The Square Mile : a Circle of Hell unravelling
Having been impressed by Jonathan Lee’s most recent novel, High Dive, published in 2015, about the Brighton bombing of the Metropole in 1984, I was interested to read this earlier novel of his, (2012) set in a successful City corporate law firm
Lee lifts the lid off a fiercely competitive, cynical world of high flyers, most of whom have taken a step away from living according to any rules except the pursuit of empty pleasure, driven by ambition and materialism
Joy Stephens is one of the brittle, successful lawyers, presently fighting the corner for a corrupt fast food company, whose Poutry Products (McNuggetKentucky type things) are being challenged by radicals, concerned about the environment, animal welfare and human health.
Sometimes Joy looks up at the big flat screens that hang in braces outside each Hanger, Slyde & Stein employee coffee pod, installed during the credit crunch to better monitor the markets, and thinks that the twenty-first century is no more than a vast structureless datastream. Oil up. Copper down. Gold holding. Somehow the white spaces on the graphs, cracked by ragged red lines, seem to breathe a kind of sadness. And what would it mean, exactly, to be one of the people both in and out of this datastream, everywhere and nowhere, waiting to be identified or found?
Stephens is about to get one of the golden prizes, and be made up to partner. However, (as is made clear in the blurb, so no spoilers) her life is seriously unravelling, for reasons which the reader will discover, and she is planning a dramatic suicide on the day of her promotion.
The structure of the book inter-cuts the events, within a time frame, of what Joy has planned to be her last day on earth. Joy’s day is described in third person narration.
Intercut with this are four other voices, who narrate their stories first person to an unnamed trauma counsellor, who has been hired by the legal firm to offer support to people affected by seeing Joy fall forty feet and land on a marble floor, whilst they were gathered to celebrate and toast her public promotion. The firm were planning a glitzy party and she was meant to be the golden one of the hour, not a a public splatter of blood and bone on the party floor.
The four voices, all impeccably and believably spoken are Dennis, Joy’s husband, an academic with more than a few shameful secrets, Peter, the other high flying lawyer from Joy’s trainee intake, whom she has pipped to the partnership prize, Barbara, Joy’s well past retirement PA, cynical and long suffering, who after 40 years work for the firm, knows most secrets and respects few of the firm’s leading lights, and, finally Samir, son of an immigrant from Bangladesh, who is a lowly physical trainer/washroom attendant and general dogsbody in the firm’s fitness suite. Barbara and Samir are both pretty trapped, and have little freedom of manoeuvre. They have some undoubted problems, but are the voices most likely to gain the reader’s sympathy and compassion. Joy, Dennis and Peter are all, in their ways, brittle, corrupt and culpable, and the unpleasant choices they made were driven by greed, aggression, a thirst for power and pleasure without considering others.
Where Lee really scores is that, however unpleasant these three are – and however much the reader will be likely to judge and condemn them – Lee recognises their suffering humanity, and we are taken into some kind of appalled understanding, condemning the actions, but seeing into human pain, even the pain of the seemingly unworthy.
Reading this, I was reminded of the writing of Bret Easton Ellis, who has also explored the lives of the self-obsessed, rich and wilful. But Ellis merely sneers, and invites his readers to also to comfortably sneer contemptuously at his shallow group. By contrast, Lee has heart, his characters are far more than just ‘types’ and we do get to walk a little way in their shoes, and may be get to see where we and they might, at places, touch.
I wasn’t quite as admiring of this as of High Dive, there are moments when I think the demands of plot create a few events which don’t feel completely credible – particularly how a specific event at Wimbledon which sets in motion Joy’s unravelling, practically happened, so the completely seamless weaving of character and circumstance driving plot is not always there, but, nonetheless, I strongly recommend this. It is a page-turning read, well-written, with a lot more going on to think and feel about underneath the drive of plot and revelation.