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Daniel Williams, the young protagonist of Nick Laird’s “Utterly
Monkey,” is bored with his life. Suffice it to say, the feeling for the
reader is mutual.
The novel, fast-paced and punctuated by the self-effacing wit of disguised autobiography, reads like a screenplay—but one that we have seen already. A talented attorney at one of London’s largest law firms, Williams has his life rattled by the appearance of a ne’er-do-well school friend from Ireland. Geordie literally shows up on Danny’s doorstep with £50,000 in stolen money and intentions of staying with him long enough to avoid the Loyalist militia types who are after their money.
Over a period of only five days (a sequence culminating on July 12, Ireland’s Battle of the Boyne Day), Danny is lured from his briefs, memos, and case law into a chase to find a terrorist bomber. In the end, he manages to salvage his friend’s life, save the Bank of England, and secure the affections of a beautiful trainee.
Filled with sentences cut like bait, Laird’s novel is really just the facts. And still, it drags.
Spliced between the chum are a few fishhooks—bits of existentialist description, a few interesting characters abandoned like sparks, and intensely philosophical fragments left to fend for themselves.
Like some dying metronome, a puzzle-perfect plot clumsily unfolds as we wait for the discontented lawyer to quit his job, the passionate female trainee to fall for her superior, and for the ever-present terrorist to be stopped by an untrained, inept pair of old friends.
What we think will happen does, and what we imagine cannot happen does not. The anxiety of global terrorism remains and the Irish economy and political system remain complex and marginalized. Danny Williams, for all his ingenuity and genuineness, cannot save the world. For all its excitement and all its fanfare, Laird’s book cannot escape its own depressing complacency.
We could pull any number of profound threads from Laird’s novel: that nostalgia is better left in the past, that anxiety only makes us anxious, that personal choices are inhibited by societal forces. But begin pulling at these threads and the whole novel unravels into a light farce on office life in London.
Laird, who started the book while a visiting fellow here at Harvard in 2003, has a talent for rendering the indirectness of personal relationships and interactions, but his skills are better reserved for poetry where silence and reticence work in tandem with a writer’s style. In “Utterly Monkey,” these awkward but poignant episodes are overwhelmed by the preposterous plot. For more than just the facts, try Laird’s first volume of poems “To a Fault,” or, better still, try his wife Zadie Smith’s debut novel “White Teeth.”
—Staff writer Casey N. Cep can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Nick Laird
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