Until yesterday, when I read the last 100 pages of Jesse Armstrong’s Love, Sex & Other Foreign Policy Goals, I was fully expecting to write a glowing, shining review of this very, very, funny novel. Having read 300 pages of hilarious farce, transporting a group of idiots deeper and deeper into a truly terrible environment, I was expecting Armstrong to ratchet up the pace, the tone and the horror and leave me shaken and emotionally disturbed by the numerous awful denouements I had found myself preparing for from near the opening of the novel. However, none of them came to pass. The level of the novel remained where it was, the atrocities witnessed had no more gravitas to them than did the relationship turmoils at the start of the text. And maybe that was the point. Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself.
Jesse Armstrong, as any fans of British comedy will know, is a screenwriter most famous as the co-creator* of the excellent Peep Show and the far-better-than-it-should-be student “dramady” Fresh Meat. As well as these projects, the two of them wrote (with the director) Chris Morris’ Four Lions and, more recently, Babylon, a TV cop show that was, in my opinion, incredibly under-appreciated.** Without his writing partner, Armstrong was one of the many people who wrote for satire-triumph The Thick of It, and he also wrote the most acclaimed episode of Charlie Brooker’s series Black Mirror, the one where people had memory cards recording everything they saw and a man discovered his wife’s infidelity by forcing her at knife point to play back visual memories on a projector. It was dark.
What Armstrong’s work has done many times is combined the deeply affecting with the fucking hilarious. Who wasn’t moved by the Peep Show episode set on New Year’s Eve where it looked like the El Dude brothers were going their separate ways? Likewise, the final scenes of Four Lions, particularly the one where the leader of the gang of pitiable terrorists says goodbye to his wife, a nurse, in a hospital reception. Babylon, too, was dark and serious and moving. And funny, all of these things are funny, and in my experience Armstrong’s work has become more emotionally developed with the passage of time, but still retaining humour. This is why, having finished it, I’m pretty certain Armstrong’s novel was written – or at least conceived – a long time ago. For though it made me laugh like a train, feel physically hurt by my giggling and embarrass me in public due to my noises of appreciation, when I expected the humour to fade and the seriousness to overwhelm me, it didn’t. The final act of the novel is not a step up, it is a continuation.
What I’m essentially saying is that this witty novel – the funniest thing I’ve read since I, Partridge: We Need To Talk About Alan – is that it’s good, it’s funny, it’s knowing. But it isn’t great. And I wanted it to be great.
The novel is written in the first person and is about a terribly-judged theatrical tour to Bosnia in the midst of the Balkan War. There is a lot of class consciousness, a lot of lust and anxiety, quite a bit of drug use and an absolute fucking shitstorm of the smug self-importance of young intellectuals.
Andrew, the protagonist, the narrator, is an over-read and under-motivated labourer in Manchester who attends a meeting above a pub full of over-privileged, self important, international students and Peter Pan-ing*** hippies. He found out about it after befriending the younger brother of one of the student leaders in A&E, the poshboy there due to an accident during bantery high-jinks, Andrew there because he was aggressively assaulted by people he used to work with as a shelf-stacker in a supermarket.
Andrew is too well-read and pensive to be accepted by his own class, but too provincial, naive and different to be accepted by the one he joins. One of the hippies sorts out a van, they reconvene in London then head out with bags of food and a draft of a play to bring peace and begin to drive to Bosnia. At Dover, Von (the younger brother met earlier), appears, under parental instruction to accompany his sister, Penny, unless she wants her credit card cancelled. Andrew’s love rival for Penny is swapped off the ferry, and they leave Blighty, ready to give humanitarian aid in the form of shit theatre.
There we go, that’s the set up. They have adventures in France, Germany, Austria (a particularly funny scene is the accidental stop off in the town of Hitler’s birth), they lie, trick and bribe their way into the conflict zone and then, tired out but there, they have more adventures.
Yes, yes, yes, it’s hilarious. I laughed and I laughed and I laughed the whole way through. But the most violent scene in the book is the one recounting Andrew’s assault in North west England, and when they finally do see a dead body and encounter people who have experienced violence first hand, things don’t really change. For what is essentially a novel about ignorant youths getting severely out of their depth, they never really seem to struggle. If they’re out of their depth they’re strong swimmers, and they are not in a rip. There is a hilarious loaded gun hanging over the latter half of the novel in the 100 ecstasy tablets Von has smuggled across all of Europe, but rather than a harrowing scene where we get an eccied walk through awful destruction, there is instead just a big party.
So, I suppose, what I’m complaining about is the fact that this novel was consistent in tone. But that means it pulled punches. It let me down. The moments of, for want of a better description, true notions of war are not the moments I will think of when I recall this novel – it will be the bits that had me struggling to breathe through tears of laughter.
The humour – of which there is LOADS – comes from a misfit set of characters in a certain situation, but the situation – which is not a funny one – never overwhelms the humour. Which is fine, I suppose, in a comic novel set in a war, but not fine in a truly great novel about war, innocence, sex and experience. It’s a coming of age comedy novel, but the lessons learnt by Andrew are no bigger, more profound or world-encompassing than those learnt by Adrian Mole or, more fittingly, Jez**** and/or Mark Corrigan.
Love, Sex & Other Foreign Policy Goals is hilarious: this cannot be denied and I will recommend it to many people for that very reason. But this is far from Babylon, far from Four Lions and far from his episode of Black Mirror. This is why, I hope, this is a throwback to, a late publication from, Armstrong’s earlier writing, that from before he found his niche. I hope it is that in preference to a gently disappointing – but still fucking hilarious – new direction.
I really, really enjoyed this. But my expectations were solar and Armstrong did not eclipse his television work.
Still, new Peep Show later in the year…
* with Sam Bain.
** See my blog about Irvine Welsh’s Filth, which I read when Babylon was on as a way to continue dark-police-drama consumption.
*** Does this make sense? This is one of the bitchy things I say in my head a lot but have no idea if it translates into real life or other people’s minds. By it, I mean people who’ve never grown up: I refer to them as (usually “fucking”) Peter Pans. Sometimes it is aggressive, sometimes teasing and occasionally it is representative of some level of envy at youthful idealism, adventure, excitement and romance kept in a person’s life until they are older than me. Sometimes people younger than me are Peter Pan-ing, sometimes I myself am. Liking animals, believing that people are intrinsically good, expecting happiness, playing recreational sports and making music are all things I would describe as Peter Pan-ing, whether I was doing them or not. The 45 year old man who just sat next to me on the Tube, after stumbling into me, grinning, and smelling so over-poweringly of marijuana that I began to feel stoned, he was Peter Pan-ing. As I stood up to go and sit next to someone wearing glasses and reading a hardback novel, I mumbled “fucking Peter Pan” under my breath. I did so wearing obnoxious trainers and a baseball cap on my way home from Regents Park, where I’d been staring through fences at the animals in the zoo you can see without paying. Peter Pan-ing, alas, myself. But more acceptable Peter Pan-ing, yeah, because it lacked marijuana use, the most charmless of all intoxicants. If you want a downer, I say, have an opiate like a fucking grown up. I bet Hook had morphine on ship.
**** What’s his surname?