Book Review: The Other Jack

the other jack

“‘The characters in this book are fictional and bear no relation to actual persons, living or dead.’ These disclaimers are there, I assume, in case of libel actions, but I’ve always believed they are part of the fiction.”

I have met Charles Boyle on a handful of occasions at book events. The first time was a gathering linked to a literary prize I was helping judge and for which one of his novels had been submitted, albeit under a pseudonym. The prize was to reward the publisher as well as the author. In this case, Boyle was both.

“In 2007 I published four books under an imprint I made up on a whim and two of them were by me. I planned to take copies of the books into local bookshops and humbly suggest they might like to stock them … In a bookseller’s book, self-published authors are shady characters. They can come across as a little desperate – with reason, but it’s not a good look. So, Jack Robinson.”

My impression of this creator of CB editions – which publishes, among other fine authors, himself and Will Eaves (The Absent Therapist, Broken Consort, Murmur) – was gleaned not so much from our brief conversations but from the esteem in which he is obviously held by those who know him better. I detected no artifice in his public persona but rather a desire to remain in the background. He appeared more embarrassed than anything when presented with a special recognition award.

As part of my coverage of the prize I invited Boyle to write this guest post in which he indicated his intent to wind down his publishing activity. As a reader, I am pleased it does not yet appear to have happened, not least because this latest book by him is an absolute gem.

The Other Jack offers a window into the author’s thoughts on a wide variety of literature, including literary history, habits and tropes. It is framed around conversations with a young woman, Robyn, who the narrator meets in coffee shops. The reader may assume it is autobiographical, although if Robyn exists she too has a pseudonym.

“Exposing the artificiality of conventions involves even more artifice than was originally required”

The book is about: books, publishing, readers, writers, class, prejudice, rivalries, and what the author describes as poshlust. There are regular mentions of Stendhal, an ‘obsession’ that the narrator admits to and, in certain ways, appears to learn from personally. Impressions gleaned of Boyle are of a fierce intellect but self-deprecating demeanour. His writing oozes wit and intelligence while never appearing clever for the sake of it.

We learn that the author grew up in Yorkshire, boarded at an all boys school – although the only further abuse mentioned of his time there was being beaten for tardiness – and then went up to Cambridge.

“I read Dostoevsky and a whole shelf of fat black Penguin Classics in translation when I was at Cambridge, a period in my life I have few fond memories of. Very long books are often read by people at times when they were unhappy and perhaps lonely.”

Now living in London, this straight, white man is searingly aware of the tribe he fits into – supposedly well-educated Guardian readers who like to grumble when their views are not more widely agreed with. And yet, this book proves that Boyle thinks more deeply and possesses an understanding of alternative views, something that can appear absent among his cohorts. Although about him, this book is as much a take-down of his ilk as about the literati he could claim a valid place with. He offers nuggets of rebellion against what may be expected by ‘serious’ readers.

“In bookshops I often read last pages. I take browsing seriously. In life you can’t know how it’s going to end but in books you can, and I’ve never seen any reason not to … skipping to the end before the author is expecting me there – getting the ending out of the way – protects me against anticlimax. Endings so often disappoint.”

The book is structured in bite sized musings that circle and segue effortlessly. There are reflections on: dead authors, death, pretentious posturing, sticking pins in those who readers are suddenly encouraged to condemn.

On getting published, Boyle writes:

“Is serial rejection a calculated initiation rite? A way of culling down to the ones who just won’t go away?”

On banning books, he points out the double standards and conceits.

“The trial of Madame Bovary for obscenity in 1857 was an attempt not to ban its publication – photo studios and shops selling pornography were flourishing in Paris at the time – but to prevent women from reading.”

A century later, in the trial of Lady Chatterley’s Lover for obscenity, the jury were told:

“You, sir, may be trusted with this book, but heaven forfend that it should be read by women and the working classes.”

I have quoted widely here yet have barely skimmed the surface of the many subjects brought under the author’s piercing lens – and wryly shared. Robyn requests that he mention umbrellas less frequently yet each inclusion added merit to the discourse, as was the case for each topic breached.

A book about books by a writer who writes with elan and repartee. A joy of a read for readers who enjoy not just stories but what is behind them.

The Other Jack is published by CB editions.

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