The Executor is Blake Morrison’s fourth novel, and his first since 2010’s excellent Othello-inspired The Last Weekend.
Like that previous novel, The Executor has a first-person narrator, 40-something Matt Holmes, telling us his version of events. It is worth noting that not all narrators are lovable, and the voice Morrison has given to Matt Holmes is more gullible than endearing.
He is a frustrated novelist and editor on the book pages for a diminishing national newspaper. Matt is also friends with the aging, once-famous ‘bow-tie’ poet Robert Pope. Until Pope unexpectedly dies from a heart attack, though not before he enlists the services of his friend to act as his literary executor.
Matt takes on the task of visiting Pope’s home to sort through and collect together any unpublished work for a possible posthumous book. Though he finds resistance from Pope’s widow, Jill, who has no interest in seeing Matt go through her late husband’s things.
For his part, Matt believes he has made a couple of shocking discoveries about Pope’s life when he uncovers a set of poems hidden away amongst other meaningless paperwork.
Should he conceal what he has found or share the truth with Jill? Would these poems ruin Pope’s reputation? Is The Executor a literary detective story or a tale of mortality?
Morrison touches on the themes of friendship, love, obligation, responsibility and behaviour. On the very first page, Matt and Robert Pope are having lunch in a restaurant, when Matt tells us:
“We were sitting near the door to the kitchen: every time one of the waiters walked past, the table wobbled. There was no way around it. We were on shaky ground.”
The two friends meet only once a year, and Matt is clutching onto his best friend and mentor. The beginnings of their relationship mirror, in an off-handed way, that of Raymond Carver and John Gardner. The wise tutor and eager, young writer looking to make a name for himself.
Morrison doesn’t ask too much of the reader, telling the story in a down-to-earth, simplistic style, though the latter passages about Ovid feel something of an info-dump, and rather clunky highbrow for an author of Morrison’s skill.
The chapters are also spliced with racy poems from the deceased Mr Pope and the last 30-pages of the novel are entirely given over to a collection of ‘fictional’ poems called Love’s Alphabet. Is Morrison giving us two-for-one here? Trying to please both his fans of poetry and his admirers of prose?
Less thrilling are the long exchanges of dialogue Matt has with his dead friend. A real Randall and Hopkirk (deceased) moment as our narrator is able to imagine what Pope is thinking and feeling. The inner conflict even gets on to the topic of Brexit at one point (Morrison’s 2007 novel South of the River dealt with Labour’s 1997 election victory) and dipping a toe into politics is something Morrison can’t help doing, but it just isn’t that interesting in fiction.
If anything, the Brexit dialogue sums up what The Executor is all about. The doggedness of the day. This is not a story of escapism. Matt’s job on the book pages feels like a slog (a job Morrison himself once did, and we get a detailed sense of him writing about what he knows). Matt’s duties as executor are no more joyful for him:
“It’s not an executor you need it’s a clerk, a drudge, an automation. If only you’d made the job more interesting by throwing in the odd surprise.”
But then Matt gets what he wishes for, A surprise! In the form of a poem about Obama and Guantanamo Bay. And by this point (page 134) we know it’s not going to get a lot more exciting.
It takes no time at all to see how Morrison has trodden over the same theme of male rivalry which he covered in The Last Weekend, only this time it all seems a bit too tired. All the arguments that rise up and have the potential to explode turn into mere petty quarrels, making the plots point of no return hard to pin down and the resolution almost none existent. The most interesting chapters are those of Robert Pope’s backstory, though sadly these are few in number. It leaves one to wonder, did Morrison kill off the wrong character?