- Sophy Geering
James Meek was born in London in 1962 and grew up in Dundee.
He worked as a reporter for 20 years, and won several awards for his work, including reports on Guantánamo Bay and from Iraq. He continues to contribute to The Guardian, the London Review of Books and Granta. He lived in Russia and Ukraine from 1991-99 and now lives in London.
He has published two books of short stories: Last Orders (1992); and The Museum of Doubt (2000). His four novels are: McFarlane Boils the Sea (1989); Drivetime (1995); The People's Act of Love (2005), set in Siberia during the Russian Revolution; We Are Now Beginning Our Descent (2008); and The Heart Broke In (2012).
People’s Act, which was published in thirty countries, was longlisted for the Booker Prize and won the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje prize and the Scottish Arts Council book of the year prize. Descent won the 2008 Le Prince Maurice Prize. The Heart Broke In was shortlisted for the 2012 Costa Prize.
James Meek has written for a number of newspapers and magazines, and is currently a contributing editor to the London Review of Books.
James Meek’s fiction moves from surrealist experimentation to historical epic.
He has produced three very varied novels, as well as numerous short stories, all while producing a very different kind of work as a journalist. One thing which novelist and reporter share, he believes, is imagination – used not just for ‘the expansion of the real’, but equally, ‘to curb the vastness of the actual world of experience.’
Meek has said of his early work that ‘I think I avoided difficult tasks in writing by making it all surreal, I wasn’t looking my characters in the eye’. His first two novels, and his short story collection, Last Orders (1992), while stylistically bold and often memorable, tread a sometimes uncomfortable line between technique and substance. His debut, McFarlane Boils the Sea (1989), was described by Christopher Rush as ‘the most weirdly evocative novel I’ve read all year’. Meek himself has said that he wrote it under the dual influence of James Kelman and Marcel Proust, which was, he admits, ‘like drinking a cocktail of Bowmore and Châteauneuf du Pape.’
In Last Orders (1992), ‘Recruitment in Troubled Times’ stands out as a particularly strong story. It portrays a Scotland which has become the dominant force in the UK, but which is victim to English suicide bombers, and forced to operate a sinister secret service. An innocent personnel officer (‘We interview people. We don’t shoot them’) has the tables turned on him when he finds himself the unwitting candidate in a job interview for a new torturer. The fine line between interviewing and torturing, between questioning and demanding, is cleverly drawn.
In his second novel, Drivetime (1995), Meek experiments with a surreal take on several genres and motifs: the grand tour-cum-road trip, the love triangle, the detective story. Alan, freshly dropped out of university in Edinburgh and needing money to move to Glasgow, agrees to an assignment to collect an antique egg. His quest leads him all over Europe on a bizarre road trip with nurse Deirdre, for whom he develops a passion, and baseball-bat wielding Mike, with whom Deirdre is in love. Actions which take place in one form in Scotland are repeated in endless variation in all the destinations they visit, and throughout the journey time, space, language and currency are deliberately elided within a generic sense of foreignness and displacement.
It is in Meek’s second collection of stories, The Museum of Doubt (2000), that we begin to see a greater reliance on character development, and the beginning of a more considered style. ‘The important thing,’ Meek has said, ‘is to watch your characters closely, study them, and not to flinch from what you know they must do.’ Some of the stories continue his surreal tendencies (in the title story, for example, a salesman swallows a stuffed deer’s head and has to have it manually removed from his throat, antlers and all), but there is a greater confidence in more naturalistic writing too. The strongest material is the novella, ‘The Club of Men’, which concludes the book. In what initially seems to be a toe-curlingly uncomfortable domestic farce, we find the central character Gordon leering over his son’s new girlfriend, yet unable to remember his own wife’s name. The tale shuttles between episodes half-humorous and half-disturbing, but gradually we learn about his past, the source of his current confusion, and, eventually, why he seems so obsessed with his dead friend, Smithie. Meek’s skill is in holding the character just beyond the reader’s reach – just as we sympathise with him, he is crass or cruel. It is, finally, difficult to feel confident about whether his flaws are his own, or the result of bad luck and the machinations of others. Gordon’s place in a ‘club of men’, an accepted coterie with its own rules and codes of behaviour, remains ultimately uncertain.
Meek’s most significant achievement to date is The People’s Act of Love (2005), a historical novel written over a period of ten years. Set in Siberia in 1919, it centres on the remote village of Yazyk, governed by Czech soldiers but under advancing threat from vengeful Bolshevik forces. Kyrill Ivanovich Samarin arrives in the village, claiming he has escaped from an Arctic prison camp and is being pursued by a fellow convict who tried to eat him. The truth of Samarin’s story is still unproven when he is given refuge by Anna, a widow who lives with her small son – despite the fears of Lieutenant Mutz and Balashov, the leading light in the village’s mysterious religious sect.
The People’s Act of Love marks a real change of narrative style. A measured introduction to place, characters and ideologies builds into a pacy tale which encompasses murder, religious extremism, prejudice, war and cannibalism. Meek’s characterisation is fuller, stronger and more considered, while the language of the book takes inspiration from the inflections and expressions of Russian speech. The novel’s title highlights the one thing that its four main characters agree on: that, in Meek’s words, ‘love exists and matters.’ What they disagree on, he says, ‘is what love may be.’ The novel explores the differences between personal love, for family and loved ones, and love for larger ideals, for one’s country and one’s god. Early in the novel a character recites the political idealist’s creed: ‘the true revolutionary has no place for any romanticism, any sentimentality ... he is not a revolutionary if he feels pity for anything in this world.' Insofar as the book has any heroes though, they are not the idealists justifying unspeakable cruelty and violence in the name of the generations coming after them, but those who are capable of loving and connecting with the everyday things around them – in however flawed or incomplete a fashion.
If there is one thing which characterises James Meek’s work, whatever its style or subject matter, it is the seriousness of purpose which cuts through it. His respect for the writer’s profession, and his sense of writerly duty, imbue his fiction, just as his journalism, with an undeniable integrity.
Susan Tranter, 2006