Following hot on the heels of The Testament of Gideon Mack, I turned my attention to James Robertson’s current work, To Be Continued… ten days or so in the life of Douglas Findhorn Elder, freelance ex-journalist, wordsmith and a man with a history of serially shying away from life and who may or may not be having a mid-life crisis sparked at least to some degree by the anxious thought that he has no proof of his own existence. The ten days that follow not so much deliver that proof as poke it sharply into him as events – by turns comic, dramatic and incredible – occur as he undertakes a road trip which turns his somewhat directionless life not just back on track but in a sharply different direction.
Oh, and his constant companion during this trip is a talking toad, who (which?) acts as a kind of Greek (solo) chorus. With toads, dating back at least to Shakespeare’s time, thought to have powers to bring the dead back to life, the toad is (in amongst its other roles) clearly a herald of the re-birth of Elder.
Thus Robertson is dealing here with several of the same themes as he did in Gideon Mack: fate; morality; the varying reliability of witnesses (or narrators); and the availability of redemption. Here – as somewhat previously – the resolution seems to focus on engagement: that ‘proof’, here of life, comes from engagement with it rather than even intelligent observation of it; a certain reluctance to suspend disbelief; and an apparent ability simply to go with the flow. On top of this, there is a reminder, partly as evinced through the toad, but slightly awkwardly bolted on to the novel as it ends, both that human existence remains a frail thing and that the development of wisdom stems not only from rational scientific thought but also from an openness to the possibilities of occasional apparent interventions from alternative, super- (or supra-)natural sources to turn things on their head. Or, perhaps, the need to learn and adopt a pragmatic, less cynical response to the romance of events and to chance.
This is actually quite a slight, rather unchallenging tale once we have grasped that our hero – not a particularly likable character, when we first meet him, but who becomes more likable in the course of events – is going to experience a series of coincidences in the service of the tale. Indeed, I can’t quite escape the impression that this is a book aimed at children, in which context the carpe diem message takes on a slightly different relevance and which might, to some extent, account for the deus ex machina approach, particularly in the third and final section. Roberton’s ‘novels are thinly-disguised autobiographies’ theme is probably a red herring, but his dedication, one to a man who died at 42, the other to a new-born girl, render such a message inescapable. This is otherwise, however, a cracking fireside yarn for long winter’s evenings, told with some panache by an author who can – as he did in Gideon Mack – still spin a yarn and do so with humour (including a couple of successful running gags, and the regular appearances of the toad), no little pathos (the scenes between Douglas and his father are quite beautifully done) and a keen eye for turning a phrase. Despite the admonition at the outset – that the geography is not to be trusted – Robertson’s close attention to the sorts of descriptive detail makes the places which are the backdrop to events (if not, sometimes, the events themselves) very real.
That said, two observations, really: firstly, despite the views of Amazon reviewers and book groups up and down the land, not every loose end in a novel has to be pursued and tied off so tightly, particularly when the action takes place over so short a timescale; and, secondly, long live books where communications breakdowns are a key part of the plot – except where this depends on extended technological as opposed to human failures: a fact of life which authors focused on the contemporary are, I suspect, increasingly less likely to be able to get away with convincingly.