Books

Richard McHugh
Charlie Anderson’s General Theory of Lying

In the Mad Men era, he’d have been valorised by his peers as “Lucky Charlie”. Married to the beautiful and brilliant Anna, father to three (ditto) daughters, blessed with a roster of energetic and obliging lovers, a “fuck-off house” on Sydney’s Middle Harbour, a full head of hair, and a reputation and fee scale befitting one of the country’s top consultants.

Lying and infidelity cast no moral shadows for Charlie. No, he has it all worked out. As a man “fluent in spreadsheets”, Charlie has a formula for everything. For instance, five “Rules for Dealing with Women”, his policy for infidelity. His first goal is pleasure in service to power; his second – not unrelated – is the preservation of his idyll, which he couches in terms of protecting those he loves.

None of which is to say that he’s not likeable. Hell, he’s loveable. “The Golden Boy”, his wife calls him, with hardly a hint of sarcasm.

Anna is head of retail at the bank, the biggest of the Big Six, and is positioning herself as its next CEO. Now she needs Charlie to step up on the domestic front, to support her as she has done him. But, for the first time, the Golden Boy stumbles – breaks his own rules – and suddenly everything is at risk.

A novel with such protagonists, unless it be unalloyed success porn, seems bound to deliver savage satire and an unravelling. Richard McHugh, though, makes Charlie and Anna human and his novel a wry, insightful portrait of the lures and delusions of over-entitlement among the directorate class. The plotting is smart and wickedly original – and knowing. McHugh, in his day job, is a top commercial barrister.

Adding to the novel’s texture, Charlie and Anna’s three daughters are fully drawn characters, central to the story and to their parents’ lives. Work and family life clash and intersect, with trouble in either sector spreading like a stain.

Charlie’s systematised thinking tends to reduce every situation to a series of numbered steps, making him a human Gantt chart. Come to think of it, Anna’s thought processes seem likewise shaped by checklists, milestones and outcomes. Perhaps such involute transactional computation comes naturally to corporate high-flyers; expounded at length on the page, though, its effect can be sluggish.

But then, calculation is the key to this sexy and surprising novel that plumbs the depths of the high life.  FL

Viking, 432pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 23, 2015 as "Charlie Anderson’s General Theory of Lying, Richard McHugh". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: FL

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