Byron Easy by Jude Cook
I've just climbed onboard a high speed train to South Wales. I'm surrounded by people from all cycles of life with whom I am about to share the next 3 hours of my life; - the suave middle aged business man e-mailing on his Blackberry to persons unknown, the plumy-voiced elderly gentleman organising his high powered meetings loudly on his phone, the grandmother with her prolonged delicate farewells, the soldier boasting about the latest japes on his killing spree, the teenage kids revelling in being alive and free, all of us randomly thrown together as our lives enter a suspended animation, an air conditioned sterile state in which we can all survey, sweep and avoid each other's gaze, as we silently compare our lots. Before getting off and never seeing each other again.
Byron Easy, the hero of Jude Cook's first novel, finds himself in just such a situation. His journey north from Kings Cross is the narrative device around which the plot is structured, allowing Byron to ruminate and regret the course of the 30 years of his life so far, as he sinks from a delicate sobriety at the end of the last millennium. As the train hurtles past a few scattered landmarks from his past(as well as many more people and places he'll never know anything about), we learn more and more about him: his dislocation from his childhood home, his slowly fading ambitions, his disastrous marriage, his discontents, his regrets and his woes. And by the time he arrives for Christmas at his mother's, a return journey he feels is itself an admission of defeat after so many years of defiantly keeping away, we feel that we know him very well.
For this uncomfortable, disassociated train ride is a sort of journey of discovery, but not just for the reader
Byron is a writer. Or rather he is a failing writer, whose net output is a limited run pamphlet he's published himself. And yes, he is a little bit pretentious. Through his rattling 500 page train ride, he quotes or refers to Marvell, Nietchze, Keats, Shakespeare, Descartes, Wordsworth, Hardy, Larkin, Eliot, Shelley, Dylan Thomas, Richey Manic and Kurt. And all those before he passes Finsbury Park! We learn later in the plot that he has actually rechristened himself 'Byron' from his more suburban given name 'Brian'.
Indeed, old Byron is a bit of a poser. And he knows it. Some of the best lines in the book come as he quietly puts himself, and his designs for his life, down; the epigrammatic 'I had been so used to unhappiness that the idea of happeniness made me miserable' could have been written by Morrissey, while the phrase from his notebook 'everyone is implicated, everyone corrupted' has probably been half inched from The Manics.
But despite his Eng Lit by numbers magpie propensities, the way the offhand, artless Byron writes is often remarkable and attention grabbing, making you look at familiar failings in new and unexpected ways. These are perhaps Byron's off guard moments when he forgets to be literary and referential and intellectual, and is just himself. These are also perhaps when the voice of the 'real' author, Jude Cook, steps in. Indeed the relationship between Jude ands Byron is obviously close - both have the same obsession with pop culture, the same wide range of reading and references, the same drive to make it as a writer and the same desire to encapsulate complex feelings in a highly wrought line or phrase. Perhaps they are also both slaves to writing, the illusory but alluring power of the written word. And it seems clear that Jude, as well as Byron, must have known the pain of a 'hangover trying my cranium with its exploratory instruments, its dental picks and incisions', and surely Jude himself has also hung out somewhere similar to 'the fag-strewn, rotten-vegetable palisades of the market' where apparently Byron 'ingested my first tab of acid'.
This subservient belief in the power of poetry, pose and prose is broken when Byron finishes his journey. This is when he finally throws away his literary crutches, discards his 'fantastic narcissism' and truly discovers himself, jumping off the train and simultaneously away from artifice, into reality. In so doing, Cook is both celebrating the liberating vitality of real life, but also of the literary process which has enabled Byron, 'the man of imagination' (as he calls himself, of course quoting Coleridge), to get to this point. This Odyssey is symbolised by the train journey itself which forced him, just like Conrad's Marlow, to 'peer inward'. Whilst on board, he realises that while it is actually better to experience life than to write about it, to arrive than to travel, but that you can't do one without the other.
I'd tell you more about this unusual and compelling book, but my train is pulling into the station and I have to stop tapping on my keyboard and leap onto the platform, leaving my onboard, one ride only companions forever behind, as I re-enter my 'real' life. I can only very highly recommend that you read this compulsive, rollicking, humorous yet intelligent debut - not only will it keep you amused on a long journey, but it will get your brain thinking for a whole lot longer.
Read R*E*P*E*A*T's interview with author and Flamingoes' guitarist Jude Cook here