This is not a novel. It’s barely a novella. I don’t know how long it is as I read it on a digital screen which only offers the reader the information of what percentage they are through the book. It’s the second book I’ve finished having read it digitally, (the first was Gissing’s New Grub Street), although I’ve dipped in to several (Foster Wallace; Boswell’s Life of Johnson etc) Anyway, I’m sure there’s already billions of essays or blogposts or crypto-diatribes on the difference between reading off a page and reading off a screen and I’m not about to join that conversation.
Nor is the reason I’m writing about The Spectacular its literary merit. It’s a kind of potted variation on The Secret Agent with a Borgesian twist, which for a novella set in contemporary London and written by a contemporary Londoner seems appropriate. It’s a pleasant read, not overly taxing but with sufficient literary dexterity to keep the reader honest. You can read it on the tube, as I did, or in the park, as I also did, and it will keep you company.
However, perhaps the most interesting aspect of The Spectacular is its marketing. This is not as depressing as it sounds. Books get to us, one way or another, via some kind of marketing. Even if that marketing is just the gravitational force of a literary canon. (And one continent/ language’s literary canon will be, hopefully, very different to another’s.) With the explosive possibilities of digital publishing, anyone can now get their work out there. So how does an unknown author get their head above the parapet. The Spectacular is sold by Amazon as a download for £0.99. No-one is going to quibble about spending a quid. Having spent the pound, I wanted to read it. I had invested in the book and that encouraged me to engage with it. I will also wager that many of those who buy Ridgway’s modest tale will be encouraged to go on and buy the subsequent novel, Hawthorn and Child, which is, it would appear, in part based on The Spectacular. (The novel’s eponymous protagonists make an appearance in the novella.)
It may be that loads of small-time publishers are already using this technique and I have only belatedly stumbled upon it. But it feels like the first time I’ve been encouraged to engage with the potential of the ebook phenomenon, not one I’m overly enamoured of, beyond downloading free versions of classics to dip in and out of. So good look to Mr Ridgway and his agent and co. I just hope the novel has slightly more depth than the novella. I guess I will find out.