BOOK REVIEW / Laughter as a foreign language: 'Doctor Criminale' - Malcolm Bradbury: Secker, 13.99

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The Independent Culture
THE new novel by Malcolm Bradbury is a surprisingly conventional exercise in a suddenly senescent genre: a literary-theory academic-conference novel with added power politics and a twist of philosophy. It is standard-equipped with rackety academics and a jeu of gibes and jokes about Deconstruction, Post-modernism and the Death of the Author that have become as familiar as the rows of a fruit-machine.

We begin with young Francis Jay, literary 'journo', Sussex-trained. His televised comments on the fictionalised 1990 Booker Prize are judged to be 'mean, crappy, and selfish . . . worse than Howard Jacobson'. He is late- modern, a Punk Reviewer, an ingenu with an exceptionally boring mind, truly devoted to cliche, repetition and the TV-ad view of the world. Since he is Bradbury's narrator, this is what we get - weak, baggy, high-redundancy stream of consciousness.

A crank on the engine of coincidence sends Jay to Austria to research a programme on Dr Bazlo Criminale for a television series called Great Thinkers of the Age of Glasnost. And Criminale is big - born in Bulgaria in 1927, based in Hungary, residing mainly in inter-conference airspace, with an Austrian passport and a number of Swiss bank accounts. One week he's in Vanity Fair, the week after in Viz and Marie-Claire. Susan Sontag and Martin Amis sit together at his feet. He is known for his 'epic spectacle' The Women Behind Martin Luther, his 'small but perfect novella' Homeless, his three-volume life of Goethe: The German Shakespeare?, his erotic photographs, his view that the philosopher is 'the clown of thought' - not to mention his critique of phenomenology, refutation of Marx, challenge to Nietzsche, dispute with Adorno, quarrel with Heidegger. He is photographed with Brecht and Nixon, Stalin and Madonna, he is friends with Schwarzenegger and Pol Pot, Glenn Close and the Dalai Lama. His four marriages make up only a small part of his bedroom history, his political wranglings are equally complicated, and their slow revelation gives the book a thin current of plot. He is an excess creation, and Jay on his trail takes in Vienna, Budapest, Lausanne, Brussels, and a comically luxurious conference centre on a northern Italian lake which is described with degenerate Rape of the Lock ornateness.

Malcolm Bradbury goes abroad with Sidewinding vulgarity. Tour-guide descriptions ascend momentarily into perfect school-magazine prose. Historical information is injected with ancient narrative syringes ('Rumour has it that . . .', 'Which brought me back again to . . .', 'So when you thought about it 1889 was quite a year'). Caricatures of national and ethnic particularities are caricatures of caricatures - comic Sachertorte Austrians (pedant academics strenuously missing English idioms), joke Hungarians (shopping mad, hidden agenda'd), spaghetti Italians (arm-waving professore, 'Maka your way to the entranca]'), parodic American feminists (bristle haircuts, designer dungarees).

Cumulatively this is dispiriting. Bradbury may be meta-laughing behind the laugh, but if so he is inaudible. He has opted for cartoon communication, which is an art, but he misjudges the responsibilities that come with the licence, and it looks on the page like laziness, hastiness, a fatal lack of editing, a dispiriting aspiration to the condition of six-part television serial. Nevertheless he reliably produces a good phrase every two or three pages, and from time to time formulaic farce passes into wit. Many of Criminale's soft sayings are quite striking, and Bradbury's sensitivity to the charms, pleasures, and semantic opportunities of English as a Foreign Language is perhaps the best feature of the book.