Reassuringly Optimistically Deranged
Paul Ewen, Francis Plug: Writer in Residence
Galley Beggar, 294pp, £14.00, ISBN 9781910296929
reviewed by Hugo Brown
At their best, these selected lines will compel you to buy the book they are printed on. But at their worst, they put you off entirely; William Boyd is, on the cover of Love is Blind, ‘one of Britain’s most celebrated contemporary novelists.’ It’s wooden high praise; objective and offering nothing intriguing or emotive to draw a reader in. Francis Plug: Writer in Residence prompts this kind of thought. Paul Ewen’s second novel interrogates literary culture, satirising an industry that is full of contradictions. Francis’ carnivalesque jaunt through the literary world centres on ironies – cleverly highlighting how the creative and personal process of writing can be dictated by bureaucracy, trends and awards, for example. Similarly, Ewen reminds us that it’s almost farcical that a few words on the front of a novel could carry enough importance to make or break a book in your imagination.
The first thing to note about Writer in Residence is that it is metafictional. Paul Ewen would have the reader believe that he does not exist. His name is barely even on the novel’s cover. The characters and setting of the novel are familiar but blurred through the lens of Francis Plug. It is Plug who has written How to be a Public Author and Writer in Residence. And it is through his eyes that the reader meets Philip Roth, David Lodge, Dr Alex Phelby and Galley Beggar Press’ Sam and Elly. This is Plug’s memoir, his London and his voice that interprets the writers, students, academics and publicans that surround him.
Writer in Residence re-joins Francis after the baffling publication of his first ‘novel’, How to be a Public Author. Baffling because this novel, repeatedly described by characters in the book as silly, was not really a novel. Rather, it was a straight shot presentation of the life of Francis Plug – at least that’s what he thinks. Now, occupying the role of writer in residence at the University of Greenwich, we are given an extended look at his attempt to write a campus novel. And it is perhaps this extension that might draw my sole criticism. At just over 400 pages, Writer in Residence is a long comedy and, although broken up by encyclopaedic literary references, the hyperactive sense of humour can become wearing. Ultimately, the novel is made up of set pieces and plot is unimportant – a style that is not for everyone.
Each chapter features hilariously believable presentations of well-known authors, as well as repeated references to Philip Roth and obsessive, tic-like mentions of the Booker Prize. An award which is on the receiving end of both Ewen’s funniest and most vicious sides. Marlon James, winner of the 2015 edition, is described as ‘someone most people wouldn’t have heard of until a few months ago [...but] now he’s the man of the moment’ because he has won the Booker Prize. Shortly after, Francis charts the rejection of James’ first novel 78 times because the ‘Caribbean's not in’, and his later acceptance by the literary and wider celebrity world. Ewen seems to be poking fun at the extent to which the award prompted such a stratospheric reversal of fortune. In a short space in Writer in Residence, Marlon James’ literary rise, and its layers of irony, is charted full circle. After all, winning the Booker Prize is a big deal.
Ewen’s novel benefits from being full of information while having a main character who is off-the-wall and deranged; a distraction from proceedings that become overly self-aware and didactic. The church and state separation of dialogue is crucial to this; with conversations presented as set pieces the small diatribe about James can melt into the space between exchanges:
'FP: So you didn’t come for a swim in the lido?
Marlon James: No, I can’t say I did.
FP: Just as well. Trying to get a lift home was a nightmare. I ended up sleeping in the park.
Marlon James: That does not surprise me.'
But Writer in Residence does not come across as bitter, even if repeated jokes tend to look to look less and less like jokes, Ewen has enough skin in the game to be saved by his self-deprecation. You are allowed to be critical of the world you inhabit. And perhaps by shouting ‘KNICKERS, KNICKERS!’ Francis is simply speaking truth to power. It’s not always popular.
As well as the literary circuit, cloying sherry, white and red wine, the Cutty Sark – in both liquid and boat form – and the Greenwich Meridian, Plug also tackles universities, students, bureaucracy and, in a roundabout way, London. And while Ewen’s protagonist sails around London existing on a consistent supply of booze and almost no money, he doesn’t paint a particularly attractive picture of life as a writer. Even if the roof over his head (squatting in the University of Greenwich) was designed by Christopher Wren.
At its core, Writer in Residence is a comedy riding a line close to reality. Like Plug, Ewen is (obviously) a writer, he does live in London, his publishers are called Sam and Elly, he was a writer in residence, he does know Alex Phelby and he has written a book called London Pub Reviews. But thankfully, this is a novel that also takes things to their illogical conclusions. Ewen is a member of the very group that are the butt of his jokes and Plug is the biggest joke of them all. There is something infectious about the main character and the hapless, unapologetic chaos he creates. It is even endearing:
‘Doris Lessing didn’t shy away from coarse language in her novels either. In the English edition of The Good Terrorist, she writes: “The filthy, shitty swine, the shitty fucking fascist swine.” And then, on page 31: “You filthy bloody cuntish Itlers, you fascist scum.” Although I respect her right to write whatever she wants, you won't find that sort of language in my book.’
Of course you wouldn’t, that would be offensive to the readers. The above lines are an example of the difficult-to-define charm of Francis Plug. Indeed, despite operating in an industry concerned with social presentation, he is rough and lacking in self-awareness.
Early in the novel, Plug muses on what he would like the connotations of the term ‘Pluggian’ to be. Ewen uses it as an opportunity to take a swipe at ‘Orwellian’ and ‘Kafkaesque’. He’s right, they are two redundant literary terms. (Ironically, ‘Orwellian’ is thrown around in the kind of manner Orwell himself wrote against.) But more importantly, Francis Plug does deserve his own adjective. Writer in Residence is a novel that is at once absurd and chaotic but also hilarious and unrelentingly optimistic. Francis is at times repulsive and calamitous but he keeps going. Even if it is with ‘wet sand clogging up his ear holes’ and to ‘the silly parp of a Benny Hill yakety sax’. Reassuringly optimistically deranged – that’s Pluggian. Who knows? Maybe in a hundred years it’ll be a useless adjective too.
And, as absurd as the book is, it’s often in touching distance of the believable. The crucial difference is that in the situations where most would retreat, Francis Plug engages. He is always the last man standing, even if he is asleep in the Piccadilly Circus Waterstones. Writer in Residence is a refreshing rarity: it is a book that will make you laugh. Francis is an eyes-wide, hand-over-mouth disaster, but you can’t help but root for him. After all, we have all had our Pluggian moments.