The Neon Rose

Fred Johnston's international novella is a high-octane tale of two countries

One of the most prolific and active writers to emerge from Belfast, Fred Johnston follows previous novels Atalanta and Mapping God with The Neon Rose, a fast-paced novella charting the courses, passions and fates of three main characters amidst the chaos of contemporary Paris.

There is a lot at stake in The Neon Rose. A young Irish man withers in a Parisian jail after confessing to a murder that his French lawyer is convinced he did not commit. Meanwhile a key witness, a mute street girl surviving by any available means, is the elusive and final piece of the puzzle. Johnston’s characters are torn by tension, professional duty and personal desires over the course of the three days.

Taking a glasshammer to the description of experience, The Neon Rose is not a stroll along the Champs-Elysées. Reading it is more akin to the rush of the Paris metro shooting through an oppressive underground tunnel. The characters’ perceptions are fast but rarely blurred, in a high-octane narrative where the pressure is always on.

What the book sacrifices in temporal breadth it makes up for in perceptual depth, with the material minutiae of a salad ("...a tang of vinegar licked his nostrils, tiny scythes of garlic, a red bloom of tomato") sitting comfortably alongside commentary on America as rootin’ tootin’ cultural aggressor, the folly of faux-patriotic identification or the dynamics of sexually-charged personal relationships.

The Neon Rose is a busy, passionate junction where sex, art and iconography play out against a backdrop of music and urban bustle. Paris and its denizens are fractured, flitful and seemingly distracted, in tune with the experience of contemporary urban life in a developed European capital where not just commerce but people, action and ideas all compete for attention.

Johnston’s descriptions of Paris thrum and swell as forcefully as the characters’ passions, their lusts, lives and agendas clashing amidst angular jazz shapes, frustrated ideals and the onward march of American cultural imperialism. Neither France nor Ireland’s international indiscretions are allowed to pass without dishonourable mention, a reminder of dealings that place international action at odds with carefully cultivated international images.

Striking a balance between plot, observation and character, the inhabitants of Johnston’s Paris remain strong, embroidered with the text’s political comment. Locations and personalities are rendered in everyday detail that sees the characters reacting to chance, circumstance and precise emotion, each bound to their own conflicts. Through the eyes of the avocat and our pitiable urchin, a portrait of Paris emerges where the white face is often in absence and where people are 'under pressure to know who they really are’.

Even amongst the tat-shopping tourists and the avocat’s energetic and quasi-comical exchange with journalist and cardiac-case-in-waiting Hebuterne, the aggression found in the banlieus of La Haine are never far away. Paris is charged, its citizens believing that life moves faster than it might, with ‘young women chattering... walking as if there were an emergency in the air’.

As the narrative drives on, the background detail reads like a referential name-check of Johnston’s heroes and 20th-century icons, a cursory flick throwing up Marilyn Monroe, Norman Bates, Bach, Kupka, Camus... Where this might grate, like a dinner guest banging on about the achievements of others, the references prove selective and maintain the pleasure of recognition for those of age to catch the tips of the hat, and provide a fair guide to Johnston’s taste for the uninitiated. And there’s a crass pleasure in Johnston popping the bubble of exaltation around Brendan Behan, the inclusion of his name seeming to fall on the side of fair assessment rather than that of literary bitching.

In extended passages the prose can feel like a bombardment, with tumbling details fighting for prominence. Some sections veer dangerously close to the rootless abstraction of new-wave stream of consciousness contenders like Kenji Siratori, but if the book is noisy it is an approximation of people and places that are perpetually in flux, responding to time, pressure and impulse.

Peppering the text with French vocabulary (consistently italicised) may deter novices or hinder readers who fall for false emphasis. It would be easy to scorn the plot as a cross between John Grisham and a paddy joke (a Frenchman, and Irishman and a mute...) but the Irishman is not the main event - the character is not ‘the paddy abroad’ or used to rant against petty irritants. Rather he is the prism through which Ireland and France are allowed to interact, he in the jail, and ‘free’ Paris the claustrophobic prison of city streets and buildings.

It is, as they say, the way you tell ’em, and this is a tale well told. The Neon Rose will scarcely please those in thrall to either the tourist-board gloss of an Ireland for sale, of happy white smiles and sophisticated craic over slowly settling Guinness, or those accustomed to standardised literary form. In planting his flag in potentially alienating turf, Johnston continues on an Irish literary path closer to Beckett or Joyce than say, Ross O’Carroll Kelly or Cecilia Ahern, and justly The Neon Rose will remain a frightening prospect to readers of the latter writers.

The courageous reader is rewarded by being placed within sniffing distance of Paris, of its character and characters, their passions and personalities. By stepping outside of Ireland, Johnston is able to make condensed observations of the country and in the languishing Irishman, trace the effects of an enduring, archetypal martyr’s complex in the male national character. As such The Neon Rose is a succés d’estime, essential reading for those interested in exploring the fate of nationalism and what it means to be Irish (or indeed French) in an increasingly globalised community.

The Neon Rose is published by Bluechrome Publishing, priced £9.99