Readers looking for background to Jake Arnott’s bewildering, fragmented mess of a book could start with this Mark Lawson review. Lawson loves The House of Rumour despite his disapproval of Arnott’s former career in crime pulp, and regrets ‘that Arnott’s early books used the form of gangster yarns encouraged a tendency to categorise him as a sort of bookish Guy Ritchie.’ However, God rejoices at the repentance of one sinner more than the thousands of the just: Arnott has ‘broken free from this narrow definition of his range and this novel confirms his escape.’
True, Arnott’s 1999 debut appeared just a year after Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and it was inevitable that such comparisons would be made. Arnott, after all, wrote about 1960s London gangland. But there was a dark imaginative depth-charge to his work that made the Long Firm trilogy more than just Cool Brittannia between hard covers. The second book, He Kills Coppers, featured a doomed murderer of police officers, pursued by a bent cop and a tabloid journalist, Tony Meehan, who is himself becoming a serial killer. We see the ’66 World Cup and Swinging London through Meehan’s bleak and evil perspective: ‘Protest, that’s what they were all talking about. And Letting It All Hang Out. I didn’t like the sound of that. Keeping It All In, that was my slogan.’ He quotes with relish the words of a prosecution witness at the Brady trial: People are like maggots, small, blind and worthless.
Arnott himself satirised the 1990s villainy craze in his trilogy’s finale, truecrime, in which the production of a Lock, Stock style East Endsploitation movie becomes entangled with the power struggles of real-life bad guys. The film’s star Gaz Kelly, a former bouncer and villain catapulted into public adulation, sums up the mass audience’s relationship with crime:
I’m like the voice of something that they’re frightened of but want to hear at the same time. I’m living the dream because I’m living their nightmare. And they can sleep easily in their beds knowing that I’m playing it out for them.
He goes on to puncture middle-class delusions that crime has a social purpose:
Some people come on with this anti-authority thing. But I don’t buy that. I ain’t anti-authority. Christ, authority was my job description when I was working the doors or collecting debts. That’s what a gangster is, an authority figure. No, some people have this Robin Hood idea about villainy. Wealth distribution or something. That’s bollocks… it’s just another alibi. And a useful one too. It keeps people from remembering that all the really big crime – not the petty stuff, mind, but what I was into – it’s about trying to get rich and powerful, and most victims of crime are poor.
And while Guy Ritchie’s films had an aggressive masculinity (or at least an aggressive heterosexuality) I think it’s significant that Arnott made his main London face, Harry Starks, an open and proud gay man. A bipolar gay Jewish gangster. It was Arnott’s way of saying to the piping voyeur public schoolboys: Get off my fucking manor.
But Lawson’s right, this book is different. Arnott makes leaps in time, in space and in depth. UK readers may be turned off when I tell you that The House of Rumour is set over the last seventy years. There is an assumption in the literary world that breadth of scope guarantees quality of content. Only the English could write novels that span a century and several continents yet where nothing much happens. But Arnott has not just the space but loads going on in it, too much for me to summarise let alone analyse.
One of many worlds Arnott immersed himself in is the mid-century science fiction litscene. During World War Two his protagonist Larry Zagorski writes a dystopia inspired by Murray Constantine’s Swastika Night, a 1937 novel that imagines a world where the Nazis have won the war. In a postwar introduction to his own book, Zagorski asks his readers to ‘bear in mind that at the time of writing this was neither an alternate history nor a counter-factual exercise; this was a possible future.’ Constantine – really the feminist writer Katharine Burdekin – wrote in a time where the fashion was pro-appeasement, and she included a character called Hess who takes it upon himself to fly to Scotland, presaging the Deputy Führer’s mad voyage by some four years. For Arnott Hess’s flight was a point where the world teetered between two possible futures, for if his peace mission had succeeded, the Nazis would not have had to fight on two fronts and could potentially have won the war.
Hess is supposed to have relied heavily on astrologists, and Wikipedia claims that he ordered a mapping of all the ley lines in the Third Reich. The religious/mystical roots of Nazism are often discounted in contemporary discussions of its genesis, but Arnott has great fun with junk volkisch spiritualism. Entire chapters are narrated by Hess, looking back on his life from Spandau prison; born in Alexandria, bullied at school for his Levantine looks, he finally finds succour and purpose in the Thule Society, named after ‘the ancient Arctic homeland of the Aryans, a Hyperborean Atlantis of godlike men. This was the meaning of his childhood dream! The wondrous infantile prophecy of the cold land of the North, with a holy symbol of the black sun.’ Not everyone, he notes, is called to the Temple: ‘A young count had his application to the Thule Society rejected when it was discovered that his mother was of Jewish descent. In a rage of disappointment he took a pistol and assassinated the head of the Munich Soviet on the Promenadestrasse.’
Arnott is a consummate name-dropper and Burdekin/Constantine appears in the text, being interrogated on the coincidence of her dystopia by a pre-Bond Ian Fleming. Aleister Crowley advises on wartime counter-intelligence; L. Ron Hubbard, just finished naval service, hangs out at a commune in Pasadena. (Arnott has his female narrator comment on the Scientology tycoon: ‘I remembered then a domineering manner, an incessant craving for attention… Ron was a verbal illusionist, a writer who had become convinced by his own fantasies and now seemed ready to try to fool others.’) Characters flit and stumble in and out of Arnott’s narrative carnival. Mirror magic and double agents abound; men become women, women men; nothing is as it seems. The Dark Tower phrase ‘Life’s a trick, love a glammer’ could have been written with Jake Arnott in mind.
Lawson compares him to Adam Curtis: ‘As in Curtis’s series such as The Power of Nightmares, there is a gleeful, teasing joining of improbable dots.’ Arnott is certainly a chronicler of alternative or hidden history; the gay subculture in Long Firm, rave and the Beanfield, the space programme staffed by ex-Nazis with whitewashed CVs – there’s a recurrent astonishment while reading The House of Rumour, points where we look up and think: that can’t be true, can it? He is an imp of history, the joker in the deck.
Tarot is the only system of New Age that really fascinates, and in The House of Rumour Arnott has created a major arcana of storytelling. What differentiates Arnott from Curtis is that he is a storyteller, not just some guy who has semi-digested serious research by disciplined writers, yoked it all together in glossy clubscene style and then played some ominous music over the top. Anyone can be a merry prankster and join some improbable dots, but there’s a depth and soul to The House of Rumour, a love story of sorts, and moments of great tenderness. Arnott delivers mysticism without the woo, he’s interested in the impact of beliefs upon the believer. His focus is far more on the people who drank the Kool-Aid than the junk prophet who dispensed it. The new novel is full of ingenues, neophytes and escape-artists as ever, but this time there is something more than disillusionment on the other side. It’s a world upon a stage, and that rare thing, the epic novel that is also compulsively readable.
At the end of a profile of Larry Zagorski’s life, the writer within the book concludes that:
I’m unlikely ever to be taught in schools or studied in universities. But I’m out there where I belong. In thrift stores and yard sales, in battered paperback editions with lurid covers and yellowing pages. Part of that story told by the lost and forgotten, the cheap pulps, the junk masterpieces.
Even if The House of Rumour win the Booker Prize (and it deserves to) I suspect that’s where Arnott would rather be too – out there in raw pulp, in the lower and better form of pure story.