BOOK REVIEW / The camera obscurer: Robinson - by Christopher Petit, Cape pounds 8.99

'I AM a camera.' Isherwood's catchy opening has a lot to answer for: encouraged by it, generations of writers have told stories with deadpan amorality. The line must have been haunting Christopher Petit when he wrote this novel. He is, after all, a film-maker.

So is Robinson's narrator, nameless except for a brief reference to 'Christo', which is short, or petit, for Christopher Petit. Christo meets Robinson in Soho, describing him as 'like Orson Welles as Harry Lime in The Third Man'; in other words, there is no need to describe him in any depth. 'I fancied I saw in the high shine of his toe-caps a vain reminder of that introduction to Lime: 'EXT, VIENNA NIGHT - Close up, black Oxfords in doorway'. '

Robinson is the novel's Sinister Central Figure, and like most fictional SCFs he is a kind of moral black hole around which other characters orbit before being sucked in. Robinson and Christo go on drinking sprees; Christo gives up his job, loses his wife, takes to hanging round porn cinemas, goes for drunken midnight drives with Robinson, becomes a tenant in Robinson's flat, becomes an opium addict, weans himself off, misidentifies Robinson's drowned body in a morgue. Robinson comes back, gets Christo a job in a bookshop, introducing him to a Sandhurst rogue called Cookie; later they all start making porn films together, the whole enterprise unravelling as Robinson, self-

destructing on drugs and drink, tries to make 'the Citizen Kane of porno movies'.

This would all be fine if the stochastic succession of events were supported by anything more than the narrator's unblinking gaze. The camera is very good at picking up surfaces but it takes a good director to get beneath them, and Robinson, for all Petit's descriptive skills, suffers from being directionless. 'His gaze became unreadable, as neutral as that of a camera,' says Christo of Robinson towards the book's end, but Robinson's gaze has not been noticeably legible or charged before this. Hints at depth take the form of continual reminders of Petit's day-job: 'I thought about the last few months, and realised that if I had to write them up as a script it would begin: INTERIOR NIGHT.'

Well, maybe this book should have been a script. It takes more than the prose equivalents of mood-shots and camera angles to make a novel tick. The film might be something, though.