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Right now, as you read this, your computer has made a note of your visit. Similarly, server-side, your unique IP address has been logged in a memory bank somewhere. Your mobile phone next to you continually beams its location—your location—to a satellite, and tour car’s GPS or built-in OnStar does the same. And even if you were to walk away from your treasonous electronic gadgets, posted on the lamppost above you (or on your neighbor’s door, or in your building’s lobby) are CCTV cameras, monitoring your every movement. But who’s monitoring? And why?
Although those questions lie at the heart of Philip Hensher’s new novel, King of the Badgers (Farber and Farber), Hensher, who was shortlisted for 2008’s Man Booker Prize for The Northern Clemency, is less interested in the paranoiac and more in the panoptic. As the novel begins, Hensher introduces a dizzying array of characters from the English town of Hanmouth (Hammuth, as the upper-crust residents pronounce it). Eight year-old China, from the lower-class area of town, has gone missing, and the media descends on the town in a frenzy.
Hensher hops from one viewpoint to another, and this kaleidoscopic approach, though initially confusing, pays off: he creates a portrait not of an incident, but of a community. China’s disappearance provides an excuse for the powers-that-be to push for more vigilance, more monitoring, more policing, but it’s also an opportunity for the residents of Hanmouth to come together. The kidnapping becomes the wall onto which Hensher sculpts his characters in bas-relief: the ladies’ book club; the newcomers who have trouble finding people to come to a party; the academic who, during a visit to Disneyland Paris, “keeps up the monologue about the semiotic and cultural imperialism from one end of Main Street USA to the other”; the gay cheese-shop owner and his coveted boyfriend, Lord “What-a-Waste.”
Even though China’s abductor is revealed relatively early (though her whereabouts remain unknown), the novel is less concerned with the mystery and more about how people live, both in private and in public. Indeed, in the book’s middle section, Hensher changes tacks, changing from a wide-angle lens to a narrow view. David, a portly, near middle-aged gay man, becomes the focal point. On a visit to his parents with his “boyfriend,” who may or may not be using him, he encounters Hanmouth’s contingent of self-proclaimed “Bears,” who occasionally hold drug-fueled orgies. But even amongst them, David feels estranged. Ashamed of his outward, public appearance, David turns inward. If the rest of the novel concerns itself with community, David’s
section presents its opposite: isolation.
Given the huge cast of characters, Hensher presents himself a challenge with the end of the novel: how to wrap everything up? And, unfortunately, much of the tension building that’s been building (a middle-class couple’s oncoming insolvency, a married man’s affair with another man, the growing menace of the Neighborhood Watch), dissipates. Even China’s return feels perfunctory.
But Hensher also returns to the multifarious points-of-view, and with that, reveals something that the cameras often miss: the invisible. Whether grieving parents, the widow of a war hero, or the slightly sadistic 13 year-old girl with a knack for homophobic slurs, Hensher observes the way people become unseen, and ultimately, the way the unseen band together and fight back against their observers.
As The King of the Badgers shows, it’s one thing to watch your neighbors, but another entirely to watch out for them.
The King of Badgers
By Philip Hensher
Farber and Farber Inc.