One inspiration for WILLIAM BOYD's first novel in five years was his urge to return to comedy.
Words: David Harris
Contrary to common belief. the suit of armour fell into disuse not because it was ineffective against modern weapons. but because it kept pace with the development of ever more deadly assault. The real problem was that the necessary carapace left the wearer unable to do anything except sit in an insulated heap and suffer the futile onslaught.
Such is the predicament of Lorimer Black in William Boyd’s Armadillo. A specialist loss adjuster in the esoteric world of corporate insurance. dealing in vast sums of money as he investigates suspected frauds. he is buffeted on all sides by cruel fate. helpless to resist because of his ostensibly protective facades.
Boyd’s seventh novel. his first in five years. is a return to the black farce with which he made his name in the early 803. a style superseded in recent work by more serious intent. ‘When I finished The Blue Afternoon.’ he says. ‘I had a powerful urge to return to comedy. or serious comedy as I call it. I wanted to see if I could make people laugh again.’
Which is not to say that Armadillo is any less substantial in its concerns than his darker studies. Unknown to his colleagues. Lorimer is in reality Milomre Blocj. a Fulham Gypsy boy made good. and the artifice with which he conceals his true identity renders him unable to face his own demons. The theme is mirrored in Lorimer‘s sleep disturbances. and in his hobby of collecting antique helmets, which protect one’s most vulnerable organ and present a mask to the world.
With so many interwoven threads of plotting and character. summary is practically impossible: a suspected fraud commits suicide; a newly built office block goes up in smoke; a young married woman takes Lorimer’s fancy. an upper class twit takes his job. Boyd keeps swingeing at the skin-thin veneer of contemporary London life. although the novel is not pinned down to a definite time frame. Suffice to say that betrayal and intrigue gradually strip Lorimer of his psychological chain mail with calamitous results. leaving him open to injury and knocking him ﬂat on his cuirass.
Small-scale tragedies are often the source of
98 TIIE LIST 20 Feb—S Mar 1998
'A lot of my characters are people trying to control life, thinking they can find a set of situations that will make them safe. Of course, it's a completely vain endeavour.’
William Boyd: ’I wanted to see if I could make people laugh again'
unsparing fictional comedy. and the unfortunates in his imaginary worlds are as ﬂies to wanton Boyd. ‘A lot of the characters in my novels — and Lorimer Black is a prime example — are people trying to control life. thinking they can find a set of situations that will make them safe. protect them from life’s randomness and unpredictability. Of course. it’s a completely vain endeavour. and this is where the wonderful insurance comes in — how we as citizens try to guard against injustice and misfortune. poor misguided fools!‘
If there‘s a moral lurking in his work. it‘s that enlightenment comes only when you submit to destiny‘s unreasoning current: there is no armour against fate.
‘The ultimate freedom.‘ he suggests. ‘is a_ kind of
chaos that blows into everybody’s life. Lorimer. who is trying to protect himself by changing his name and his identity. finds that the anarchic spirit of life just whisks him off his feet. So in a way the novel is about yielding to that freedom and not trying to light it. It comes out of the general concept that all ideas of order are. in a way. pretence. and as soon as you realise that. there’s a way of escape. a way to advance through the minefield.‘
And. as with many of Boyd‘s hapless heroes. surviving the barrage leaves one a little less certain but a little more wise.
Armadillo by Wiliam Boyd is published by Hamish Hamilton at £16.99. Boyd is at Waterstone's, 153-157 Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow, Thu 5 Mar, 7pm. Tickets £2, redeemable against the book.
The write stuff
Not content with being an illustrator, designing computer games and playing the banjo, Edinburgh-based Harry Horse writes children’s books. His latest is The Last Goldiggers.
NAME: Harry Horse. Real name Richard Home. At school 'Horne' was misprinted - my nickname became Horsehead. Harry came later, probably to do with the Damon Runyon character.
PREVIOUS JOBS: Museum curator, Kodak colour processing operator, dishwasher.
ROUTE TO BECOMING A WRITER: I
ran away from home in 1977. My first '
book was published when I was nineteen. I lived hand to mouth, illustrating mostly. Writing came much later.
ROUTINE: I’ve always wanted to write one of those: up at 4.303m doing my law course, painting by Sam, then sculpture — people living impossible lives which they cannot possibly do. I just get up and go to work, about 8.30-9am . . . my nose is growing longer.
INFLUENCES: Children's writers who moved me incredibly; T.H. White, LP. Martin, Eric Kastner. As I got older I discovered Mervyn Peake. I wrote to him when I was fifteen in 1975 but he actually died in 1968. I got a lovely letter back from Maeve Gilmore, his wife. I corresponded with her up until her death. Her book called World Apart: Life With Mervyn Peake is a great book — makes you weep.
AMBITIONS: I still have lots of things to do. I would like to get better at what I do. If you don't get better it‘s time to stop.
FEARS: New world order. Not having any work. I was homeless when l was younger - to be serious that’s one of my greatest fears. One of our obsessions is where will I live and will I be safe?
INCOME: Too much money to know what to do with. That’s a complete lie. I don't know, I never know. One year my income was £350 then a few years ago I wrote a thing for Time Warner, that was a lot of money. (Alison Maxwell)
I The Last Go/d/ggers by Harry Horse is published by Puffin at [3. 99.
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