A monologue with Plywood John

STILL by Adam Thorpe, Secker £15.99
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
RICKY THORNBY, narrator of Adam Thorpe's second novel, is in his late fifties. He has been married twice, has an estranged girlfriend, unfriendly grown-up children and a granddaughter.

He used to be a film-maker; now he teaches film in Houston, Texas. He is over-fond of drink and drugs, tired of living and scared of dying. Sometimes he wears a paper bag over his head, and he can't shut up for a minute. Here we have 600 pages of quasi-interior monologue. Quasi because Ricky pretends to address an audience which he knows is not there; we know it's not there, too, but unfortunately we are, so we must do its listen- ing for it. This coy device enables the narrator to harangue and harass the reader, drone on about his underpants and emissions, and then say disingenuous things like "Look, I'm very sorry to have kept you people".

The pretend audience has been assembled or not assembled to watch or not watch a pretend film: "I am making a film that doesn't exist. Maybe no one'll come to the party. Maybe this film that doesn't exist will play to an empty room. Empty except for myself, which is really empty. What a great metaphor for the brain. I am gripped by a sense of my total isolation. Maybe I'm dreaming."

And so on and on. All this from the author of wonderful Ulverton. Under different circumstances I would have given up by page 100, when my loathing of Ricky and utter lack of interest in his past, present or future, real or imaginary, had reached its zenith. As it was, I persevered, and while I am not convinced that it was worth it, things did improve for a while. By page 200 loathing had diminished, by page 300 I quite liked Ricky and it was only a little before page 500 that the rot set in again.

The improvements occur when the narrator focuses on the central characters of his non-film. These long-dead members of his family are seen in the months preceding the Great War. The doomed young, Giles, Willo and Agatha, talk idly of Servia and Sarajevo, unaware that out in the summer garden "this conversation has about seven million phantoms listening in, including a pair of spectral teeth in a jaw-bone which is all anyone ever found of Willo". In this section of the book Thorpe's lyric strength shines through the prose and sears the relentlessly flip self-conscious style into passages of haunting intensity.

And as the writing becomes less laddish, so it gains in zest and wit. Word games abound, puns, palindromes and cross- references. "This is more like Hemingway, I thought. This is going thennishly." Or Ricky brooding over his rival in love: "... his Vietnam experiences would be falling over themselves to come back and haunt him under the skilled direction of Oliver Stone"; as for himself, "I'm Plywood John".

But alas and alack, the scatology comes dribbling back and with it the total breakdown of wit, elegance and emotional truth. "T.E.D." he says. "Tragic Early Death, stoopids." Stoopid yourself, Rick. Or Thorpe. The embarrassing blurb describes the book as "hilarious", always a lethal warning. It also claims that it will leave you "breathless with terror, with laughter, with grief".

Well, if it does, you are pitiful indeed and should learn by heart the paragraph which begins "Being an old dwarf chrysanthemum is sad ...".