Are book reviews a lot like the mix tapes of old (or perhaps playlists now) where one really shouldn’t put two songs by the same artist next to each other? If that’s the case then I must plead guilty to driving a cart and horses through this rule by immediately following Simon Lewis’ “Bad Traffic” with a review of his first work, 1998’s “Go”.
There are some undeniable benefits to running the two books together. On several levels they’re very different, and “Go” is clearly the output of a much younger author. Set in the late 1990s it’s suffused with some of the exuberance that swept New Labour to power, while exposing the innate corruption and decay of Britain that society only seems able to paper over for brief moments. There are common themes between the two books, the most clear being the multiple point of view approach to the same events, an association with China, and, oddly, his periodic penchant for referring to bodily fluids as “goo”.
On many levels “Go” reminds the reader of Jake Arnott – crime novels where law enforcement is not at the centre of the story, where the protagonists exist on a moral plane unfamiliar to most of us, and the episodic immersion in different characters as their world is described. In this light it’s striking that “Go” predates Arnott’s breakthrough debut, “The Long Firm”, going to show a lot about what innovation really means in the publishing world and the power of positioning to really make an author.
“Go” is an immersive book. Goan heat and the cascading rain of Hong Kong during 1997’s handover are communicated effectively, as are temporal references such as an Austin Montego and a Sony Walkman. Most telling however is the sense of desperate alienation suffered by the ingenue abroad – a theme that will be highly familiar to readers of “Bad Traffic”; the scene of Vix trying to buy a train ticket to Beijing really encapsulates the difficulty of trying to do anything when you don’t speak the language, don’t understand the way things are supposed to work, or the protocol of where you’re supposed to queue.
This isn’t a crime novel in the true sense. There isn’t a single central crime being investigated. It’s certainly not a police procedural, but criminality and life beyond the normal mores of society are what this book is about, and as a such it really is rather good. Of course you can nitpick. My jaded editorial eye wondered why, after Sol cheerfully drinks a whisky with Chinese gangster Li in his hotel on a rainy afternoon, he describes the beer he drinks a few hours later as his first alcohol in weeks. Sometimes continuity errors like this grate, and make me rail against a publishing system that allows editors to be browbeaten, but in this case, it doesn’t bother at all.
Don’t read this book expecting it to be like “Bad Traffic”. They’re clearly by the same author, but “Go” has a much rougher edge to it, which paradoxically helps it along and effectively locates in the 1990s. Having been able to compare the two at close quarters, “Go” is perhaps the more thought provoking. None of the characters involved are flawless at all, indeed all of them are complicit, to one extent or another in profound criminality, but I could readily identify with them, feel happiness at the fulfilment that some find, and wistful sadness at the end that some of the less admirable characters meet.
“Go” was hard to track down. My local library had to get it out of storage, it seems to be out of print, and its resale price on Amazon is practically zero. The perception of what it’s about is also hugely misunderstood, with a trusted reader telling me they didn’t think Lewis’ first novel was a crime work. All of this is a shame. “Go” is a genuinely good and underrated first novel much deserving of a wider readership. If you get a chance, you really should read it.