Written by By Margo Goodin, CNN London
Tim Soutphommasane’s debut novel “Red Rocket” centers on Robert Frazer, a stockbroker, environmental scientist and wildlife photographer from west London. By his late 20s, he has sunk into a world of privilege and self-destruction. At 31, Frazer has used up his credit cards and made his last home. As his problems mount, he mounts his career comeback. The opportunity to start again strikes him hard.
A wry and haunting story, “Red Rocket” lifts aside all of the standard tropes of the conman story to give us one that would almost surprise the dishonest. Caught in a web of phoney relationships and debts, the large and very white-collar criminal finds himself trapped between his lavish wife and small-town assets. Many millions are at stake. The game of larceny seems ripe for human catastrophe. “Before the 1980s,” writes Soutphommasane, “there were few books about fraud. I thought there was a conspicuous lack of real crime. One reason was that victims didn’t know how to protect themselves.”
The essence of a conman’s art is deception. “Red Rocket” is less concerned with law enforcement or impersonation than it is with a fear of losing your identity and of betraying your friends. But when Frazer is caught up in his own fraud, the “trust funds” he is fraudulently using to pay for his wife’s illegal house renovation cost are suddenly in jeopardy. They are, in a way, his “trust funds.”
The plot thickens, and inevitably, the crises become more dire. “To me,” says Soutphommasane, “nothing is more powerful than the shame that comes with changing one’s identity.”
Trust: The classic con plot. As the novelist says, “Nothing is more powerful than the shame that comes with changing one’s identity.” Credit: Tim Soutphommasane
While the man underneath the persona of Frazer is the same man on the surface, the person underneath is something else entirely. The photographs he takes of elephants will tell you all you need to know about the person beneath. “If you saw pictures of them taken by a man, you’d understand why nobody would trust him with money,” he says. “The elephant will look this incredibly vulnerable with the huge trunk, this massive animal with only a background of trees.”
‘Intriguing and troubling’
The work of Soutphommasane begins to approach an area of research rarely explored in novels about con men: the studies of published books. With their very creation and destruction, these books are written about you. The language Soutphommasane uses to address his material so strongly echoes Faulkner or Kafka; with her wry and sardonic tone, the narrator of “Red Rocket” comes close to crafting her own voice.
What does great con stories do?
The answers are unlikely to come from reading books. What the book offers are the hints of each novel’s — and more to the point, its author’s — inner life. What is so wonderfully unsettling about “Red Rocket” is that a man struggling to set himself free in a ragged life, a man literally trapped in his own reputation, finds himself blackened by his image: his wife and his trees. He is also, as he puts it, “being torn between two worlds… One version of my life was toxic, violent, and killous; the other version was poetic, gentle, generous and uplifting.”
“Red Rocket” has already been banned by The Republic of Ireland and the Hong Kong authorities over concerns over the author’s political beliefs and the novel’s focus on perversion. If you feel that these are important matters, you might find this more affecting reading.
But Soutphommasane, long admired by no less than Austen, has said that he doesn’t write for the pleasure of his readers, and wants them to read “Red Rocket” for the same reason he did. I hope so. It’s a fine and interesting book.