Lawyer reviews ex-lawyer's book

An anonymous trainee at A&O reviews Utterly Monkey, by Nick Laird (ex-A&O lawyer)....


Large institutions have always been fertile territory for comic novelists. The life-blood of comic novels is the disjunction between what is thought and what is said, and between overt conformity and rampant rule-breaking. Early in Utterly Monkey, Danny, a 28 year-old litigation associate at Magic Circle firm “Monks and Turner”, is seen discussing his capacity with a partner. He describes a truly incredible quantity of work. The partner “rather shamelessly, looked bored. ‘Right, right, great. Now I’ve a piece of work I’d like you to look at for me…”


Danny, however, is no ordinary overworked associate. A friend from Northern Ireland has arrived with a sack of cash and cast of furious loyalists are not far behind. What follows is a clunky caper where Danny gets a black eye, gets the girl, helps foil some dissident paramilitaries and gets himself fired. To be honest, the plot isn’t up to much (think Lucky Jim). The saving grace of Utterly Monkey is the power of observation which led Laird to also bring out an acclaimed volume of poetry – a character playing a fruit machine “grip[s] each side of the machine as if it was a pulpit”. The unsustainable intimacy of looking into a friend’s eyes is “like staring at the sun”. These observations work better than when Laird spills over into poeticism – he sees in a pint of Guinness a “spindrift apartheid of grains and galaxies settling”, which is fine, but doesn’t belong in this novel. 


Laird’s capacity for observation is at its best when describing “Monks & Turner”. When Danny oversleeps he performs body-spins when walking past partners’ offices to prevent their noticing he is carrying his cycle helmet. He dreads arriving at the office to see he has voicemail, as its existence means that someone had expected him to be at the office after he had left and he wasn’t, or at the office before he arrived and he wasn’t. The dialogue is another strength of the novel. Laird notices the casual way lawyers use legal terms in the most inappropriate contexts: when quizzing the book’s love interest, Danny claims “I just thought it was an ambiguous statement. I was trying to redraft it”. An ex comes round to Danny’s flat to pick up “the chattels”. I got the feeling that more could have been made of this – I occasionally hear lawyers talking of “bright-line cut-offs” or inquiries about capacity shortened to “got any pasty?” and wonder if City law firms aren’t on the way to developing their own dialect.


Likewise, the other theme of the novel, the complex relationship between Northern Ireland and the capital, is occasionally enlightening and occasionally plays too heavily on stereotypes. The author astutely notes the surprise of an Ulsterman arriving in London that all day, he has seen no flags - but while all the English characters get full names, the Ulstermen are Geordie and Budgie and Jacksy and Danny and Jacky. Surely there are people in the six counties with full names too? Utterly Monkey contains a lot of the flaws associated with first novels. Much of the action is superfluous – why the scene in the zoo? Danny suffers agonies of conscience over someone he may or may not have harmed when he was a boy (he hadn’t harmed them). The love-story seems to be there because it should be there, while the novels which the author has read take on a disproportionate weight in the lives of his characters (a character’s dream about shirts seems to be a bizarre echo of a scene from The Great Gatsby, while the main character muses on The Golden Bough “which he had read at university”).


Despite these flaws, this is a moderately entertaining read.  Before I had even opened this book my trust in it had suffered two near-fatal blows – namely glowing quotations from Frank McCourt on both the front and back covers. Its take on a Magic Circle firm is of course exaggerated but it rang true enough to make me laugh several times. Its weakness is that a comic novel just doesn’t seem the best vehicle for the author’s talent. Its strengths are in its author’s quirky, spot-on observations, which work best when conveying the subtle comedy of life at a City firm.


Anon. Trainee Solicitor, Allen & Overy.



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