“Stories are like coins, Robert thought, passed from one hand to another,” Power’s protagonist muses, justifying his theft of someone else’s experiences. It also provides some gloriously wild scenes of vodka-and-cocaine-fuelled oligarchic excess as Robert winkles out Patrick’s story. Throughout the novel there are flashes of disorientation, sharply observed scenes of being drunk and grief-struck at a wake, or becoming out-of-sync after taking MDMA, or how panic can make you lose your bearings. Together, they build an atmosphere of uncertainty about what is solid and true. But by the end of this elegantly written, accomplished debut, Robert, a lonely, detached observer, is forced to commit.
A Lonely Man is an existential literary thriller in which writing itself is the lethal weapon. With the precision of Patricia Highsmith, Chris Power takes us into the world of John le Carré as seen through the autofiction of Rachel Cusk. All writing is theft, and novelists, he suggests, cross a line when they use their friends as copy. But while it is unpleasant to find a version of yourself in a book, is it a crime? Patrick’s story about Vanyashin is, Robert believes, a fantasy, and Patrick can hardly claim moral ownership of an experience which isn’t true.
The connection between a writer and those he writes about is at the centre of A Lonely Man. When Robert meets Patrick, another British writer living in Berlin, he glimpses a possible subject for his own novel. Patrick is a ghostwriter who was, until recently, working on the incendiary autobiography of a Russian oligarch, Sergei Vanyashin.
A Lonely Man is Chris Power’s first novel and is an interesting addition to the recent corpus of Berlin-based fiction. Power’s shimmering short-story collection, Mothers, was longlisted for the Folio prize, and this book deliberately draws separate narrative strands (and moods) together – partly to emphasise and play with the differences, partly to offer a consideration of the creative process itself... That said, the last scene of this book is superb, not least because the logic of Power’s plot has required a decision to be made to which he has to commit. My advice: buy the short stories and then buy this book and read them back-to-back.
Alarm bells ring in early chapters when the book’s protagonist, Robert, a novelist living in Berlin with his young family, spends his time mooching about the city, struggling to write a novel after a successful collection of short stories some years previously. Is this, we wonder, to be a novel about the difficult process of writing a novel? Luckily for the reader, there is a lot more going on than first meets the eye. This is an intricate and elegant story, and cleverly metatextual. A Lonely Man is an exploration of the creative process, and the sacrifices that are made in real life in the pursuit of art.
So begins Chris Power’s debut novel, an elegant, atmospheric story of shadows and half-truths. Power shares all of the letters of his surname with his protagonist as well as many biographical details: he is also the author of an acclaimed short-story collection (Mothers, 2018) and has a Swedish wife and two daughters. At times his descriptions of dinner parties and school runs recall the domestic autofiction of Karl Ove Knausgaard. But Power is a very different kind of writer — and A Lonely Man soon reveals itself as a taut, subtle, postmodern literary thriller written with an exacting command over its form.