BOOK REVIEW / A toweringly infernal concept: The First Church of the New Millennium - Bryan Appleyard: Doubleday, pounds 14.99

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The Independent Culture
THIS IS a novel of large ideas, but actually it's the smallest things it makes you think about. Like the way that, when people write novels, they feel obliged to invent fictional national newspapers with the bizarrest of names.

Bryan Appleyard has one here called the Mentioner. The Observer, presumably, but why doesn't he just say the Observer? Bearing in mind that the action is set in 1999, could the Observer conceivably sue for an article attributed to it in the future? Or is he maybe trying to avoid the situation where readers in time to come might say to themselves: 'Oh, but I don't remember reading that in the Observer in 1999?' Or is he, as a regular columnist for the Independent, simply trying not to give another paper a namecheck?

A small thing, and the least of the reality problems that The First Church of the New Millennium lands you in. This is the story of a successful architect who suddenly has a vision of a Gothic cathedral in a country field, and decides to build it there - and is in fact enabled to do so, through the enthusiastic co-operation of an eccentric developer. Still, one appeals to a sense of reality with some caution. Someone building a full-size replica of a Gothic cathedral might seem an unlikely proposition in the near or even the distant future. But on the other hand, we already live in a world in which this novel has made it to hardback publication without anyone apparently having said to the author: 'Hang on, are you absolutely sure about this?'

Despite its hard covers, reading The First Church of the New Millennium is more like reading a manuscript passed to you by a friend who's, like, written this novel, and was just wondering . . . and you're trying find tactful ways of saying, well, I can see it could be an idea, and I like the descriptions of the architect's office and the hyper-gym, and the reflections on Gothic are interesting, and the bit where the enormously fat developer does a hand- stand is certainly a powerful image . . .

But seriously. The whole mid-life-crisis-plus-adultery plot, what's that doing there? And doesn't the futuristic context weaken the fantastic nature of the central idea? I mean, I see that's partly the point, in a society swamped with virtual reality, a vision of a Gothic cathedral is hardly less unreal. But do you really need all these characters, and all this dialogue, and all these incidents?

Is this actually a novel - isn't it really a short conte philosophique, or perhaps a speculative-cum-satirical essay about our society and the way it's going? And, a plot point, when in the end the architect blows the thing up, because he finally realises that in the modern world a Gothic cathedral could only be a piece of heritage kitsch, hasn't that 'revelation' been precisely explicit all along? We know that it's only being built as a leisure-complex. And then, isn't the Gothic cathedral a little over-worked now as a symbol for all that we, as a culture, have lost? Just off the top of my head, right.

A review doesn't feel the place to say most of these things. A candid friend or publisher's reader should have stepped in long before. You can find creative writing classes billed in every library in the country. Goodness knows, help is at hand. But truly, no third party should be needed - and one can only gape at the blessed unselfconsciousness that has allowed a perfectly intelligent man to release this story to the printer. I wonder what the Mentioner will say.

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