Annalena McAfee’s touching and uproarious first novel, “The Spoiler,” is a book made in heaven for old print journalists.
It has two protagonists – one aging but once celebrated, the other young and clueless about the past – plus a whole sheaf of reporters and editors of varying importance, all of them on the brink of the online revolution.
McAfee completes this perfect storm by pitting her protagonists one against the other, sending the twentysomething Tamara Sim to interview the nearly-80-year-old Honor Tait – “the doyenne of British journalism” and a Pulitzer Prize-winner (for her account of the liberation of Buchenwald) who was also known in her day as “the Marlene Dietrich of the newsroom” and “the high IQ in a low-cut gown.”
While awaiting Tamara Sim, Honor Tait thinks, “For her, of all people, this should not be difficult. But she was old and out of practice … The ‘New Journalism’ of which she had been seen as an exemplar, had been superseded by even newer forms, whose guiding principles baffled her. Like the nouvelle vague of French cinema, or the wasp-waisted full skirts of Dior’s New Look, Honor Tait’s distinct brand of New Journalism – politically informed, veraciously impartial – was as obsolete as an antimacassar in this ironic modern age …”
The year is 1997, and Honor Tait has consented to the interview, in her London flat, because her publisher assured her the “intrusion” would be good for sales of her new book, “Dispatches from a Dark Place: The Collected Honor Tait.” (“In publicity terms,” Honor Tait was told, “it’s infinitely better than a double-page advert.”)
Tamara Sim – whose print experience is limited to tabloid lists of such riveting subjects as “celebrity cellulite” – doesn’t know the assignment was meant for someone else and sees it as an astonishing career boost.
“Old-school journalistic heroine!” she emotes – after being “surprised to learn that the legendary reporter was still alive.”
McAfee’s Honor Tait, once a war correspondent akin to Martha Gellhorn, turned heads over the years while accruing award after award for her missives from not only Buchenwald but from Normandy, Korea, Vietnam and more. She was a serious journalist with an exotic personal life that included three husbands, countless liaisons and a social circle replete with such notables as Picasso, Frank Sinatra and Marilyn Monroe. Before she even meets her young “interrogator,” she is referring to her as “the bathetically named Tamara Sim.”
Tamara, for her part, “knew this commission was going to be a trial of endurance, requiring a long interview and the obligation to write it up, at considerable length and in polysyllabic words, within a bracingly brief span of time.”
Naturally, things don’t go well. Upon their first meeting, “the old woman looked at Tamara with a wily smile” while calling her “Tara” and finding her “such a little dunderhead, and so dishonest” – while Tamara, in turn, is thinking it is “hard to believe that the crooked hag filling the kettle in the kitchen was once this soft-eyed beauty who, according to the cuttings, had outfoxed and bewitched some of the most famous men of the past century.”
And it all goes hilariously downhill from here, thanks to McAfee – who, interestingly, is married to the marvelous English novelist Ian McEwan but, more to the point, is a 30-year veteran of newspapers herself.
In “The Spoiler,” originally published in Great Britain, she captures not only the wealth of characters seemingly indigenous to newspapers (and some magazines) – but the tail end of the reign of paper journalism. And when McAfee’s plot loses all possibility, and veers off on tangents, a reader stays right with her for the richness of her newsroom descriptions. That is, if the reader is also a veteran newspaper or magazine person and can identify. Otherwise, “The Spoiler” may have too much inside information to pique everyone’s interest.
Tamara’s immediate supervisor at The Monitor is “the affable old Etonian wastrel Simon Pettigrew” who considers “deep smut and high culture – an unbeatable combination!” Her editor-in-chief is often-absent Austin Wedderburn, “a man for whom the vexations of office life were an inconvenient interruption in an abundant social calendar.”
Readers of his tabloid, The Monitor, are said to include “captains of industry and politicians, cultural grandees, senior figures in the judiciary, archbishops, and the rackety remnants of the English aristocracy – in short, the people of influence whom Wedderburn liked to meet at dinner parties. That the paper was now also read by hairdressers and shop assistants, taxi drivers and policemen, cleaners and canteen workers was a source of quiet satisfaction to Circulation and Marketing, but it was unwise to remind Wedderburn of the fact.”
Tamara Sim herself is no stranger to personal intrigue, with a married lover – an editor at a competing paper – and a nemesis, the ambitious Tania Singh, she of the “tiny fairy features” and a foresight no one else seems to have: A paradigm shift to something called the World Wide Web.
There are wicked turns of storyline here – as Tamara Sim seeks to uncover Honor Tait’s perhaps- scandalous secrets and Honor Tait, so disdainful of “such an idiotic girl,” is blind to Tamara Sim’s machinations, and does nothing to discourage her.
Honor Tait, who can be as rollicking as the rest of them, becomes much more than a type here, soberly writing her “final chapter” as we read – a confession of a cowardly choice she made during the liberation of Buchenwald, a choice that has haunted her and fills us with empathy.
She is also moving when she goes to visit her best friend, “beautiful clever Lois,” in a long-term hospital: “Her eyes were open, and remarkably clear. Open and unseeing … Behind the inky blue depths, there was no sense of any intelligence.”
In all, “The Spoiler” is an eclectic narrative that coalesces over time (and is matched only by its increasing hilarity). Plus, there is value here in watching, in small anecdotes, the larger upheaval in the print world as it goes from press to cyberspace.
When the enterprising Tania Singh first presents what her colleagues will call her “digital dystopia” to the newsroom, Tamara Sim will try to get away from “Tania’s twenty-four-hour, seven-day-a-week, multiplatform universe, in which every newspaper and magazine would be sucked up by the technological twister, swirling skywards from newsagents and tube stations, from desks and coffee tables, cafes and kitchens, dustbins and gutters, recycling centres and landfill sites, darkening the sky before shrinking to a shower of pixels and falling to earth as magic dust, minute particles of information …”
But one Jim Frost, a newsroom fixture and union stalwart, will simply point the chewed end of his old unlit briar pipe toward Tania, and ask: “What about our four-day week?”
By Annalena McAfee
287 pages, $25.95
Karen Brady is a retired News columnist.