Saturday, February 03, 2007

Book Review: Anonymous Lawyer by Jeremy Blachman

This blog is not primarily a book review blog; it's only occasionally that I've written about a book, and then it's been a book which I just happened to have read. Cynical Bitch though I am, I had naively assumed that review bloggers were doing the same but more often, and when the dispute about blog versus newspaper reviewing broke, the fact that many bloggers were being sent books by publishers was news to me.

Then Vintage asked me if I'd like a copy of Anonymous Lawyer - a Novel, the book of the famous blog, published in the UK this week. Instantly I was dubious, and a question which had been much discussed was thrown into stark relief for me. Would my critical independence be compromised? For I must say such an offer seems a heck of a lot more like a 'gift' than one mediated impersonally by a literary editor (and I have noticed that bloggers have begun thanking publishers in their blogs for their copies). But hey, a Bitch is a Bitch, and this was a blog book, surrounded by specific issues of blog anonymity, and I was very interested, so in the next instant I emailed back and said yes.

Turns out Jeremy Blachman, the author, is a man after the Bitch's own heart - in fact, he's a bitch and a half. The blog, initially anonymous, is a hoot and deservedly popular. Purportedly written by a hiring partner in a large Los Angeles law firm - monstrously vain, scheming and sadistic, but ultimately vulnerable - it exposes with broad satire the nasty underbelly of corporate law. There was much speculation about the identity of the author and whether or not the blog was fictional, which is amusing to read now, but the author was finally outed as a Harvard law student whose recent experience of student internship in a law firm was from the other side. An astute editor picked up on Blachman's thus clearly fictive skills and the book, or at least the idea of the book, soon followed.

It's hard to believe in retrospect that the blog was ever thought to be anything but fiction, which shows the power of context. The novel takes the form of the original blog - interspersed with emails - and its style and voice, those of a satirically exaggerated (unreliable) narrator, are identical:
We have students lining up to hand us their resumes, yet we've got a 30 percent annual turnover rate... That makes my job a bit of a challenge. How to stay positive about selling students on the excellence of this place when we have to make sure the boxes of copier paper aren't tied up wih rope - because that rope is just too tempting. One hanging every so often is to be expected, but when there's another one every time we get new office supplies it starts to get a little difficult to work.
The blog is smartly shaped into a proper story - that of Anonymous Lawyer's scheming to oust his rival to the chairmanship of the firm - but the novel is more complex, both structurally and thematically, than this. Rather than simply being the means of telling a story, the blog is a crucial aspect of the wider story. It's the place where Anonymous Lawyer postures (though sometimes letting his mask slip), but it is counterpointed by the emails in which a different reality unfolds. Initially there is some fun (which Blachman must have had in real life) at the expense of those emailing to guess AL's identity, but eventually someone emails who really does know who he is, his anonymity is threatened, the incriminating blog becomes the potential means of his downfall, and the stage is set for further machiavellian manipulations. Thus the novel goes beyond the scope of the original real-life blog to become not simply an expose of the evils of corporate law but a witty comment on the nature of blogging and anonymity, and on the double-edged power and vulnerability of bloggers.

Not that the wit doesn't sometimes wear thin. The serial nature of a blog allows for - maybe even requires - some repetition, but a novel with its demand for development is less forgiving. I found this funny at the beginning of the novel:
He fired his assistant on the day she announced she was pregnant... At least I wait until they come back from maternity leave before I tell them they're fired.
but by the end of the novel, when this joke was still being riffed, its lack of subtlety, the very thing which had made it funny, had palled.

This isn't a subtle novel, and nor is it meant to be; its fast pace and rude wit are probably best taken at a sitting. At first I was suspicious of it as a publisher's cynical marketing conconction - a sentence in Blachman's Acknowledgements runs: Even when I was sure I couldn't write this book I never felt [my editor's] confidence waver. But the Acknowledgements refers to Blachman's prior aspirations as a fiction-writer, and the book justifies them.

But, hey, speaking of marketing, what about the product? I simply couldn't get this paperback to stop springing shut on me, and I've got bad enough RSI in my thumb without having to strain it further that way. And when I finally cracked the spine to make the book lie flat, all the pages came unglued and fell about in my hands.

Who said books last longer than blogs?
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