Finished Antwerp last night, and strangely enough, it’s one of the few books I’ve read in which the beginning and ending fail to do justice to a rather exciting middle. If I could call up Mr. Royle right now, I would put several questions to him, the nature of which might reveal my general attitude towards his book. Here follows the transcript of the conversation I would have with the author if I could get hold of him.
“Hello, Mr. Royle?”
“Hi, how are you, I have a few questions for you about your novel, Antwerp. Do you have a moment?”
“Right. Well. First, why do you write from so many points of view, if the actual plot seems to hinge on but three of them? Why, for example, do we learn so much about Penny, about Wim de Bliek, and Danuta? Even Johnny Vos seems incidental to the main plot. Yet we spend endless pages exploring their lives, living in their heads, though what’s revealed through them proves incidental to the main plot. Even their own side plots seem but half hearted. Why?”
“Art is its own end.”
“Ah. I see. And, erm, why do you end the book in the manner you do? Are you making some sort of statement as to how there are no ends or beginnings in life, how neat resolutions are the resort of inconsequential writers, and that it is our lot in life to reconcile ourselves to the unresolved and enigmatic?”
“What, specifically, are you referring to?”
“Well, for example, you never tells us what ends up happening between Wim di Bliek and Eva, his object of obsession. Or what happens to the blasted serial killer, who gets away by simply running out the door. Or whether Johnny Vos actually makes his film. Or, anything, really. Why’s that?”
“Think. If I purposefully chose not to reveal those endings, could I therefor believe that the importance of the novel lies elswhere?”
“What does the novel deal with, beside the main serial killer plot?”
“Well, Antwerp, the state of increasing decadence in Belgium as exemplified by the sex trade and other serial killers such as Dutroux, the painter Delvaux, the movies of Kumel…”
“Yes, yes… so. I don’t wrap things up neatly. Yet I dwell at almost unseemly length on the topics mentioned above. Is there a connection?”
“Well… are you saying that…by choosing not to wrap up the book… and by going on at some length about decadence and movies and the sex trade… you are trying to embody the very moral decay physically in your book, by not following typical norms..?”
“So… the very book embodies the decadence that the main character, Frank, abhors, by incorporating too many incidental points of view, and sort of trailing off, largely media res?”
“That, my dear fellow, is for you to decide. Upon completing a work of art, the artist must resign himself to-“
“What? That’s crap.”
“Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up now thy loins like a man; for I will demand of thee, and answer thou me. Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of my novel? Declare, if thou hast understanding. Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? Or who hath stretched the line upon it? Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? Or who laid the corner stone thereof? Knowest thou the time when the wild goats of the rock bring forth? Or canst thou mark when the hinds do calve? Canst thou number–“
“Oh bollocks,” I would have said at this point, and hung up.
Honestly, if Royle is trying to do something along the lines of the above, it doesn’t work for me. What does work is his gritty portrayal of the seedy side of Antwerp, the diamond trade, the red light district, the freaks and desperate people who come out at night to cavort and dance in the midnight street when the respectables have all gone to bed. That was good stuff. And in the middle it actually got quite good, as Frank closes in on the killer, piecing together clues, as the chase is told from all the multifarious points of view, the noose drawing tighter and tighter.
And then? Well, we enter the last third of the book, and Royle eases off the tension, steps back from the action, and once again we slow down, and begin to meander through the POV’s. Furthermore, I never really got hooked on any of the characters, never really developed much sympathy. Sian’s POV, that of the captured lady in distress about to be hacked up by the killer, remains to confused and out of it the whole time to register much of interest, while we’re forced to sympathize with Frank as he hunts her down simply because he’s expending so much effort and seems so worried, not because we actually like him.
End result? Royle’s got a whole ton of talent but he doesn’t deliver. Too many characters, too oblique a plot, too much time spent musing on art and movies and cult figures and not enough time spent building a rapport between reader and protagonist, in realizing a good ending, in doing more than just dipping his toes here and there in the seedy pools of Antwerp’s night life.