How to hate journalists
The Spoiler is the book that could have been this century's Great Gatsby if only someone had been willing to edit it with a firmer hand.
Even in writing this review I've been intimidated by Annalena McAfee's background: literary journalist for The Guardian and Financial Times, judge of numerous high-profile literary awards, and marriage-level access to Ian McEwan.
The book is still good enough to compare with Gatsby without blaspheming - both books are trying to capture something deeply important to the world and both books have surprising similarities in their characters and plot.
And if you hate journalists, you'll love this as much as Media Watch. McAfee has bathed the novel in cynicism towards the press.
The Spoiler focuses on two female journalists in 1997 London. The younger woman, Tamara Sim, is a gossip columnist whose journalistic credentials consist of trashy lists written for trashy magazines. When she's not scouring the archives for cheap shots on celebrities, she's bribing/fooling/screwing her way into a scandalous scoop. The elder of the two is Honor Tait, a 79-year-old retired journalist celebrated for a career covering wars and human tragedy. When she's not surrounded by aesthetes and artists at high class events, she's at home, angrily waiting to die.
The two protagonists clash from the moment they become aware of each other. While Honor would prefer to disregard the younger woman, Tamara's ambition and need for scandal won't allow it. While both women have cancerous mistakes in their past, Tamara hopes that she can build her career on the carcass of Honor's.
Neither character is the good guy and the brutal emotional gouging that each of them experiences as the story progresses reflect on some point of truth in journalism. This is a book about an emotional war between two women tortured by the realities of being a woman.
I have to commend McAfee, she's picked the right vehicle for describing the antagonism between the way journalism used to work and the way it does now. The book gives the same sense of gravity to its geography that you get from reading Gatsby. West Egg has become Fleet Street.
Tamara Sim seems like Perez Hilton's mind in Carey Bradshaw's body while Honor Tait could easily be a shallow fusion of Maggie Thatcher and Christoper Hitchens. An antagonistic Nick Carraway and a curmudgeonly but academic Jay Gatsby.
I underestimated both protagonists for most of the story, but Honor's emotional vortex dragged me under, and that's what I remember about the book.
I say that The Spoiler comes within an inch of being the Gatsby of journalism only because there are some basic flaws within what is, otherwise, an enjoyable and worthwhile read. The protagonists lack depth until the second half of the book and the supporting characters are, for the most part, stereotypical to the point of cliche. It's jarring at first, but The Spoiler works less as an attempt at high-culture and more as an attempt at a caricature of the print media in the moment before it was transformed by the Internet.
There are moments when the author's vocabulary gets in the way of the story and there are moments when the point of view changes from one character to another without warning. The simplistic demonising of drug addicts is also unfortunate for a book of such high caliber. These missteps are bad enough to be mentioned in a review, but I doubt that you'll remember them after you've finished reading the last page and the story matures in your mind.
The Spoiler stands out in its ability to keep you reading. The level of tension and anticipation stays high and the structure is spot-on. While none of the elements of the novel feel unnecessary, none of it is spartan; there's enough here for the reader to come away with a rich picture of the world in which the story is set.
If you're a news buff you've already bought or ordered this book, and that's probably how it should be. McAfee is well qualified to write about the last clear run enjoyed by the print media. Between the topics of aging, supporting wayward family members, sex, lust, careers, and gender, you'll get something out of it.
Purchase Annalena McAfee's The Spoiler online