Book Review: The Fountain at the Centre of the World, by Robert Newman
Note: A good read as a fiction novel but be prepared in case you don’t share the author’s political viewpoint.
“From Mexico to the streets of Seattle, everyone’s looking for Chano Salgado”, an anti-authoritarian, heels in and push back against globalisation sort of story. There’s a Mexican theme and then a switch up to Seattle as a backdrop to the climactic clash at the World Trade Organisation Conference, but the atmosphere is authentically South American in that languid, dusty sense of daydreaming the time away in colourful, timeless sadness beloved of several excellent novelists of the last fifty years. I have to say, the writing is great but this is political missile too, so that will be some people’s candy and others’ poison (probably not many, to be fair).
Robert Newman was a writer and performer on some TV shows in the 1990s, famous for ‘The Mary Whitehouse Experience’ (named for a zealot who protested against impolite broadcasts and pretended she represented all of the viewers, not just withered prudes) and also for ‘Newman and Baddiel’, co-presented with David Bladdybub, which went on to Wembley Stadium and sold out the venue — the first comedy act to do so at the time, but I think the Monty Python reunion show did the same thing for a longer run so it’s not unique. I found I was unable to even check out these shows as they are all in legacy format and have never even made it to DVD. Were they any good? I guess they must have been, back in the days of VHS, corded telephones and when the only thing online was pegged-out laundry.
Restoring dignity to the impoverished masses of South America and improving their survival chances against their economic oppressors is not everyone’s priority in bone china southern England but the hand-me down copy that reached me looks deeply thumbed throughout, so my first impression was it must be alright if so many people around here finished it, surely?
What’s the attraction then (e.g. to complacent people like me, well away from any front lines, looking around for fashionable ways to fritter away their disposable income) of reading about socialist graft within distant borders, apart from appreciating the general principle that unnecessary suffering is… uh… unnecessary and person A suffering and having a lower life expectancy so person B can make more profit, be looked after, buy handbags they’ll never use and get fed peeled grapes sounds a bit scummy? Well, I think there are direct practical synergies and applications for us other than spreading basic unfairness awareness, which puts people off.
Firstly, a topic for review: Is capitalism scummy? I think it isn’t. However, is globalisation an identifiably different movement to capitalism, an escalation and perhaps amplified perversion that deliberately minimises sharing? I think it probably is. The big C simply mimics human psyche from evolution, i.e. people do more when there’s incentive to do extra and people do anything they can to give an advantage to the survival of their own genetics, which is socially acceptable and honest if they pay tax and that can be spent on rescuing all the losers in society. However, with globalisation, if the losers live too far away to accidentally meet, do they become ethically invisible? Again, in globalisation, if the global corporation pays no taxes at all, have they broken the capitalist contract to give back to the human population of the planet? Isn’t this a coup, a massive problem for everyone? Aren’t riots eventually inevitable under this mechanism?
Globalisation by corporate and political entities is both an opportunity for a minority of people (no longer for complete national groups) and yet a genuine long-term threat to the majority of the inhabitants of the planet, so it isn’t balanced progress is it, just optimal for a self-interested corporate and political minority, and you can see countries and population groups that have been opportunistically exploited precisely because they are disadvantaged and have no choice but to comply. I hate the idea of anyone imposing Marxism on me, as I’m more aligned to the innovative and pioneering type, so the old historical alternative to corporate oppression doesn’t appeal to me much either, but… what I’m trying to get at is that, for the disadvantaged, their house (casa) really will become our house too at some point as power consolidates into fewer hands and we fall outside the protective bubble, into the underclass for which the design becomes a hardship trap. Where’s the third alternative, the middle road? Is it something we had for a while and allowed our leaders to move away from in increments because change suited them?
This novel helps to broaden our perspective from seeing the trees to seeing the forests, leaving a shiver in the reader as they contemplate the scale of the change that’s taken place within one lifetime, ordinary people’s loss of control over their own choices, lives and destinies. For some comfortable readers, the attraction might be vicarious or even voyeuristic as it’s an insight into a more frustrated style of fingers-in-the-dirt living that the first world is blissfully unaware of, now that the two groups have drifted wide apart on the illusion of credit. If all western debts were called in now, hypothetically, the currently comfortable would be scrabbling for scraps too. Where are we and where sit they on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs? Not neighbours, certainly not in what we want and consume, yet all human communities and cultures are inter-reliant in supply chains, commodities, even in the framework of economic debt and leverage.
Robert Newman was described by his partner as having “a skin too few”, i.e. being tortured by his own empathy to social issues and the general unfairness of life. Fair enough, you might say, stick up for justice — although bleeding pity can eventually become exhausting and then you cross the street to avoid the evil shits from Greenpeace trying to pressure you into poverty by standing order and then telling you that we should not be a democracy because that isn’t good for nature. Was this the reason, empathy, that Newman took a holiday from fame and decided to write non-commercial books? ‘Dependence Day’ (1994) was his first novel, which retailed at an amazing £8.99 in paperback and flopped, mainly because its subject was so bleak in contrast to his stand-up performances (although one routine was about guilt). First novels are rarely the best example of what an author can do, with a handful of famous exceptions, but Fountain is considerably better written than Dependence.
The thing is, ‘The Fountain at the Centre of the World’ turns out to be really, surprisingly, heart-crushingly good. It’s almost as if (risky total speculation) the author might be bi-polar and occupies clearly different mood spaces which colour (or monotone) through into his writing. He’s reinvented himself from performance and yet turned out a book which is strong enough to prove he’s an accomplished author in that respect alone, with no connection needed to previous accomplishments in any different field. Yes, this is a socially aware exploration but the feel of the story is so tangible and culturally informed that it is attractive, not pulp. It stands alone as information and imaginative entertainment even without the social struggle. I engaged very well with the characters and realised I really cared what happened to them, so that’s more than I can say for the characters made by Isaac Asimov, for example. I love the society transfixed by fountains, a symbol of life (water) and its continuation (dynamic movement). The Spanish influence and the diet, the fabrics and sounds all come through. Can bottle steriliser neutralise tear gas, I’m not so sure about that, but you won’t fail to like the array of images, including life and renewal in what should be negativity — remnants of withdrawn overseas investment falling apart in the countryside, damaged people, all plagued by the “issues manager” who seems capable of any deceit.
This isn’t my culture, I have no natural affiliation to the townspeople of Mexico or anywhere else and not being steamrolled by globalisation isn’t my chosen cause but I found the book to be a strong read, strangely endearing, with persuasive character development, tangible atmosphere with all those effervescent fountains and I respect the level of commitment it took to write. This book exceeded my critical expectations and I’m happy to recommend it to others.