I have no real prejudice against a novel that has a despicable narrator. No one wants to spend 300-plus pages with Mother Teresa. However, despicable narrators in novels are like any narrators, you need to care what happens to them. You need to want them to become less despicable, to make something of their lives, or to become more despicable, and to suffer the consequences.
The problem — the main problem — with David Thewlis’s debut novel, The Late Hector Kipling, is that his titular narrator operates, for most of the novel, in a kind of purgatory of classification. Are we supposed to root for this flawed modern artist with girl problems, or are we supposed to revel in his excesses, in his awful selfishness? I wasn’t sure, and ultimately, until the end at least, I wasn’t particularly interested.
The milieu of the novel is the contemporary art world in London. Hector Kipling is a 43-year-old artist, acclaimed for his paintings of large heads. His two best friends are both artists: Lenny Snook is more successful and a conceptualist, creating pieces like a mechanical coffin that chases a mechanical crib around the gallery (it’s titled Domesticated Goose Chase); Kirk Church paints cutlery and has not found success. He is, however, dying. Hector also has a girlfriend, a Grecian beauty away to tend to a dying mother, two middle-class parents, and a new obsession with an American poet named Rosa Flood, who treats sex like a blood sport.
If this all sounds like a mild-mannered comic novel, a la Nick Hornby, then you’re essentially half-right. It starts out that way, with Thewlis gently skewering the art-world, and his narrator idly probing his own insecurities and worthlessness. But midway through, the book begins to veer into darker territory and ends on a corpse-littered stage worthy of Shakespeare. It’s a turn that I welcomed, not necessarily because I thought it was earned, or probable, but because Hector as a madman was more interesting to me than Hector as an unhappy narcissist.
One of the dark jokes of the novel is that Hector Kipling is a middle-class boy from loving parents who had made good in his chosen field and found a woman to love him. The closest he has come to death was to stumble upon his neighbor’s hanging corpse, a serendipitous event that led to a new flat, a new girlfriend, and his celebrated art career. So why does it all go so wrong? Well, I’m afraid I don’t really know, and neither does Hector Kipling.
As a narrator, Hector sheds even less light on the people around him than he does on himself. Women, in particular, are a real problem in this book. Hector’s girlfriend, Eleni Marianos, is requisitely decent, in order to make us feel worse about Hector’s betrayal. But she never rises, as a character, above her status as a wronged woman. She is, however, multilayered compared to Rosa Flood, the woman with whom Hector has an affair while Eleni is at her mother’s deathbed.
We learn almost nothing about Rosa, except her sadistic bedroom proclivities, and that her poetry causes “a howling kind of silence” in Hector’s head. Of course, what Rosa is, ultimately, is only another ingredient that makes up the deranged, haunted psychosis of the protagonist.
There is an intentionality to some of the paper-thin characterizations, in that Hector is a classic unreliable narrator, and we are only allowed his borderline-solipsistic thoughts. As readers, we are in an interior monologue where a friend’s brain tumor is merely another spark for Hector’s jealousy — Why can’t I be dying?
If all this sounds amusing then you will probably despair when the book turns into a Hammer film. Personally, I was so annoyed with Hector’s inability to make a single mature decision that I was frankly glad when he became a monster and the blood started splattering. It also didn’t hurt that I simply didn’t care for any of the characters that are felled in the process.
David Thewlis is an actor best known for playing the lead in Mike Leigh’s darkest film, Naked, and for playing Remus Lupin in the Harry Potter series. I’ve always thought he was an excellent actor, and it seems he also possesses some writing chops — his style seems akin (or aping, at times) to Martin Amis — and there are some funny bits throughout the book. If he writes another novel, there’s a good chance it will be better than his first. If not, he can always fall back on his acting career.