Byron Easy by Jude Cook is the least enjoyable book I’ve read in ages, and the first one I have considered abandoning since I was eight years old.
I finish all the books I read, it’s one of my rules. I feel it is important, I feel I owe it to the writers, the editors, the publishers, whoever. If I start a book, regardless of how much I’m enjoying it, I press on. Sometimes, this is rewarded, the key example being Ulysses, which contains one of the finest closing chapters in literature. Byron Easy, which I read during the first week of a new job, wasn’t as intellectually tiring as the dull bits of James Joyce’s canon, but nor was it the relaxing, entertaining, read that I had picked it up in the hope it would be.
Jude Cook’s début novel has a fun cover – matchsticks and traintracks and a silly name. What I was expecting was a light read that would have some low-key jokes in, be a bit salacious, be fun to dip in and out of during a very busy week. Unfortunately, it was none of these. Byron Easy is five hundred pages long, and I was bored before the end of the first quarter. The concept of the novel is that the title character, Byron* Easy, a failed poet, is travelling by train to visit his mother for Christmas 1999 after the collapse of his marriage. As he rides northwards, he reminisces about old lovers, old friends, his parents, his stepfather, his abusive headteacher and his “mad, bitchy” wife. He is travelling to Leeds from London, a journey that would’ve taken less than 3 hours even a decade and a half ago, yet his recollections take many, many more hours than that to read. 3 hours is the perfect length for a reflexive, moody, novel, but Byron Easy is 500 pages long, which is about 10 hours of reading. The times do not match up, which is frustrating, and the time taken to read this novel is time better spent reading something else.
Why did I persist with the novel when I didn’t enjoy it?
Curiosity, for two different reasons. The first was my vain attempts to try to work out if the novel itself was sexist, or just the narrator. My conclusion was the former. Byron’s wife, Mandy, is violent, aggressive, both sexy and sexless, both virgin and whore, she is materialistic and success-drive yet lazy, she is self-important, yet married to Byron, a man who is lazy, charmless, boring and lacking in all ambition. He has a part time job in a shop, a fact that the author seems to forget from time to time when Byron occasionally complains about “paying for” his wife. He is a loser, and the fact that his wife is shagging his best friend (also phrased as if a “reveal”, despite being obvious from very early in the text) is not surprising. It took me a long time to work out if the characterisation of Mandy was meant to be seen by the reader as tainted by Byron’s prejudices, but I don’t think it was. I feel that the reader was meant to agree with Byron with a, “Oh, yeah, she does sound like a total bitch, I’ll buy you a pint while you tell me all about it” sentiment. I, for one, was not getting a round in.
Peripheral characters would float about and their closeness to Byron would be forgotten. The friend his wife has an affair with, Rudi, is repeatedly referred to as Byron’s only friend, yet in the second half another character is seen to hang out with him, despite no mention of their friendship developing. Because everything happens in hindsight, with Byron jumping thematically, rather than chronologically, through his memories, it doesn’t make sense for someone who is introduced as emphatically not the protagonist’s friend to be dramatised, later in the novel**, as his bosum buddy.
There are crass generalisations about gender, there is a character who moved from Scotland to Hampshire when he was under ten who still speaks with a thick Scottish accent, there is some sloppy dialogue and there is, as I mentioned, a huge disparity between the time the action of the novel takes and the time the novel takes to read. This is only really an issue because of the emphasis put on the concept. There are lots of unnecessary literary allusions, a lot of repetition of events, of observations, of sentences. The whole thing needed to be edited down, cut by half. It is not good enough to be the length it is. If the same narrative, tone and style had taken me three or four hours to read, I probably wouldn’t have complained. I wouldn’t have loved it – a story of of abusive relationships told by a narrator difficult to like – but I probably would’ve been able to see what its intentions were without becoming bored and frustrated by its tome-like length. The unreliable narrator is a little too reliable – all of the “secrets” he keeps are easy to guess, and his depression as a result of his marital breakdown is poorly realised. It doesn’t pack much of an emotional punch (almost because I was willing bad things to happen to Byron because he was just so wet), but it also isn’t funny. Byron is pretentious, and because the novel is from his perspective, Byron Easy is pretentious. A 500 page novel, recently published, shouldn’t have so little to recommend it.
And that was the second point of curiosity I kept reading to figure out – why had this been published? I’m going to get bitter and self-important, but I wrote (a few years ago) an overlong, pretentious novel about a young man leaving a relationship who was a bit of a waster, a bit of a loser, but no one would publish it. Also, to be arrogant, mine was funnier. I’m not going to claim it was better or it was more mature or more moving (it wasn’t), but it was certainly no worse than this, and it definitely contained moments I am still proud to have written. (See Simulating Cunnilingus on a Fried Egg Sandwich). My novel shared the faults of Byron Easy, but had wit up its sleeve, and wasn’t self-indulgent enough to be about someone who was a writer. Few things piss me off in novels more than novels being about struggling writers. It’s the self-identification, an arrogance that irritates me, combined with a self-pity. Ooooh, I’ve written something but no one will publish me and I can’t have a job and write things in my free time because I’m an artist and the world owes me a living, boohoohoo. I realise this paragraph is almost the exact same thing, but this is a bitter blog post where I’m making no pretence of fiction. I am real, I exist, I have written a novel that is no worse than Byron Easy, yet it doesn’t get a fancy hardback cover, it just gets relegated to a digital space somewhere on my computer. I read all 500 pages of Byron Easy, and at no point did I think, “This is great, there should be more books like this.” I frequently thought, “This is slow, this is turgid, this is weak, this is unengaging, this is almost certainly sexist.”
I only persevered with this because that’s the kind of thing I do, because I like to think that if anyone ever reads any of my work they’ll have the politeness to read the whole thing. There is potential in here, I suppose, but it’s far too long, and every single character is a liar, an adulterer, a petty criminal, a sexual abuser, a cheat, whatever. Other than Byron’s half-sister (again, not really mentioned until the second half), there is no one who seems to be non-villainous without being simultaneously judged as a personal failure. I don’t believe there needs to be a relatable, pleasant, character in every novel, but I don’t believe that a cast of many flawed characters is supportable when all of the characters are flawed in one of two exact same ways. Either people are selfish, violent, highly sexual, or they are weak, unassertive and depressed. I don’t think this is a true reflection of the world, and I felt that it was an overwhelming flaw that Byron, who possesses this bleak worldview, does not die by his own hand at the end. His suicide is botched, but he is uncharacteristically glad his suicide is botched. His world is one without hope, with no positivity, and to end the book with a sudden assertion that Byron may go and seek something uplifting from his life is inconsistent. It’s bollocks, the man failing to kill himself should’ve been phrased as a moment of tragic comedy (a la Birdman), because Byron has nothing to live for. He has no friends, no family, no job, no lover, no aspirations, no hopes, no dreams, nothing. The man is a lack, and that is why he is frustrating. Rudi, a more interesting figure if only because he’s fun, is at one point described by Byron as a void. He should be saying that about himself. I couldn’t tell if the reader was meant to pick up on Byron’s lack of self-awareness or not.
Was I expected to like Byron? Pity him? Root for him? I felt as if I’d been cornered by a sad drunk and was too polite to walk away. In fact, that’s the perfect analogy. It was politeness that kept me reading, the kind of politeness that keeps me, in real life, listening to the life story of people when I really don’t want to. I nod and smile when expected to, but I’m dead behind the eyes, in the soul.
Reading Byron Easy gave me no joy, and nor did the knowledge that a book this big and pretentious was being prepared for publication when my own big, pretentious BUT FUNNY novel was being ignored. I’m bitter and disgusted, yes, but I know I am, which is more acceptable.
I do not recommend Byron Easy.
(If anyone involved in publishing the book is reading this, I apologise for my negativity, but I just had a very, very busy week and this WAS NOT GOOD ENOUGH to amuse me in my downtime. Urgh.)
* Though, at a late point in the novel (written as if a big shock) it is revealed that his “real” name is Brian. I didn’t care.
** But earlier in the story, in different memories…