The Blue Mask
London: Serpent's Tail, 2003.
£10.00, 224 pages, ISBN 1-85242-688-8.
Steven Marc Jones
Liverpool John Moores University
Joel Lanes preoccupation with shifting the focus of modern
criminality away from London or L.A. to Birmingham finds expression
in his new book, The
Blue Mask. This novel is the dark material of nightmare. He conjures a
pitiless urban landscape, turning the mean streets of Birmingham into a shadow-world
by the emotionally dispossessed. The writing is heavy with political disillusionment
and post-modern angst. Lane assembles a cast of fragile but engaging characters
who live mundanely but hopefully in a landscape of political change, rising
unemployment and urban decay. This is the Britain of the 1990s: the dawn of
New Labour, the
rise of the corporate globalism. Lanes strengths lie in the detailed
and realistic evocation of British city life. He seduces us with familiarity
darkens the image. His world is cinematic and alive with threat, recalling
the moods and textures of Film Noir without compromising the essential reality
the setting. He deftly recreates the ambiences and patinas of student life
in the early 1990s, peppering his prose with pop culture references to anchor
firmly in the period. A window opens in the lives of his characters and the
view we are given is absolutely convincing. Lane has a keen eye for detail
descriptions of bars, bed-sits and smoky student parties are expertly rendered.
The novel hinges on one dramatic and sickeningly violent event. There is a promising
simplicity in this: a moment of random extremity with the potential to change
everything. Lane invites the reader to undertake a journey into the twilit regions
of the human psyche to confront some of its bleakest themes: the impossibility
of love, the violence of desire, the agonies of transformation.
The Blue Mask is the story of Neil, a student at Birmingham University.
He cuts a bohemian figure on the gay and arts scenes, defined by his ambiguous
good looks and easy sexuality. A theme of relaxed narcissism prevails as Neil
moves through Birminghams bar and club scene trading on his sexual attractiveness.
He is very much in touch with the visual impression he creates and a high premium
is placed on his sexual power. He is so typical a student, in fact, that he verges
on stereotype, but the familiarity of his world is engaging, at times provoking
a pleasant nostalgia. We are plunged into an ocean of student politics and artistic
striving. Neil and his boyfriend Matt are welldrawn. Lane works hard
to make their coterie of friends and the issues that preoccupy them believable
he is, for the most part, successful. Their spats and struggles are poignant
and very human. In their love affairs and neuroses, they express a pleasing
The early chapters of the novel are beguiling because of Lanes painstaking
recreation of this idiosyncratic sector of British student culture and if this
were his highest aspiration the novel would succeed. However, as the plot unfolds,
it becomes clear that Lane has altogether darker themes and more complex challenges
on his mind. Neil and Matt quarrel one evening at a party. Afterwards, in an
emotionally erratic state, Neil follows a stranger into some derelict buildings
next to a canal. The theme of dangerous sex is predominant and the inscrutability
of human desires foregrounded. What follows is a scene of excruciating violence.
In an atmosphere heavy with eroticism, the stranger viciously attacks Neil with
a knife, inflicting severe wounds on his face. It is the novels defining
event, an act of warped intimacy between Neil and his assailant and the beginning
of a long journey toward healing. The attack sequence is brilliantly executed,
real edge-of-the seat stuff. Lane deftly expresses the unbelievable horror of
the situation in a way that is both grittily realistic yet free of cliché.
Neils damaged face becomes the blue mask of the title and the novel shifts
gear, turning into the account of an individuals attempt to adapt to
a radically changed situation and come to terms with a secret darkness alive
all of us. The plot is thematically dense, encompassing some profound psychological
issues: the role of the physical body in the construction of identity; the
repercussions of violence on the emotional life of the victim. This is the
drama at the heart
of The Blue Mask. Neil wakes up in hospital after the attack and there
is a strong sense of him inhabiting a new body. The face beneath the bandages
is not his own. A new identity has been forged. It is an intriguing situation,
a glimpse into obscure territories, and I was curious about how Lane would handle
it. He only partially succeeds.
Lane somewhat loses control of his material after the attack. The novel remains
an engaging and entertaining read but the true richness of its dark themes
is not fully exploited. The consequences of Neils injuries might have been
explored more dramatically and movingly. The nature of his transformation might
have led to an incisive exploration into the psyche. But Lane does not really
do justice to these possibilities; the aftermath of the attack is a bit mundane
and anti-climactic. There is no flash of extraordinary insight or otherness,
no powerful sensation of an individual transformed. Even the reactions of his
friends are rather tepid, and the unravelling of Neils relationship with
Matt is unsurprising. In focusing unduly on the practicalities of the situation,
Lane throws away an opportunity for existential questioning.
What follows is a superficial tour of the darker sides of life, a peremptory
nod to the idea of a journey towards healing. The repeated references to the
blue mask of Neil's face read like a shorthand for issues the writer seems
unable or unwilling to confront. Neil and Matts trip to Paris might have offered
interesting insights into the ways in which trauma affect relationships but instead,
Lanes give us a soft porn rendering of anonymous sex in a Paris club. Its
mildly entertaining but not as dark or edgy as the writer clearly intended. The
same may be said for Neils forays into drug using. The details are here,
the writing is realistic, but the sequences lack any real emotional punch, and
Lane indulges in sensationalism. Neils alter-ego Jason is unconvincing
and, at times, unintentionally comic. The references to B-movie horror push
the pop culture allusions too far and there is no real sense that Neil has
a different person. The use of the pseudonym seems little more than a ruse
to maintain anonymity during casual sexual encounters.
The "quasi-relationship" which Neil forms with the idea of his attacker
is interesting and psychotherapists might see echoes here of Jungs ideas
about the subconscious "shadow" complex. Ian Moore is more a part of
Neils mental furniture than a character in his own right. Again, there
was the potential here for more thought-provoking writing. The convenient dispatching
of Moore is altogether too neat and seems to rely on a sense of cosmic moral
order wholly inappropriate for a novel of this kind.
Music provides a potent backdrop to the action and a very evocative sense of
the period. Again, Lane is a brilliant observer of British student life, and
his understanding of the potency of pop culture enables him to use it deftly. The
Blue Mask is the title of a record by Lou Reed. Where the writing is successful,
the atmospheres are vivid and electrifying. Lane is very specific about the
bands and songs that are playing in the background, but he does have a tendency
overuse this technique and some passages are too heavy with musical detail.
He also overuses convoluted and lyrical similes and metaphors. Some of these
striking and highly effective ("The queue on the stairs was like a line
of silhouetted trees bent by the wind") but others are laboured and distracting
("Poplar trees stirred like giant feathers against the blue-black sky").
The Blue Mask reads like a piece of genre fiction despite the impression
that Lane aspires to more literary writing. The name-checking of Adorno and
Marcuse suggests an intellectual quality that is underpinned by a strong political
But this is little more than a veneer. One of the other problems of the novel
is Lane's penchant for the relentlessly bleak. It is all too clear that this
is the dark face of 1990s Britain. This is Birmingham Noir in all its nihilistic
glory. The readers eventually becomes numbed to the bleakness and blasé.
The combination of gay sex, music and violence make this novel read like a modern
thriller. Lane is more interested in writing a page-turner, in keeping his readers
entertained, than in fully exploring some of the "weighty' themes he raises. The
Blue Mask is often enjoyable and, at times, gripping, but ultimately it is
not a satisfying book. Neil finally returns to wholeness almost unscathed and
the ending is a little trite.