Monday, August 01, 2011
The Journeying Boy (1949) by Michael Innes
I have sometimes reflected on how often authors are unreliable judges of their own work. This is a case in point: The Journeying Boy was Innes's own favourite among his novels. One can only suppose that something in its tone (Boy's Own Adventure from an adult perspective) somehow particularly resonated with his inner child's idea of perfect fictional entertainment. To be fair, most contemporary critics concurred and praised the book extravagantly.
An eminent nuclear scientist busy with work essential for national security engages a tutor to take his teenaged son, the journeying boy of the title, on an Irish vacation. Next day, the tutor sends a telegram, regretting that a death in the family prevented him from taking up the job. Promptly it turns out that the death was his own. Another tutor is quickly hired and the boy despatched to his destination, where kidnappers roam, greedy both for money and for nuclear secrets. So far, so good.
The big problem with this one is that for some reason Innes decided to write it as a 'serious' novel. Not that laughter is completely excluded, but Innes does not treat the situation as an extravagant fantasy, an eccentric joke. The effect is most curious. Where in his less ambitious thrillers the tone and pathos often rise to Stevensonian heights, here - where the author aspires consciously to that level - the result is definitely riddled with flaws that one more readily associates with Buchan or Edgar Wallace.
The use of coincidence borders on the outrageous. At one point, the boy Humphrey by pure chance finds himself sitting in a cinema next to another boy impersonating him to a misled tutor. In a separate thread of the plot, the police investigating the tutor's murder gain vital knowledge through the chance happening of a blackmailer having been hit by a bus and, before dying, lucidly revealing some timely information which he pieced together apparently by a mix of divine revelation and superhuman insight. Part of his communication is that there is not one, but two gangs of kidnappers breathing down the boy's neck. And at the very end of the book, as one gang makes its escape by plane and the other by boat, how do they get their comeuppance if not by plane dropping from the sky to hit boat? If this sounds utterly bizarre, it is. Other characters are just left as blanks and drift out without any explanation: we never learn anything about the obviosuly talented and very nasty teenaged impersonator or the woman who accompanied him at the film theatre. Much of the conspiracy is finally exposed not through detection or action but through the clumsy device of revealing at some point the thoughts of the villain.
In contrast with this rampage of melodramatic convention, the writing is involved, donnish, sometimes precious - or, in Innes's own term, polysyllabic. The intricate syntax is all very well when a bunch of Oxford professors are plotting and intriguing to Byzantine and ludicrous effect. But in an action story, there are inevitably some climaxes where more direct writing is clearly better suited to the needs of the narrative. And, unfortunately, this book has the longest stretches of pure tedium ever encountered in an Innes novel. It takes the boy and his tutor about 100 pages to get from Euston to Ireland, and very little happens during the whole stretch of the journey, aside from some sneaking to and fro along the length of the train and an encounter with a travelling freak show out of The Lady Vanishes. The bulk of the trip is taken up with the tutor's reflections and feelings. Jacques Barzun thought that 'the long-winded analyses of feeling and action are intolerable almost from the start', being thus one of the few critics who dissented. There is another episode later in the book when the tutor, roused at night, investigates some suspicious sounds and movements in complete darkness. Another critic noted, approvingly, that it was 'the longest passage of straight narrative, without dialogue, covering a moment or two of time, which I know of in the literature'. Indeed, it takes up about two dozen pages. What might have been fine in a Robbe-Grillet novel, is unfortunately rather tiresome in an Innes one. And generally, for all the (needless) complexity of the plot, there is very little actually happening all along. There is a lack of construction here that the alleged 'serious' approach does not seem to justify.
There are some entertaining or funny or even exciting passages in the book, in the true Innes spirit, but they are few and far between. Also on the positive side, the motive which prompts the boy to act as he does is interesting and perhaps rather original - but that motive is only revealed late in the book, and much of the narative up to then just does not work dramatically. Roy Fuller's With My Little Eye, which I recently read, another thriller with a teenaged protagonist, and written just a year earlier, is a perfect example of how high moral and emotional stakes drive forward a story of this kind and make one largely overlook the deficiencies of plotting. In The Journeying Boy, for the most part of it, there is just nothing much to care about, either in terms of story or character or any underlying issues. While Fuller's protagonist is also his own story's narrator, in the Innes book we mostly see the boy through the eyes of his tutor, Mr Thewless - who is himself one of Innes's palest creations.
At one point in the book, Innes pokes fun at Brideshead Revisited. The title comes from a poem by Thomas Hardy.