Published in 1959, "Absolute Beginners" is the sort of novel that became extremely popular in the UK without leaving many traces elsewhere.
To this day, the book written by Colin MacInnes is perceived as a "modern classic" on the eastern shore of the Atlantic Ocean. Some critics compare the impact of "Absolute Beginners" on the British popular culture and literature to the one "The Catcher in the Rye" had in the US.
Now, what surprised me is that this novel is supposed to be an early manifesto of the so called Mod subculture and yet the term "mod" doesn't appear once into the 286 pages of "Absolute Beginners". I mean, not a single time.
Still, the book stages plenty of "Teds" which stands for "Teddy boys" that is the archenemies of the Mods.
Don't get fooled by the yellow Vespa on the cover: "Absolute Beginners" will not take you back to the age of customised scooters, amphetamines and R&B or ska music. True, the protagonist of the novel likes to dress well and spends the money he earns on books and jazz records, but he calls himself "a teenager" and would abhor joining a gang of Mods.
The greatest merit of this novel is the way MacInnes talks about London and - above all - the very specific area between Maida Vale and Willesden that the narrator calls "Napoli". The six pages taking the reader into this Londonian Naples in the 1950s are masterful.
MacInnes is far less skillful in portraying the characters of his novel. There is a lot of attention to the way Wizard, Suze, Ed the Ted, Mr Cool and the Hoplite - the bizarre cast of "Absolute Beginners" - talk, but much less focus on their personalities.
The author shows us these colourful people through the eyes and the ears of the protagonist - a 17 year old freelance photographer - thus limiting their possibilities. Even though this choice makes sense, it's just a pity that, say, a character worth of Isherwood like the Hoplite cannot develop all his potential in this novel.
Other literary influences that I could find here include two minstrels of the down and outs of London such as George Orwell and Patrick Hamilton along with a debt to Evelyn Waugh each time the novel moves uptown.
As a non-English native speaker I found the way the protagonist and his friends talk here very cute and almost irresistible. I'm well aware that all those "cats" (people), "spades" (coloured men), "cowboys" (policemen), "darl" and "hon" are outdated slang from fifty years ago and that's precisely the reason why I liked them so much.
In a way, the extent of what MacInnes did with the language used in this novel is no less than what Anthony Burgess accomplished by creating the Nadsat argot for "A Clockwork Orange".
Reading through the negative reviews of "Absolute Beginners" I found here and there, I can see how many disliked the way MacInnes describes the racial clashes that happened in London in 1958.
I agree that the author doesn't dig very deep into this subplot and treats the whole matter of the Notting Hill riots in a superficial way, but I didn't find that disturbing. Just keep in mind that this book doesn't deal with history, but with lifestyle.
After all, the protagonist and narrator here is supposed to be a 17 year old chap hence having a very limited understanding of the subject.
What I found odd is that, as a freelance photographer, this guy doesn't think to take some snapshots of what's going ill in his neighborhood selling them to the press. Especially considering how the young chap wishes to make easy money as quickly as possible to impress "his" Suze. Shall we consider this lack of initiative like a proof of the juvenile inexperience of the teenager or rather like something missing in the novel?
Mind you, Colin MacInnes is not always consistent in remembering that his hero is just a teenager and often makes him much more full-grown than he should be. No matters. The title of the novel says it all: "Absolute Beginners". You don't expect perfection in greenhorns, don't you?