Hotel Alpha by Mark Watson
Pan Macmillan RRP:$29.99AUD
You’ll love it if you’re into:
-contemporary British fiction
-interactive novels (a website adds layers to the novel!)
For more info visit Mark Watson The Comedian
British comedian and author Mark Watson is probably best known in Australia for his fast paced stand up and guest appearances on the various late night comedy quiz shows we see on ABC2. Hotel Alpha – a story in 101 parts – is his latest novel and should cement his reputation here as a slick writer of contemporary fiction as well as observational gags. More than just a novel, this is a clever intertextual reading project, as the book itself is extended with a related, interactive website.
Following 40-odd years of comings and goings in a central London hotel, the book plays with ideas about the ways in which we construct our identities and make sense of the world via the stories of others. It also explores the influence of technology on our communication behaviours. Watson takes these themes beyond the pages by adding 100 related short stories to an online extension of the book. My advice (as Watson himself has suggested) is to read the book first, before risking the ‘spoilers’ to be found online. The website, for me, was a bit like a satisfyingly rich dessert after a meal that had left me hungry for more!
The book begins in the 1960s with mild mannered Londoner Graham taking a punt on a job ad in the paper: an outstanding head concierge is required for London’s finest, most exclusive hotel. Graham decides to go for it, despite his lack of experience in the field, and despite the fact that the hotel hasn’t actually opened yet! He secures the role via an unconventional interview that sets up the nature of Howard York, the flamboyant visionary owner of the majestic Hotel Alpha. Graham’s first duties at reception include telling every potential guest that the (empty) hotel is full until the following month. The rumour mill churns and the press catch wind and very soon the unknown hotel IS in fact London’s most exclusive stop over. As celebrity guests visit and the champagne flows, it’s clear that Howard walks a fine line between illusion and reality. He hosts lavish parties and entertains guests with madcap magic tricks, but just like any good magic show, we know that all is not necessarily as it seems.
The book’s other central character is Chas, a child Howard takes under his wing after a fire at the hotel kills the boy’s mother. Chas was blinded in the incident, and thus understands the world via touch, smell and other people’s descriptions. He is extremely intelligent and an astute gatherer of information, but is also aware that he misses out on the vital nonverbal queues that round out interpersonal communication. Chas is ahead of the game when it comes to information technology, which offers useful voice-activated tools for the visually impaired; unlike old fashioned Graham, who sees technology as an interference. At the same time, however, computers represent yet another form of mediated communication – gatekeepers between Chas and the ‘bigger picture’ that others experience.
The hotel setting lends itself neatly to stories that unfold in snippets – glimpsed through keyholes and whispered through walls. Guests come and go, London itself undergoes social and political changes, and the hotel’s staffers battle their own joys and sorrows. Howard will eventually own up to a tragic secret that changes everything for the hotel dwellers. As the glorious façade that Howard created crumbles, Graham and Chas must find a way to recreate themselves – reinventing their own stories as new information comes to light. As the book’s two narrative voices, quiet, dutiful Graham and curious, blind Chas represent all the things not said and not seen. ‘Reality’ and ‘truth’ are constructs; we can only ever understand the world through the prism of our own experience.
Now, once all of that has had time to sink in – you get your chance to peek through a few more keyholes. Visit Hotel Alpha Stories for 100 additional snap shots from the hotel’s history, including ‘deleted scenes’, back stories for minor characters and secrets revealed. Make a strong coffee and read them in order, or dip in and out via links to the year, incident, room or character that interests you most. It will keep your bookclub talking for months!
Hotel Alpha probably brings out the worst traits of my former incarnation as an academic more than many popular reads I review on this blog. I could write a thesis about the tricky layers of metaphor Watson employs around vision, appearances and the way we ‘see’ the world. The book has much to say also about PR, ‘spin’ and the media. Finally, Hotel Alpha embraces the ebooks vs paperbacks debate by exploring ways to combine the two – extending, not overriding, the old with the new.
I’ll stop now before this actually does become a thesis! Read Hotel Alpha. It’s good.
Hotel Alpha is published in Australia by Pan Macmillan.