Sunday, 26 November 2017

Book Review- "The Invisible Mile" by David Coventry, (2015, Picador)

Verbosity does not always equal profundity

Let me begin by saying that David Coventry writes beautifully. Or, to be more precise, he writes beautiful, individual sentences, laced with metaphor and discriptive prowess, and keen observations. So why do I make the distinction? Simply because almost every single sentence in the book is overwritten in this way. It makes reading more of a slog than actually riding the 1928 Tour de France. Often I found myself getting agitated because sometimes being direct is fine- not every element of every sentence should require mental gymnastics to get to the core of the plot. Don't get me wrong- I like an intellectual challenge but this book simply seems to ignore what Freud, in an other context once said- "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar!".

In many cases it feel that the author has mistaken verbosity with profundity. There are many conversations detailed in the book, but they are more like those you would expect from characters in a surrealist existentialist play directed by sixth formers- almost a parody, where every single word and action is drenched in meaning and no one responds simply or directly. You get the feeling that even asking any of the characters what time the stage starts the next day would result in a treatise on the fluiduty and temporal nature of time rather than a simple "9:30am". Even the conversations and contributions from the crowds watching the Tour go past are framed as profound- the simple peasant woman mourning her daughter lost during the war seems to speak like a philosophy professor leading a symposium on the nature of loss.

As for the narrator- I don't remember ever getting so annoyed with a fictional character! If he used the energy he expended on his deep conversations (internal and external), getting drunk and spending nights with a female (both in bed and on car journeys in the middle of the night)on actually riding his bike, he would have beaten Franz, never mind Opperman! Cycling is a sport where conservation of effort is one of the keys to success, and this is not reflected in the writing in this book. The closer we get to the end, the more of the character of the narrator is revealed and it is impossible to have any empathy or sympathy for him the longer it goes on.

There are some twists as we go on, but these are signposted quite early for the more attentive reader (and anagram fans might pick up on one of the most unsavory reveals before it happens). The end of the book left me with mixed feelings- glad that I had finished it, but the actual denouement seemed a bitter cop-out- an attempt to make the reader feel even worse about human nature than a book that is grounded in the aftermath of the First World War (as individuals and countries were still trying to come to terms with it) and other personal tragedies already does.

Coventry has blended fact and fiction in this book- some of the riders and events were real, whereas others are not. This can be distracting if you actually know about history of the Tour de France- yes 1928 did see the first NZ/ Australian team enter and Opperman was a real person (in fact his life story would be worthy of a work on its own). Frantz really won that year and others like Bottecchia who was mentioned in passing existed (although Conventry got the dates of his victories wrong). The narrator is a fiction as is the names of many of the teams he mentions, so part of the problem when reading is the little voice at the back of my head that kept pointing out what was real and what wasn't. To be honest being a cycling fan could actually be an obstacle in getting through this book.

Of course maybe the frustrations, the hard going and the lovely writing are a clever ploy by Coventry to allow the reader some sympathy with the struggles of the riders. After all, they are also surrounded by beauty but are unable to appreciate it because of the demands of just making it through. I felt guilty about not always appreciating Coventry's skill with the written word, but I had had reached saturation point. Sentences that danced around and around what they were meant to describe and left room for ambiguity, and phrases used where words would have done ( "bullets" is dramatic enough instead of "shouts of death") meant that the whole book could be submitted to Pseuds Corner in Private Eye.

Perhaps Coventry's undoubted skills as a wordsmith would be better suited to a travelogue type book, because he could definitely replicate natural beauty on the page, but as for "The Invisible Mile" I have never been so conflicted about a book before. While I don't want a simple linear "We did this and then did that", this doesn't come anywhere near the quality of Tim Krabbé's "The Rider" which takes the same cerebal, pyschologicial approach but does it so much better without feeling so forced.

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