Engleby, in a non-spoiler nutshell, is the story of a man who discusses his life at school and university, and in particular, the disappearance of one of his friends, Jennifer Arkland, and then his life afterwards as a journalist. Mike Engleby resembles the archetype of the bright-eyed working-class boy off to seek adventure at university, much like Brian Jackson in David Nicholl’s Starter For Ten, but takes a sinister tone as his personal story unfolds.
Engleby, as you discover, is unreliable narration par excellence. Events are misrepresented, glossed over, embellished, and crucially omitted, despite the narrative’s prevailing clarity. The deviation in time, as well as the reference to Engleby’s incessant pill-popping, drug misuse and blackouts, all hint that there is something fishy going on in the way that Mike tells his story, that he is concealing key details. On top of that, it is clear that Engleby is regarded by other characters as unusually reserved and eccentric, even a bit of a loner.
Spoiler time. Unfortunately, it is very clear from the moment Mike Engleby obsesses over Jennifer (to the point of concealing and learning her diary verbatim) that he had a hand in her disappearance. The intrigue of the book was all a matter of when it was to be revealed. Nevertheless, Mike’s apparent obliviousness to what others think of him, and the structuring of the novel to be broken down into chapters, only to have each chapter later “psychoanalysed”, was an interesting use of meta in the novel:
Chapter Six. His only friend in London appears to eb the shopkeeper, a refugee form Amin’s Uganda. His account of buying pornographic magazines shows little libido. He is more interested in the imagined lives of the models and the homeland of the shopkeeper. His attempts to meet women in the wine bar is half-hearted and inept; his account fo it is misogynistic. Note: his account of his father’s abuse. Lacks detail. Detail suppressed? Or gravity of epsode(s) exaggerated?
Mike is neither really apologetic or pleased to have done the murder(s). Mike’s prose, though clear, lacks a certain gutsiness to it and reveals something despondent and lost, as though events were out of his hands. Mike seems disenchanted with his life, like it swept him up and dumped him into the familiar machine of school-uni-job-relationship-aging. His dissatisfaction with teaching approaches to literature, the manner in which his journalism is conveyed via pseudonym, his stumbling into the relationship with his friend, Stellings, and his woman, Margaret, all seem to suggest that he is out of touch with people and his own times. The novel seems to hint that it is could perhaps be this life that enabled him to do the killings. The snatches of revelation and pondering about life, and particularly parts that glorify Jennifer, prevent the novel from slipping into some gloomy existentialist exercise.
Engleby is a good read, but maybe a bit too predictable for me when it came to Jennifer’s disappearance. Other revelations in the novel, however, I did not see coming, so that was good. One thing I did enjoy, on a personal level, was that Mike Engleby’s decision to switch from an English Lit degree to a Natural Sciences one, is the inverse of what I did before coming to Edinburgh, and although he is a murderer, perhaps he made the more sensible decision!