BOOK REVIEW / Trouble with talking about his generation: 'The Conclave' - Michael Bracewell: Secker, 8.99

WHY IS there no British equivalent of the American brat pack? The answer can be found just a few pages into this, Michael Bracewell's second stab at superior twentysomething soap. On page 14, Martin, a young aesthete of the London suburbs, gazing at his girlfriend, is described as being 'disturbed by the call of her nakedness'. But then the po-face does an about-face and on page 43 they 'snog'. Without the hard-edged bark of American vernacular, English brat-pack fiction lacks an authentically youthful idiolect. This may explain why it also lacks, other than Bracewell, any exponents.

The Conclave starts out in the suburbs but soon heads into the city to compete with the big metropolitan novels. It charts the downward droop of Eighties upward mobility, a curve familiar from Jay McInerney's most recent novel, Brightness Falls. The device Bracewell uses is thus a well-oiled one: he records the courtship and marriage of a young, upwardly mobile metropolitan couple, Martin and Marilyn; suggests that the state of their romance and that of their bank balance may be unhealthily intertwined; then sends them through the 1987 stock market crash to see what comes out in the wash.

The Conclave shares many of the faults of McInerney's novel, in that even the smallest detail is cursed with the upward mobility of its subjects: everything that Bracewell notes about his couple seems to have been immaculately dressed for success as an index to the Zeitgeist. Marilyn makes an ornate and expensive trifle, only to have the bowl slip through her fingers and shatter on the floor. The date? Sunday 19 October 1987, the eve of Black Monday. And, as in McInerney's novel, there's a scene in which a down-and-out shouts abuse, breaking the spell of Eighties opulence with stage-managed timing.

Meanwhile, his couple shop, eat out, overspend, socialise. At a dinner party in Dulwich, Martin proclaims, pompously: 'We're approaching an age of inverted commas.' Nowhere more so than in the novel in which he is the protagonist: inverted commas are Bracewell's favourite means of suggesting that mixture of bemusement and suspicion with which his twentysomethings view the accumulating trappings of adulthood - 'making plans', mortgages, 'getting settled', marriage. The sly irony to be had from pinning fads and affectations to the page with inverted commas is also Bracewell's way of having his cake and eating it, of both using a youthful idiolect and being seen to sneer at it, as when he writes: 'In this manner Martin Knight and Marilyn Fuller became a couple; or, in the jargon of their generation, a 'unit'.' He seems to forget that his most likely readers won't need such high-court-judgeisms.

The question of readership is not inessential: it explains the rather worried Janus face of this novel's style. We are constantly asking where the next generation of English novelists are, wondering what they will sound like. If The Conclave is anything to go by, they sound as if they are caught uncomfortably between impressing us with their faddishness and then turning on it in mock- fogeyishness, anxious to sum up their generation, but doing so with an apologetic cough in their throats.

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