Review: Necropolis by Guy Portman

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Necropolis by Guy Portman book cover
Necropolis (2014) by Guy Portman is an unusual novel: a hybrid of both transgressive and thriller fiction. Dyson Devereux is the head of burials and cemeteries for Newton Borough council in a London suburb. He is also a sociopath, as the blurb – aping American Psycho’s – tells us. Living a life detached, Dyson baulks at the painful lack of refinement he sees in all of his colleagues at the council, and – testament to the ubiquitous tastelessness evident in Dyson’s world – the gaudy tributes to loved ones that festoon the graves in the cemeteries he oversees. A string of casual liaisons and cheap lunches string together Dyson’s monotonous existence, that is, until he finds a means of escape in the form of a disgruntled European: Kiro Burgan, a council employee who spends his days tending the borough’s cemeteries. Convinced that Kiro is in fact a Balkans war criminal, Dyson sets about trying to prove his hunch and claim the two million euro reward that would come with it. Is Kiro just the escape route that Dyson needs? He certainly thinks so, and that makes him one dangerous sociopath.

From the novel’s opening pages its hero, Dyson Devereux, speaks in a calm, detached voice that is more than reminiscent of American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman, only here the protagonist drops the names of cheap deodorants and high street brands rather than expensive colognes and exclusive tailors. This juxtaposition, of the supremely erudite, discriminating narrator, stuck in a world where his good taste goes to waste on inexpensive Chinese lunches and snakeskin ties (the latter more an aberration in taste than a compromise) is extremely funny at times – particularly when one first encounters Essex’s answer to Patrick Bateman. Dyson’s voice develops, however, and drifts between the sociopath amused by humanity’s foibles, and the autistic onlooker, bemused by society’s customs – think more Don Tillman than Hannibal Lector.

Perhaps fittingly for the Head of Burials and Cemeteries, Dyson appears obsessed by death and war, leering over embalming methods whenever he visits the local mortuary and spending his evenings watching documentaries about wars or reading about weaponry. As with Six Feet Under, the death game proves a suitable background from within which to explore the banality of existence. Indeed, for Dyson the living are no more distinguishable from each other than from the dead. His derisory view of his fellow human beings extends to the point where not only can he not be bothered to remember most of their names, but reduces those he finds most distasteful to the offensive pronoun ‘it’ – a slightly jarring way of demonstrating his contempt for others.

Deindividuation is important in Necropolis, Dyson’s inability to recall the names of his colleagues a nod not only to his own insular mentality, but to the stagnant world in which he lives, where sedation is as readily available in the form mind-numbing programming like the X Factor as it is from more obvious sources like heroin, both of which his part-time girlfriend seeks solace in to Dyson’s distaste. It might be surprising that such a sneering isolated individual should have a girlfriend of any kind but this is not this sociopath’s only relationship. Indeed, Dyson has mastered the fundamentals of human emotion, able very easily to forge connections with others through small pieces of body language trickery, exposing how simple, and how easily manipulated, human connection really is.

The plot in Necropolis sits somewhere between transgressive fantasy and straight action thriller, and this is a fine line to tread. As Dyson boasts of his conquests, the women who simper at one of his smiles, even the incredible plot that sees him locking horns with a Sierra Leon war criminal turned drug dealer and a Balkans war criminal, all reported in his unexcitable monotone, one can’t help but be pulled towards a transgressive reading, which has Dyson as a fantasist in the ilk of Tyler Durden’s narrator. However, as the text progresses, one is forced, unexpectedly, to read it more as a realist thriller. Read in this light, the novel begins to resemble something more akin to Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter books. This is fairly successful, although as the novel reaches its denouement, there is a slight lack of peril for Dyson, who appears to sail through most challenges calmly and with little chance of his world caving in on him. That said, the balancing act that Portman attempts to pull off here is a tricky one, and he cuts a definite path between the two genres, which makes Necropolis very much its own beast.

Dyson is well written for the most part and the satellite characters that surround him are disdainfully drawn, mere paper thin projections as seen through Dyson’s eyes. The writing is crisp, suiting Dyson’s logical, sneering voice. Occasionally too many adjectives are levered into a sentence, or a needlessly ornate word is misused, but these instances of overwriting are rare and concentrated near the book’s beginning. Another minor gripe is the phonetic dialogue, which is used with a handful of supplementary characters, and is at times a little frustrating (although some readers will have more tolerance for this than others).

As is often the case with sociopathic characters, Dyson is able to highlight – to comic effect – some of the flaws in the way ‘normal’ people live their lives. Here this is less through Dyson’s own behaviour and more through his observations about the characters around him. The funniest moments, however, are probably those were Dyson’s incongruence with his surroundings are most keenly felt. Necropolis is an intelligent novel, which to some extent gets caught between trying mesh a fast-paced plot with more thoughtful satire. Portman understands the genres in which he writes, however, and does well to bring the two together. While the plat may, at times, struggle to meet the demands of both genres, Portman’s characterisation of Dyson works well and this mitigates, to an extent, any cracks that show in what is an ambitious novel.

This is a really interesting book - a well conceived and pretty well executed idea. Portman is an upcoming novelist worth following.


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Reviews of Necropolis on Amazon (UK)
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Guy Portman is a British author. Born in London, he grew up in a world filled with Cold War propaganda. He would later go on to work in academic research and the sports industry, before turning his hand to authorship. His first novel, Charles Middleworth ... [Read More]

3 comments:

Sadieforsythe said...

A great review of an interesting book. Thanks for sharing it.

Book Bloke said...

This is a brilliant review which echo my own feelings about this book, lets hope there's more from this author in the future.

Matthew Selwyn said...

Thanks for stopping by both - I really enjoyed your posts on this too. Being able to read other people's opinions really helped me form my own ideas about Necropolis!