It is crucial to have a firm grip on the narrative. Persuasive, convincing dialogue is imperative. There must be complete and conscious control of all projected messages. Great care must be taken to ensure that imagery pushes the imagination, but always in an appropriate way that is sympathetic to your audience. Above all else, beware immorality – the last thing you want is to give the critics something to pounce on.
We could be listening to a critic discussing literary form and the pitfalls of becoming a published author, before launching into a vicious hatchet job; but we might also be listening to some essential characteristics of a good public relations strategy. The two seem worlds apart, yet are uncannily interchangeable. Parallels aside, it still takes a brave leap of faith to pick up the pen, not least because the resulting scribbles might be unbearably squirm-inducing.
Paul Carroll has made this leap. I am pleased to say he has done so without a squirmy scribble in sight. Having worked in public relations for over thirty years, Carroll brings to his debut novel not just the inevitable anecdotal armoury, but what I think must be a bulging portfolio of frustrated creative imaginings that no PR-minded company would want to project – certainly not about themselves, at least. To read A Matter of Life and Death is to be given a crash course in the mischievous potential of public relations.
The story centres round Farren Mortimer, who has tapped into the modern zest for public mourning. Gone are the days of hushed, private, reflective introspection over the death of a loved one – these have been replaced by a craze for loud, outward and very public grieving, made possible by technology and social media. So successful has Mortimer become at putting the fun into funerals, he has been appointed the Government’s bereavement czar, as well as being behind a new, though somewhat commercially-driven, bank holiday: People’s Remembrance Day.
However, Mortimer is not the only ambitious person around. When Mortimer’s life becomes entangled with the self-seeking lives of an adulterous politician, a prankster graffiti artist, a self-absorbed road safety campaigner, and a colleague hell-bent on promotion, he begins to question his achievements and the role he has played in public exhibitions of grief.
What is unsettling about the novel is its very plausibility. Funky, technology-driven mourning is not all that far-fetched. It is perfectly achievable now. In fact, with a moral sidestep or two, we would be there. You only have to look at Margaret Thatcher’s funeral to see how death has become a social media circus, where people publicly clamber over one another to shout louder than the rest, in an attempt to direct history and write their own part into the story.
Carroll is in his element fictionalising PR strategies, counter-strategies, and spinning aggressors’ strategies on their heads, and then turning them into positive messages. There is also a great feeling of complicity by the end of the novel. The reader has been taken on a tour by an insider who brushes aside the industry’s own public relations. Presumably the most important PR for a PR firm is its own PR. This is not only the source of the novel’s dark humour; it also gives the story its human touch. But beware immorality – its human touch comes from dirty hands. Great fun.
Review by Ross Jamieson