Falling Sideways, by Thomas E Kennedy, Bloomsbury, RRP£17.99, 304 pages
Melancholy seems to be an inevitable condition for those living through Scandinavia’s white summers and black winters. Amid the autumnal setting of Falling Sideways, melancholy hangs in the sky above Copenhagen like a raincloud about to burst, as the characters of this resonant novel go fretfully about their business.
And business is very much at its heart. Set amid the employees of the Tank, an institution whose remit is kept deliberately vague, this is not so much a book about a specific type of work as it is about the way work is perpetrated.
Frederick Breathwaite is a cultivated, genial American expat, and a long-serving and high-ranking manager at the Tank, who believes: “If you work hard you will prosper; no need to try and bring the other man down.” His nemesis is the Tank’s chief executive, Martin Kampmann, an efficient and vicious man who conducts his savage cost-cutting manoeuvres with an imperturbable smile pinned to his face. Floating between them stands Harald Jaeger, a middle-ranking manager who worries unceasingly about his job whenever he is not lusting after his fellow workers. When Kampmann fires Breathwaite days before an important meeting with clients, the ecology of the Tank is shaken to its core.
Kennedy gives us the complacency, the envy, the flirtations and the sycophantic laughter that will be familiar to anyone who has worked beneath strip-lighting. The not-quite-familial, not-quite-friendly relationship that workers have with one another is similarly exposed. Kennedy portrays the Tank as mimicking the hierarchy in a household but one in which nature has been overturned, in which a younger man can be an older man’s boss, in which age is not accorded respect and in which loyalty to the company is worthless.
Yet households themselves are often not as stable as they seem. As the Tank convulses beneath the firings, both Breathwaite and Kampmann find themselves losing their sons to a wider world. “The days were already being chewed short to feed the lengthening nights as winter prepared to pipe in the darkness,” mulls Breathwaite; the book seems predicated upon a pun: the loss of the sun, and the loss of the son.
Like Breathwaite, Kennedy is an American who has adopted Copenhagen as his home and the text is peppered with Danish slang. Falling Sideways follows the recent publication in the US and the UK of the much-praised In the Company of Angels, scheduled to form part of an eventual “Copenhagen Quartet”.
The cosy Danish capital provides a brown, languorous backdrop to this tale’s slight action and gentle revelation. Kennedy’s characters inspect the same statues, circle the same neighbourhoods, and bump into one another on the same streets. With each meeting, a distant cog in the clockwork shifts, gently ratcheting up the tension.
Kennedy is at his best when catching the arbitrary leaps and descents of thought as his characters muse on their position. The way he depicts Breathwaite’s brain shifting from angelic one moment to obscene the next, or Kampmann’s slipping like quicksilver from the benign to the malignant, is superb. Similarly he has an acute understanding of how sex, whether through lust or impotence, rules the male brain. Indeed the eternally priapic Jaeger, caught between the compromised discipline of adulthood and the sexual madness of youth, is perhaps the book’s greatest victim.
This is a small novel in a minor key, as nimble and intimate as a piece of chamber music. But when it does reach outside the immediate world of Copenhagen, it touches on the contemporary moment with a deft precision. The fear of losing one’s job, the rejection of the corporate world by the young and the treatment of immigrants by different generations are all of the utmost timeliness.
Yet, underlying this is the ever-repeating cycle of collusion with (and rejection of) the status quo – whether it be the family or the office. Kampmann is embroiled in the same eternal struggle for control and dominance with his son as is the more yielding Breathwaite. The unstoppable insistence of fatherhood plays out like the seasons repeating themselves.
This is primarily a novel about men. The wives, girlfriends and exes are delicately sketched but ultimately kept at one remove. Yet it is in the women that Kennedy offers the one solace to his melancholy office brood. Hell might be other people, but heaven can be too.
George Pendle is author of ‘Death: A Life’ (Three Rivers Press)