BOOK REVIEW / A kidney-shaped spool: The waters of thirst by Adam Mars-Jones, Faber pounds 14.99

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The Independent Culture
THIS novel is a chapterless inner monologue that changes register with doubtful consistency. It traces a bell curve, strong in the middle and weak at the edges, as William, a failed actor who does voice-overs for advertisements, now attempts to do the same for his own life - speaking from somewhere beyond it.

William lives with Terry, who works at Gatwick check-ins and departures, and also, in imagination, with 'Peter Hunter', an American porn star whom he knows only through the medium of pornographic magazines. His dual monogamy, real and fantasial, begins in 1977, well before the fear of Aids, and lasts for a decade and a half. His stream of consciousness feints through the years, campy but unassuming, unselfconsciously stoical, decorous within its own frame of reference.

William's voice is one for which Adam Mars- Jones seems to feel great affection. It is scatty, faffy, cliched, and anti-clerical: confiding, disjoint, full of plausible non sequiturs, assorted domesticities, and modest capital-O Observations. It fiddles along, setting up the reader for sadness, placing the clues of distress. Like other recent novels, this one appears to owe something to Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of The Day, structured as it is by oblique anticipations of a sorrow whose description is repeatedly deferred.

The truth is then stated. William has polycystic kidneys and cannot expect to live very long. He has three sessions a week on the dialysis machine. He can't eat salt, and he is restricted to a pint and a quarter of liquid of day (this explains the title, and Mars-Jones's tentative development of the image of Tantalus). He is weak and insomniac, he is a frustrated gourmet, he is shrinking as a result of renal osteoporosis, and he badly needs a transplant. Unobtrusively he releases the details of his suffering, and the earlier peculiarities of his perspective are suddenly equipped with new sense.

His voice strengthens. Colloquial dewlaps disappear as he responds to the subject of chronic illness. He is brave. He cooks, he gardens, he tolerates the inability of the healthy to measure their good fortune. He lives on with Terry. He builds his specialist collection of Peter Hunter 'fuck-books', reflecting on changes in the psychosociosexual fashions of the 1970s and 80s. Here there is material for a PhD. He observes how the fixed, ballet-dancer smiles of mid-1970s gay pornography give way to five years of 'nastiness, . . . aggression and fearless wallowing' which lasts until the onset of the Aids epidemic. Post-Aids, the smiles return, but now they are smiles of 'tragic solidarity' that occur not during sex but after. As the 1980s end, William undertakes a miserably ingenious analysis of the changing ways in which Hunter is photographed, and concludes that his star is concealing symptoms of Aids.

For his own part, he needs a kidney before he is too old to be eligible. He fantasises about motorcycle accidents - a prime source of supply - and with characteristic inversion studies the official Police Method of safe motorcycle riding. Then there is a suitable death: the operation goes ahead, followed by heavy doses of cyclosporin designed to inhibit rejection of the new organ. The cyclosporin duly depresses the immune system, and William is unlucky. He catches Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, or PCP, which is common among those with Aids.

In writing about a gay man with a chronic illness that is not HIV-related, Mars-Jones creates a number of valuable freedoms and contrasts for himself. But now he ties his theme back to its constant shadow. William's condition deteriorates, and the book slips into contrivance. It circles back to the beginning and is hard to understand. William may be in mortal delirium, or he may be a ghost. There is a strange sequence involving a massively redundant kilt, and William remembers how he used to wake Terry every morning with fellatio, his mouth hot from a cup of tea. His disoriented conclusion is that love is unavoidably real, that life is irredeemably uncomfortable, sad, and most intrusively banal. This is the way it is and the way it ends, or fails to end.

The Waters of Thirst is uneasy. It has the artificiality of a book written by someone who is failing to be himself. But this judgement can come to seem superficial. The artificiality is too remarkable - tense, oppressive, covertly intelligent - for this to be the trouble. It seems more likely that the writer is being himself. It is just that failing to be himself which constitutes his being himself. Whether this impression of alienation is the truth, or a dubious and striking literary achievement, remains unclear.

(Photograph omitted)