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Friday, 8 June 2012

The Happy Numbers of Julius Miles

The Happy Numbers of Julius Miles

Statistics are human beings with the tears wiped off – Paul Brodeur

I can’t imagine there is an author out there who wouldn’t love to read one of their own novels from the perspective of a brand new reader. We may put the book aside for a few months or even years but as soon as we pick the thing up again it all comes flooding back. Well, for me anyway, reading Jim Keeble’s latest novel is probably the closest I’m ever going to get to that feeling. Every author is looking for his perfect reader and I suspect I might be his.

I could have written this book. If I had it would have been different because I’m me. It would have been 100 pages shorter for starters but 281 pages is not exactly a long novel; I just veer towards shorter books. For those of you who haven’t read my first novel—which will be most of you—it revolves around a misanthropic bookseller whose life is changed forever by the appearance on the scene of the personification of truth; Jim’s novel centres on a socially-awkward statistician whose life is changed forever by the appearance on the scene of a Cupid. (The indefinite article is very important. I’ll come back to that.) My book is hard to classify—it overlaps several genres—and so does Jim’s. On one level it’s a romance (albeit an awkward one); because of the inclusion of a Cupid it could also be said to be a fantasy novel; because of the death it could also be shelved as a murder mystery; at its heart, though, it’s a literary novel masquerading as a darkly comic book. This was quite deliberate on his part. In an e-mail he told me: “I wanted to write a novel like an indie film in the Wes Anderson mould where style and tone fluctuates via Felicity's often addled narration.”

A less-than-sensitive publisher would have recommended retitling the book: Cupid, P.I. and probably in some less-than-sensitive parallel universe that’s exactly what will have happened, but I hope not because the whole “happy numbers” thing is really quite lovely even if I did have to read it three times slowly to get it; if you’re at all mathematically-challenged there are two or three paragraphs you might want to skim but for the most part the statistics provided are more entertaining (occasionally sobering) than confusing. I’m not going to explain what the “happy numbers” are except to say that if you were thinking along the lines of imaginary numbers or Fibonacci numbers you’re on the right track although it’s more of an equation than a sequence; it’s how Julius interprets the product of his calculation that decides the “happy” result.

In Roman mythology Cupid is the god of desire, affection and erotic love. He is often portrayed as the son of the goddess Venus, with a father rarely mentioned. His Greek counterpart is Eros. Although Eros appears in Classical Greek art as a slender winged youth, during the Hellenistic period he was increasingly portrayed as a chubby boy. During this time his iconography acquired the bow and arrow that remain a distinguishing attribute; a person, or even a deity, who is shot by Cupid's arrow is filled with uncontrollable desire. (Thank you, Wikipedia.) That is not the Cupid we’re talking about here. God, no. Our Cupid is called Felicity and this is how she describes herself:

A woman in her early forties, dark-brown hair cut in a bob more fashionable than not, flat masculine face like a lifelong nun, but hey she’s got a smile that saves the day. Jeans and trainers, blouse and anorak. Social worker, religious pesterer, private detective. You don’t look at me twice in this city. But I’m the real deal. A Cupid. A god of love.

I walk the streets of Bethnal Green, the soiled, boiled gutter of London, where all gets swept eventually. I grew up here, kissed here, lost my heart here. My father killed here. And now I sit on my bench and wait for the job to start.

Cupid crops up all over the place these days and not just on greeting cards; he’s a staple of comedy sketches although he does show up in the odd film, usually in cameo and typically for laughs, but occasionally he gets to flitter about centre Kpaxstage. ABC produced two TV series—romantic dramadies—both called Cupid which were about a larger-than-life character (who may or may not be the Roman god of love) who maintains he has been sent to earth to bring one hundred couples together before he’ll be permitted to return to Mt. Olympus; alternatively the two of them might simply be crazy. (Think K-Pax with Greek gods and you’ve pretty much got the idea; you can see the trailer for the remake here.) In between these two was the CW series Valentine in which Danny Valentine (a.k.a. Eros) is one of a subpantheon of gods who have now relocated to L.A. and who help mortals track down their love mates. The first two I’ve not seen but Valentine was awful. Here’s a short clip if you want to judge for yourself. On the whole I find whenever writers take a perfectly good myth or fairy tale and try to modernise it, it falls flat on its face (Beauty and the Beast anyone?) but there are exceptions and The Happy Numbers of Julius Miles is one of them.

The reason Felicity jumps off the page for me is that although we never forget she’s on a mission and who she is (or believes herself to be) she’s a bigger character than merely some kind of Cupid-proxy/delusional wannabe. We actually learn very little about how she got to become a Cupid. This, for example, is all she tells us about her calling:

Most like me are born into it. They sent Feinstein the piano teacher to reveal my true vocation. Sitting at Stanley’s old upright playing the Polonaise, trying not to gag at the scent of mothballs and pipe tobacco. Stan ceased humming, tapped the piano wood for me to stop and informed me that I had little talent for Chopin, but a calling for bringing men and women together. His conclusion: that whilst I was a hopeless musician, I was attuned to the lyrical song of love.

Two or three times Felicity refers to herself as either a “god”, a “minor god” or “one of God’s company”. We know she has “no superior, no controller, just [her] own conscience” to guide her but we still never learn who ‘They’ are. No other deities or demi-gods appear, although a few are mentioned in passing:

The Storks often resemble fat babies, the Money Spiders tend to have golden tans even in winter, and the Grim Reapers possess deathly teeth, full of cavities. […] Us Cupids are nearly always transsexual. The job description requires intimate knowledge of both sexes. Hermaphrodites are also chosen, but they have a reputation for being a little highly strung,

Felicity drinks too much; pops way too many pills. Oh, and she used to be a bloke called Kevin.

Jim plays his cards close to his chest and there is scope to treat Felicity in more than one way. That she makes mistakes should not automatically lead us to conclude that she’s mentally ill because all you have to do is look at mythology to see the number of times the gods screwed up; unlike the Judaeo-Christian God, most other gods have plenty of imperfections.

The concept of an organised group of supernatural bureaucrats is not new. I did it with the Dunameon in Living with the Truth but, discounting the various pantheons of adjustmentgods that have meddled in human history over the years, there have been plenty of others in fiction: The Endless (from The Sandman), the Operatives (from Sapphire and Steel), the Powers that Be (from Angel), Terry Pratchett’s Auditors of Reality and the recent Adjustment Bureau based on Philip K Dick’s short story ‘Adjustment Team’. If Jim gave his band of interferers a group name then I missed it. Sorry. This, by the way, is the one thing I would have changed; I would have included—did, in fact, include—more details than I really should have done in that first novel even though it all worked out fine in the end; frankly I prefer the way Jim’s been more restrained here. We learn a fair bit about Kevin/Felicity before his calling (she was a he at the time remember) but Jim’s downright niggardly when it comes to coughing up data on the Cupids: a wee bit here, a snippet there; keep guessing folks.

Felicity’s mark is, as you might have surmised from the title of the book, is one Julius Miles, bachelor, son of Claudius and nephew to Augustus and Tiberius; his grandfather studied Classics at Oxford and named his three sons all after Roman emperors. Julius has no intention of making this a family tradition and naming his firstborn son Nero or Caligula. That decision looks as if it may well have been taken away from him anyway.

Felicity has a number of potential candidates lined up for Julius taking into account his size—six foot four tall—his gaucheness—the only place he is not clumsy is in his head—and the big man’s fairly-common-it-seems predilection for small women. Top of Felicity’s list is his neighbour:

Daisy Perkins, thirty-nine years old, 5’ 5”, fifty-five kilos, butter curls, jammy lips, breasts like beacons. […] Thinks herself bohemian, loves art but has no artistry, craves taste but has none of her own.

She runs a shop that is listed under “Antiques” in the Yellow Pages but a quick search of Google reveals the truth; Domus Decorus (located on one of the six ancient Roman road that emanate from London, hence the name) is nothing more than an overpriced junk shop. Julius’s uncle Gus, of whom he was extraordinarily fond, owned the premises and had therefore been her landlord until his death when the property was willed to Julius (who tries to have as little to do with the shop or Daisy as possible).

Minor god she may be, but Felicity appears to have been granted no godlike abilities. All she uncovers about Julius, Daisy and the various others who get embroiled in what quickly becomes quite a mess for her, she learns the way any private eye would—by snooping. When she’s not blending into the background trying to overhear what she can or perched on some suitable vantage point peering through binoculars, then you’ll find her breaking into people’s homes and rifling through their things; Gus’s diaries in particular are a goldmine. And there are several instances where it’s obvious she can’t read minds or see through brick walls. On one occasion, for example, she videos a meeting and then goes home to try to lip-read to see what’s transpired. This is where it’s a problem having her as the first person narrator because occasionally see reveals things that she ought not to have known; some of it’s clearly conjecture but on other occasions she states things as facts when she can’t possibly be privy to them. This was my only gripe and it’s not a big one, but having Jim’s e-mail address I quizzed him. He had an answer, too, but I’m not going to tell you what it was.

On the surface then it doesn’t look as if Felicity is going to have too strenuous a time getting these two together. She’s been at the job long enough, however, to know she should have a plan B which she does. She has a B (Awa), C (Rukshana), D (Nadia), E (Gwendolyn) and an F (Richard):

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think Julius is gay, but I’ve screwed up before, lack of preparation. No sense in making that mistake twice. Blame it, if you want, on the HRT, back when I was a little distracted. Now I cover all the bases.

It wouldn’t be much of a book if things weren’t to go wrong. Daisy has “forgotten” to pay her water bill. As Julius marches to her front door, visibly angry and clutching an opened envelope bearing the Thames Water logo, one doesn’t need supernatural abilities to add two and two together. Numbers being his thing Julius prefers to recite Pi to fifty decimal places under his breath. The door is ajar. He enters to find Daisy, stark naked, apparently asleep on the floor. Only she’s not sleeping, she’s lying in a pool of her own blood:

To his left, a noise. Through the half-open doorway into the lounge Julius sees a small boy climbing out of a cupboard under the well-stocked bookshelves. The boy blinks as if a creature emerging from below ground – Daisy’s son, Arnold. Three, almost four.

Arnold stares at Julius. Julius looks back at the boy and thinks that he does not look like an Arnold. Arnolds are old and Jewish or Austrian or both.

Julius does not notice Awa Yasin appear behind him, add her own two and two together, and get “murderer.” She “whips out a can of Mace and sprays it into Julius Miles’s face. She jabs him fiercely in the stomach and kicks him hard between the legs.” He falls, strikes his head and, as he begins to pass out, thinks “that this is exactly the sort of misunderstanding that occurs when people are not in possession of the correct statistics.”

Daisy is dead. Her death is ruled as accidental. Life trundles on. Felicity moves on to Plan B. The thing is she can’t quite let go of Plan A. In the process of snooping she becomes aware of some salient facts that have nothing to do with her primary mission, to find a soul mate for Julius, facts that lead her to conclusions that refuse to add up and demand further investigation; she had been, after all, the son—and eventually the daughter—of a policeman.

There is a lot of profundity slipped in between the sheets of this book, meaningful mental meanderings about the nature of life, people and, of course, love. For example, towards the end of the book, Felicity muses on human memory:

I don’t trust memories. People recall memories as if recalling facts. To my mind, memories are merely stories we prefer to other stories, stories that we constantly edit and re-edit like obsessive film directors, adjusting and revising the meaning as the years go by until the film bears no resemblance to the narrative we thought we were telling when we started.

Over time we craft our memories into armour, plate by plate, until they form an impenetrable, ever so comfortable coat. Hard as flint, clear as ice, but these recollections are not based on any objective truth.

Thought-provoking stuff, so much so that the significance of what Felicity was saying here in relation to the story I was reading was lost on me and it was only later looking back that I noticed the foreshadowing. And there is a fair bit of it that. As with any good whodunit, you’ll see stuff sitting there in plain sight and not realise the significance of it. Here’s another passage that jumped out at me because I can still remember writing myself into a corner when I forced Truth to define love. Here’s some of Felicity’s thoughts on the subject:

[L]ove is not something you can force, it’s not on demand, not clickable. If you’re still waiting, don’t count down, don’t chase your tail. Chances are you won’t even realise it’s happening. For some of you it will be like walking from a darkened room into sunlight, a slap between the eyes. For others you’ll remain in the dark but gently find yourself able to discern shapes in the vortex, the darkness no longer opaque but warm and snug and comfortable. Even Julius will tell you, statistically speaking we all fall in love more than once in our lives. In more than one fashion.

Again, once you’ve read the book you’ll find yourself looking back at this paragraph and asking: Is Felicity talking here about her marks or herself? A Cupid is not immune to love; let’s just leave it at that.

Needless to say there is a lot I have not told you about and I have no intention to revealing more than I have which may seem like a lot but, trust me, there is much more to discover. The ending is handled well—not sure how Hollywood would feel about it—and the reveal was a genuine surprise. As I’ve said, as with any good whodunit, the clues are all there but which clues are the relevant ones?

I thought this was a wonderful book. I’m biased and I make no apology for that. At least I’ve been up front about it. It makes me very keen to check out his other books especially The A-Z of Us because, as regular readers will know, I once planned to write a Dictionary of Me but never quite got round to it. I’d like to see how I would have done.

You can read a lengthy excerpt from his book here.


Jim KeebleJim started writing following a French degree at Oxford, when he opted out and began working as a gardener in the south of France. He spent two years cutting down everything that grew whilst writing travel articles, which got him commissions from the travel pages of The Daily Telegraph, The Times and The Evening Standard. In 1995 he won Travel Writer of the Year at the Travelex Awards, and in 2000 his travel book Independence Day – A voyage around America with a broken heart materialised; it was one of the New York Times’ top six travel books of the year. This was followed in 2003 by My Fat Brother (US title Men and other Mammals) and, in 2005, The A-Z of Us.

On his website he says:

My writing influences include Anne Tyler, Michael Ondaatje, John Irving, Nick Hornby and Charles. M. Schulz, the creator of Charlie Brown. Nick Hornby was actually my English teacher for two years at Parkside Community College in Cambridge, where he was an excellent teacher but a terrible football coach. I was the captain and we felt ‘Mr Hornby’ was admirably emotional, but tactically limited, a sort of Kevin Keegan of the Cambridgeshire Schools’ Under-14 League.

It doesn’t look as if he has any plans for a sequel (wise man). This how he responds in a Q+A on the Alma site when asked about his next project:

I’m toying with a story about the anarchic and ultimately deadly relationship between a female immigrant living in a London tower block and a male call-centre employee in Delhi, India. I’m fascinated by the connected disconnections of 21st century life.

I did ask him whether or not he might return to Felicity again. He wrote back:

I have been mulling that since I stopped typing on Happy Numbers. I certainly enjoy and cherish Felicity sufficiently to want to spend time with her again. In particular I really enjoyed her detective work, the dickless private dick, I might be tempted to push her a little more in a subsequent book as a contemporary Philip Marlowe prowling the streets. So, we'll see. If nobody likes her in this book, maybe embarking on a second would be too masochistic?

Jim’s married to a beautiful Montanan woman (again, according to his website—I’ve not seen a picture), whom he met in New York City. They currently live in east London with their three kids and three goldfish; no one can have three kids and less than three pets.


seymourblogger said...

I always look forward to your latest post. Thank you.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thank you, seymourblogger. Nice of you to say so.

Ken Armstrong said...

This sounds good. I sometimes judge a writer by his influences and his are sound. :)

Your sentence 'It wouldn’t be much of a book if things weren’t to go wrong.' is yet another sound piece of writing advice that not everybody knows.

Jim Murdoch said...

They say that there’s no story without conflict, Ken, and, up to a point, I suppose that’s true which is where we get the whole antagonist-protagonist dynamic but then we get films like Cast Away where there is only one person there and the only ‘antagonists’ he has to deal with are of an abstract variety, his inner demons. But the whole story rests on the fact that things have gone wrong and need to get put right. Of course you can envisage a scenario where things work out rather well after they’ve gone wrong—I’m thinking about The Admirable Crichton here—but what keeps things going there is humour. Humour often fills in conflict because so much humour is all about things going wrong or being misunderstood.

I think this is one you would like, Ken. I’d send you my copy but this is one I’d rather like to hang onto and it’s been a while since I’ve read a book like that.

Dave King said...

This does sound like the book for me. Not sure about minor gods and that sort of thing , but the fibonacci sequences and complex and imaginary numbers did it for me. Sounds too good to be missed.

Jim Murdoch said...

All I can imagine, Dave, is that the paragraphs I skimmed are the ones that will excite you. Not that there were many but I’m a long way away from maths despite the fact I was in the top maths class at school. I took Statistics at college—thought I’d love it but actually hated it (I was the same with accounting). What the course did teach me was now misleading statistics can be. All you have to do is stick an ‘ONLY’ in front of them and us poor punters are confused: ONLY 25% fat – yeah, that sounds healthy. To be totally honest there’s not much about gods in the book, major or minor. I probably say more in my article than he says in the whole novel. It was a book I enjoyed despite its flaws but then all you have to say to me is “flawed masterpiece” and I’m intrigued. Felicity is a great creation. I would have been tickled pink to have thought her up.

awyn said...

Great review, comme d'habitude. :) You had me at Felicity's musings-on-memory quote.

By the way, one of the author's "three daughters" ... is actually a son (his firstborn, a boy named Milo). Cute kids, and an interesting article from that link as well. Thanks.

Jim Murdoch said...

For God's sake, Annie, how did I get that wrong? It's fixed and thank you for pointing out the error of my ways.

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