Tuesday, 17 June 2008


I’ve just read Engleby by Sebastian Faulks. It is in many ways an amazing book. The phrase tour de force springs to mind and when you see that the OED defines this phrase as meaning ‘a performance or achievement accomplished with great skill’ you see how apt it is.

It takes great skill to write a case study in personality disorder and make a gripping novel out of it. It takes great skill to tell you everything and nothing at the same time. It takes great skill to revisit episodes several times, from perspectives different or the same, and tell your readers more each time without making them feel that they have been short-changed first time around.

It takes great skill to engage a reader with a central character who is pathologically egocentric, who describes a life of unutterable desperation and who cogitates frequently on the meaning of life, time and death without appearing pretentious or up yourself.

Michael Engleby (alias Toilet, Groucho, Irish Mike, Mike(!), Michelle Watt, Michele Watts and latterly Michael Watson) is not a nice person. Even he doesn’t like himself. But then, he doesn’t really like anybody. He thinks he likes Jennifer Arkland, but in fact he is merely obsessed with her, or with the idea of her. And he clings to this ‘idea’ of her despite all evidence which would alter it, including her own words in her diary. He idolises her, or perhaps fetishises would be a better word.

Michael Engleby is emotionally abnormal and his voice in the book bears this out. He describes things without emotion. This horrendous thing happened, that horrendous thing happened. We would weep, except that Michael seems almost untouched by brutality, seems to expect nothing else, is – if anything – simply baffled by his tormentors’ failure to be satisfied when he is utterly humiliated.

He is a morally complex character – he thieves constantly because, in his terms, he needs to but he does not lie. He says he cannot. Whether he means that he does not know how or that he knows he will be detected in the lie is not clear, probably even to him.

He is as unaffected by success as he is by failure. Nothing moves him. And his prose is similar. It is pedantic, almost scientific in its precision, its concreteness, its lack of metaphor and simile. He observes, he reports, he is on the edge of things. Always on the edge.

Late in the book Michael is diagnosed as having a personality disorder. Various evidence – all of which has been described to us, first hand, by Michael – is brought forward to support this diagnosis. It seems right, inevitable. Yes, we think, this sums Michael up.

But, all the while, Michael himself is calling the diagnosis into question. Can this car crash of nature and nurture (this is, roughly, how Exley, the psychiatrist in the novel, describes the genesis of personality disorder) adequately explain such a thing as? Does personality become disordered as a result of temperament being at odds with environment? Michael seems to doubt it, seems to invite us to believe that nothing he has done has been ‘disordered’; nothing has been done unconsciously or without thought.
He also invites us to believe that he wishes things had been different, that, perhaps, in some parallel reality (‘if only we could travel in time’) they were.

I can’t quite believe that I have enjoyed a book so unremittingly bleak so much. Good things do happen to Michael Engleby, under one or another of his various aliases, but none of them seems to touch him; no more than the bad things do. The crash of nurture and nature had already happened before his brutal, brutalising school, before his friendless university career, before his life of borderline alcohol dependency and unfulfillment.
None of these things can seem to matter too much to him, we come to realise, because he already is who he is. For this reason, there is no ‘character arc’ in Engleby. Our narrator and self-revealer is not changed by circumstance, he is not redeemed, damned or moved by the events we see unfolding. That’s the whole point of the novel - for whatever reason, Michael Engleby is as he is. Not money, relationships or success can alter him.
The reader, expecting techtonic shifts in a book of 342 pages, is initially baffled by this, looking for change and movement in a character. But that’s the genius of Engleby. We have to see Mike as others see him, not as he sees himself. We have to pick up the slightest of clues – that he is ‘nervy’ in school slang, that Jennifer refers to him in her diary as ‘Mike(!)’, that his friend Stellings invites him to a dinner party attended entirely by couples without making any attempt to provide him with a ‘date’.

They all know Michael from the outside. We know him from the inside and it’s only at the end of the book that the two come together and we see what Engleby really is – a soul lost to himself and to the world.

Not a comfortable read but a quite, quite brilliant one.


Tim Stretton said...


So this is what Faulks does when he's not writing James Bond... that's what I call range!

Alis said...

Yes, apparently he wrote JB in 6 weeks (just as Fleming always did) and Engleby in scarcely any more time. He said it was like taking dictation. You can read a revealing interview on the writing of the two books here:

Alis said...

Hmmm. Drat that link - doesn't seem to work. The interview is online - it was in the Observer on March 16th, so maybe you can find it that way if you're interested. Alternatively you could type 'Engleby Sebastian Faulks' into google which is what I did!

Tim Stretton said...

Link works perfectly for me, Alis: I'm just reading the piece now. Very good it is too!

KatW said...

Hi Alis - Being a bit slow, I hadn't realised that he'd written a James Bond. (just looked up more info on his website) I admire his writing skill. Thanks for the interesting post. Kat :-)

Akasha Savage said...

Hi Alis. I've tagged you! Not sure if you want to take part, but if you do, give my blog a visit. :)

him said...

This is a book which in its depiction of the character Engleby is no more sophisticated than the tabloid headlines which react to his murder of Jen. Faulks has created a caricature and stereotype which adds fuel to prevalent prejudices and ignorance about mental illness. A despicable book.