Colin MacInnes

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MacInnes, Colin (Vol. 4)

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MacInnes, Colin 1914–

MacInnes is an English novelist and essayist. His mature fiction, eloquent and exuberant, is concerned with youth and racial problems in contemporary London.

Colin MacInnes is regarded as a sort of voice of the displaced, downtrodden, or misunderstood—the rebel (real or would-be) with a cause. 'Low life' may be regarded as the subject-matter of City of Spades, Mr. Love and Justice and Absolute Beginners, but there is no attempt to exploit the sensational in the manner of the popular novelist. City of Spades avoids showing Negroes as either brutish, innocent or quaint; it is moving and indignant in its presentation of racialism in the London of the fifties, but it is not merely propaganda. The aim of Mr. Love and Justice is to show what the world of the prostitute and the ponce is really like and to examine the conventional image of an incorrupt British police force. Absolute Beginners is sympathetic to the culture-patterns of teenagers. MacInnes knows the underside of London life, but, strangely, he does not seem to have a sharp ear for its language. Being unable to record faithfully the idioms of Negroes, small criminals and adolescents, he makes up dialects for them out of his head—at least, this is the impression one has when reading him. For all that, his work is psychologically accurate, very enlightening, and full of a real (and quite unsentimental) compassion.

Anthony Burgess, in his The Novel Now (reprinted by permission of W. W. Norton & Co., Inc.; copyright © 1967 by Anthony Burgess), Norton, 1967, pp. 146-47.

[One] characteristic of [MacInnes's] fiction [is] the focus on outsiders—blacks, the suspect young, those outside the law, and police who twist the law to construct the cage of what they consider to be justice.

One reason for MacInnes's penchant for walks on the wild side is his ceaseless curiosity. He gets around. And it is especially a curiosity about how people spend rather than hoard their lives…. There is the thrust of anger in his work, particularly in his accounts of police practices. But coursing through each of the novels is a highly sensate appreciation of being alive, of being able to react spontaneously, whether with rage or tenderness. In writing of the 'curiously dancing quality' in MacInnes's work, a British critic adds that MacInnes 'can't help praising life.'

But another reason for the frequency of outsiders in his fiction is a moral concern. Most who are not outsiders acquire considerable skills in what the American social critic Joseph Lyford calls auto-anesthesia—the ability to exclude from all but the most surface levels of consciousness those who are not like themselves…. Around them seethes a great flux of bizarre social groupings through which they proceed, like tourists traversing the casbah, unseeing and unaware….

Oh, they read and see some of what's 'really happening', but with the paper thrown away and the television set switched off, their world is still all they really know. One of MacInnes's purposes, then, is to inform. But if he were to use only documentary techniques, he too could be quickly switched off. By getting inside diverse outsiders through an act of the imagination, however, MacInnes makes it much more difficult for his readers to engage in auto-anesthesia….

As a novelist, not a documentator, he created characters who, I expect, kept surprising him, for they are more than social indicators. Strongly rooted in a particular time and place, they took on their own lives.

I am not claiming a position for Colin MacInnes in the pantheon of novelists, but I do submit that he has...

(This entire section contains 1240 words.)

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created a vivid trilogy of London life [City of Spades, Absolute Beginners, and Mr. Love and Justice] that transcends documentary and all other categories. Zestful and tough, it is self-sustaining in that 'perennial battle between life and living death.'

Nat Hentoff, "Introduction" (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; copyright © 1969 by Nat Hentoff) to The London Novels of Colin MacInnes, Farrar, Straus, 1969, pp. vii-xii.

Colin MacInnes, assiduous annotator of contemporary scenes, has always been determined not to be constrained by the frustrations of real documentation. But exciting as is the licence to make cases you don't have to keep fuelled by hard evidence, it's a dangerous freedom to claim for any form of writing, even the novel. So, though Out of the Garden is a heady concoction that actually confirms some of one's worst fears and prejudices about trends in current English politics, its own tendentiousness can be perturbing….

The political emphases of the … theme [of Out of the Garden] come across with admirable clarity. Alas, however, the novelist isn't happy with this abundant explicitness. The characters' names must join forces with the title to spell things out more loudly. It's just tolerable, I suppose, that the Adamses' juvenile delinquent offspring should be nicknamed Kik and Mas, after the Kikuyu and Masai peoples (their father fought in Kenya) to underscore the observation about Britain becoming the last colony.

But the novel's point about a class-ridden displeasure garden, in which the ex-officer still needs and exploits his exsergeant is not just clear but overstated….

Still, this is an occasionally riveting read, with incidental sharp exposures of modish foibles and follies liberally dolloped in for good measure. And it's also—given the necessary caveat about tendentiousness—a set of serious reflections on the relationship of the military to social order in Great Britain.

Valentine Cunningham, "Displeasure Garden," in The Listener, March 7, 1974, p. 311.

Out of the Garden, Colin MacInnes's new novel, is a brilliant treatise on the role of the military in our post-colonial period, using the analytical techniques of Marxism to draw reverse political conclusions. It is enjoyable, intellectually stimulating and almost a good novel to boot. MacInnes's social analysis is appealing not so much for its inherent plausibility as for the logical charm that fresh concepts have when they are cogently but slightly perversely systematised. He is perhaps less perceptive about people.

This failing is compounded by the method of approach. The novel is cast almost entirely in conversation, which at its most extreme becomes Socratic, just a chance for the author to pour his own effervescent ideas through the mouths of his characters. There is, however, such an imperative rhythm to the dialogue that even those most resistant to the novel of ideas will find themselves carried along. This is all the more remarkable considering that the tiny fraction of the writing that is not speech is just sophisticated stage direction.

As well as being a repository of ideas the tale doubles as an extended biblical metaphor: the garden of original guilt being Otranto Towers, the ruined stately home that aristocratic Captain Rattler and his beautiful platonic companion Aspen plan to open as cover for a military putsch and general gun-running. Playing proletarian innocents against these hissing class enemies are Rattler's former Sergeant, Adams, his wife Evie and their two wayward, engaging sons. And, as a thumping afterthought, Evie's card-carrying, mechanical hard-liner of a father is called Angell. There the metaphor should have withered. One salutes the author for working within the discipline of a form but it is a pity that his rather endearing characters should have become trapped in the structure without a chance of growth…. Fortunately, the metaphor becomes obtrusive only at the end. Before that a parade of theorems dressed up as witticisms enchants and convinces.

Timothy Mo, in New Statesman, March 15, 1974, p. 370.


MacInnes, Colin (Vol. 23)