Thursday, 1 April 2010

The Ninth Circle

Alex Bell
Gollancz (

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A man wakes up in an apartment in a pool of his own blood, with no memory of his life before that moment. He has to piece together his existence from clues around the house, from the cryptic hints of new (or are they old?) acquaintances who might not be what they seem, and from mysterious letters posted beneath his door which suggest his past may hold secrets so dark he’d rather not remember them…

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A man wakes up with no memory of his life before. The only hint as to his identity, to his past, is an incoherent book review smeared onto the wall in blood. No More Amnesiac Protagonists!!, it reads, over and over again…

Stop me… or rather, stop publishers. The preponderance of books feeding off the same old premise isn’t Alex Bell’s fault, although she could possibly have considered taking up residence in a slightly less crowded literary niche. Cliché it may be, but the amnesiac protagonist needn’t be the death of a well-written novel.

Unfortunately, The Ninth Circle isn’t a particularly well-written novel. There’s a certain energy to its prose, but it suffers from many of the same flaws that have plagued other debut novels. Bell keeps things rattling on at some pace, thanks mostly to a stream-of-consciousness narration which never lets the book become bogged down in detail. But this isn’t stream of consciousness like Virginia Woolf employs, with meaning layered into the broken thoughts and half-completed imagery which the human mind throws up; it’s more like a running commentary for the hard of thinking, wherein every event or emotional cue is accompanied by high-energy explication of exactly what’s going on inside the narrator’s head. There’s no opportunity for interpretation of the depths of meaning here, because there are no depths – it’s all dragged straight to the surface in a frenzy of italicised overemphasis.

The reason behind this onslaught of angst is that Gabriel Antaeus, its narrator and the recipient of that unfortunate lack of backstory, makes up for his existential uncertainty with a hysterical mania which really begins to grate after a hundred pages or so. He’s like an idiot child, filled with a driving need to understand everything right now and lacking the emotional filters which most adults develop as a way of keeping the world at arms’ length. In a way this makes sense, considering his memory loss as a kind of rebirth, and there is a touching innocence to the way he latches desperately onto every snatch of human contact or hint of his past. There’s a running ‘fish food’ joke through the first quarter of the novel which is at once funny and pathetically exemplary of his tendency to make staggeringly unsubstantiated assumptions and cling to them no matter what. But it’s a trait which endures throughout the entire novel, even after the inevitable revelation of Gabriel’s past, and there’s only so much sympathy one can sustain for a protagonist who is clearly, inescapably moronic. Gabriel persists in seeing the world in terms of clear-cut absolutes, despite the regularity with which Alex Bell goes out of her way to paint it in shades of grey. Touches of irony encouraging the reader to laugh at Gabriel’s sheer wrongheadedness do provide some respite from his parade of idiocies, but it’s an irony so heavily telegraphed as to suggest Bell lacks faith in her reader’s intelligence:
‘Besides, I’m okay on my own. I’m certainly not one of those people who are for ever needing others to boost their sense of self-worth. For ever needing to be surrounded by friends and loved ones to tell them how wonderful they are all the time. That would be pathetic.’ (p.33)

While its narrator remains The Ninth Circle’s biggest flaw, there are a number of other problems which plague it. The voluminous superficiality of Gabriel’s emotional outpourings leaks into other areas, and Bell’s description often veers into the overwritten. Her sense of action, meanwhile, is somewhat lacking – a battle between angelic and demonic forces in the sky over Budapest should be an action highlight, but has so little impact that you barely remember it’s going on. Long, complex descriptive sentences do a poor job of conveying movement or intensity. Having the supernatural combatants take to the air, meanwhile, seems transparently contrived in order to move the action out of the foreground and save Bell from having to juggle it with other events.

Not that the reader is given much incentive to become particularly invested in those goings on, nor in the characters whose ons are going. When they’re not suffering the absurd compulsion to shout their current emotional state from the rooftops, Bell’s characters all too often throw out painfully self-conscious Tarantino-esque pop culture references, regardless of whether it’s appropriate to the moment, the character or the novel as a whole. What seems like it’s intended to make The Ninth Circle seem cool and hip and down with the kids instead come across as trying too hard.
“It’s because I don’t have a costume, isn’t it?” I wept. “You can’t be a real superhero without the spandex suit and the mask and the fucking cape!” …
“You mustn’t do that, you know. After all, superheroes only ever fought super-villains, not angels.”
Hearing a demon nitpick like the Simpsons’ Comic Book Guy does somewhat squash any sense of drama, and doesn’t exactly help stabilise a novel so uneven in tone it’s practically capsized. Bell’s writing lacks the requisite wit to pull this off, and to add insult to inanity her aping of superior stylists also makes The Ninth Circle’s dialogue rather generic. Any sense of individuality is sacrificed on the altar of the achingly cool, smeared across multiple speakers with a broad-headed brush until you can only tell them apart by their nametags.

I haven’t really talked about the actual plot yet, you’ll notice. Mostly this is because the nature of the amnesiac protagonist makes it rather hard to talk about anything without giving too much away. It’s not awful, but there’s nothing there you haven’t seen before – no surprises, and not much in the way of original thought. This sort of book requires a light touch in foreshadowing its revelations, and what foreshadowing The Ninth Circle displays is either as subtle as a choir of  sign-waving angels or so abstruse as to foreshadow anything from to the Second Coming to the title of Dan Brown’s inevitable next moneyspinner.

‘Neil Gaiman meets the Bourne Identity’, The Ninth Circle’s back-cover blurb tells me, but that’s doing a disservice to them both. A reference to the Bourne series in particular is the kind of cultural shorthand which seems at both staggeringly lazy and somewhat spoileriffic, in the same way that mentioning ‘Fight Club’ alerts you to the probability of imaginary friends. And The Ninth Circle does seem to be the sort of cynically calculated novel which always tends to come in the wake of awakening public perception, riding the coattails of one or another runaway success. It’s the X-Factor of fantasy fiction, more interested in marketing than the quality of the product. Even the back of my reviewer’s copy notes Alex Bell as ‘massively promotable’ and ‘sure to gain extensive publicity coverage’, as if writing the words can make them true. Self-fulfilling prophecies don’t just self-fulfil, after all - you have to work at them. And Gollancz’s marketing department would probably be better off investing their hard work in something a little more assured.

This review was originally written for