Engleby by Sebastian Faulks
Doubleday 2007 352 pp.
Copyright © Steven E. Alford
Mike Watson is a successful British journalist in his mid-thirties, with a steady girlfriend, a secure, well-paying job, and published interviews with the likes of Jeffrey Archer and Sir Ralph Richardson. Or perhaps he’s Mike Engleby, a vicious, angry, homicidal maniac.
Watson and Engleby are only two of the six names the protagonist adopts in Sebastian Faulks’ witty account, which stretches from the late Fifties to Blair’s England. Exploiting the innate believability of a first-person narrator, Faulks creates a character that is by turns charmingly intelligent and deeply suspicious.
Engleby begins in the early Seventies, at Cambridge, where Mike is attending college, getting high, losing himself in rock music, and engaging in petty thefts to keep afloat as an impoverished student.
As a poor but gifted boy from Reading, he’s having trouble integrating himself into college social life, most painfully in meeting and developing relationships with the opposite sex. He becomes fixated on the beautiful, dewy Jennifer Arkland, inviting himself along on a student movie shoot in Ireland, where he makes the first of a series of fruitless attempts at impressing her enough to cause her to leave her half-hearted relationship with her boyfriend.
On return to England, Jennifer disappears from a party one night and is never seen again. While Mike is briefly a suspect, given the lack of a body, no one is ever charged with a crime.
Mike’s story hops around from a childhood punctuated by abuse from his angry father, to an account of his truly horrendous experience as a scholarship student at what seemed to have been a respectable prep school.
Following graduation from college, he takes up residence in Paddington and, through a series of random professional contacts, slowly develops his expertise as a journalist.
Although he is reasonably presentable professional, his interior life is dodgy, beset by blinding headaches and periods of forgetfulness. He had always been respected for his prodigious memory, yet Mike’s brain seems to be suffering from some defective wiring.
“Here I was with a memory that others assured me was freakish in its recall of facts and dates and long passages of writing; yet actions and events in my own past that really should have been able to remember themselves without prompting from even a workaday, let along a Rolls-Royce memory—they weren’t there. They were not only unstored, unregistered, not indexed; it was if these things never happened.”
Not only his memory, but the stability of his personality was questionable. As a student traveler, he found himself one early morning on a street in Izmir, Turkey.
“I suppose my mind was trying to hard to get a grip on this place, to anchor it for me, because I had the strong impression that I was really outside time or place, that the hostile otherness of my surroundings was such that my own personality was starting to disintegrate. I was vanishing. My character, my identity, had unraveled. I was a particle of fear.”
Bouts of panic and anger follow periodically, leading him to question his memory of his last night with Jennifer. Reports of discovered corpses populate the television news, increasing Mike’s nervousness about his sanity. Is he really a serial killer?
The terrain of the charming, unreliable, first-person killer has been traversed before, from Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert (as well as Hermann in his underrated Despair) to John Lanchester’s 1999 fun fest, The Debt to Pleasure.
As Humbert has noted, you can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style, and Mike is no exception. But Faulks’ tale has a deeper motive than entertaining the reader with a is-he or is-he-not story of a possible monster.
Mike’s story allows Faulks to explore the mysterious terrain of memory and repression and how, trapped in our own subjectivity, we humans have only intermittent access to what might pass as truthful self-knowledge. Unfortunately, as Mike notes, “This is how most people live: alive, but not conscious; conscious, but not aware; aware, but intermittently.”
In Faulks account, the mystery of the murderer takes a backseat to the mystery of consciousness itself. As Mike’s adult life unravels, so does our confidence in his account, and in turn, trust in our own ability at telling ourselves and others truths about our lives.