‘The Afterparty’ by Leo Benedictus

Afterparty

Fiction – paperback; Jonathan Cape; 384 pages; 2011. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

“This book is different. You’ve really never read a book like this before.”

So says the blurb on Leo Benedictus’ debut novel, The Afterparty, which has just been published by Jonathan Cape.

Oh god, I thought, this is going to be another one of those newfangled, patronising marketing ploys, aka Chris Cleave’s The Other Hand.  But I was wrong. Without wishing to give away any punchlines, the blurb is a bit of an in-joke — you need to read the book to get it, but once you do, it’s pretty hilarious.

Indeed, much of this book is laugh out loud funny, but not quite in the way you might expect.

The Afterparty is one of those clever postmodern novels — featuring the trademark stories within stories and the author giving himself a starring role — but there’s a lightness of touch, a playfulness, that makes it a real delight to read. I figured I’d try a chapter or two to see if it was my thing, and if it wasn’t I’d put the book aside and forget about it. Two hours whizzed by and I was so immersed in the story I just had to keep on reading…

The story is set in the space of a single evening. A reclusive movie star, Hugo Marks, is celebrating his 31st birthday in a London nightclub. The event, organised by his glamorous American wife Mellody, is attended by A-list celebrities and hangers-on. But there’s one attendee who really shouldn’t be there — and he’s kind of the hero of the piece and the one with whom we most identify.

His name is Michael and he’s a lowly sub-editor at a national newspaper. Despite his bad fashion sense and low self-esteem, Michael harbours ambitions to be a writer — and if he can pick up a few gossipy crumbs from Hugo’s party table he might just crack the big time.

When he finally overcomes his nerves to strike up a conversation with Calvin Vance, a teenage singer riding a wave of success from his appearance on TV entertainment contest The X-Factor, he finds a way in. What he doesn’t realise is that this one little chat will draw him into a whirlwind of events, including an after party at Hugo’s house, that will all go terribly wrong…

Of course, I can’t really tell you much more than that, other than the story is a totally addictive one, written in such an engaging, realistic style it feels as if it’s based on characters from real life. Indeed, some appear as their real selves — Elton John, for instance, makes a star-studded appearance tinkling the ivories for a cheesy performance of Happy Birthday, and chef Gordon Ramsay makes a wisecrack about the inedible food. There are hints and essences of other personalities, mainly British, that we know or think we know, and half the fun is trying to identify them.

The story is told from multiple points of view, but is easy to follow, because each character’s perspective is printed in a different font.

But the real twist of The Afterparty is the email exchanges which come at the beginning of each chapter. At first I thought the emails were a cheap trick — emails are, in fact, one of my pet hates in modern fiction. But the further you get into this book, the more you realise they are what make it truly work.

The exchanges are between a writer, calling himself William Mendez, and a literary agent, Valerie Morrell. William pitches his new novel, Publicity, to Valerie, who eventually agrees to submit it to various publishers, but not before a long, protracted and very funny correspondence occurs between the pair.

Because it is a work in progress, William submits his novel to her chapter by chapter — and these chapters are the story of Hugo Marks’ birthday party. So what you get when reading The Afterparty is this: an email exchange between a writer and his agent, then the latest chapter he has written, then another email exchange, then the next chapter and so on.

It probably sounds like this would make for a disjointed read, but it doesn’t. Aside from being very humorous, the emails inform what happens next and add a new, ironic dimension to the story. And they bring a light-hearted touch to what is essentially a rather dark tale about a party that goes slightly off the rails.

There’s a lot to like about this novel, one of the smartest and most contemporary I’ve read in a long while. It feels fresh and new, and the satire, which is incredibly biting about our current obsession with fame, fortune, celebrity and the media, is spot-on. It never feels fake though. It never feels as if the writer is trying too hard to be clever and knowing. It just feels very natural and slips down as smoothly and deliciously as the dram of whisky on the front cover.

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11 thoughts on “‘The Afterparty’ by Leo Benedictus

  1. Hi kim, unrelated to your post, just thought that you would be the person to ask; if i was, (notice the reluctant if) going to get one of the electronic reading machines, an ERM, where would i go on line to find out about them? strange question, well I did grow up when we ate with the seasons, cars were driven until they were ready to fall apart, things were made to last, and a book was something that was expensive and to be treasured for life, i still have some of those (-:

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  2. Kim: I’ve been looking forward to this review since the descriptions of this book attracted me, but the reviews I have read didn’t add much to that. As usual, you have — I’ll definitely be giving it a try. The structure of the book, and some of the action, brings to mind Steve Martin’s An Object of Beauty, a pre-Christmas read that is growing fonder in memory as the months move on.

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  3. I’m not sure how well it will translate across the Atlantic, because it is very British in terms of celebrities. I have my suspicions that it is based on a real-life incident involving druggy British singer Pete Doherty, but won’t provided a link to the actual news story as that will spoil the plot. (Just Google Pete Doherty and Mark Bianco after you’ve read it.) But I suspect that because the story is so well written it probably won’t really matter.
    I think you will also appreciate the journalism references, because while it’s not really a “newspaper novel” there’s enough of a thread there to maintain interest. There’s certain elements which I quite liked — for instance, at what point does the journalist become the story? And would you sell your soul to get a significant byline?

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  4. I don’t know of any one site in particular that will help you out, but as far as I can see it, you have two choices: 1) a Kindle, which is available from Amazon or 2) a Sony, which is available from Waterstones. Both, I believe, are roughly the same price. The Sony likely has more flexibility in terms of where you buy your eBooks, while the Kindle ties you into buying eBooks from Amazon. (Free books, from Project Gutenberg etc will work on it, too.)
    Beware of the cheaper alternatives, because I believe their screens are backlit, which will hurt your eyes. The Sony and the Kindle are NOT backlit, so it’s pretty much the same as reading paper — and the battery life is very good because of that.

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  5. What a good job you’ve reviewed this, Kim because I know that otherwise I would have looked at it and thought, ‘no way’. Now I shall be fighting to get hold of a copy. Thank you.

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  6. Fantastic, thanks Kim. you have answered one of the things I wondered about, (i was looking for a comparison site) that Kindle ties me into Amazon. Backlit, that is something I had no idea about.
    Think some time ago I was really dismissive about the new reading technology, devoted Luddite me; and I’m thinking of buying an electronic reader because it leaves more room in my luggage, that’s the main reason. I still love the feel of a book and will miss that, but it will be lighter to hold and lighter to carry. again thanks really appreciate your help.

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  7. Thanks, Guy. Kevin certainly had a different take on this book to me. The conversation happening in the comments section is well worth a look…

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  8. I’ve been planning to read this ever since I read your review, and now I did it. I’m very glad that you recommended this novel, otherwise it probably would have escaped my attention, especially as I don’t really think it will get published in Hungary in the near future (or ever). You mentioned above in a comment that The Afterparty is a very British novel in a way – well, I’m not that much into British celebrity life (though of course I do know Pete Doherty and Gordon Ramsay), so I’m sure didn’t get all the real-life references of the novel, but this didn’t stop me from enjoying it. There are so many layers in this novel and such a delightful play with fiction vs. reality that missing one single layer or a certain real-life reference doesn’t spoil the pleasure at all.

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  9. Phew, so glad you enjoyed this one, entropic. It seems to be a bit of a marmite book; you either love it or hate it. Obviously you fall into the former camp!

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