Published online by Cambridge University Press: 20 December 2017
Adam Foulds has a growing reputation as one of the more significant twenty-first- century British novelists. An intimation as to why this might be is the seriousness with which he views the craft of writing. In a short essay for The Guardian on the importance of description in fiction, Foulds writes that ‘[t]hrough description, reality is broken down and reassembled according to what you, the author, desire’. Foulds continues this thought by prioritising aesthetic composition in the pursuit of verisimilitude: ‘The resulting words must be formally satisfying, finding an artistic pattern that has only tangentially to do with lived experience per se and yet somehow renders it with the greatest possible intensity.’ This is a writer's way of engaging with the debate about realism, a suggestion that a convincing mimetic presentation is always an intense kind of re-presentation. Thea Lenarduzzi puts this another way, suggesting that one ‘broader theme’ in Foulds's novels is his concern ‘with different ways of seeing, and the gaps between things as they are perceived and things as they are’. This elevation of the conventional account of literary insight to the status of a theme signals the literariness of Foulds, an emphasis that issues especially in an examination of his literary influences and inheritance.
His first novel, The Truth about These Strange Times (2007), is chiefly an examination of contemporary British social concerns. The plot is centred on an improbable relationship between ten-year-old Saul, a prodigy on the brink of winning the World Memory Championships, and the social failure Howard McNamee, who is without a career at twenty-eight, overweight, friendless, and haunted not only by his traumatic childhood in Glasgow but also by the recent death of his mother. Howard is representative of those dispossessed in a Britain obsessed with economic success and physical beauty. Yet it is he who supplies the understanding that Saul's over-ambitious parents cannot muster, and in turn Saul gives Howard the modicum of respect lacking in his life, as well as being the focus for Howard's undeveloped skills in care and responsibility. The use of the naïve protagonist abroad has been a staple feature of the British novel, of course. Walter Scott's Waverley (1814) is a prominent example, but the origins lie in the sentimental novel of the eighteenth century: Henry Fielding's Joseph Andrews (1742) is one of the earliest examples in English fiction.