The everyman hero of Ordinary Thunderstorms, William Boyd’s new novel, is a climatologist, Adam Kindred. An American in London, who with a simple twist of fate loses every semblance of his life when he is forced to go on the run. The novel’s title comes from his specialist subject: "Ordinary thunderstorms have the capacity to transform themselves into multi-cell storms of ever growing complexity.... It should be noted that even ordinary thunderstorms are capable of mutating into super-cell storms. These storms subside very slowly."
The germ of the novel was an article in The Guardian highlighting the 50 to 60 bodies pulled from the Thames every year. “It’s more than one a week,” observes Boyd gently. “I mean, who are these dead people?” Adam’s tragedy, too, on the run from his own life, is similarly unremarked on, the kind of “ordinary” calamity that the great pulsing city of London can safely ignore.
“If you are going to write a novel that’s over 300, 350 pages, I sort of feel you’re obliged to provide that element of suspense or compulsion to read on.”
The novel’s cast of characters spans the boardrooms of the City, the coked-up dining tables of Notting Hill to the most frightening estates around the Isle of Dogs. Adam finds himself in the homes and beds of drug addicts and £50 hookers: people thrown about, like him, by life’s storms. By letting go of his phone, his credit cards and his name, he too can join the ranks of the habitually peripheral, like Icarus, falling to his death, ignored, in Auden’s poem. ( In Brueghel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away/Quite leisurely from the disaster...)
In this case, however, it’s not the sea but the river Thames where the boats are “sailing calmly on.” Kindred becomes one of those missing, (without giving too much away) having disturbed a plot of whose ruthlessness he has no conception. “All rivers are living but the Thames seemed to me to be more living than your average, Danube or the Seine or the Tiber and so dead bodies, police, river, I just thought Dickens and Our Mutual Friend,” says Boyd, who although brought up in Ghana, has lived in the city for the last 26 years. It’s the tides that pull the hero on his journey from “mild-mannered intellectual,” notes Boyd, to a “tougher, more brutal, more animalistic person” who will do anything to survive. In Boyd's living room in Chelsea we are just a few hundred yards from where Adam makes his home on a piece of waste land under Albert Bridge, crossing the first of one of many lines, when, in starving desperation, he traps, kills, and eats a seagull.
Our Mutual Friend brings to mind the great chasm in fiction between the popular and the literary. The distinction would have meant nothing to Dickens and you sense, Boyd, too pays it little attention. Restless, for instance, his last novel, was a compulsive, spy novel, but emotionally and philosophically, punched far above the usual weight of its genre. It won the Costa (formerly the Whitbread prize) and thanks to then being featured on Richard and Judy (until recently British publishing’s equivalent of being on Oprah) it’s now approaching sales of half a million.
Does he think that the blurring of these lines throws readers, I ask. “If you are going to write a novel that’s over 300, 350 pages, I sort of feel you’re obliged to provide that element of suspense or compulsion to read on. It confuses people who think oh it’s a literary novel and then read it in 24 hours. I recognize that maybe I’m on a kind of boundary line, but it’s there to be occupied.” The house of fiction has many windows, he adds, quoting Henry James. “It goes back to Modernism—if it’s serious it must be difficult and it wasn’t always like that.”
Boyd’s artistic inclinations as a teenager in the early '70s were something of an anathema to his “completely professional Scottish family.” His father, a doctor, vetoed an early ambition to go to art school so it’s something of an irony that Boyd’s particular niche should be one of those very rare ones that is both serious and seriously successful.
Ten novels on, he can afford to poke fun at the young man he was, fancying himself as a writer. “All my uncles were, you know, engineers you know accountants or dentists, all solid professional middle class Scots, with a hard work ethic. I suspect that I saw a film which had a writer in it ...and as he got up from his typewriter, mixed himself a drink and stepped onto his balcony and looked out at Malibu beach or something and I thought, that is the life for me...
“I had no idea what a writer’s life was like,” he adds thoughtfully. Logan Mountstuart, hero of Any Human Heart his 1998 novel seems to owe something to Boyd’s amusement at his boyish desire to make a life as a hedonistic, rakish “man of letters.” It wasn’t until he was doing a D.Phil at Oxford in his mid-20s that, he started to learn more, becoming friends with the poets of his generation: Andrew Motion, Craig Raine, and at that time, fellow novelist, Alan Hollinghurst. He jokes that while he hadn’t met any writers until then, his friend Martin Amis observed, that “he was in his early 20s when he met someone who wasn’t a writer.”
It was only after eight years at Oxford that he felt sure enough to turn down a lectureship and to give up teaching English at St. Hilda’s (where it’s easy to imagine him as everyone’s favorite wry don). All his books are dedicated to his wife, the journalist Susan Boyd, whom he met when was 23. His sense of his own good fortune, privately and professionally, seems to inform, too, his books powerful sense of human happiness: it’s precious “ordinariness” you might say.
“If the McCann family hadn’t gone on holiday to Portugal, you know, their lives would be utterly different. Life is a series of forking paths. Something that seems assured, ordered, fixed actually isn’t and can be changed so quickly and so easily and it doesn’t need to be some meteorite falling from the heavens. We’re all, however secure we may feel, walking on very thin ice. Adam’s fate if you like, is particularly harsh, but it’s no harsher than the cyclist getting swiped by the turning bendy bus.”
So much for the writer on Malibu Beach with an unclouded life of idle daydreaming: “I think if you’re a serious writer, then your mortality or our mortality becomes more and more the elephant in the room if you like,” he concedes. “It’s the human condition and this is where the novel is such a fantastic endurable and mutable art form. Of all the art forms, it seems to me, it does the messy business of this funny adventure we are all on better than anything else. That’s what makes people read novels.”
He’s right, and I can’t go without inquiring after the health of Nat Tate, the abstract expressionist heroin addict who died in his 30s, leaving a body of work that dazzled critics...for about a week until it became apparent that Nat was a hoax: another one of Boyd’s compelling inventions. “They’re incredibly rare,” he says wryly of his paintings, “there are only about 14 of them. When friends get married, or move house, I occasionally find a Nat Tate for them....”
Olivia Cole writes for the Spectator and the London Evening Standard. An award-winning poet, her first collection, Restricted View, was published this fall.