By William Boyd
At a time when the competition is admittedly pretty weak, William Boyd has
established a reputation as one of the bright lights of English comic fiction.
Armadillo, which refers here to a "little armed man" and not
an edentate mammal, deals with the adventures of Lorimer Black (formerly Milomre
Blocj), a loss adjuster for a London insurance company. The plot involves, in no
particular order, a hanged man, a dream analysis clinic, an insurance scam,
Lorimer's pursuit of a married woman (Flavia Malinverno), and a comedy of
manners starring an upper-class twit named Torquil Helvoir-Jayne. Along the way
we are treated to selections from Lorimer's Book of Transfiguration, a
journal filled with quotations from Gerard de Nerval and digressions on the
philosophy of insurance.
The silly names and overly complex plot indicate that Boyd belongs to the
group of writers, sometimes called postmodern, who take a tongue-in-cheek
attitude toward the novel. The writing itself has its ups and downs. Boyd's
sense of place is surprisingly poor (his London is scarcely more than a city
map), but his dialogue has the fast-paced wit typical of the best of his
contemporary hipsters. A novel as light as this can be read in an afternoon, and
most of the time it will be enjoyed.
Unfortunately, this is as far as it goes. Armadillo is funny, but its
attempt to be something more falls flat. The characters, with the exception of
Lorimer, are two-dimensional, the symbolism is forced, and nothing about the
story is very compelling. Boyd's talents, which are real, should have been put
to a better use than this.
Review first published May 30, 1998.