BOOK REVIEW / Cool, with occasional showers: 'The Weather in Iceland' - David Profumo: Picador, 13.99 pounds

AT LEAST there isn't a walk-on character called 'David Profumo' here, employed as the sort of tricksy, tongue-in-cheek decoy you get in the fictions of, say, Clive James. In most other respects, though, David Profumo's new novel seems studiedly cavalier about maintaining the illusion of a distance between author and narrator. Which is odd when you consider the strenuously unattractive impression made by the latter.

The book is set in the late Nineties, and Richard Slide, the 43-year-old Eighth Duke of London, sits in self-imposed Swiss exile writing his memoirs. Britain, we gather, has had a republican revolution, and is now, in effect, a bleak military dictatorship. Also far from cheering is the weather outlook: purulent pollution threatens to produce an 'ecodystopia'.

From this you might be led to expect a work on the same scale of ambition as Martin Amis's London Fields. So it's a bitter disappointment to discover that the bulk of The Weather in Iceland reads like thinly disguised autobiography, taking us on a familiar trek down the way of all (privileged, literary) flesh: horrid prep school, Eton, Oxford, debauchery on the deb circuit and academic research into the Augustines (Profumo's own speciality). The only mild jolts of surprise are caused by the ostentatiously abstruse vocabulary: 'Perhaps by some system of iatrohydraulics my cerebellum had been cleansed of accumulated jism when I lost my virginity . . .'

Periodically, a slab of recherche learning is lowered into the text: there are detailed dispositions of the world of spiders, the history of barbed wire, and the circular nature of Iceland's climate. Impressive enough as prose-performances, these sections merely bring home to you by default how skilfully Julian Barnes manages to integrate similar excursuses into the broader pattern of his novels. Feeble hints of a revelation-to-come are dropped into memoirs only weakly and intermittently coloured by the narrator's present circumstances or by millennial foreboding.

As you plough through passages which tell you more than you'd ever wanted to know about arcane points of Eton lore, or the sort of hotels where you could pick up air hostesses, or about sexual variants like the 'Wolfbag' (anal intercourse in which, apparently, the woman makes herself vomit as her partner comes), you begin to wonder whether Profumo has quite grasped just how obnoxious his protagonist is. Throughout, both novel and narrator are more out to impress with their hard-bitten verbal panache (condoms pop up as 'foil-wrapped love puppets', masturbation is 'a hand-raised pork pie') than to convey honest or convincing feeling. Slide's devastation at the drowning of his little son, for example, is embarrassingly under-realised. Profumo's previous novel, Sea Music, was a subtle and compelling piece of work; this one, much more like a first book, is a worrying leap backwards.

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