[Provender Gleed by James Lovegrove. Gollancz, 2005, 330 pp., ISBN 0-575-07684-4.]
All the newspapers are talking about it: for the good of the Family, Provender Gleed has to marry. As the only Gleed heir, he has to continue the line; if he doesn’t, the Family will be broken, and their power and wealth will fade. Cynthia Gleed cannot allow that and so, at the Family’s extravagant annual ball — this year it has a Venetian theme, and the replica of that fair city sprawls over three football fields’ worth of the Gleed’s Berkshire estate — she arranges for her son to meet another two eligible bachelorettes.
For Provender himself, such practical matters are somewhat beside the point. When, after several hours, he has shown no signs of gracing the ball with his presence, Cynthia tracks him down. He is in his room, writing, considering the only question he considers worth asking: “whether extreme wealth is incompatible with an ethical life.” He wonders because his Family, like all Families, built its fortune on the exploitation of others. When Rufus Gleed applied to the Borgia de’Medicis of Italy for Family status in the seventeenth century, he did so on the back of a domination of the spice trade achieved through the employment of ruthless privateers. When Gleed’s request was granted, he continued to be equally ruthless about inter-Family rivalries. Today those rivalries are no less intense, but their ripples spread wider. To all intents and purposes the Families rule the world, the powers behind all thrones, and when Provender is kidnapped at the height of the ball, his father Prosper rushes to blame the Gleed’s rivals, the Kuczynskis. The resulting saber-rattling in the corridors of hidden power reveals that the status quo is only metastable at best, and carries Europe to the brink of a Third War with alarming speed.
As the foregoing may suggest, the alternate world James Lovegrove builds in Provender Gleed doesn’t feel solidly real; but it doesn’t have to. Kazuo Ishiguro has talked about his discomfort with actual historical settings, noting in a recent Interzone interview, and elsewhere, that he has had trouble finding the right match for the stories he wants to tell. As a result, for his most recent novel, the Booker Prize-nominated Never Let Me Go, he created a fictional space just different enough from our own world to ensure that any parallels the reader might seek remain fuzzy and inexact. In Provender Gleed, Lovegrove seems to have a similar aim. His Britain is not the one we know: the British Families have a private Tram network that runs the length and breadth of the country; longer journeys are made primarily by zeppelin; London is like something out of Metropolis. It’s a country out of time, something old and something new, but it lets Lovegrove skim issues we are all too familiar with closely enough to leave a graze. Provender Gleed’s Britain is one damagingly divided by class; one in which the cult of celebrity is literal, and endemic; one in which ultimate political power conspicuously and unarguably resides in the hands of the wealthy.
You could apply a lot of labels to the book, if you wanted. You could call it a dystopia; it’s certainly cynical enough. As Lovegrove takes aim at his targets you sometimes feel there must be a manic glint in his eye, and the sardonic, omniscient narration is often the best thing about the book. It’s also an admission that the world cannot be told in one story; it skips now and then to unexpected viewpoints to capture in vivid, occasionally brilliant vignettes — an old lady living on a council estate; a dumbstruck taxi driver — the full flavor of this Britain. You could also call Provender Gleed a satire, since it has no shortage of exaggeration and ironic inversion. For instance, in Lovegrove’s world, China is the world’s only true democracy. And it’s not a stretch to read the Families — who are not actually evil, but are undoubtedly and unashamedly looking out for their own best interests at every term — as a critique of Western culture. Questions of responsibility echo through the book; how far Family members are responsible to each other, to other Families and to society at large is a pressing question. There are also some elements that verge on outright silliness. To find Provender, Carter, the Gleed’s favored servant, enlists the services of two anagrammatic detectives. Romeo Moore and Merlin Milner (take a moment to think about those names) are something like soothsayers, scrying secret meaning from significant words. But even here, Lovegrove has a deliberate point to make: by their existence, among other things, the anagrammatic detectives point up the absurdity of any privilege that comes solely from a name.
Lastly, you could call Provender Gleed a Bildungsroman, since that is after all what the subheading on the title page claims it to be. And in the end you would be right to do so. But for much of the book, the claim seems entirely ironic, since it is not clear who is learning what, or how, or why. Surprisingly for a character set up to be a spoiled rich boy, Provender himself seems far too awake to the state of things to be a candidate for a narrative of self-discovery. For all that his understanding of the world is academic — his kidnapping takes him out into the real world, from his country estate to an inner-city slum, for the first time — it proves to be more grounded than you would expect. And so, at first, the sharp-witted Is, one of Provender’s kidnappers (her name is short for Isis), seems a more likely bet; the more she talks to Provender and the more the geopolitical situation deteriorates, the less certain she becomes that the abduction was the right move. But her change of heart seems to come too early, and too easily, to qualify. In the end, this aspect of the book both does and doesn’t accommodate our expectations; suffice it to say that the question of whether you’ve grown up changes depending on whose standards you’re growing up to meet.
This may all sound overly worthy, but it shouldn’t. Provender Gleed is first and foremost the sort of thing that gets labeled as “a good read” — which, given how often politics and entertainment mix uneasily, when they mix at all, is a fair achievement. The narrative is brisk and entertaining, the cast is diverse and interesting and the anagrammatic detectives give Lovegrove an excuse to indulge himself in enjoyable wordplay. Perhaps at times the style is a little too glib, or not quite bold enough; but underneath the diverting, darkly humorous caper, Lovegrove nevertheless makes some serious points.