Years ago Tim Newman used to be a funny and insightful commentator on various blogs. Then he started writing the occasional funny and insightful blog posts on his own site, White Sun of the Desert. Then he started cranking up the blog output, with the result that at this moment he is one of the big names on the UK conservative/libertarian blogosphere, and certainly one of my top favourites. There’s probably no better current exponent of ye olde, ancient art of the fiske than Tim, and it’s rare to find a subject on which he doesn’t talk sense.
But blogging pays no bills, unless you’re Guido Fawkes, so Tim has turned to novel writing (although, as Will Self is always telling us, novels don’t pay many bills). His first effort is Window on a Burning Man. What’s it about? Well, the short version would be: the woman I just broke up with is a fuck-up. Longer version: the woman I just broke up with is a fuck-up who’s into polyamory. And fuck that shit.
That’s my description though, not Newman’s. He goes into the relationship at the heart of the novel in depth, and paints a detailed portrait of a doomed affair between a solid British chemist and a flighty wannabe Russian photographer, Katya. Katya might be a fuck-up, but she is painted realistically, with the good and bad sides of her equally explored. The jarring of attitudes between the two protagonists is sometimes amusing, and sometimes poignant, as the reader can see the fault lines deepen, even if the characters can’t see them so well. The sort of analytic mind possessed by the male character can seem attractive to an arty woman from a distance, but it’s rare to find a women from that world who can stomach it up close for too long. For that type, feelz trumpz thinkz. Which isn’t a completely bad thing when it comes to relationships, but there has to be some thinkz in there as well, at least if you’re the sort of person Newman’s unnamed narrator is.
Which I am, to some degree, so I enjoyed the dissection of polyamory and the putting together of Katya’ s backstory and baggage, although I would not have hung around her as long as Newman’s narrator does. But it’s always a tricky matter, balancing the need to give a relationship a chance with the desire to avoid things going sour, and I’m glad Newman chooses the latter so I can read about it, rather than live it myself.
In a way, it’s a unique book: it’s a detailed relationship book, written from a male perspective, but not from the usual sensitive or neurotic literary male perspective where a young man with an English degree has a nervous breakdown in Hampstead, but from more of a grounded working scientist’s perspective.
So a thoroughly recommended read. For his future efforts, though, Newman might want to move onto pastures new. His fans are going to be, let’s face it, mostly men, and men like him, and that sort of guy only has a limited interest in relationship books, even when they’re written from a male perspective. And most female readers would prefer less of the analysis and more messy relationship-in-action scenes. They don’t mind reading about female fuck-ups, but they’d rather see it happen on the page than have a man ‘mansplain’ it all to them.
I liked the portryal of the grubbier back streets of New York in the book; Newman can write good descriptions. And his stye is uncluttered and terse. That bodes well if he wants to move into more traditionally male-orientated genres.
Spoiler alert: they don’t end up stabbing each other, or anything like that. It’s a realistic book about relationships. And there are no mysterious orders of Franciscan friars. Maybe next time there will be.