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A Novel Chases Its Narrator on the Tour de France

Joe Mungo Reed tries a structural solution to this conundrum. His debut novel, “We Begin Our Ascent,” recounts a week toward the end of a Tour de France while interweaving episodes from the life of his unnamed first-person narrator, a middling British racer on a middling Continental team — the back story of how he met his wife-to-be, Liz, the birth of their son and so on. As a device, this is effective enough: We learn more about the narrator as we go along. And as the novel develops, Reed brings the two strands artfully together.

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Early in the tale, on the team bus after a stage of the race, our hero receives testosterone drops on his tongue. Ah, a doping story. Although no date is specified, that detail places us squarely in the world of Lance Armstrong in the early 2000s — in particular, Reed surely relied on the cyclist Tyler Hamilton’s account in his 2012 memoir, “The Secret Race.” As the Tour goes on, our narrator becomes engulfed in this story and, at the behest of the scheming team director, Liz becomes an accomplice in an elaborate smuggling operation of vials and blood bags.

The narrator’s cycling career and his personal life grow more tangled and we know things cannot end well. The “ascent” of the title turns into a steep descent. Sure enough, as the Tour reaches a climactic stage, the novel bends the parallel tracks of its narrative together in catastrophic collision. In this formal sense, it’s a well-made fiction. And yet, not a wholly satisfying one.

By far the most vivid character is the team director, an uncouth, amoral machiavel. But the rest are underdrawn, including the oddly impassive narrator and Liz, who, though a biologist, has no qualms about the illegal drugs. They seem fond parents, but what do they have in place of values?

My other beef is that the descriptions of bike-racing, where Reed strives for transcendence, are filled with false notes that will jar true cycling fans among his readers. He calls a rider in a breakaway a “breaker,” and uses the term “saddle ointment” for chamois cream, and says that a racer avoids collision by deciding to “glance” his brakes. I wondered if such unforced lexical errors were for literary effect, but chiefly they made me feel as if I were reading a Dutchman’s account of racing processed through Google Translate. (By contrast, Krabbé was extremely well served by his translator, Sam Garrett.)

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