BOOK REVIEW / Suburban silliness: Natasha Walter says Fay Weldon was never feminist and finds her latest vintage stale and flat: Life Force - Fay Weldon: HarperCollins, pounds 14.99

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The Independent Culture
EVERY woman I know has read a Fay Weldon. None can remember which one. 'The one that was made into a television series,' they say. 'No, not that series, the other one . . . the one about the pregnant woman . . . the fat woman . . . the ugly woman . . .' All her books come with the same covers, anyway, with the same quotes on the back: 'Vintage Fay Weldon . . . reading Weldon is like drinking champagne.' Not literature, you see, but a tipple.

Which is fine, on the one hand, because trash qua trash is an indispensable and often useful, often enjoyable element of culture. But Weldon likes to have it both ways, a bit of self-indulgence and a bit of consciousness-raising too. Then her books look safe even for feminists to enjoy, just like Cosmopolitan in the old days, and Weldon can pose as a voice of liberal culture. The problem is that Fay Weldon isn't really a feminist writer, any more than Cosmopolitan was ever a feminist magazine.

Look at what happens to her heroines. Esther (in The Fat Woman's Joke) goes away for a while and eats her heart out, but returns to her horrible husband like a punished dog on the last page; Liffey (in Puffball) might have a brief spurt of independence and a little fling, but is filled with relief when her horrible husband returns, his hands full of fluffy toys; Patricia (in Praxis) is seriously wicked right through and ends up killing a baby, but she has a period of fulfilment - working as a prostitute and servicing a rich man who looks like her father; even our arch-villainess, the She-Devil, goes to all that trouble destroying her husband's adulterous menage, abandoning her children, getting independent - and for what? So that she can re-enter stage right as a perfect blonde, pearly teeth, slender legs, the lot, and win her man back again.

So, just like women's magazines, Weldon complains and exposes, but can't envisage anything outside the most enervating and claustrophobic parameters of femininity. She may voice, with what seemed like urgency when she began writing in the late Sixties, the wicked turbulence and vivid unhappiness that lie in the domestic woman's heart, but does nothing to reduce such women's fears that outside the suburban door lies a wilderness.

Do her heroines ever really love, really develop, really hate, really escape? Do they hell] They might mention those concepts, but they've got serious problems on their minds - weight problems, house prices, hormones and gossip. Endless, endless gossip. Just like the great magazine writers of our times - Sally Brampton, Paula Yates, Mary Killen - Weldon makes gossip an end in itself. But what sits nicely in a disposable form sits badly in a novel. Stylistically, Fay Weldon represents the triumph of suburbia over literature: gossip over insights, obsessions over ideals.

The good things about Weldon are still there. She is still funny. She does still say the things you always wanted to say and haven't said since the sixth form. And she turns the wish-fulfilment of traditional popular women's literature on its head in an interesting way: the comfort she gives is that you're always better off than the heroine. At least you're not as fat as Esther, as lonely as Liffey, as dirty as Patricia, as horrible as the She-Devil. Which means you can go to bed happy with your lot, rather than demanding Mills and Boon dreams of heroes and perfect love. Both types of wishfulfilment are anti-action and anti-change, but at least Weldon's kind is more likely to end in laughter than tears.

The other problem with Weldon is that she's dated. Her best work was done a long time ago, in a very different cultural milieu, but she won't change or give up, and the new titles keep coming, looking a bit more tired every year. The 1992 vintage is a particularly poor one. Life Force represents her failings to their nth degree, and few of her strengths. In it, she chronicles the effects that Leslie Beck and his very big penis have on the inhabitants of a Richmond suburb. Although it is still funny hearing women joking about men's bodies, penis size being one of our last remaining taboos, Weldon should have done a Julie Burchill and written an article about it (see 'Where's the Beef', Arena 1988), because unfortunately one joke never made a novel.

Life Force is nothing but the apotheosis of soft porn, liberal Sixties-style, in its depiction of lots of bored housewives waiting in line while 'Leslie Beck gave and took the amazing pleasure he felt was his to give and take'. The fantasy fails to convince. To lower the debate to Weldon's own level, what did a woman ever get from a 10-inch penis except a bruised cervix? To raise it slightly, one has to say that the ideas that briefly ascended to the status of subversion have returned to - if they ever really left - the realm of the Playboy comic strip, and all that rumpy-pumpy shorn of passion now looks smutty and silly. Here's Leslie Beck doing it on the beach with Rosalie; doing it on a building site with Nora; in French caves with Susan; in a backstreet hotel with Marion, and so on, and so on.

Along the way, Weldon tends to lose her grip on plot and characterisation. The women all become frighteningly interchangeable, and although the whole novel is supposedly penned by Nora in her lunchbreaks at an estate agent's, the 'I' is sometimes confusingly given over to other women, all of them with the same matter of fact, gossipy style larded with nuggets of homespun wisdom along the lines of: 'One woman's creep is another's true love', or 'If you don't do something, nothing happens', or 'After the boom, the bust'. And there's so much flashbacking and forwarding that if the plot wasn't so mind-blowingly trivial - simply the endless discovery that Leslie not only slept with her and her and her, but her as well and even her - you'd get a headache trying to work it out.

There's no message, no urgency, left in this patchwork of suburban silliness. What woman these days needs to be told that a promiscuous property developer with a vast ego, hairy chest and big prick is likely to turn out to be the latter? And we can't but despise the would-be heroines, the Marions, Susans, Rosies, Anitas, and Jocelyns who bitched about him, but happily slipped their knickers off when their turn came.

If it weren't for that ill-deserved liberal reputation, Weldon would get hauled over the coals for her distasteful sexism, coming up with lines like: 'If men pay, women must deliver: sex, home comforts and kids,' and even on the last page glorifying poor Leslie's thing into a cosmic force: 'Leslie Beck and his Life Force, moving through our lives, leaping, unstoppable, like electricity, from this one to that one, burning us up, wearing us out, making us old . . . the best thing that ever happened to us.' Put it away, Fay.

(Photograph omitted)