Roland Denning’s short novel The Beach Beneath the Pavement is a satirical portrait of would-be rogue Bernard Hawks, a journalist whose career is on the skids, in a paranoid, scaredy-cat world (represented by present-day London and environs) in which the leading, and indeed only, ideology is a mind-numbing consumerism premised on the very shaky nihilist pilings of “post-credibility”– a jumbled self-contradictory anti-theory full of portentous nonsense that everybody (except our protagonist Bernard and his Sancho Panza Dilwyn) uses to justify all manner of cowardice, stupidity, double-think, cruelty, and frittering-away of life.
Although some of the tropes in this book are Pynchonian, the writer whose works kept coming to my mind as I read The Beach Beneath the Pavement was Carl Hiaasen, whose broad-brush satires of venal bastards destroying the natural and cultural beauty of Florida, although they read sometimes like Three-Stooges scripts, burn with a white-hot rage. Like Hiassen, Denning is angry about the mindless destruction of something beautiful. Like Hiaasen, Denning can be sentimental and lazy. But also like Hiaasen, when Denning is funny, he’s very, very funny. I laughed ’til I thought I was going to be sick, even as bombs were going off in Olde London Towne every other chapter.
I recommend this book enthusiastically.
The Beach Beneath The Pavement
by Roland Denning
Type of Thing
As discussed here, I “met” Roland Denning in the comments thread of a Guardian UK article by Cory Doctorow about how writers should give away their books. Roland and I did a book swap and have since exchanged perhaps two dozen emails. So I certainly consider him a friend although we’ve never met in proverbial meat-space or even chatted on the phone. I think his On Meeting an Agent videos are the stuff of genius.
The Prisoner Updated
I said that our protagonist Bernard is a “would-be” rogue. He’s a jaded 60’s type introduced in the first sentences of the book:
“Bernard stood on his own at the bar, a glass of warm white wine in one hand and a joint in the other. He had begun to sway slightly.
The thought struck him that he was about to face a pivotal moment in his life. Possibly the fact he was swaying made him think of pivots, but more likely it was just the drugs.”
The reason that Bernard isn’t a rogue, however, isn’t philosophical, it’s technological: there’s not enough world for him in which to be a rogue. Like Number 6 in Patric McGooghan’s all-time classic The Prisoner, Bernard lives in a constricted, claustrophobic world where surveillance cameras are everywhere, “they” know everything that’s going on, and everybody is happy. But unlike Number 6, rather than trying to fight the system and escape, Bernard wants only to numb himself in drink and drugs. Alas, the drinks taste like crap and his drug dealer is incompetent. The drugs are about as effective as pills made from lint from a clothes drier.
There’s no escape. Wherever Bernard goes he runs into somebody he already knows and is trying to avoid (including himself). It’s like Uber-Brit Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time condensed from 3,600 pages to 220.
The Tranquility Foundation: The “New Age” meets Orwell
The shadowy force that pervades the Bernard Hawks’ England is an omnipresent yet largely invisible religico/self-improvement cult/corporation known as the Tranquility Foundation. It’s made of equal parts Scientology, Unification Church zombification, generic New Age pabulum, and ruthless capitalism. Its tendrils are everywhere. I’m not going to say anything more about the Tranquility Foundation in this review because it’s the most fun and most disturbing part of the book and I don’t want to ruin it for you. I’ll only say that in the USA, at least, the Tranquility Foundation, as creepy as it is, is not, perhaps, as farfetched as one might like to believe. (Did I hear someone say Monica Goodling?).
The Plot and other Incidentals
The plot of The Beach Beneath the Pavement is of not much import. It concerns Bernard’s ostensibly being implicated in a bunch of bombings that he had nothing to do with, but which were foreshadowed, more or less, in his newspaper essays — essays which were printed in papers that virtually nobody reads, since the whole world has abandoned newspapers for the internet or television (and nobody reads anymore anyway). The police come calling; the Primitive Front–a neo-luddite group that may or may not be behind the bombings–comes calling; a sexy, mysterious young siren slightly more than half Bernard’s age comes calling; a lesbian couple with a deranged fetish for housecleaning comes calling.
Poor Bernard. All he wants to do is get drunk and stoned and ignore what’s happening to his beloved England. Bernard has long ago ceased believing that the words he’s paid to write have any meaning or value. But even after having been roughed up by the police, kidnapped by at least two groups of batshit-crazy cultists who further physically abuse him, threatened several times by his drug dealer, and talked nearly in to a coma by his paranoid Welshman neighbor Dillwyn, Bernard can’t catch a decent night’s sleep. He’s awakened by unreasonably happy and conscientious housebreaking neighbors demonically bent on bringing order and cleanliness to his perfectly comfortable squalid apartment, even as marchers with bullhorns fill the streets below his window chanting illogical slogans at 120 decibels. The guy can’t catch a break.
Simpsons and Sentimentality
Many of the characters and situations of The Beach Beneath the Pavement are cartoonish — from a high quality cartoon, like The Simpsons, but still cartoonish. That’s fine; this isn’t a realistic book and the characters are supposed to be types, not real persons. That would get tiresome in a longer book, but in a book of this length it’s not a problem.
I do wish, however, that Denning had not given in to his sentimentalist tendencies at the conclusion of the book. It has a happy ending, of sorts, and plot threads are tied up in neat little bows — even threads that I suspect most readers has already forgotten (I certainly had). There are echoes of the devastating conclusion to 1984, in which Winston comes to love Big Brother, but since Roland never put up much of a fight, his capitulation doesn’t seem much of a disappointment. It’s as if the whole conclusion to the book was an Emily Litella “Never mind”.
Next time, Roland, go for the jugular. Don’t let us off so easily.
Why So Angry, Roland? And What Is to Be Done?
I started out by saying that Denning reminds me of Hiaasen. We know what Hiassen is angry about: the destruction of Florida’s wonderful natural and cultural heritage by greedy, stupid philistines.
But what’s Denning so angry about?
Well, in general he’s angry about everything in the modern world; he’s just a curmudgeonly crank — like me! (My favorite episode in the book is when Bernard takes his hysterically malfunctioning computer to the repair shop. That perfectly set-up scene alone is worth the price of the book.) Being a curmudgeon all well and good; Denning’s a novelist, not a polemicist and he’s not really out to argue a specific point of view. Being angry about everything in general is a fine way to approach the world, if you ask me.
But it does seem to me that Denning does have his own Florida, if you will, and it is, sentimentally enough, Old England herself, or more precisely Britain.
What is the essence of what’s best in the British character? Good taste, moderation, and above all a nonchalance in the face of physical danger. Winston Churchill, “We shall fight them on the landing grounds. . .” When a V2 bomb explodes next door during WW2 in Anthony Powell’s novel, an exchange might go something like this:
“Well, that was rather loud, wasn’t it?”
“Indeed. Uncalled for. One might almost say barbaric”.
“Rather. Persons will have been killed, no doubt. Fancy a spot of tea?”
And outside, the Home Guard will be doing their best to set all to rights. That’s how we like to think of Brits. No matter if the whole world is going to hell, there will still be time for tea, and the Queen’s head will always be on the postage stamp. No need to get all excited like some Italian, or, Lord knows, an American. Let’s keep our heads about us, shall we?
By contrast, in Bernard’s England the stiff upper lip has given way to submission and retreat. Fear is everywhere. The climax of the book is set on “Great Britain Day” when all of London is set to celebrate British values. The only problem is, nobody has any idea anymore of what those values are.
Well cheer, up Bernard! While most of Great Britain may have fallen into a stupor, there are still a few John Smeatons out there. And while there are, the British spirit lives on!