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The Blue Mask
Joel Lane
London: Serpent's Tail, 2003.
£10.00, 224 pages, ISBN 1-85242-688-8.

Steven Marc Jones
Liverpool John Moores University

Joel Lane’s 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 inhabited 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. Lane’s strengths lie in the detailed and realistic evocation of British city life. He seduces us with familiarity then darkens the image. His world is cinematic and alive with threat, recalling the moods and textures of Film Noir without compromising the essential reality of 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 us 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 and his 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 Birmingham’s 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 well–drawn. Lane works hard to make their coterie of friends and the issues that preoccupy them believable and 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 vulnerability.

The early chapters of the novel are beguiling because of Lane’s 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 novel’s 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. Neil’s damaged face becomes the blue mask of the title and the novel shifts gear, turning into the account of an individual’s attempt to adapt to a radically changed situation and come to terms with a secret darkness alive in 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 Neil’s 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 Neil’s 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 Matt’s 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. It’s mildly entertaining but not as dark or edgy as the writer clearly intended. The same may be said for Neil’s 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. Neil’s 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 become 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 Jung’s ideas about the subconscious "shadow" complex. Ian Moore is more a part of Neil’s 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 to overuse this technique and some passages are too heavy with musical detail. He also overuses convoluted and lyrical similes and metaphors. Some of these are 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 undercurrent. 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.

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