On one page, it’s the early 1960s. Faces, first-wave Mods, cluster near their customized scooters outside a club from which bluesy rock emanates. “As self-regarding stylists they weren’t going to sweat it out inside the club for the Stones. They were too cool for that, and weren’t going to risk spoiling their clothes.” On another page, it’s a little past now, some dystopic alternative future, London, with terrorist bombs exploding in the distance, and Mod-obsessed journalist Paul, procrastinating from writing, is watching
parts of the grainy, extensive archive footage of Stones in Exile, a re-mastered documentary of the degenerately substance-fuelled band’s bitty recording of Exile on Main Street at Keith Richard’s villa, called Nelicote, in Villefranche-sur-Mer, in 1971, as ultimate Stones cool, a kick ass blues album that sounded dirty, like mixing blue paint above a drain cover. After watching heroin-based seventies Stones footage, Paul shifted to scrolling the sci-fi marketing claims for resveratrol, as activating a longevity gene that theoretically extends life expectancy by 70 per cent; the was drug (sic) believed to ramp up the activity of SIRT1, a protein implicated in age, and was useful in stopping the progression of cancer growth. Paul was interested too in pulling info from the web on a new dopamine reuptake inhibitor MDPV, noted to have characteristic hypersexual effects, but still under clinical trial, and on the aphrodisiacal effects of yohimbine as an alpha-adrenergic antagonist, increasing genital bloodflow and inciting unusual sexual sensitivity.
Shot, count-shot. The Stones, something like time travelers themselves, are woven throughout this narrative as past and future open to each other, the sixties and their promise—Mod fashion as a new form of identity, new music as a transport to ecstasy—and the future’s grim but amped-up potential—pills for arousal and long-lasting erection, pills even for the cessation of aging, pills to combat time itself. Time, in this novel, is not what it once was. Or rather it is, in moments, precisely what it once was, and both Paul’s investigations and desires and the author’s attention to long-lost styles and feelings lead to an injection of then into the now of reading:
The Face stood apart from the Shepherd’s Bush Mob contingent busy investing in a tin of Smith Kline and French blues, clearly stolen by a wised-up dealer from a Boots chemist. The Face was his own creation, wearing a purple Dormeuil tonic-mohair jacket, with Prince of Wales dogtooth check trousers from Harry Myers in Bethnal Green. The trousers kept narcissistically attracting his attention, no pleats in the front, and a 1-inch step at the foot of the trouser leg that went halfway down his heel at the back, almost touching the floor, and the front half of the trousers had a button on the outside leg. Cloth covered in the same material, and sewn at the point where the step began, hung just right over the shoe, worn with a pair of short-point side laces on Cuban heels.
He really had the edge on all fashionista rivals. He was the Face, the acknowledged king of Mods, but he lacked Mick Jagger’s infamous celebrity, and he knew it, with an acute stab of jealousy.
This is addictive stuff, amidst a sea of addictive things. So Paul experiences something like a time warp, questing, all the while, after sex, in an increasingly herbal-and-pharmaceutically-
with tablecloths that were touch-sensitive screens, on which you could scan a menu, order a cab, or morph the screen saver on your tablecloth from clouds, to bamboos, to geisha girls etc. The table, she told Paul, was like a sexy kind of iPhone, and the place provided top quality pan-Asian food. Suzie was right up on iPhone games, gadgets, UFOs, retro-pop, Michael Jackson’s pigment whiteners, the fatty acid DHA, which increases acetycholine, the g-spot as sensory epicentre, Chinese girl bands, Ts with graffiti slogans, and being mutant Eurasian cool.
This “mutant Eurasian cool” is worlds away from the first generation of Mods, who started trends like “spiking shocking pink drinking straws into bottles of beer they never touched, but placed on the bar counter as artefacts viewed with visible disdain.” Or is it?
There is some plot here, obviously, and some boilerplate bafflement: Paul has trouble, as he explains it, with “the notion that you’re first-wave from the sixties, and that you’re still twenty-one, and that all the sixties icons, who are dead, still visit this place.” There is lots of sex, fucking “like re-immersion in a steamy Chinese river, the current working at him to come in rhythmic contractions, and they did, together, simultaneously, their skin like sauna, as they exploded into optimal sensual reward, kicking at each other ferociously until the climax subsided.” There is some jarring echo of imagery, as when Paul helps pull a girl “out of her skinny jeans, like squeezing a tube of black toothpaste,” and then, a few pages later, the same girl “squeezed out of her skinny jeans like a squirt of toothpaste from a tube.” But the real thrill of this book—much like those pink straws spiked in those beer bottles—is with how it looks, how it sounds, not the storyline, the engines of character motivation.
It is an endlessly quotable book, addictively precise in its prose. Here’s a bit of seemingly throwaway background noise, from a restaurant scene:
There were city suits to either side of them, men in conservative charcoal Paul Smith suits, who were part of an increasingly demoted corporate sector, exposed for their banditry, corruption, dodgy futures contracts, and consolidated fraud. There was a group of them, like a retarded planet, a species largely unable to individuate, and reliant on shared lo-fi intelligence. Their A-line skirted blondes were much the same, anxious to collectivize, drink beers, and industriously fork chewy sinew, by way of what looked like Wagyu onglet, slow-cooked beef served with braised yam bean. They were loudly talking company politics, and eliminating rival colleagues with bitchy rapid-fire verbal bullets…
And here’s Paul doing journalism:
“I’ve got a colour question for you, if you don’t mind,” Paul said. “I’m such a completist for detail that I’m curious from clips, and photos, about a very specific ice-blue, that is almost white, that seems to have existed in shirts only at this period. Can you remember it?”
“I can, now you mention it,” Max said. “The shirt was a favourite with Mods in the early sixties, and was worn with black knitted ties. You’re right: it was a blue indistinguishable from white, almost the colour of vodka.”
And here’s Paul’s notion of the coming apocalypse:
…an imminent London flameout, with ministerial armour-plated Jaguars screaming out of the city, discharging oil-and-tack slicks to de-road pursuing vehicles, lasers scanning the road up to 300 metres ahead, towards an underground warren of cells concealed somewhere in Oxford for Cabinet usage. These warlords, and their lugubrious killing fields, were all part of London’s B-side, ministers who employed organised crime as a means of personally stockpiling weapons, food, pharmaceuticals, Tamiflu vaccines, and boxes of scotch and gin—as provisions for their intended resistance to the militant, Soho-based Blackjacks, who were looking to establish lawless supremacy in a capital in which a discredited government was harnassed to the army for its unsanctioned defence.
Sometimes, the task of the critic is to lean back and say, wow, that’s sharp, and these passages make me do that, have that sheen, that crispness. There is much that could be said about this book as a meditation on time’s arrow—from metrosexuality to gay-hatred, from hippies to Hells Angels, or the thought Face, after some exposure to both anti-gay slurs and Hells Angels spit, has: Mod, he realized, was irretrievably over, like the thought he had just left behind as part of his continuous biological acceleration towards death.” But this book is more fun as a romp through and against time. Paul is given an offer: “You can join us in the sixties—the orange sunshine decade. You can cross the time barrier.” But it doesn’t really matter what he decides; the time machine is the book itself, its realizations of specific moments with addictively cool prose, prose the color of vodka.