BOOK REVIEW / Carry on up the comic culture: 'What a Carve Up]' - Jonathan Coe: Viking, 15.50 pounds

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THIS soapy, ambitious novel tells the story of the Winshaws, an English upper-middle class family which, in the course of the 1980s, seems to experience just about every one of the decade's magazine-cover crises. The action turns on the writing of a family history during which its author, Michael Owen, encounters unscrupulous patriarchs, unscrupulous matriarchs and unscrupulous offspring.

Happy Families it isn't. The title refers to a 1961 Ealing comedy starring Sid James and Kenneth Connor, from which a young Michael is removed by his parents in order to pre-empt any dirty thoughts that might be engendered by the sight of Shirley Eaton undressing. The film acts as a template for the novel, whose plot also involves a country house and the reading of a will. Yet Coe also pays lip-service to a more recent precursor, Alma Cogan, the novel in which Gordon Burn played a similar trick with early Sixties kitsch.

What a Carve Up] isn't just about how dirty Michael's dirty thoughts really are; it's also about the legitimate struggle of mad Aunt Tabitha, whose mission is to bully the rest of the Winshaw family into revealing the truth about the death of her brother Godfrey in a wartime raid on Berlin.

The first hundred pages, gothic and occasionally overwrought though they are, at least create some drama and introduce us to a series of mysteries, of carve-ups. The Winshaws quickly (well, fairly quickly) emerge as the butchers of Britain, 'the meanest, greediest, cruellest bunch of back-stabbing bastards who ever crawled across the face of the earth', according to the head of the family. Henry is a middle-aged politician, diarist and besotted Thatcherite (a sort of seedy Alan Clark figure), but there are also a banker, a journalist, an arms dealer and a factory farmer, all shown to have a hand on the cleaver as Michael traces the links between his own deep turmoil and the secret logic of the 1980s, with its glamorised media violence, its hallucinogens, and its mixture of perversity and hellishness.

Coe's inferno introduces us to the people who populate one of its circles - or half-circles, rather, for though they have the recognisable attributes of the English upper-middle classes, they are notable for being divided in half: half-pukka and half-piranha like Henry, or half-witted like Tabitha and Godfrey, or half-committed to one man and half to another, like Henry's cousin Hilary, a tabloid columnist and former bright young thing now thickening slightly inside her fashionable clothes. Or Godfrey's posthumous son Mark, the arms dealer, half-heartedly selling Zyklon B to Saddam Hussein out of the same German factory that his father died trying to bombard.

Upper-middle or lower-upper-middle class, and nominally divided by the very hyphen that separates one part of their being from another, emotionally or intellectually split too, these partial shades flit through the streets of London (and Berlin and Baghdad) desperately trying to make themselves whole, and only half succeeding.

The novel is also divided in tone; it is half a comedy of manners and half a serious examination of the muddled values afflicting a society dying of boredom. It is a testament to Coe's skill at high comedy that the book's ending - a preface to Michael's magnum opus - leaves you smiling. And yet his talents for describing English life and for satire often struggle to find expression. Perhaps this is because, as in Terry Johnson's Dead Funny, the human moments are entombed in a numbingly resolute framework of lowbrow conventions. Some people will wonder why two such gifted young English writers have to plunder Carry On culture in order to write about the way we live now. Others will simply enjoy the mind-boggling references to Coronation Street and Terry-Thomas and Jeremy Paxman. And they will be right to do so, because, finally, this novel reads less like a study of the manners of a period than an inventory of the cliches of its entertainments.

(Photograph omitted)