Rock Bottom by Geoff Baker
You taught me language, and my profit on it, is I know how to curse
Caliban in The Tempest, Act I, Scene II
History entreats the reader to be wary of novels penned by tabloid journalists. The critic Cyril Connolly declared, ‘Literature is the art of writing something that will be read twice; journalism what will be grasped at once, and they require separate techniques’. One is reminded of the Daily Mail columnist, Richard Littlejohn, who loftily declared that his novel To Hell in a Handcart should not be compared to one of Tolstoy’s novels, as it was, ‘far more complex than that’.
Geoff Baker’s debut novel, Rock Bottom does much to dispel such stereotypes. It is a tale of excess, told with prepossessing crudity. Punctuated by staccato chapters, the demotic lyricism of Baker’s prose lends a laconic rhythm to the novel.
In Roman mythology, Janus, the bi-headed god of beginnings, endings and time is frequently depicted looking simultaneously into the future and the past. This is an underlying theme of Baker’s novel. The title Rock Bottom is a double entendre, denoting both depression and the suppressed homosexuality of one of the lead characters. Similarly, there is a duality to the content of the novel as Baker examines the interaction of fame and the media and their human impact.
A former showbiz editor of the Daily Star, Baker pens deft and insightful vignettes depicting the nature of the media. His protagonist, Peter theorises that the way to ‘ensure mass newspaper coverage [for a concert promoting peace and his client] … is to interest that huge section of society who wouldn’t even want a ticket. This is not about selling tickets. This is about attracting the constant attention of the tabloids as they drive the respectable media’. He then advocates making a charitable donation out of the concert proceeds on the grounds that ‘it’s entirely tax deductible’. At its best, Baker’s portrayal of the print and news media recalls that of Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop as he ridicules them by taking them seriously.
Baker expertly draws upon his fifteen years of PR experience with Oasis, The Beatles and Paul and Linda McCartney to satirise the concept of fame. Upon being told that Ian Taylor (the rock star at the heart of the novel) is just ‘an ordinary bloke’, the following response is offered; ‘Don’t be preposterous. When have you ever met an ordinary bloke like Ian Taylor? He’s a celebrity and we should show him the appropriate respect.’ Such dead pan repartee features prominently in the novel. Baker also offers an interesting insight into the differences between being a rock star and being a superstar, arguing that a superstar will ferment hysteria even amongst those who seldom buy their records. Particularly potent is this throwaway observation, ‘How pathetic Peter was. Sandy saw why Susie found him so unattractive if he could no longer introduce his friends to the famous’.
Supplication is both an overt and underlying theme of Rock Bottom. An early scene involves rock star Ian Taylor waking early to recall the ‘puckered apertures’ and ‘expert application of fellatio’ performed by the rent boy sleeping next to him. His next thought is the hope that the rent boy is ‘not going to act over familiar with him’. These priapic tendencies remerge as Taylor argues that the emergence of pictures of him in an incriminating homosexual position mean that ‘now of all times, I need to be seen doing some bloody good shagging’. Drawing upon his own experiences in PR, Baker paints an emotive picture of the human cost of the entertainment industry, chronicling Peter’s bigamous attempts to ‘maintain his marriage while indulging in the mistress that was his job’.
Rock Bottom’s primary characteristic is its salacious nature. It is revealing that Baker considers the coquettish ‘I never know when I’ll get wet’ to be only an ‘atomic hint’. Catherine, the main female character is a femme fatale, who seeks to satisfy her desires by using her feminine wiles and ‘musk scented body lotion which made its wearer reek of sex’. The gender of the novelist is implicit from the novel’s portrayal of women. Invariably pulchritudinous, they either use their sex to manipulate, or are manipulated for sexual favours. In Indigo’s limited experience, Baker’s writing on sex in Rock Bottom is a little optimistic, and, in instances, distastefully reminiscent of immaculate conception. Thus, in deft sequence, ‘involuntary lubricity’ precedes ‘gorgeous impalement’, culminating ultimately in [Catherine] coming in seconds … and maybe in thirds.
The strains of married life are documented in eviscerating detail. The following passage is typical of the novel.
‘Ugh thought Susie as she crawled on her hands and knees from beneath Peter’s desk. Without saying a word or giving much more than a glance at the figure of her husband sitting splay-legged in his seat with his already-shrunken member shining in its icing of saliva and semen, she stood and straightened her dress. Susie examined her lips in the bathroom mirror. She had read that a consequence of giving fellatio was a slight bruising and swelling of the lips. Hers did appear to be slightly more swollen now and she smirked at the irony of her husband’s penis working as a fluffing tool for what she might allow to happen later.’
Rock Bottom admirably integrates the frivolous with the serious. This is instanced by the protagonist Peter’s bathetic realisation as he hangs himself that he had forgotten to write a suicide note. A droll aside from Peter informs the reader that ‘VH1 is watched by businessmen wanting to drown out the sound of the hookers in their hotel rooms’. Similarly, middle class angst is laid bare by the reaction of the dentist host of the climactic party (which ends the novel), ‘did you say cocaine. Bloody hell, I don’t want the cleaners seeing that’.
Baker’s use of farce in set piece scenes is masterful. In one encounter, the protagonist reacts to the health concerns of an American tourist by facetiously offering him a cigarette, before mockingly reassuring him that cancer is not an infectious condition. In another scene, Peter justifies sleeping with his employees daughter on the grounds that, ‘he was playing for time’.
Another engaging aspect of Baker’s novel is his comic use of mise en abyme (a novel within a novel) to amplify the farcical elements of his own work. This involves the protagonist, Peter attempting to write a ‘literary porn’ novel, inspired by a Sunday Telegraph article entitled ‘Explicit Sex Now Used to Lure Young Women Readers. This faux novel features a blowjob in the opening scene, mirroring Rock Bottom whose eventful opening page and a half features reciprocal masturbation and indecent exposure in a public place.
With Rock Bottom, Baker takes a genre famed for lowest common denominator fiction and imbues it with pathos, frivolity and seriousness. He simultaneously informs and entertains; documenting the dehumanising effects of fame and the mass media and their impact on individuals whilst providing a tantalising insight into the debauched glamour of the music industry.
Priced at £7.99, Rock Bottom is available from email@example.com.