Sunday evening on the M25. Darkness is falling when the traffic crunches to a sudden halt: “Standstill. The sky was tarnishing as black-winged night accelerated its descent. Over the swarms of grubby, gleaming machines, a fug of fumes sighed”. Various characters speculate on the cause of the holdup, with minimal success. The proffered explanations range from the dutifully prosaic (an accident, perhaps?) to the sensational (a terrorist attack?). Restless passengers check their phones, increasingly frustrated at the flickering, sporadic reception (“there’s no fucking signal!”) searching for any crumb of information.
As night draws in on the stationary ‘crush’, each interior becomes the site of its own slowly unfurling drama. The ‘buglike’ Chrysler Voyager contains a bickering couple, Max and Ursula, late for marriage counselling back in suburban Ealing, and assailed by their wailing four year old daughter and her ‘perpetually sticky’ friend- predictably the tension escalates within the car’s stuffy interior as toddlers wail and adult tempers fray. Tension, of a slightly more sinister sort, also pervades a nearby white van where Rhys, his portly ‘faithful hound’ of a brother Chris, and confidant Monty sit armed with chains, bats and mace. Returning from a rally, heavily alluded to as being ‘dodgy’, they exchange expletives and rue the traffic jam depriving them of a stop off at ‘Newham boozer’. The prospect of trouble hangs pregnant in the increasingly nightmarish haze of fumes. When Shahid and crew step out of their battered Peugeot to aimlessly scuff a football along the hard shoulder, hazard lights begin to flash.
The blurb welcomes “[a] bold, state-of-the-nation novel” and Simons is certainly ambitious in his scope and breadth of characterisation.This ambition is both the novel’s greatest strength and its most glaring weakness. There are implicit dangers in trying to sketch a comprehensive cross section of society in three hundred pages, and the constant fluctuations in tone and pitch are not always unqualified successes. Where they do succeed – as with the exceptionally funny Shauna, a thirty something professional, unfulfilled and bored with the trappings of her dull life of moderate success and excess – you have the sense of a novelist in control and confident of his material. When they do not succeed, the effect can be jarring – the scruffy, sexually manipulative student Stevie is a thin addition to the novel, fully equipped with a distinctive verbal quirk (“and shit”) which is repeated to the point where you start to detect a novelist slightly too much in love with his mimicry.
JAM has much to recommend it despite the overcrowded canvas of characters. Simons is certainly highly adept at creating a sense of suspense and palpable frustration, at once both tightly taught and strangely dreamlike, as various diverse lives collide in the most 21st century of infernos. The opening chapter is a memorable panoramic description of a typical London Sunday that provoked in this reviewer some very genuine laughter. There are also very fine passages of dialogue, notwithstanding the more youthful characters who read exactly like what a middle aged Daily Telegraph columnist would consider urban and current. It is a source of mild disappointment, then, that a novelist capable of the very subtle and the very carefully poised seems also very capable of hitting the wrong note with too much regularity.