John Niven in conversation with Peter Florence
A self-described “collector of country-house disaster stories,” Scottish novelist John Niven spoke with Peter Florence about his new novel, No Good Deed, at Palazzo San Sebastiano on Thursday evening. Thankfully, the dignified festival tent and off-white arches of the palace did not prevent Niven from making ribald jokes with colourful language, and Niven and Florence had the audience laughing – and blushing – throughout the entire event.
No Good Deed tells the story of two men, Alan Grainger and Craig Carmichael, who were high school friends and who meet each other decades later. Alan, an upstanding middle-class family man, and Craig, a formerly famous musician who is now homeless. The novel thus explores the dynamics of male friendship, especially how it develops over time.
The two men are engaged in a constant battle of oneupmanship. In one scene, they play a game of golf, which Florence describes as an “unathletic middle-aged rivalry in sport.” As Niven explains, Alan finds he must cheat to win against Craig, which creates “a stain against [his] soul for all eternity” and marks the turning point in which their fortunes become, once more, reversed. In many ways, this game of golf is a synecdoche for their entire lives: as one rises the other falls, in a constant double helix of successes and failures.
More than being about two men in particular, the novel is also a hilarious parody of the middle class. Niven notes that many scenes and characters in the novel are hyper-exaggerated versions of real stories and people he knows. Indeed, his characters are almost self-parodies in that they maintain their prized upper middle-class status by writing reviews about middle-class topics for middle-class readers. He plays with the absurdity of the rigidity and futility of the lives of the middle class, as they are trapped within a world of their own creation, yet it is a world which could be taken away from them at any moment.
While Florence accused Niven of an almost sadistic pleasure in his unrelenting satire of his characters – to which Niven chuckled in agreement – he also observed that the novel was “unexpectedly sentimental” when it comes to “middle-class domesticity.” Indeed, Niven responded that sometimes it takes a reader to tell a writer what he has written about, citing a friend who described the novel as revolving around the fear of loss: the fear of one day losing the family, status, house, job, and position we have created for ourselves.