The Back of His Head by Patrick Evans – 2015

Back of his headThe Back of His Head is a novel about writers and writing – about the role and power of fiction and the seduction of fame.  The subject of the novel is Raymond Thomas Lawrence – early adventurer, at the height of his career winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, and later an irascible and quite mad Parkinson’s sufferer.  His story is told mainly through flashbacks, those of Peter Orr, nephew and adopted son, and those in a recording of a carer; Thom Ham.  Orr is part of a four person Trust, comprising the followers of the ‘great’ author, which manages his estate and his open-to-the-public Residence.  There are some great passages on fiction: “You can’t plot the present, that’s the trouble, my uncle used to say. You’re only safe when it gets away from now and you can start lying …”  As the narration continues we learn some very dark things about Lawrence – and also about the subject and tenor of his writing – and you have to wonder at the devotion expressed by some of Lawrence’s followers when he is such an obnoxious person.  Orr is treated appallingly by him when a young boy and there are some very odd scenes indeed of Ham and him in the shower in the later stages of his illness.  So the novel is as much about the poetasters, captives of the ‘secondary muses’ and the ‘literary camp followers’ as about the ‘genius author’ – about those who are not able to author their own lives so who end up as characters in other people’s fictions.  All intriguing stuff – and made more so when Orr discovers that the great man himself is as much a piece of fiction as Orr feels himself to be – and we have an exploration of fiction as the re-creating (stealing) of other people’s stories and other people ‘s histories – the former illegal, the latter oddly not.  One critic claims that Lawrence’s usurping of the underprivileged and disenfranchised for literary purposes is a ‘pernicious evil.  I could feel her anger burning across Raymond and his generation like a hot wind, that withered every word they had written.’  What I liked about The Back of His Head is the fascinating look at where we draw the lines of fiction and morality – how much we put up with the damaging of the real for the sake of the beauty of the ideal – but what I didn’t like is Evans choice of a farcical, and at times slapstick style.  For example: the dropping of the tapes (presumably those recording Ham talking to ‘Patrick’) down the toilet, the sub-plot (or does it become part of the main story?) of the single mother with a child with spina bifida; the bizarre blowing up of Lawrence’s eponymous creative writing school.  Evans in his Acknowledgments tells anyone who sees themselves in his pages that they ‘are taking themselves too seriously’ – I would have enjoyed his book more if Evans had taken his subject a bit more seriously.

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