Sebastian Faulks's new novel, set in one week in December 2007, is very ambitious. It aspires to be a state-of-the-nation book, a satirical comedy of metropolitan literary life, a sweeping, Dickensian look at contemporary London, a serious examination of Islam and the reasons for radicalism among young Muslims, a thriller, a satire on the Notting Hill Cameroonians and a detailed look at the sharp financial practices that led to the collapse. There's London football, reality TV, cyber porn, a love story or two. As if all that weren't enough, it is a roman a clef, which has already provided fun for metropolitan journalists as they speculate about the identity of the various characters.
The scene is set with the wife of a Tory MP organising a dinner party for the benefit of her husband's career in somewhere evoking Notting Hill. Every guest is chosen to suggest that the MP is a Renaissance man. We are reminded of Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty, as though all wealthy Tories inevitably have grand gatherings with deep undercurrents of class, ambition and financial chicanery. As she goes through the guest list, we immediately know that they are all going to be linked in some way. The guests are mostly wealthy men and their wives, owners of hedge funds and banks and so on.
There is also a manufacturer who has been invited to lend multicultural credibility. Farooq al-Rashid has made his money in pickles; he is a substantial contributor to the party and he has a son – the alarm bells ring stridently at this point – called Hassan who, in his parents' opinion, is rather too interested in the true message of Islam. While they simply want to enjoy the benefits of wealth and acceptance, he is planning to blow the Kafir world to pieces.
John Veals is a hedge fund owner who has made hundreds of millions by barely legal activity and he sees an opportunity to make much, much more by causing a big bank to collapse. Faulks has clearly done extensive research, sometimes not wholly digested by the plot, but admirably authentic. The real problem with Veals, though, is that he never lifts off the page. This is partly because the book is so crowded that Faulks doesn't have the space to produce a rounded character. Any novel that tries to take the temperature of the nation needs a fully human central character to pull the big themes together. Dickens's Merdle and Tom Wolfe's Sherman McCoy are horribly believable.
Anyway, besides the toffs, there are two less plutocratic guests invited to the dinner party, one an unsuccessful and bookish young barrister, Gabriel Northwood, the other a jobbing literary journalist, R Tranter. Tranter is all too clearly based on journalist DJ Taylor. Tranter admires Thackeray and writes for a satirical magazine, the Toad; Taylor has written a biography of Thackeray and writes a literary column for Private Eye. Tranter uses the Toad to work out his disdain for, and envy of, more successful writers. He also has a habit in his reviews of sadly concluding that most successful authors are ultimately deploying a few cheap tricks and are con artists, even if they are good. His reaction when he reads a novel by a rival critic – "It was worse, far worse, than he had dared to hope" – is spot on. There is a brilliant literary prize scene which was painfully familiar to me. Faulks knows the book world and satirises it with brio, but he can give up any hope of winning the Costa Prize after this.
The marriage of these elements is mostly smooth, with the best strands involving the literary world and the hypocrisies and presumption of the rich. Less successful is Faulks's rather plodding analysis of why young men turn to Islam. All too often, we are subjected to reiterations of the contradictions of the Qur'an and Islam's appeal to the disaffected, which are strangely lifeless as fiction. In John Updike's 2006 novel , the conversations between the potential bomber and his mentor also suffered from a certain stiffness. Maybe it is difficult to cross this particular cultural barrier. Another key character, Jenni Fortune (not invited to the dinner party), is a book-loving, cyber-obsessed young tube driver; her world isn't fully realised either.
But Gabriel Northwood, the barrister, is a fine character. He is slightly diffident, very human in his weaknesses, observant and well read. Remembering the great love of his life, a married woman, Northwood wonders about "this desperate passion… was it really such an enviable way to live, always at the edge of panic, desperate for a cellphone bleep, all your judgments skewed?" Some time before the book opens, he met Jenni, when he was junior to a QC on a case involving London Transport: Jenni had been driving a train when somebody jumped on to the line. He has taken to seeing her on the slightest pretext; we know that they are going to fall in love, despite their different backgrounds.
As the week progresses, we see Farooq al-Rashid preparing for his investiture with the OBE at Buckingham Palace; he is fretting over what he is going to say to the Queen. For a few months, he has been employing Tranter to coach him on the Queen's literary preferences. At their first meeting, Tranter dismissed all the books Rashid had been advised to buy ("OT – Oirish Twaddle", the "higher bogus", "poor man's Somerset Maugham" or "from the man who put the anal into banal") and recommended instead an obscure Victorian writer and Dick Francis.
In a highly nervous state, Rashid is trying to memorise the verdicts Tranter delivered in case Her Majesty should ask him what he reads. Meanwhile, young Hassan has to juggle his timetable in order to go on from Buckingham Palace to the bombing of a hospital with a large maternity unit. The scene at the investiture is hilarious, particularly as Prince Charles stands in for his mother. One of the flunkeys, as he boxes up Farooq's medal, says: "How was the Princess? She's ever such a chatterbox when she gets going. There you are, sir. One little gong."
As John Veals puts the finishing touches to his plan to bring down a bank – and incidentally destroy the livelihoods of thousands of African farmers – his teenage son, Finbar, is experimenting with skunk. This leads to a terrible psychotic episode and admission to hospital where it is touch and go if he will recover or lapse into schizophrenia. His mother, Vanessa, ultimately comes to his aid, overcome by guilt for her neglect.
Finally, the dinner party takes place. One of the guests, Roger Malpasse, delivers a fine drunken rant against the financial malpractice that is leading to crisis: "It's a fraud as old as markets themselves. The only difference is that it's been done on a titanic scale. At the invitation of the politicians. Behind the backs of the regulators and with the dumb connivance of the auditors. And with the fatal misunderstanding of the ratings agencies." This is one of the strongest moments in the novel, and unexpected, because up to now Roger has been portrayed only as a man who likes a drink, starting with a "phlegm-cracker" early in the day, moving on to a "sharpener" before food and finishing with a "zonker", which is virtually anything he can tip into a glass at the end of the day.
A Week in December is a little too long, a little too prolix. And yet it survives all this to be a compelling tale of contemporary London. I am not sure that it is the classic state-of-the-nation novel we need, but I have no doubt at all that it will outsell the higher bogus by a very long way.
Born 20 April 1953 and later educated at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. Now lives with his wife, Victoria, and three children in west London.
1984 His first published novel, A Trick of the Light
1986 Appointed the first literary editor of the Independent, then deputy editor of the Independent on Sunday
1989 The Girl at the Lion d'Or, the first of his French Trilogy, is published.
1993 Birdsong published.
1998 Charlotte Gray wins the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and is made into a film starring Cate Blanchett.
2006 Publishes the non-fiction Pistache, a series of parodies of other writers.
2008 Writes Devil May Care, a new James Bond novel to mark the centenary of Ian Fleming's birth.
2002 Made a CBE and in 2007 an honorary fellow of Emmanuel College.