would want to suppress the serious adverse events in the trials of its anti-asthma drug and go to the extent of hiring a mercenary to bump off the potential whistleblower. The implied explanation—they are greedy bastards with the scruples of an Auschwitz commander—is too formulaic.

Reading Ordinary Thunderstorms is like enjoying the comforts of a luxury cruise as it goes from coast to coast in a leisurely speed—the novel lacks the break-neck speed of a classic thriller—which, while it may not be the most memorable journey of your life still leaves you with pleasant memories. William Boyd is one of the leading British novelists of our times. Ordinary Thunderstorms is a very entertaining novel, very competently told. It lacks the soul of Boyd’s great novel, Any Human Heart, his deeply moving literary chronicle of the twentieth century, but is worth a read.