BOOK REVIEW / Beginner's course in meteorology: 'In the Kingdom of Air' - Tim Binding: Cape, 14.99 pounds

NORMALLY one tries to avoid novels that include characters called Fleur or Jago. Such names suggest a coarse imagination or a publisher to whom fiction means romance. In the Kingdom of Air is a first novel by a writer who seems to believe in a formulaic checklist of ingredients. First, a novel must have metaphor, and for this Tim Binding goes straight to the Met Office. His narrator, Giles Doughty, is a meteorologist who looks back over his life, clumsily equating English weather with Englishness itself ('The weather is culture'). You don't, of course (and Binding cites Bob Dylan to remind us), need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows - so this one is presumably redundant from the start.

Apparently a novel also needs sex, preferably at the beginning. There is initially lots of thick, viscous, pointless coition which Binding repellently terms the Age of the Buttock and then mercifully forgets about. A novel, too, he seems to feel, should have copious amounts of childhood recollection, further improved by exciting, slightly avant-garde structural arrangements. Thus Doughty repeatedly and coyly interviews his boyhood self - 'I could grow fond of this boy . . . He has a delightful smile.' Surrounding this there should be elements of a loopy, unhappy family saga, not exactly magic realism but seriously inventive. Accordingly, Doughty's mother twirls madly upon her dead child's climbing frame and his sister is caressed by a puma.

A novel also needs ambiguity - sometimes the narrator flatly contradicts himself in brackets after a statement - and mystery: for good measure Binding includes two murder mysteries, both easily solved. He also goes in for stories within stories - self-conscious essays pulsing with symbolism inserted into the text - and fragmentations of time. There are cryptic postcards, horrible little clevernesses (the narrator confides 'I don't like to keep anything in writing') and gales of potent imagery: an ancient bag ('inside that bag curled up . . . is a small boy'), bonfires, snowballs, clocks and other portentous impediments. Surnames are cranked up to the point of pain: Muchmore, Doughty, Savage, Dove. And on top of this noisome confection is the inevitable Martin Amisiana, scattered like rabbit pellets: sewage, scrotums, penis-battering, dog- shit, low-life and the inappropriate use of the adjective 'bad'.

Let us restore 'bad' to its more usual place in language. This is a bad novel. It has everything and nothing. It is as if hundreds of other contemporary novels have flown around the author's head flapping their pages and whispering excitedly 'only disconnect'. Nobody talks or thinks like Binding's characters. The narrator is a cold, stony, self-pitying egotist whose sole interest in women is sexual. There is no emotional authenticity. Themes and characters get lost. The mood careers about wildly from elegiac to sick. Is it tragic or comic? Who knows? Who cares?

Although the author has made heavy weather of his book, it is fair to say that there are brighter spells. He shows some flair for another necessary component of the novel, description. There is a better than Creative Writing Class account of the 1987 October gale. And, beneath the thunderous clamour of conflicting styles, there is a pocket of calm in which Binding makes a sincere if muddied attempt to reveal the interior mental filth of the pre-war generation, its disastrous effects, and our need to atone for its sad legacy. If he had been less prey to literary influence, Tim Binding might usefully have pursued this theme to its emotional source.

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