Book Review: ‘Richard’, by Ben Myers

Making AFIN history with the first review of a music-related book to ever appear on the site is Ben Myers' novel Richard, a fictional take on the life of Richey Edwards from the Manic Street Preachers, to be released on Picador on October 1st, 2010. Authored by a man who is a journalist as well as a fan of the band himself, Richard is both the product of careful research and a unique presentation of behind-the-scenes goings-on within the band and Richey’s personal life, alternating between first-person and second-person (!) storytelling to contrast and link together the events prior to – and during – his mysterious disappearance with his childhood on through his time in the band.

Although as a reader it has been tricky to distance myself from the heavy Manics listening and related exploration of the group that I’ve done myself, I’d like to think Richard could stand alone as a work not necessarily requiring knowledge of the band as a prerequisite to reading. As many events contained within are based on those known to actually have taken place, it is ultimately a novel and is presented as such – skeptical fans ought not worry about such a work steering a newcomer ‘wrong’ about the real-life Manics, and one would hope that a reader who found enjoyment in this work would be curious to check out the truly great band that provided the inspiration behind it, forming their own opinions and conjectures. In Richard, Myers is presenting a version of Richey; sometimes he may gel with your version of Richey, sometimes not. The main aspect to ponder here then, which I will attempt to answer over the course of this piece, is really: is this Richey an engaging character?

The chapters of Richard are named after slogans that had previously appeared on shirts Richey had worn, e.g. ‘Bomb the Past’, ‘Classified Machine’, ‘London – Death Sentence Heritage’, and act as themes for the text which follows them, also preceded by equally apt quotes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Mention of Richey and Shakespeare in the same sentence likely conjures up this interview quote from Edwards in the minds of Manics fans: “When I was 13, I did a Shakespeare project that was 859 pages long. Everyone else did six!” The number of pages he’d referenced is quite possibly exaggerated, though his devotion to academic success is well-documented and a reflection of his voracious appetite for knowledge that continued on into adulthood and made itself very known during his time in the Manic Street Preachers, in everything from his lyrics with obscure historical and literary references to his habit of quickly devouring every book that came into his path. This homework assignment incident is but one of many pre-1995 flashbacks peppered throughout the novel. Literary snapshots of Richey’s youth flicker on by: the arrival of his beloved dog Snoopy, the infamous “childhood glimpse of pornography” (also a line from the Manics’ “Life Becoming a Landslide”), early associations with Nicky Wire, James Dean Bradfield, and Sean Moore. Particularly vivid are the impressions of punk and Richey’s love of and curiosity over music, interwoven with his comradery with his future band-mates. The dynamic of Richey and Nicky – who is described at one point as Part-brother, part unconsummated lover, but mainly best friend and fashion-crime partner – portrayed here is especially noteworthy .

His college years are formative to his personality and simultaneously early signs of what would become damaging to him later, a smattering of introversion, relationship frustration amidst a sort of bisexual-asexuality, diving deep into books and alcohol, and suddenly he finds himself swept away into a band with his friends, the Manic Street Preachers, where he becomes a crucial member despite instrumental inadequacy. He gradually finds himself very much at home in the ‘Richey Manic’ mold, initially urged on by the others and finding a sense of purpose in his role in the band, as evidenced in this excerpt from chapter 3:

...somewhere out there, for the first time, you begin to become someone else. The hair becomes a little longer, a little bigger. The eyeliner becomes thicker. The face powder whiter. The trousers tighter. The moves sharper. The eyes blanker. Somewhere out here ‘Richey Manic’ is gestating…It is a process of metamorphosis that you feel at ease with. Each night you assume your mask; you hide behind your foundation and a steady flow of vodka.

In tandem with Nick, who has embraced his new Wire persona with equal biro, you assume your role with ease. James however remains slightly schizophrenic still undecided between his Strummer/Springsteen/Slash ultra-man mode, or whether he should – or could – embrace the androgynous Keef/Thunders/Liz Taylor vibe that you and Nick are going for, but his musicianship compensates for any identity confusion.

Sean meanwhile is growing his hair out completely, his cherub face framed by dark shiny bangs that seem to make him even more ageless, androgynous and sexless than any of us.

What begins as a thirty-minute nightly performance soon grows into something else.

Richey Manic begins to encroach upon your day. And you realize that you actually like the company of him more than you like your own.

You embrace him.

A first-person, Richey-perspective narrative set in 1995 runs alongside these past recollections; alien territory for Manics veterans and non-fans alike, as one can only guess at – or in this case, create fiction detailing – the events that might have taken place after Richey was neither seen nor heard from again. Here, he is trying to escape not only himself – Camus said, ‘What is called a reason for living is also a reason for dying,’ and while I can’t imagine a situation in which I could find the strength to take my own life, right now I certainly can’t find any justifiable reason for carrying on living either. What once fueled me – what drove this band of ours forwards – is now that which cripples me and renders me impotent in all ways: creatively, socially, sexually – but the world around him as well: There is simply no fight left in me because there is nothing worth fighting for. Love, money, fame, relationships, power, sex, hedonism, art – it all seems like too much effort. I’ve tried them and they’ve burned me out. It’s far more than boredom; this is a sense of hyper-sensitivity to a world in which I don’t – or can’t – belong. I can’t belong because it’s all so hopelessly upsetting. Everything just kills me.

As the book jacket states, “the demons that nag at him won’t be easily assuaged, and ultimately, he has to decide whether or not he has a future.” This is illustrated literally with a continued inner conversation with himself, a sort of ‘dark side’ to Richey that berates him and both persuades and dissuades for the worse, his struggle up until the end. The flashbacks in between, akin to one’s life flashing before their eyes and heightened by the use of the second-person, put where he has ended up in perspective, from his importance and having a sense of purpose within the Manics to his sense of isolation regardless of his surroundings, withdrawing into himself as well as becoming an over-exaggerated version of his own persona, dependent on his role in the band while drowning in a multitude of excesses and self-harm.

Myers’ writing style certainly shows influence from his journalistic background – the attention to detail and blend of fact with his own fictionalized version of the Manics-story sometimes peaks with moments of brilliance, though the high points, for this reader anyhow, typically only appear in the flashback events as opposed to the occasionally stilted, even momentarily awkward vibe of the 1995 narrative. The fast-paced, kaleidoscope of bright, shiny imagery of events such as Richey losing his virginity, one of the most vivid scenes, and perhaps my favorite of the book - it’s all so brilliantly base and animalistic and ridiculous and devoid of any meaning other than the physical sensation of the moment, and then the music stops and the crowd cheers and you can hear your heartbeat pulsing in your ears and you arrive in more ways than one – could be said to contrast sharply with the cold, bleak shock of reality come 1995, a broken man battling with himself and gradually tearing away from the world, though it also seems to evidence that Myers’ strong point in Richard is in illustrating Richey’s time in the Manics, particularly during the Generation Terrorists album time-frame. The latter-day Richey, though in many ways representative of a changed man, occasionally comes off as incongruent with the Richey depicted in the typically more engaging passages running parallel. It must’ve been difficult to write, in the first-person, as a Richey in a shattered state of mind – sometimes the challenge shows, particularly in the first couple of chapters.

The central character of Richard is one the reader may struggle to like and identify with at times, though he shares a number of aspects in common with the Richey, who endeared himself to many first from being poetic and looking pretty, then inspired empathy over issues of self-destruction and the horror of information overload that was probably integral to bringing about his eventual collapse. Richard is a plunge into Manic Street Preachers mythology and simultaneously a partial deconstruction of the man/myth that is (…was?) Richey Edwards. “Partial”, as some bits are respectfully or needfully left ambiguous; this book is not an attempt to deploy shocking theories on what happened to the real-life Richey post-disappearance, it’s a novel that, while imperfect, largely works as both a tribute to an iconic figure and an analysis of a talented, intelligent individual with real problems.
Pre-order Richard from Amazon | on Facebook | on MySpace | Ben Myers, Man of Letters (Blog)
Ben Myers will be interviewed about the book for AFIN in September 2010 - stay tuned!