BOOK REVIEW / A-Z guide for intrepid sperm: A fool's alphabet - Sebastian Faulks: Hutchinson, pounds 13.99

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The Independent Culture
TRAVEL-WRITING comes close to ousting fiction from Sebastian Faulks's third novel, whose whimsical structure is less a challenge than a declaration of hostility to story-telling. Each of the 26 chapters takes its title from the name of a place with associations for the hero and they are arranged in an alphabetical order that appears to take no account of chronology (though Faulks has the cunning, for instance, to have his subject born in Backley and educated in Dorking).

The character is made to fit the plan. Half-Italian, Pietro Russell is ill-at-ease in England; a photographer, he is addicted to the noting of surfaces ('Michelob, said the inscription on the label') and morbidly receptive to 'signals of place'. Food, furniture and the bottled beer of many lands are catalogued with the exaggerated scrutiny familiar from one type of travelogue; a style which, consciously or not, Faulks parodies in a closely observed account of an aeroplane interior: 'On the back of the seat in front was a hard plastic tray, secured with a rotating clip'.

Faulks himself has obviously been around, and the accidents of Russell's particular A-Z do not confine him; several landscapes set off multiple evocations of what they are not. The Berkshire Downs, for example: 'The countryside they drove through didn't have the evergreens of Surrey or the ragged beauty of the north with its dry-stone walls and open countryside . . .' Or Israel's motorways: 'The scene might have been from any busy highway at dusk: the rush hour from Seattle to what its residents call the 'burbs'; the packed peripherique at Lyon; the drab slip-roads from Runcorn and Liverpool '.

It is in Chapter P for Paris that Faulks's cargo of travel facts most clearly exceeds its fictional allowance, when he embarks on a Julian Barnes- ish essay on the Metro - 'a universe as complex as a microelectronic circuit, yet in its subterranean way as grand as a painting by Gericault'. Faulks relishes the obscurest of the 11 writers honoured in station names - 'Edgar Quinet, author of the 1833 prose poem 'Ahasverus', and the itinerant 19th-century Gascon poet Jasmin'; and while Pietro is hardly the 'fool' of the title, he does have the 'vague impression' of the Second World War 'that the French had been on the other side', and is certainly a passenger on this leg of his story.

Elsewhere, the events of Pietro's life are of more account than where they happen, though they are designed to be unexceptional: the death of his mother, a couple of solemn sexual encounters, a bit of a breakdown in Guatemala, and the tender ache of contemporary fatherhood ('He could smell the sweetness of the baby's hair over the unclosed fontanelle').

If this is Pietro's voyage of self-discovery, what he finds isn't much of a self; and for its rhapsodic conclusion the book has to return to the moment of his conception, which he imagines on a visit to the village beginning with Z where his parents had preceded him:

Then he (Pietro's father) opened his eyes and looked down at the naked body and the face of this woman, whom he loved, and he buried his head in her neck, weeping, urging the seed on, willing it home.

This is a brave way to end a centrifugal novel; consistent, though, that it's in the intrepid sperm (on a detailed journey 'through pathways lit as if by pink candlelight'), rather than in the sedentary egg, that this pale rover should locate the spot of his origin.