BOOK REVIEW / Over-exposed flash that comes to naught: f/32 the second coming - Eurudice: Virago, pounds 5.99

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The Independent Culture
A CUTESY autobiographical note on the flyleaf of this novel tells us that Eurudice was born on Lesbos, that 'by the age of eight she had rewritten the books in her father's library, including Homer, Shakespeare and Beckett', and that at 14 she had run off to Hollywood. The reader is forewarned of a good, old-fashioned, post-modernist conceit.

What you actually get is a vacuous, purportedly feminist fable centring on the plight of Ela - a kindly footnote adds that this is a pseudonynm meaning 'come' - whose genitalia are cut out by an attacker on a Mathattan street and who sets out on a quest to retrieve them. They, meanwhile, have developed a life of their own, becoming, in turn, a camera lens, a media celebrity and the mother of a vengeful band of penis-devourers.

Ela, still intact at the start of the book, is a victim of the insatiable appetite of her own sexual organs - the derogatory term, 'cunt', is used throughout the book, presumably in an attempt to reclaim the word from man. A slave to a physical desire which she considers tyranny, Ela longs to be free of her sexual allure. One of the thousands of lovers who describes having sex with her (is there anything more tedious, even when it is meant to be taking the mickey?) declares: 'her wail makes every metaphor literal'.

Alas, this prolonged wail of a book is doggedly literal, veering relentlessly from sassy epigraphs - 'any lasting relationship contains the seeds of its own pedestrianism' - to hectoring self-anaylsis: 'I only know that I do not recognise myself. The old illusion of 'I' has died and rotted away . . . And I pour my last hope like crystalline cum, drop by drop, down the parched throat of this improbably aged reflection of a demiurge.'

That is the mirror speaking, by the way. Along with the tricksy typography which alternates between the style of a how-to manual and a film script, Eurudice dabbles in a kind of magic surrealism where Ela's mirror takes up the narrative while her vulva, liberated from its physical cage between her legs, leaps, pouts and leads us all a merry dance.

Try as I might I could neither take this book seriously nor find it as ribald and Rabelaisian as the publicity material urged me to. True, it does attempt to exteriorise primitive male fantasies of castration, and it explores the female longing to be liberated from a culture that objectifies women sexually. Amid all the blood and smegma, there are pirouettes of verbal brilliance and lyrical flights of fantasy that are fiery, rich and mesmeric:

I miss the crowd that used to be on the docks: the foreign mouths, the blinding reflections on the army coat buttons, children chased peacocks, tin wastebaskets rolled, drums called, splendidly detached lithe dumb wombs were on sale, limping lepers begged . . . hundreds of cats in heat wailed as if they were children being butchered by Herod, and merged with the racing sirens that couldn't catch up with all the fires, until the first sunlight stabbed the tourists in the wide eyes.

But these are rare treats. f/32 - the title inspired by the similarity between Ela's vaginal tightness and the smallest f-stop on the camera lens - may be jubilantly fetishistic and may have broken the barrier on the c-word, but in the end it's not much more than a quick flash and lots of exposure, like a man in a dirty raincoat.

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