Thursday, 9 June 2011

William Heaney: Memoirs of a Master Forger (2008)

There are demons and angels around us, and some people can see them; William Blake was one such, and William Heaney is another. That is the premise of this novel. Heaney sees demons, but not angels, and he has them meticulously classified, into 1,567 distinct types, all of whom hang around and torment humanity (looking thoroughly miserable while they do so). He is an obsessive man on the fringes of the London literary scene, making his living by selling fake first editions of nineteenth century novels while also supplying the poems for a friend of his who is fĂȘted as a hip young Asian gay poet. (He is genuinely Asian and gay, he just doesn't write the poems.) This side to his life is the apparent reason for the title.

Heaney is also involved with working with the homeless, sitting on various quangos and Home Office committees, and directly supporting a hostel named GoPoint, something of a thorn in the flesh of the authorities, but where some amazing work to help the most difficult cases is carried out, led by a woman whom Heaney has no hesitation in describing as an angel.

The plot of the novel combines two events from the narrative present with flashbacks to show the path which led Heaney to the life he lives. Heaney is divorced but unable to let go of his relationship with his ex-wife; but now he meets another woman with whom he rapidly falls in love. At the same time, he tries to stop a homeless former soldier from blowing himself up at the railings of Buckingham Palace, and the man passes him a notebook, which describes how this man also became able to see demons during the (First) Gulf War. The flashbacks tell Heaney's equivalent story, of how writing a fake Satanic ritual manuscript found by a fellow student who used it to successfully summon a demon caused him not just to see demons but to drop out of college and become homeless for a while himself.

Much of the novel turns around conversations in old London pubs, and Heaney clearly revels in them and their connections (one pub is where Blake had lodgings, another where some of the bones of Thomas Paine were allegedly interred in the cellar, for example). Their story is described as the basis for "an alternative history of London", and their associations are said to make them a fertile ground for demons to hunt. The atmosphere created by these scenes is reminiscent of one of my favourite novels, Michael Moorcock's Mother London.

The story written in the first person by a narrator who shares his name with the book's apparent author. First person narrative by a character who has the name from the front of the book is a device which underlines the memoir form, which is as common there as it is unusual in fiction. (And can you think of any third person memoirs other than Caesar's Gallic Wars?) He has a voice which convincingly seems to be rooted in the experiences he has had, which makes the memoir conceit work quite well. Incidentally, the actual author, award winning fantasy writer Graham Joyce, also published the novel under his own name at about the same time as this paperback edition came out, using the title How to Make Friends with Demons, a much less interesting way to publish with an inaccurate, much less intriguing (indeed, rather off-putting) title. It's the name of a book referred to in the novel, but, as Heaney spends just about all his time avoiding demons, it's not at all indicative of the content.

Another reason to prefer the Master Forger title is that it suggests a certain way of thinking to the reader: if the author describes himself in these terms, how much of what he says is trustworthy? It is almost as clear an indication that he is an unreliable narrator as it is possible to get (perhaps surpassed only by the beginning of Iain Banks' Transition). The idea of an unreliable narrator always fascinates me, as it is interesting to try and work out what is really going on (in fictional terms) from what they tell you, somewhat like the way that the investigators of a crime try to decipher what actually happened from the testimonies of more or less accurate witnesses. Is the reader really meant to suppose that Heaney really does see demons, or are they a product of his mental instabilities and obsessions? (In other words, is Memoirs of a Master Forger a fantasy novel or about delusion?) Was that really the reason why he dropped out of college without even a word to his fiancĂ©e? Was his involvement in Satanism quite as secular and relatively innocent as he makes out? Is there a reason why he sees only demons and not angels - something to do with his spiritual state, attitude to the world, or the nature of London in the twenty-first century?

With sly humour, interesting characters, atmospheric setting and a supernatural edge, Memoirs of a Master Forger is a fascinating read - 8/10.

Also published as How to Make Friends With Demons, by Graham Joyce
Edition: Gollancz, 2009
Review number: 1425

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