Through charm, brains, good luck, a coolly flexible conscience and a lot of accommodation from the women in his life, Charlie Anderson has had the kind of life he wants, up till now. Quite a familiar starting point for a novel, even a cliché, but Richard McHugh’s version has a pace, acuteness and groundedness that won me over.
‘Write what you know,’ they say, and it’s clear that McHugh knows about life inside the world of business consultancy, big banks and the law. And who but a man with teenage daughters could write this:
The current topic was the phenomenal expense of fitting out a teenage girl, and the builder-father was putting forward the thesis that if the girls didn’t grow they couldn’t grow out of their clothes, which was supposed to save money. True enough, as far as it went, but as a ray of sunshine in the supposed darkness of their collective budgetary predicament, the theory showed a breathtakingly naïve understanding of the principal drivers in the market for women’s fashion, as Charlie, who had consulted to the largest up-market department store chain in the country, knew rather well. He wondered whether the builder-father’s daughter had justified an unending parade of purchases to him on the basis that nothing fit her any more… (94)
Charlie, a successful business consultant, and his wife Anna, on the verge of becoming CEO of one of Australia’s biggest banks, have an idyllic life in a ‘fuck off’ house on Sydney Harbour with three clever and loving daughters, an enviable sex-life thrown in. Yes, it verges on caricature, and there is a persistent feel of that hanging round the novel, but the characterization carries us past it. Here’s Anna:
This wasn’t a question of love. Or of willpower – so long as it was what she wanted, she knew she had the strength. But it was a task that would always fall to her. Charlie would only keep from spinning out into space, into disintegration, so long as her love and abnegation bound them all together. It was a wearying thought. (420)
Charlie, a serial philanderer (and I did find it very hard to believe that Anna doesn’t know anything about his affairs) embarks on a new relationship with a woman who, most unusually, seems to be always one jump ahead of him in the game of sex. We expect the story to be all about this, and in one way it is, because Charlie’s colossal ego, the thing that holds him together, is seriously challenged, but the real crisis comes when Charlie does something outrageously stupid that threatens to disgrace him publically, destroy his business, his marriage and his relationship with his daughters, and kill Anna’s prospects of becoming CEO – not to mention ruining the life of an innocent man. How Charlie and Anna deal with this crisis is the moral heart of the book.
Charlie is in the perfect job for a high-achiever who doesn’t want to take moral responsibility for anything:
Charlie was a fabulous adviser and strategist; he was better at analysis and predicting the likely effect of human commercial behaviour on the financial condition of a company or conglomerate or whole industry than anyone in the business; and he was quite decisive in his own way. What Charlie could never do was take responsibility for a decision that would actually hurt people. He had no trouble in pointing out potential savings in every corner of an enterprise, savings that would mean a lot of people got the chop. And he felt no qualms about the colossal fees he charged for the thirty PowerPoint slides in which he conveyed that advice. But he wasn’t the one to swing the axe. Anna, on the other hand, though she didn’t like hurting anyone any more than the next guy, had the stomach to do whatever had to be done. (10)
This is the world we live in, where the decisions of big business dictate the lives of ordinary people and everyone’s worth can be calculated in dollars, a world run by Annas and Charlies. Their lives show us how ingrained the habit of rationalising our morality for our own convenience has become in a world in which the middle classes have become increasingly wealthy and the poor a permanent structural feature of the modern economy. They were the price you paid for having a 40-inch TV in almost every home. (189). It’s the world we saw in John Lanchester’s Capital, but McHugh’s book is tighter and funnier. The characterization is particularly good; even bit-players come to life:
The man was in his late forties, greasy of skin, slow-eyed. Blue, red and green biro pens were nesting in the chest pocket of his shirt. He had the air of a man who had been in the job for some considerable time. (35)
If you like a smart, funny, sexy book that makes you think, you’ll like this one.
Richard McHugh: Charlie Anderson’s General Theory of Lying (Viking 2015)