Remember Cool Britannia? Rebranding the U.K. as the home of hip, this was Tony Blair’s attempt at a national makeover. No more Ye Olde England, with its cricket and crumpets, Big Ben and Beefeaters. In its place, Internet start-ups, renegade fashion designers, artists with attitude. As glib as the slogan was, Blair tapped into something the country wanted to feel about itself after nearly two decades of conservative stagnation. The arts and entertainment industries were happy to conjure a consensus hallucination of England as the place to be—from the Britpop of Oasis and Blur to YBAs (Young British Artists) like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin.
The publishing world, too, needed its YBNs (that’s “N” for novelist). Zadie Smith fit the bill: young, gifted, trendy, and biracial. She was only 21 in 1997 when she sold White Teeth, her novel about two immigrant families in north London, on the basis of a mere 80 pages. On the surface her style—lively, confident, and comic—fit Cool Britannia’s swagger. But White Teeth actually undercut the Blair spin, documenting a Britain riven by unresolvable tensions between assimilation and separatism.
After White Teeth‘s massive success, every publisher was searching for a new Zadie—not least Simon Prosser, the London editor who nabbed Smith in the first place. He signed two of the most widely touted YBNs: Hari Kunzru and Toby Litt. Like Smith, Kunzru has a hybrid background (Indian father, white mother), hipster credentials (worked as a DJ and at Wallpaper* and Wired UK), and, most importantly, exudes the same satirical sensibility. Kunzru reportedly nabbed a $1 million advance for the American sale of The Impressionist, an enjoyable, sprawling book about an Indian boy, Pran Nath, who transforms himself into an Englishman during the dying days of the British raj. It crams a rambunctious story line with cleverly integrated meditations on racism, miscegenation, self-loathing, and the construction of identity.
For a YBN, Kunzru is surprisingly old school—he’s a straightforward storyteller in the mold of Kipling and Dickens. In fact, The Impressionist appears to be modeled on Kipling’s Kim, which concerns an English waif in India whose ability to pass as a native gives him a double-edged perspective. The book’s tone is ribald as Pran’s adventures take him from a whorehouse, where he almost becomes a court eunuch, to a palace, where he’s forced to join in a blackmail scheme against Major Privett-Clampe, a British officer with a yen for pretty boys.
Pran begins his mimic’s life under the tutelage of Privett-Clampe, who dresses him in a schoolboy uniform and teaches him Queen’s English. Escaping to Bombay in his Brit-boy drag, Pran renames himself Bobby and takes refuge with a Scottish missionary couple. A vaporous figure without scruples, he refuses to side with any faction in a country divided by religion and convulsed by revolt. Bobby’s methodical conversion into a proper Englishman is described in riveting detail. When he realizes that it’s not enough to look and sound British, he enlists a laundry servant at a fancy hotel to help him identify the odor of Englishness: “Face buried in burra mems’ smalls and burra sahibs’ dirty shirts he finally puts a name to it. Rancid butter. With perhaps a hint of raw beef. The underlying whiff of empire.”
The Impressionist doesn’t make too many demands on the reader. The narrator signposts every insight, resulting in a predigested, transparent tale. That’s the danger of having a central character with no center—the reader sees right through him. But Kunzru has cleverly compensated for this absence with his beautifully rendered supporting cast. He mercilessly lampoons the Brits as dunderheaded oafs, yet paradoxically etches them with more poignant detail than any of the Indian figures. Take Elspeth Macfarlane, the Scottish missionary’s wife, who is seduced by the exotic spiritualism of theosophy. While Elspeth grows to love the mess of India, Bobby assimilates British conventions so assiduously that, in a final funny narrative twist, he becomes as seemingly obsolete as postwar Britain itself. It’s a cultural exchange of the strangest kind.
If Kunzru still sees England through the sepia filter of Kipling, Toby Litt aspires to write fiction with the jump cuts and cocky bluster of Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. Litt’s work appeared in last year’s All Hail the New Puritans, an anthology that became notorious among British literati. A sort of Brit-lit counterpart to the Dogme movement, the New Puritan manifesto entails purging everything that’s fuddy-duddy in literature. “Poetry is less of an influence than film, technology, music or television. . . . fiction should be focusing on the dominance of visual culture, and attempting to prove itself the equal of those mediums.” Corpsing is a sleek thriller drenched in cinematic imagery—as if Litt skips language and goes straight to the visual cortex.
Conrad, the obnoxious narrator of Corpsing, inhabits a contemporary London that’s the embodiment of Cool Britannia—all speed and surface, flash and cash. Rather than lingering on character development, Litt dwells on dwellings, from chic Soho cafés to East London warehouse lofts. After seeing his ex-girlfriend Lily murdered at a fashionable restaurant, an obsessed Conrad starts to investigate her life and death. The narrative is punctuated by forensic interludes that track the trajectory of each bullet through Lily’s body: “The paper-thin temples crack. The top of her skull appears to flip open. Lily is wearing baby-blue contact lenses. The force of the second bullet’s impact causes one lens to fly off the moist surface of her left eyeball. It is later recovered from the crime scene, fished out of Lily’s glass of Chardonnay.”
These cartoonlike depictions of grisly violence are ultravivid yet affectless. Despite occasional hints of anguish beneath Conrad’s creepy, wiseass veneer, Corpsing is so crowded with kinetic imagery and factual details that any deeper resonances are drowned out in the melee. But the book does effectively evoke the boomtime bustle of late-’90s London, when style magazines like Wallpaper* sprouted like weeds and nearly everyone was scheming to become a “commie”—as in dot.commie.
As glossy and flip as an Anglo Pulp Fiction, Corpsing gets tangled in its own clever surfaces. The Impressionist, stately but substantial, like a Merchant-Ivory production, offers an immigrant’s eye view of Britishness (much as White Teeth does), captured at the moment when the stability of that identity collapsed forever. From the dying days of “Rule Britannia” to the vapid buzz of “Cool Britannia,” Kunzru and Litt both close their eyes and dream of England.