Tuesday, 12 July 2011

The Folding Knife

K J Parker
Orbit (orbitbooks.net)

If K J Parker were a film director, you’d call them an auteur. Critics being an argumentative lot, there’s little in the way of consensus on the meaning of the word, but the general gist is that all of the director’s works share some common tendency, whether it be of theme, of style, or of something less easily defined.

So with Parker. From early works to The Folding Knife, the author has presented a series of variations on the same theme – and what’s kept these novels from ever feeling repetitive isn’t only the superb quality and idiosyncratic style of the writing, but the sheer difficulty of answering the questions it poses – or even nailing down the precise nature of said questions. Parker is a student of the banality of evil, fascinated by its range and complexity.

Before I dive off into cod philosophy and a comparative reading of the author’s whole back catalogue, however, there’s a review to be getting on with. So, The Folding Knife.

Bleak. Funny. Troubling.

That’s clearly not enough, but within those three words can be found the whole of the novel. The world inhabited by Parker’s characters is an extraordinarily dark one – you’d call it nihilistic, if not for the subtle, unshakeable sense that the universe is not so much indifferent to the sufferings of human beings as actively hostile to their interests. No good deed goes unpunished; no error comes without its consequences. This is a world where every life describes a tragedy.

The life in question here is that of Bassianus Severus, First Citizen of the Vesani Republic and financier extraordinaire. The tragedy is watching Basso face all manner of crises, whether personal, professional or political, and generally overcome. Where’s the tragedy in that, do I hear you ask? But The Folding Knife is all about the journey, not the destination; whether a lifetime of public service – which just as an aside happens to make one absurdly rich – is enough to offset a single act of evil. ‘In a lifetime of crucial decisions’, the back-cover blurb tells us, Basso has ‘only ever made one mistake’. But it’s a mistake which haunts him, which taints every success, and which he’s spent everything he is trying to make up for.

Heavy stuff. But balanced against the novel’s weighty theme and vindictive universe is Parker’s trademark style. Without the writing’s utter lack of pomposity, its blissful lightness of touch and fierce wit, the novel would be just about unreadable. Instead we’re privy to Basso’s internal processes, or at least a slice of them somewhere between a Woolfian stream-of-consciousness and the deliberate opacity of surface movements; in lesser hands this could prove maddeningly incomprehensible, but Parker’s control of voice is utterly assured.

  “We’ll do our best,” Festo said.
  “Of course you will,” he replied, and something prompted him to add, “and if you make a good job of it, I’ll let you go to Badava for the summer. Well? Is that a good deal?”
  They were grinning at him, and he thought: they assume I’d planned that all along, the reward, the incentive. It’s how a good father would have structured it; first the bluster and the stern eye, then the special treat, whipped out of the sack at the end. But Badava was just an afterthought, because I was feeling guilty.

Basso is a man who lies to everyone, even (especially?) himself; even when he’s telling the truth, he’s lying as to why. The ambiguity this builds is refreshing, and rare; the only way to even come close to understanding what drives him is to view his actions in terms of the bigger picture. And the way in which Parker handles dramatic scale, smoothly changing gear between personal tragedy and geopolitical intrigue, is a pleasure in itself.

Basso himself would say that there’s little difference between the two. In his early training in financial sleight of hand, Basso learns how something as apparently simple as a shortage of barrel staves at the perfect moment can bring about the capitulation of a mighty empire. While he proves adept at applying this mastery of connectivity – of minimal action for maximum gain – for political and business success, he seems incapable of applying the same logic to his own life. And all the while he builds a house of cards, as if unsure himself how the whole thing doesn’t just tumble down around him…

So: the potential for utter social, political and economic ruin, brought about by the manipulations of devious bankers? The novel’s rather pointed comment on the real world financial crisis is unusually broad for Parker, but no less pertinent for its lack of subtlety. For all Basso’s cleverness, his successes effectively stem from luck – something he accepts but doesn’t seem to accommodate: “I’ve always got the impression luck gets stronger with use, like a muscle” (p.119), he tells his old teacher. When things go wrong, though, he simply has no idea what to do – as demonstrated in the peculiar moment when the normally assured, commanding  Basso becomes utterly passive in the face of terrible news, while a nameless military courier lays out the various bad-case scenarios before the floundering First Citizen and guides him to the least-appalling conclusion (pp.434-438). What at first seems wildly out-of-character is simply the reaction of a man ill-equipped to deal with unpleasant surprises.

With the exception of The Company, Parker’s novels tend to focus almost exclusively on a single central figure, and The Folding Knife continues the usual trend. This is the Basso show, a one-man tour de force which inevitably leaves the rest of the cast little room to manoeuvre. But while the supporting cast have little in the way of page time, Parker works wonders with the little they’re granted and sketches out a handful of well-rounded characters with admirable economy. Where the characterisation comes across a little sparse, as with Basso’s two sons, you get the impression this is less a flaw than a deliberate decision. To Basso the boys are of no interest; when they figure in the novel it’s inevitably as either a distraction or an afterthought, and their lack of distinctiveness to the reader is simply a reflection of Basso’s overwhelming indifference.

A similar lack of interest is generated in The Folding Knife’s few female characters, but it’s one less easily rationalised. The novel’s women are ciphers, usually referred to as ‘she’ without even a name to place them in the scene; it’s possible that Parker judged their rarity made something so trifling as a name redundant, but the lack leaves a nasty taste in the mouth when responsibility for the majority of the novel’s many ills can be laid at their feet. While the author’s gender has never been made public – hopefully explaining the convoluted sentence-mangling to which I’ve had to resort in order to avoid personal pronouns during the course of this review – The Folding Knife bears the fingerprints of what seems at best an uncomfortable distain for the worth and motivations of its female characters.

Perhaps it seems unfair to celebrate the novel’s ambiguity with regard to Basso and his fellow men, while complaining about the same trait with regard to the women. There’s a critical difference of tone, however: Basso’s inscrutability feels like the result of carefully sculpted characterisation; that of his sister and wives feels more like authorial indifference.

Uncertain gender politics aside, The Folding Knife is another solid effort from Parker. If it’s not up to the quality of, say, The Company, that’s scant criticism. Fiction with this depth of intelligence is a rarity in any genre, and if nothing else the novel deserves some kind of medal for making the details of budget-balancing and deal-making so utterly fascinating.

This review was originally written for SFcrowsnest.com