Published: 27 Mar 2008
Also available in hardback, audiobook and ebook:
Faulks’s eighth novel appeared to announce a completely new departure in his work.
Narrated in the first person by the main character, Mike Engleby, it is modern, demotic and funny – albeit in a deep shade of black. It’s hard to think of a greater contrast between two successive novels of any major contemporary writer than between Human Traces and Engleby.
Whether Faulks has now finished with the 20th century, it’s too soon to say, but he did refer to Engleby in 2007 as ‘a portal into the present for me.’
More on Engleby
When Mike begins to speak to us, in the 1970’s, he is a student at a university he declines to name, but which appears to be Cambridge. He is studying natural sciences, having given up on English literature. He is witheringly dismissive about his teachers and his contemporaries, with one exception -- Jennifer Arkland, a history student whose enthusiasm for life is in worrying contrast to Mike’s crabbed distaste.
Bit by bit, we learn about Mike’s past. He comes from a poor working-class family, but won a scholarship to a private school, where he was brutally bullied. Faulks’s descriptions of the institution caused nightmares to early readers.
Back at university, Jennifer mysteriously disappears, and a police investigation is unable to find her. Having helped on a student film in which Jennifer appeared, Mike is among those questioned. He ridicules the police for suspecting him, though he has in fact purloined Jennifer’s journal in the course of a party at her house.
Time passes, and we see Mike make his way in London, where he becomes a journalist, working first for a left-wing weekly, and later for a national newspaper. In this capacity, he meets and interviews several famous people, including Ken Livingstone (later the Mayor of London) and Margaret Thatcher.
The star of the show, however, is Mike himself. Whether he is talking about evolution, pop music or politics, his dry brilliance seems able to sum up and dismiss all aspects of the society he reluctantly inhabits. But there is something unsettling about him. Even as his career in journalism begins to take off, he drinks huge quantities of alcohol and is addicted to numerous pills. His memory for the past is encyclopaedic (he can, for instance, remember huge sections of Jennifer’s undergraduate diary), yet also patchy. Flashbacks begin to fill in the background of his earlier life in a disturbing way. The reader is both repelled by him, yet hopelessly drawn in by him – by his candour and by the way he is prepared to say the unthinkable.
For all the social satire and the close observation of contemporary mores, it becomes clear that Engleby
at heart is a meditation on the strangeness of human consciousness. Mike Engleby’s own voice – unregenerate, uncompromising – rises above the extraordinary circumstances in which he ultimately finds himself. It is the unpalatable, uncomfortable truths that he has given voice to that continue to echo in the reader’s mind.
was published by Vintage in March 2008.
'Faulks’s most daring creation yet.’
Scotland on Sunday
‘His most brilliant novel yet.’
‘Thrillingly moving… Most novelists will never write lines that speak to the heart so effectively; for Faulks that seems the easiest thing of all.’
Independent on Sunday
· Faulks asked whether Random House, his publisher, would prefer him to publish Engleby
under a nom de plume
, so as not to confuse readers who expected something more like his previous books. They were adamant that it should be under his own name.
is dedicated to Gillon Aitken, Faulks’s friend and literary agent for 20 years. (They speak by phone almost every day, Faulks told an interviewer, ‘though it’s often to discuss the Times
· The voice and character of Mike Engleby came to Faulks one morning between sleep and waking. ‘When I got to work later that morning, I wrote down all I could remember him saying,’ said Faulks in 2007. ‘It was only about a page. But then he just came on stream again. I could always find him, every day. It wasn’t until I was more than half way through the book that I could see where all this was heading, what the book was really about. Then I went back, thinking that I should try to tidy up the beginning, but almost everything was there already, embedded in the text. I didn’t really write Engleby
, except the bits by Julian Exley and James Stellings. I did consciously write those; in fact I spoke Stellings’s contribution into the recorder on my mobile phone and transcribed it later. Exley’s bit went on for many pages but I cut it right back. But for the rest, all Mike’s story -- it felt as though Mike dictated it to me and I just typed it.’
· The working title of the book was Memoirs of a Jackass
– a reference to a sentence quoted by Mike from the philosopher Miguel de Unamuno. ‘But I was persuaded by my agent and publisher,’ said Faulks in 2007, ‘that simpler was better, so I changed it to Engleby
– though not without a pang, I must admit.’