Monday, May 8, 2006

Petit mort


“A duller spectacle this earth of ours has not to show than a rainy Sunday in London.”
Thomas De Quincey, quoted in Chris Petit’s Robinson

“It would be a symptom of this new age that people and things and witnesses would be paraded before the world, would be told this was how it happened, and guilty men and culpable countries would be served up for its hostile delectation, but truth would be the first victim of the explosion.”
Chris Petit, in The Passenger

How to react to the news that Chris Petit has a new book out, bearing the straplines ‘The thinking man’s Andy McNab’ and ‘TERROR HAS A BOARDING PASS’? This is Chris Petit, director of post-punk Brit road movie Radio On and author of (amongst other things) essential London noir Robinson, yet these titles appear nowhere in Petit’s works as listed in Passenger. This is a big fat airport novel bearing the same name as one of our great talents, one of Iain Sinclair’s ‘reforgotten’ (an excellent Indy article on the two of them here): intriguing.

Robinson, published in 1993, most strongly recalls Patrick Hamilton and the dissolute effects of wallowing in states of alcoholic and psychological abandonment, as the un-named narrator is drawn into Robinson’s seedy underworld. Robinson is a kind of Luther Blissett for Iain Sinclair’s reforgotten club, a key who is picked up and put down, edged out of the frame or focussed tight in on. He is undoubtedly behind Vaughan in Ballard’s Crash, director of autoerotic fantasies (a beautiful girl in calipers appears in Robinson too). He remains forever out of reach in Patrick Keiller’s London, a lingering trace left on the city, always just ahead of the narrator’s perambulation. He is even further away in Keiller’s sequel, Robinson in Space. He shares traits with ‘Norton’, and all the other Sinclair alter-egos, including the bookseller Dryfeld. For Petit, Robinson is a persuader, a character of such magnetism that others will follow him to the furthest reaches of his perversions, the man in the pub who ends up invading Poland. Like Jake Arnott’s Harry Starks, Robinson remains a potent figure because his own motives are never stated. He is always sexual; as a shadow, he allows blackness to seep into the frame. This is not the territory of the airport novel.

Still, The Passenger is definitely Petit. In fact, he has spent the last few years cutting his own niche in the thriller genre with books such as The Human Pool, which investigated the dodgy deals done as the Third Reich broke up at the end of the Second World War – the repercussions of which are still felt in The Passenger. After a classic thriller opening of Pan Am Flight 103 disintegrating over Lockerbie (and we’ve suddenly realised where Tom McCarthy got it from), we’re soon driving at night across a rain-lashed Britain with No-first-name Collard, who arrives at the crash site believing his son Nick to be among the passengers. James Jesus Angleton, the CIA turncoat, Margaret Thatcher and a mysterious girl are all involved, but stranger things are afoot. The ‘story’ of the bombing, Collard finds, is just that: a tangle of threads which lead to American intelligence – still in technical ‘occupation’ of West Germany – to Jordanian agents, Israeli-sponsored Terror cells, to the British spy ring of Philby and Burgess, to Graham Greene, spy-turned-novelist and possible Vatican agent – threads which knot and weave in unlikely places. Petit is clearly well-read on the subject of Lockerbie but Collard is less well informed, stumbling from set-up to set-up, used, lied to and spun.

Initially, it’s possible to think that Petit has turned his back on Robinson because Robinson’s own time has come: he is no longer the backroom figure making cheap, arty porno and pronouncing that “Abolition of any privacy should be the price of fame”; he’s making Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs and reading Heat. In 1993 and Robinson, ‘sleaze’ means “grimy sheets, penises, vaginas, mouths, rectums, a sofa for a bit of variation, and a rubber plant for decoration.” In 2006, ‘sleaze’ means politics. But therein lies a connection, of sorts: the glacial indifference of airport lounges, business hotels, Home Counties estates and Frankfurt skyscrapers cover the same psychological terrain as Robinson: unnamed and unreliable narrators, obscured figures, ciphers, paranoia.

The official version of Lockerbie – Megrahi, Cyprus, the Libyans – is relegated to a footnote here, the story extends in all directions: everyone is culpable. Paul Foot is an obvious source, as are biographies of spies, manuals of fieldcraft. In the final analysis, Lockerbie is just a sideshow, a brief spark in the endless wars of information and influence played out behind the scenes. A ghoulish twist, which would be meaningless or worse in lesser hands, feels like a posthumous echo of Robinson himself, last seen dangling from a barbed-wire fence in the Essex countryside. If he is not dead, he could be anywhere.


P.S. The Lerts among you will have noticed some tidying up around here in recent days, mainly with the aim of giving more prominence to the Linklog on the right: links likely to be of interest to the discerning STML reader. If anyone has any problems with the new layout, please let us know. The ‘Previous’ button at the foot of the page should be working shortly too.

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