The Scottish Review of Books Review: Javascotia

I’m not a joyous coffee drinker; equally, this unmistakably overcaffeinated novel shrivels my taste buds. Coffee runs like a black river through Benjamin Obler’s book, Javascotia, tiding us from Chicago, where the plot begins, to Glasgow where we and our narrator, Mel, wash up.
Let’s get the plot out of the way. Mel is a reformed slacker, coffee connoisseur, and photography nut, recovering from the aftershocks of his failed teenage marriage. I say failed; he tells people he’s divorced, while, as we learn, the truth is otherwise. Between jobs, he’s offered the perfect post. An unnamed coffeehouse chain wants him to spend ten weeks in Glasgow visiting cafes and reporting back on their coffees with a view to assessing whether there is a demand for their product outside of London. I should say that the action is taking place in 1995 (Braveheart is just about to come out), the pre-9/11, No Logo-era before Scotland, like everywhere, was comprehensively Starbucked.

Camera a-clicking, Mel takes to the streets of Glasgow. One has to say that despite reservations, Obler does conjure a unique portrait of Glasgow, quite distinct from the world inhabited by a Kelman or a Gray. This Glasgow is as light and frothy as a latte made with skimmed milk. Unfortunately, this tonal quality is matched by a sort of touristic babble, with travelogue-style descriptions of the second city: “Along a cobblestone esplanade that cuts back from broad Buchanan Street, I found a picturesque bistro. ‘Endive’ read the sign in elegant ironwork, stucco and ivy. All that was missing was Mediterranean air and the sun”.
While snapping a demo, Mel breaks the fall of an art student and eco-activist Nicole (she was hanging off a ledge, putting up a banner). “Ri’, well, thanks a loh. Yer a champion”, Nicole says, the first of many forays into the demotic that, however well intentioned, leaves the locals sounding like the sort of person who can’t chew gum and tie their shoelaces at the same time. Nicole is involved in a campaign to prevent a local park being turned into a motorway, a campaign ran by her ex-boyfriend, Ruaridh, a posh crusty and humourless cliché who is never likely to be a challenge to Mel. When Mel takes a photo of villainous Tory MP John Douglas, holder of “the safest Conservative seat in Scotland”, pushing Ruaridh over, he finds himself pursued by the police and the media.

The plot often feels like it comes second to linguistic showboating, for this is a book shaggy with style. Obler is the kind of writer who can’t simply write, “He took a photograph”. No, it has to be phrased, “With a sneeze of light, the colours of this razorthin moment were encoded in the inverse language of silver halide and photons”. Obler is a literary descendant of Saul Bellow – remember Mel is from Chicago – or perhaps more accurately, Bellow’s more pop-cultured offspring, the likes of Jonathan Franzen or those freakishly verbose graduates of the McSweeney’s school. Like Bellow, he streams registers, zinging from the high falutin to street-slangy to corporate catalogue. He also warehouses details in bottomless sentences: “These were my remembrances of that American elixir, that bitter pick-me-up, the true breakfast of champions. And they were sour. In the black grounds, in the smell of roasted beans, in the violently crepitant, manic whir of the grinder, in the sight of the stray bean on the countertop, its little oval mound and symmetrical folds cruelly resembling a vagina, in the cooling of the tap and the ritualistic measuring of water along the even numbered scale of 2-12, in the fingering of a cluster of #4 recycled paper filters....” And so it goes.

Bellow at least had something to say; Obler, I was unconvinced, knew what it was for that he wanted to grab the world by the ear. Tweezer out the tufts of lexical fierceness and what you have left less resembles Bellow and more Nick Hornby. Particularly when the plot dwells upon Mel’s tragic wedding and parental angst, which, wouldn’t you know it, is the best part of the book. The arguments between Mel and his wife have a heart-clenching authenticity that will pain anyone who recalls their last break-up with regrettably hidef clarity. Yet I have to ask, does the world need another tale of marital souring at this point? No. Obler, I think, knows this, and has consequently sauced proceedings with scenes from Scottish life a la the mid-Nineties. It doesn’t work, which is a pity as I think Obler might have something if only he knew what to do with it.

  • Cover scan of Javascotia
    Benjamin Obler - Paperback - Hamish Hamilton
    Melvin Podgorski is young, naive, American - and a coffee fanatic. It's this passion that leads him from his native Chicago to 1990s Glasgow to scout out the prospects for a US coffee franchise.
Scottish Review of Books 18