Literature loves an unreliable – possibly unhinged – narrator, and a splendid new specimen enters the ranks this month with the arrival of The Card’s Riley Richardson (né Pincus).
He joins a colourful gang that includes the exceedingly ladylike Norma Fontaine, a glamour-puss who, by no small coincidence, also sprang from the fertile mind of author, artist and designer, Graham Rawle.
Fontaine starred in Rawle’s début novel, Woman’s World, which took the physical form of an extended collage. Every bit of text was cut and pasted from popular women’s magazines of the early 1960s, and though the story was already written, Rawle’s artistic process wrought occasional changes, adding a layer of surreal magic to an already dazzling tale featuring a heroine who was not quite what she seemed.
The Card, set in 1997, is no less original, though the book, at first glance, appears to be of a more traditional format. But original art peppers the text, the typography has a few tricks up its sleeve, and there is recurring marginalia to serve as an indication of the skewed lens through which Riley views the world. These notations may or may not turn out to be a treasure map – I’ve yet to decipher them all, and live in hope that Rawle will publish a concordance.
Riley is himself a puzzle. At 40, he has no visible means of support, yet lives in a pleasant London flat, regularly augments his cache of rare collectible trading cards, and never complains of money worries. He’s celebrity-obsessed, though denies it, and in particular, all roads lead to Barry Manilow (né Pincus). He insists, on the basis of their shared, shed surname, that the American singer-songwriter is his cousin.
The novel opens with a magazine piece Riley’s writing – painstakingly counting every word – about a missing one-of-a-kind Mission Impossible collectible card from the 1960s television series. As his ideas pile up, it’s clear he’s actually re-imagining the pivotal moment when his father, a printer at the factory producing these cards, abandoned his wife and ten-year-old son and ran off with a secretary from work. As The Card progresses, thanks to one of the many coincidences Rawle relies upon as plot devices, events in the magazine piece initially run parallel, then merge, with the action of the novel.
That action is believably Byzantine – Byzantine because the “You must be kidding” coincidences keep on coming, and believable because Rawle is so very good at enabling us to see the world from Riley’s pattern-spotting perspective. The result is that Riley’s crackpot logic feels perfectly logical, even though we know his perceptions are off-kilter and untrustworthy. After all, who can entirely relax in the company of someone whose speech resembles advertisements and photo captions, rather than everyday conversation? And how on earth could any of the things he imagines turn out to be true?
Riley spies a grey-haired man and decides that it’s Peter Graves, who played Jim Phelps in Mission Impossible. Since he’s writing about that programme, Riley’s convinced that this is a sign – maybe he knows where the missing card can be found? So he follows “Phelps” through the streets. When the man vanishes, Riley picks a card up off the ground, sure that “Phelps” left it as a clue he is meant to follow. It’s the Queen of Hearts – in profile, which is unusual – and don’t you know, but straight away Riley encounters Princess Diana. He accidentally gives her a pork pie, leading to even more complications that bring him to the attention of palace security and the local police.
Riley finds cards everywhere he goes, 15 in total, all beautifully rendered in painstaking, realistic detail by the author. Riley’s neighbour, Steve – a raging conspiracy theorist – goads him on to decipher the message as a recruitment test by MI5 (or 6). Surely his mission is saving Princess Diana’s life. From who or what, he wonders? And suddenly the reader is hideously reminded that the novel is set in 1997, making for moments of almost unbearable tension, though our concern is more for Riley’s mental health than for the doomed Princess whose fate has already played out in real life, if not this fiction.
There’s more confusion in store when a fresh batch of cards, and Steve’s meddling, convinces Riley (albeit warily) that his real mission is saving actress Minnie Driver’s life. But when it turns out that Steve is stalking her, it seems likely that Riley will wind up in jail as an accidental accessory.
While all this mayhem whirls around him, Riley finds time – thanks to a card dropped in his local library – to meet a nice girl and fall in love, not only with her, but her entire, and entirely unorthodox, family, who welcome him like their Prodigal Son.
There are so many reasons to love Rawle and all he produces, but for his deployment of imagery alone, he deserves to be treasured. Vegetables at Riley’s corner shop, “looked like somebody might have already thrown them out once”. A set of Elvis-style sideburns resemble “miniature trouser legs straddling his face.” And according to Riley, Minnie Driver’s face “looked hard and muscle-bound, her sharp, dark features like a handful of currants pressed into a weightlifter’s thigh”.
The Card’s plot is coincidence-ridden and preposterous enough to be worthy of Riley’s mad thought process, but that’s part of the fun. Yet when, as fate decrees, Princess Diana is killed, it turns out to be Riley’s redemption. He finds strength, and his happy ending.
I shall be happily pondering all the subtle mysteries of The Card for weeks to come. What a virtuoso performance! What a treasure we have in Graham Rawle.
by Graham Rawle
Atlantic Books, 333pp, £16.99