Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Fate Slipping The Lead Into The Boxing Glove

One of the most revered copywriters in advertising, winner of a Clio lifetime award, a One Club Hall of Fame inductee and creator of memorable work for Volkswagen, Sainsbury’s, The Economist and Volvo. That’s David Abbot, who retired as chairman from the company that bears his name over a decade ago. Turns out he had one more trick up his sleeve: a novel.

Those expecting a fictionalised behind-the-scenes account of the goings-on at Abbott Mead Vickers will be disappointed by The Upright Piano Player. To be sure, Henry Cage, the central character, is a lot like Abbot in that he’s recently retired from a communications company, would rather read a book in a cafĂ© than mingle with colleagues and is known for a gentlemanly, forthright attitude to work. It’s unavoidable that some of the sentiments attributed to Cage will be viewed as autobiographical, such as a refusal to work on cigarette brands, or statements such as: “He had always been wary of business books and their familiar lexicon of warrior virtues”.

That apart, the novel is more of an exploration of the workings of a malign kismet and how this impacts the emotionally-reticent Cage. It begins in 2004, with him losing his grandson in a horrifyingly gratuitous and violent accident. We segue back to 1999 and Cage’s life at 58, just after premature retirement. He lives alone in London, with memories of an estranged son and a divorced wife in Florida. Cage is confronted and then stalked by Colin, a loutish ne’er do well, has a casual affair and learns of two life-changing events: that Nessa, his wife, is ravaged by cancer, and that he is a grandfather of Hal, a four-year-old. Not quite the right way to start one’s sunset years.

In proficient, occasionally evocative, prose, the narrative moves between London, Norfolk and Palm Springs as Cage comes to terms with what Wodehouse would have called Fate quietly slipping the lead into the boxing-glove. This grim tale is undercut by intermittent, understated humour, much of it in the form of social commentary: from observations on trendy yet inefficient coffee-shops to management jargon masking a lack of original thought.

There are some finely-observed passages, such as a description of the goings-on at the lobby of the Ritz Carlton. Other episodes, though interesting by themselves, are at odds with the narrative – such as a lengthy recounting of the transcript of Orson Welles’ attempt to provide the voice-over of a radio commercial.

Bravely, Abbott delves into the consciousness of not just Cage but others in his ken, such as the brutish Colin, the valiant Nessa and even the growing Hal. This, unfortunately, doesn’t work as well as it should, as there’s an overall reserve to the writing style that comes in the way of veracity. (At one point, Abbott describes a London policeman by saying that his suit wasn’t the only thing buttoned-up about him; that applies equally well to many of the book’s passages.)

The larger issue is that the plot depends heavily on co-incidence – chance encounters in cafes, streets and brasseries – for it to be entirely convincing. It’s as though Abbott doesn’t trust his characters enough to let them off the tight leash of plot. The Upright Piano Player, then, is well-written and even moving, but suffers from an over-determined flow of events to make its point. 

The other advertising luminary who retired to take up novel-writing is, of course, Indra Sinha: you'll find my review of his Animal's People here.

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