Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Macmillan New Writing Focus

Three Things About Me (2006)
Aliya Whiteley

I'm not an expert on the anatomy of the brain. I assume there's some kind of mechanical apparatus contained within, flanges, wheels, cogs and the like. When the brain is not fuctioning within the usual parameters it's invariably described as 'having a screw loose', which is valuable empirical insight into the construction principles under the bonnet of the cranium.

It's almost a cliche to say that writers must of necessity have a screw loose: brains that work with smooth efficiency don't go to the kind of places that generate fiction. Readers who ask 'where do you get your ideas?' have all the screws fully tightened, or they wouldn't conceive, let alone ask, the question.

If writers do have a screw loose, then writers of comedy must have two; and those who write black comedy can only do so with a minimum of three screws at below optimum tension. Which brings us to Aliya Whitelely...

I missed my opportunity to meet Aliya at the launch of her latest book, Light Reading, so I didn't get to listen for the telltale clatter of screws loose in the brainpan. But Three Things About Me rattles quite loudly enough...

In very brief summary, Three Things About Me is the story of six customer service trainees and their corporate trainer. This is too close to the kind of environment I occupy in real life for it to exert much fictional appeal, but I gladly make the journey in this case. The novel is, among other things, a lacerating destruction of the kind of management gobbledegook which infects the modern workplace, as well as a cruel lampoon of people we all know. At once bleak, embarrassingly acute and curiously redemptive, it's also a considerable technical achievement.

Three Things About Me is only 300 pages or so long, but Whiteley crams in seven different points of view without losing clarity or control of tone. All the characters are grotesques in some way (even those who end up engaging the reader's sympathy, like washed-up actress Alma or retired superhero--you really have to read the book--Sam) and the different viewpoints are pin-sharp in their definition. Rose, the frankly terrifying uber-chav, is a magnificently realised monster, and the not-quite-romance between the acerbic Hilary and rocker-manque Gary is at once embarrassing and poignant. The trainer Rob and star trainee Charlotte communicate in management-speak (Charlotte even thinks in numbered lists), but Charlotte's professional veneer conceals...well, you really will just have to read the book).

Three Things About Me has been compared to The Office, which considerably understates its ambition. Whiteley can go beyond the everyday into a rip-roaring world of surrealism (when we find out why Sam's superhero identity is 'the Death-Defying Sputum', it's worth the wait). She's able to meld the horror of everyday banality with an ability to make curious linkages: Three Things About Me starts where The Office stops.

Aliya Whiteley is a writer with unusual talent: her flair for penetrating everyday observation is matched with a free-wheeling imagination which goes one step further than it should. The result is fiction which teeters on the edge of lunacy. Let's hope those last screws hold...

7 comments:

Aliya Whiteley said...

Bibble.

Thanks Tim. My Hubby is the one with the... um... screwdriver. He keeps my nuts from falling out.

That's sounds kinky, doesn't it?

Glad you enjoyed the book!

Tim Stretton said...

As long as they aren't overtightened you should be alright...

Looking forward to tracking down Light Reading now!

Matt Curran said...

Tim,

That's one of the best reviews I've read for any of the Macmillan New Writing books. The last paragraph alone deserves reprinting on the paperback of Three Things...

Tim Stretton said...

One of my further ambitions is to appear with a quote on someone else's book. I can't imagine my endorsement boosting anyone's sales at the moment, though...

David Isaak said...

While your brain's still rattling from "Three Things..." check out her novella "Mean Mode Median".

Alis said...

Both Three Things and Light Reading left me feeling 'I've never read anything like this'. Aliya is such an original writer and I can't wait for the next Lena and Pru book. Except then, presumably, I will have read something like it before...

Aliya Whiteley said...

Stop it you lot! A big head and a loose brain is not a good combination...