An author who's not writing but drowning

A quarter of a million pounds for 100 pages of an unfinished novel. pounds 100,000 for four sample chapters and a synopsis. pounds 250,000 for 40 sheets of A4. The back-of-a-fag-packet first-novel deal on the basis of an e- mail synopsis can't be far away.

Newspapers love these stories, and publishers love to provide them. And surely, in the case of hard-to-promote first novelists, a little bluff and glitz is justified in order to create a high profile in a packed market? This month there is an exceptional chance to see the pitfalls of these short-sighted attempts to generate a buzz round a young novelist.

Penguin was prompt to send out a press release announcing its signing of Richard Mason, a 20-year-old Oxford student, with a two-novel deal. This dazzling newcomer had written a literary thriller, The Drowning People, narrated by an old man who had murdered his wife. Now the book is finally out, stories and interviews have started to appear, stressing the luck, the good looks, the charm and the advance - bulked up to $1m with film rights. How did Mason manage it? "I got myself a good agent," he told the Telegraph. Penguin should have put a dummy in his mouth before letting him inform the trade organ the Bookseller: "I've always wanted to write novels - best to get the bad ones out of the way young."

Let's get one thing straight: it is no mean feat to have completed a reasonably coherent novel by the age of 20. Just typing it would be an achievement. But on completion The Drowning People should have been consigned to Mason's sock drawer for ever.

For a start, Mason does not keep up the attempt to write as a 70-year- old for long. Within a few pages we have flashed back ("Oh yes, it's all flooding back now") to the narrator's twenties and his doomed love affair with the beautiful, aristocratic but unstable Ella. Ella just happens to have a cousin, Sarah, who is so like her that even James gets confused. A double, eh? That's handy.

Because Ella and James are acutely aware that they are in a novel called The Drowning People, their love-talk seems to revolve exclusively around marine life: "People move in schools, like fish. It's safest that way," says Ella. James is enraptured by her "holistic insouciance". "I've spent the whole evening despising myself for being so like all the other fish," he moans. "I dress like them; I speak like them ..." Dress like fish?

Mason's chief talent seems to be for grabbing a mixed metaphor and swimming marathons with it. A new friend asks James about his plans for the summer: "They're cast in stone." "Stone can always be broken, can it not?" "Not this stone." When metaphor deserts him, he falls back on cliche. James, a musician, goes to study in Prague with a master who has "a wizened head of silver hair; a hooked nose; black pointed eyes". Prague is "a city of arched bridges; sharp steeples; gracious domes". Not like London, then, with its blunt steeples, ignoble domes and rhomboid bridges. When even cliche flees his eager embrace, he shacks up with oxymoron: Fortune, we are told, is "a capricious force ... she bestows fleeting immortality and takes it back when it is needed most". When James and Ella sleep together ("it was a time of manifold consummations, for love was a varied catalyst"), they find "our nights together - snatched, secretive and few - were eternities." Fleeting immortality? Snatched eternity?

Stop, stop! For Richard Mason has delighted us long enough. Could Penguin not have worked on the text? Why expose a young, evidently callow writer like this? A publisher who had expressed interest in capturing Mason, but had lost out in the ensuing rights auction, admitted to me there were "flaws" in the novel. But, he insisted, Mason should be praised, in a culture fixated on tales of gritty urban angst - the I-shoved-the-poppers- up-her-nose-and-shagged-her-in-the-alleyway school - for his bravery in, yes, swimming against the tide, in writing a lushly romantic tale with no swear words, no explicit sex, and hardly any drugs. Well, Donna Tartt got there first and did it better.

It may be, of course, that Mason is his own enemy. With a cleverness that he displays rarely in his 300-page debut, he plucks an epigraph from one of Keats's letters: "I leaped headlong into the Sea, and thereby have become better acquainted with the Soundings, and the quicksand, & the rocks, than if I had stayed upon the green shore, and piped a silly pipe, and took tea & comfortable advice." This is Keats consoling himself for the relative failure, artistic and commercial, of his lush epic poem Endymion. In Mason it just looks like a cheeky attempt to forestall criticism. He is no Keats. This is no Endymion.

`The Drowning People' is published by Michael Joseph (pounds 10).

Robert Winder's television review: page 9.

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