Paling, Chris 1956-
PALING, Chris 1956-
Born July 12, 1956, in Derby, England; son of David (a headmaster) and Patricia (a college lecturer) Paling; married, August 18, 1979; wife's name, Julie (a counselor); children: Sarah, Thomas. Education: University of Sussex, B.A. (social sciences; with honors).
Home—Brighton, England. Agent—c/o Author Mail, Publicity Department, Random House, 20 Vauxhall Bridge Rd., London SW1V 2SA, England. E-mail—[email protected]
British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), London, England, radio producer, 1980—, including producing "The Afternoon Shift."
After the Raid (novel), Vintage (New York, NY), 1995.
Deserters (novel), J. Cape (London, England), 1996.
Morning All Day (novel), J. Cape (London, England), 1997.
The Silent Sentry (novel), J. Cape (London, England), 1999.
Newton's Swing (novel), Vintage (New York, NY), 2001.
The Repentant Morning (novel), J. Cape (London, England), 2003.
The Town by the Sea (novel), J. Cape (London, England), 2005.
Author of short fiction and radio plays, one of which was broadcast on the BBC's Radio 4.
As Nicholas Royle described him in a London Independent review, "Chris Paling is the literary authority on male breakdown and midlife crisis." His novels repeatedly portray male characters in the middle of life, suffering psychological or emotional crises that lead them into depression and even, at times, to the edge of madness. Often set in shabby London scenes of the past and present, his protagonists can come off as unsympathetic at first, yet the author manages, with humor and insight, to bring them around to his readers' sympathies; it is a feat that many critics of his novels have come to admire. "Paling," Alex Clark attested in a Guardian article, "is an underrated novelist, his straightforward and unflinching approach to the dissection of unhappiness perhaps proving a medicine too bitter for some to swallow, even with the sugar of his formidable gallows humour."
The novelist, who has worked for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) since 1980, first found writing success when he penned a radio play for the BBC. After that, however, he failed to repeat that performance, so he decided to try his hand at a novel. The first book he completed was Deserters, which he made it to the desk of literary agent Deborah Rogers. Rogers failed to get Deserters published at first, but Paling had better luck with his third effort, After the Raid. Set during the Blitz in London, Paling's debut is told from the perspective of Gregory Swift as he tries to escape the devastation of the city on a train. He meets a woman named Elaine, and the dialogue they share seems disjointed and bizarre. Gradually, the reader begins to realize that this is because Swift is in shock and that he has lost his wife and son to German bombs. Swift eventually makes it to his sister's home, but his mental state is so compromised that he is put in a hospital. "Because we experience that dreadful dawning in his mind, what he later goes through—frenzied midnight digging in his sister's garden, as if looking for the bodies, convulsive electrotherapy when he is put into an institution—is powerfully affecting for the reader," attested Giles Foden in a Times Literary Supplement review. Even more disturbing, however, is the books conclusion in which Swift escapes the hospital and finds Elaine, only to give her a savage beating. It is evidence of Paling's gifts as a writer, maintained Foden, that the perceptive reader will be able to surmise how Swift's final, disturbing act is not a result of anything that Elaine has done but rather is caused by a mind disturbed by unbearable loss. "By exploding the empathy that has been carefully built up," explained Foden, "the beating episode forces us back into the actuality of our own lives and out of the fiction of Swift's mind. Few novels can support such a weight of intention, one that engineers so very specific a reaction in the reader."
Deserters, actually Paling's first novel, was published as his second in 1996. Cliffie, the protagonist, seems at first to be a loser who cannot face up to any type of responsibility in his life. As a child, he ran away from a foster home in which he was placed; later, in the army, he deserted, and he also abandons his lover. But as Hal Jensen pointed out in his Times Literary Supplement review, Cliffie is actually running toward something, not away from something. He is haunted by an image in his past of a brown room in which, as a small child, he witnessed his mother having rough sex with a man. Trying to intervene, he was punished instead. Somehow, Cliffie senses that the only way he can regain the ability to achieve intimacy in his life is to find the brown room again. Noting how the hallucinatory quality of Deserters is reminiscent of Paling's After the Raid, Jensen commented that Cliffie's emotions are reactive, "rather than engaging" in those around him; other characters in the book have similar difficulties. "Paling's is a world in which lonely people harbour dark colonies of restless memories, eating away at their lives," concluded Jensen.
Midlife crisis, alcoholism, infidelity, and parental guilt are all part of Paling's next novel, Morning All Day, in which middle-age school teacher Gordon Meadows gets away with making love to the wife of another man, covering his guilt by playing the part of a "happy drunk." He later invents a friend named Mr. Bunyan to hide the fact from his young daughter that he is continuing to see Sandy. As he continues with the affair and his deceptions, there is an air of farce in the writing, just as there is a sense of Gordon's underlying depression. Writing in the Times Literary Supplement, Phil Baker felt that Gordon's inner suffering, which eventually leads to suicide, is not well handled by Paling because it remains so far offstage in the story that it remains unconvincing. Baker concluded that the author displays "impressive writing [and] keen observation—especially of children—and small, sharp insights, but it never quite becomes the 'how we live now' novel." Morning All Day, concluded Robert Potts in the Guardian, "is a deeply unhappy [novel]…, its unhappinesses the more shocking for being slowly recognised and only gradually articulated."
With The Silent Sentry Paling draws on his experience at the BBC to write a satirical account of the present state of the media corporation in Britain. Like the author himself, protagonist Maurice Reid is a producer with the BBC. Suffering a family crisis, his wife leaves him after she has a lesbian affair, and she then takes custody of their child. Although Maurice finds a girlfriend, she throws him out and he finds himself homeless. The only thing in Maurice's life that keeps him sane is his relationship with his son, whom he barely has a chance to visit. In the meantime, machinations among his coworkers put him on edge as everyone comes to dislike the changing managerial style at the network, which is more motivated by profit than loyalty or vision. "Paling observes this coolly, but not neutrally," commented Eric Korn in the Times Literary Supplement, "with a degree of moral involvement and narrative manipulation which causes some embarrassment." "Maurice Reid's disastrous life," wrote Royle, "… [shows] all the compassion we have come to expect [from Paling] but with added wit and a well-judged sense of comic timing."
As with Paling's earlier novel After the Raid, in Newton's Swing the lead character has also suffered the death of his wife. John Wayne—who is no relation to the famous actor—suffers the same sort of shock that Gregory Swift did, and the author is careful to reveal the events leading up to the brutal murder as slowly as he did in the earlier novel. The differences between the situations, though, are that Wayne's son, Jordan, is alive, and his wife was not the innocent victim Swift's was, being involved in a number of lascivious affairs and sexual experimentations. John tries to cope by seeking therapy, as well as resorting to the bottle, while neglecting his son. The resulting dark tale that Paling creates has been compared by some to the novels of Graham Greene. Independent critic Liz Jensen was one of these, adding in her review that "it is perhaps a marvel that John's cynicism, world-weariness and inadequacy as a father don't all conspire to make him a deeply unlovable character, but he is not. Indeed, you begin to care passionately about him. You want to yell at him to stop destroying himself." A novel that is a very interior study of the main character's mind, "it is a kind of detective fiction, in that there is a murder to be solved," commented Edward Stern in the Times Literary Supplement. "But you know from the start that this won't be a traditional mystery story with a revelatory conclusion." Unfortunately, according to Stern, "these ruminations are supposed to have revealed something profound, but it is never clear quite what that might be."
Paling's The Repentant Morning returns to a historical setting, this time the year 1936, during the Spanish Civil War. Set in both London and Spain, the novel was heavily researched by the author and draws some inspiration, as several critics noted, from the writings of Patrick Hamilton, an author admired by Paling. "I was very interested in Hamilton's writing and I've always been fascinated by his life," he revealed in Scotland on Sunday. "Many of his novels were set around here and there was something that chimed with me and I wanted to borrow that." The characters in the story include car dealer and fascist Harry Bowden, con man Billy Royle, alcoholic Arthur Lawler, and young, idealistic Kit Renton, all of whom are smitten by or in love with Meredith Kerr, an actress who never seems to actually find work. Harry and Billy share Meredith's sexual attentions in a tense sort of rivalry, but it is Kit who wins her heart. Feeling trapped in the run-down Soho world of seedy Depression-era pubs, the characters are aimless in their day-to-day lives until Kit heads off to fight in Spain with the Anarchists. When he is captured, Meredith finally finds a purpose in her life: to save Kit. Divided between England and Spain, the book's success is somewhat divided as well, according to some critics. "Paling cleverly portrays the loyalties and rivalries within the main drinking group," said Times Literary Supplement critic Sarah Curtis, but, comparing the author's descriptions to George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia, she felt that "Renton's experiences in Spain are the least successful part of this ambitious book." Katie Owen asserted that because Paling did not actually experience the Spanish Civil War, his recounting of its events seem somewhat distanced. "For all its strengths," Owen wrote in a Sunday Telegraph review, "Paling's novel feels like a highly accomplished historical reconstruction rather than a story written from the heart." But Ian Sansom observed in the Guardian that despite some flaws, such as an occasionally plodding use of dialogue, "Paling actually has a fine eye for a scanty detail and a telling image." The critic added that "Paling's greatest achievement is his portrayal of middle-class shabbiness and failure."
While continuing to work for the BBC, Paling also plans to produce more books. He has yet to receive bestseller stardom with his novels, but he is not motivated by the pay as much as the need to write. "It's a compulsion," he told Royle in an Independent interview. "You feel guilty when you don't write. It's a bit of a curse in a way and I suspect it's a curse that stays with you for your whole life. You will always feel guilty if there's a day goes by when you don't do your words."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Evening Standard (London, England), February 3, 1999, Edward Marriott, "Madness at the BBC an Insider Writes," p. 54.
Guardian (Manchester, England), June 19, 1997, Robert Potts, "Moved to Tears: Morning All Day by Chris Paling," p. T16; March 27, 1999, Alex Clark, "A Talent for Sadness: Alex Clark Looks Despair Straight in the Eyes," p. 10; February 22, 2003, Ian Sansom, "Pass the Gravy: Chris Paling Writes about Inadequate, Grey Men," p. 26.
Independent (London, England), March 29, 1997, Christopher Hawtree, "Book Review: Turning the Tables," p. 7; February 13, 1999, Nicholas Royle, "Signal Failures for the Paranoid Producers; Nicholas Royle Tunes in to Trouble on the Studio Floor," p. 14; June 3, 2000, Liz Jensen, "Sickening Secrets at the End of a Murky Affair; Newton's Swing by Chris Paling," p. 9; February 15, 2003, Nicholas Royle, "Books Interview: Chris Paling: Hype to Heartache," pp. 22-23.
Scotland on Sunday (Edinburgh, Scotland), February 9, 2003, Julie Wheelwright, "Through a Pint Glass Darkly," p. 7.
Sunday Telegraph (London, England), February 16, 2003, Katie Owen, "War and Repentance," p. 14.
Sunday Times (London, England), February 14, 1999, David Grylls, "Belittling the Beeb," p. 13; February 29, 2004, review of The Repentant Morning, p. 54.
Times (London, England), February 27, 1995, Edward Marriott, "The Fast Track to Literary Success; Chris Paling," p. 1; July 14, 2001, "Fiction"; February 21, 2004, review of The Repentant Morning, p. 16.
Times Literary Supplement, Giles Foden, March 24, 1995, "Burn-Out in the Blitz"; April 26, 1996, Hal Jensen, "The Brown Room"; April 11, 1997, Phil Baker, "Love on the Run"; February 26, 1999, Eric Korn, "Trouble at the Beeb"; June 30, 2000, Edward Stern, "Very Little Love for Words"; February 14, 2003, Sarah Curtis, review of The Repentant Morning.
Book Munch,http://www.bookmunch.co.uk/ (May 7, 2004), Alexander Barley, interview with Chris Paling.
Ready Steady Book,http://www.readysteadybook.com/ (May 7, 2004), "Chris Paling, Author of The Repentant Morning. "*