You crack open Tim Finch’s first novel, “The House of Journalists,” with an almost gleeful sense of anticipation. Set in London in a home for exiled writers, the story promises to be intelligent, thoughtful, politically astute. You skim the author’s bio and consider his qualifications: He has worked for a London think tank, a refugee council, the BBC. You read the first 40 pages and find that you like his tone: clever, erudite and just a wee bit cheeky. From time to time, you wonder about the author’s extensive use of the second person, in which you yourself are addressed as one of the key characters, a person by the name of “AA,” but the style grows on you, and it does have the effect of putting you smack dab in the middle of scenes.
You read on, intrigued. You find yourself truly liking Finch’s characters. They are idiosyncratic, original, sympathetic, recognizable. You don’t necessarily know all the specifics of their stories, such as the names of the countries each character is fleeing, but that doesn’t really matter because there seems to be a universal bond that joins the residents of the House of Journalists. They are, as Finch puts it, “united in exile and nostalgia for the food of home.”
As you read, you are drawn to Agnes, the hardened, 23-year-old, chain-smoking photographer with close-cropped hair who writes poetry about her country’s descent into barbarism. You enjoy the company of the thoughtful, soft-spoken Mustapha, who was arrested by his country’s secret police. You’re quite fond of the elderly Mr. Stan with his “humpty head” and his knotted hands — disfigured by torturers who wanted to make sure that he would never write again. Perhaps your favorite character is the foul-mouthed, Nobel Prize-winning Ted Crumb, who visits the House of Journalists and rages against the hypocrisy of his government and the House itself.
And then there are characters like Julian Snowman, the House’s self-important founder, who grows increasingly paranoid as the novel proceeds. True, you don’t care for this fellow, but you find him to be a credible, comic creation, and you like hearing about him, much as you like hearing the stories about the rest of the journalists — even “AA,” the character played by you. You sense that some intrigue is developing, some mystery involving skullduggery and secret societies. You keep reading, though not as quickly and attentively as when you started.
By now, you’re nearly halfway through the novel, and you find yourself getting worried, yes, maybe a bit bogged down. Oh, you still admire Finch’s writing, his intelligence, the originality of his style, the seeming authenticity of his exiled characters’ monologues. But you’re starting to wonder if all this knowledge and mastery of detail will coalesce into a plot. You wonder if you’re being shallow, sensationalistic or overly traditional for craving forward motion. Perhaps Finch is demonstrating that writing fiction after describing torture and civil war is barbaric.
And yet you can’t deny your own desires — as a lover of fiction, you crave stories; you want this all to lead somewhere. You note that your character, this “AA,” seems to disappear for large swathes of narrative. As a reader, you too find yourself checking out every now and again. You wonder if Finch intends for you to feel his reader’s alienation — if he anticipates exactly how you will become distracted from his novel. Clever, you think. Probably too clever.
You arrive at a chapter called “Developments.” Here, you think, is where the novel will gain traction, propel you onward. And yet that doesn’t happen, not really. Julian Snowman, exhibiting “increasingly manic behaviour,” becomes convinced that someone is plotting against the House of Journalists. Even you, AA, are suspected. You sense that the leadership of the House of Journalists is becoming its own form of repressive regime. Yet none of this registers with sufficient impact.
Finally, in the novel’s last pages, Finch does try to tie the strands of his novel together, using a rather nifty, meta-fictional trick, one that explains the precise role you, AA, have been playing all along in creating the narrative. You generally love this sort of post-modern gamesmanship, but this time you feel it’s too late for that. You’re still not satisfied. Yes, you have to say it, you were expecting more from Finch’s characters. You sense that this is simply not the great novel you were expecting, but you still feel confident that Finch is capable of writing one. And when he does, you will be eager to read it.
Langer is the author of a memoir and five novels. His new novel is “The Salinger Contract.”
THE HOUSE OF JOURNALISTS
By Tim Finch
Farrar Straus Giroux. 294 pp. $26