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Going Under

19 August 07 words: James Walker
According to Ray French if at first you don't succeed, bury yourself in a coffin...

The world record for staying confined in a regulation sized coffin goes to an Irishman called Tim Hayes who was buried for 240 hours, 18 minutes and 50 seconds, coming up for air on the 2nd September 1970. Impressive as this is, Leftlion does not want to encourage readers to try to beat this. However, if anybody has ever wondered what it is like to live inside a coffin then they need to read Ray French’s second novel as it covers every eventuality in hilarious detail. Over the 348 pages the reader learns how to get drunk, eat cooked dinners, give press interviews and extract bodily fluids whilst six feet under the ground.

The man thinking ‘inside the box’ is Aidan Walsh. Aidan Walsh is forced to take extreme action in protest at his employers who have decided to relocate the factory he works in to India. When they refuse to listen to his pleas he buries himself in his back garden, refusing to come up until everyone’s job is saved. His job may be mundane but it is one of the few things left in his life which gives him some structure and meaning, particularly given that his wife has recently passed away and his two children have long since flown the proverbial nest. Aidan is also aware that this is one of the last remaining major employers in Crindau and when they leave, the place will become another ghost town, a relic to Britain’s once supreme manufacturing industry.

The battle which ensues is straight out of an Ealing comedy with Aidan acting as the small man armed with nothing other than his principles to take on the giants of modernity, the faceless corporations who put financial profit above emotional and social wealth. The fact that he is forced to take such drastic actions to be heard is indicative of the problems faced in supposedly liberal democracies in the 21st century. One need only look at the extreme actions taken by say suicide bombers in Iraq to realise that politics, as in the governing of our everyday lives, has become so far removed from individuals’ control that extreme protests of which ever persuasion are becoming increasingly necessary.

Burying yourself under ground is familiar turf for French whose first novel, All This Is Mine, sees a paranoid man digging escape tunnels under his house in case there is a nuclear war. A coffin is the natural progression by this line of thinking. But this book is more than just a David and Goliath struggle with authority. It is also a book about relationships and the human spirit. The coffin a clever metaphor for all of us who have buried our hopes, dreams and ambitions, deep inside, years ago;

‘It began when his wife died. That was when he shut down the part of him which believed in the future. When his kids left, he shut down the part of himself that took pride in his home ... He'd made so much of himself redundant that he hardly knew what was left of the real Aidan any more’.

Once under ground and with no other distractions, Aidan is left to contemplate his relationships with his children and his deceased wife. His burial acts as a kind of chrysalis in which he has the potential to come out a better person, someone who can start to look forward rather than backwards. His new found importance in the community as spokesman for the people and darling of the latest media campaign appears to give him a sense of worth which was missing before, but French is careful to balance this out and avoid over sentimentality by highlighting the negatives of remaining in such a static state. At the most extreme he is prey to arsonists, at the more comical to drunken women who flash their cleavage at him down the periscope he uses to communicate with the outside, or rather, upstairs world.

The key skill to French’s writing is his ability to convey complex problems in a simplistic and witty manner. For example, one of the major stumbling blocks in human communication is the inability of people to actually listen to what someone has to say; instead our vanity insists we assimilate situations into our own framework of logic, thereby completely missing the point. In the book this comes in the form of Smiths’ fans, who are convinced that it is Morrissey who has inspired Aidan to bury himself.  

Throughout the book French keeps the narrative at a steady keel, avoiding over analysis or taking the coffin metaphor too far. This is best exemplified in the early days of his burial. Eagerly awaiting media calls and support from friends he is delighted when his mobile starts to ring, that is until it turns out to be someone dialling the wrong number. Similarly, his friend Poncho, a kind of Welsh Del Boy, takes full advantage of the situation to sell food to passing journalists before becoming more adventurous and selling coffin dolls to passing tourists. The message; the world goes on regardless of how important you may think you are.

Genre: Dark humour

Publisher: Harvill Secker (Random House)

Pages: 348

Price: £11.99

Web: Ray French's website   James Walker's website

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