A Week in Books

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BritLit migrates from Suburbia to Mongolia

A GENERATION ago, the artist Peter Blake fixed for ever a mood in British art and life when he designed the Sgt. Pepper cover for the Beatles. Now, it is Blake's work that fills the jacket of New Writing 8 (Vintage, pounds 7.99) - the latest of the plump, British Council-backed anthologies that promise an annual report on our literary state of health. Blake's IdentiBrit face sets various ethnic features beside one another; they harmonise, but never quite merge. From a distance, the whole picture looks Chinese (as, historians suggest, does most of human history).

Inside, as well, these 57 varieties (exactly) of fiction-writers, essayists and poets deliver plenty of polyphony but precious little unison. The editors, novelists Tibor Fischer and Lawrence Norfolk, have had to juggle two competing tasks: the need to choose the best stuff they could find, and the duty to present a "snapshot" or showcase of British writing now. To help them, at an early stage they hosted a good dinner for the entire corps of literary editors from the national press. Some authors, of course, might ask why a bevy of eunuchs should presume to plan an orgy. Others would consider the merits of a small, well-positioned bomb.

Never mind: these 570 pages yield a far wider, and sturdier, spread of crops than the toxic prairies of the modern British countryside. That our culture shows a hybrid, outward-looking face is taken pretty much as read. Courttia Newland, for example, explores divisions within diversity in his sharp story of skin-colour worries among black students. And A S Byatt's novel-extract searches for connections between Deep England and the wider world, as it traces a roving scholar's passions back to the "little red boxes" of his dull Yorkshire town.

In fact, these New Brits seldom stay at home for very long. In their stories, Louis de Bernieres travels to Turkey; Barry Unsworth to the Maldives; Patricia Duncker to myth-shadowed Greece; Salman Rushdie to fairy-tale Rajasthan; Lana Citron to the randy Spanish "Costa Flesh". Newcomer David Mitchell caps the lot of them with a fictional spell in Outer Mongolia. With great aplomb, he takes on the disembodied voice of a transmigrating ghost. In this globe-trotting, shape-shifting company, Elizabeth Berridge's neat, Barbara Pym-ish piece about a retired colonel in a Home who goes up to town from Dorking to gaze longingly at the Rubens ladies in the National Gallery sounds inconceivably exotic.

So the up-and-coming Brits can do us an immortal spectre in Ulan Bator without missing a beat. How about a systems analyst in Swindon? Even the editors fret that "a little more parochialism would not go amiss". True, Julian Barnes cuts off a satisfying hank of changing, but changeless, Outer Suburbia with his story "A Brief History of Hairdressing"; and Pauline Melville's portrait of a middle-class procuress has a fine, Maugham-ish tang of lust among the teacups. Elsewhere, the local tales tend to fly off into high-concept whimsy. They enrol in the School of Self (Linda Leatherbarrow's wise gorilla) or else drive down Ballard Boulevard (Jeff Noon's Roller-bladers). Liz Jensen, though, only has to crank up reality an inch or two with her touchy-feely shopping centre that polices its customers' lives: timely satire, as the new Bluewater mall picks up the sort of notices once kept in reserve for the Second Coming.

As for Lord Archer ("educated at Brasenose College, Oxford"), even this uncrushable icon of Middle British dreams sets his yarn over in New York. And what happens in it? Well, a greedy opportunist tries to intercept a "hot" envelope, stuffed with a large wad of cash as part of a dodgy pay-off. Fantasy, sheer fantasy.

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