Books: An Aesop's fable from the dead zone

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The Nudist Colony

by Sarah May

Chatto pounds 9.99

The verb "to alter" means "to change". It can also, in a more restricted sense, describe spaying or castration. The world of Sarah May's first novel, , is a world thus altered, in which naked violence jousts with inhibition and society is both randily antic and hopelessly neutered. The postcolonial England it invokes is a sewer, reminiscent of the fictive otherworlds of J G Ballard and Rupert Thomson, the scarred dead zone of Mike Leigh's Naked or the films of Derek Jarman.

The novel kicks off with a sentence which encapsulates its pitch. "He met Ludwig", writes May, "or rather Ludwig met him outside King's Cross station when the chauffeur slammed on the breaks so hard that he poured Scotch over his crotch and the lady's handbag on the seat next to him slid on to the floor." The nameless "he" is Aesop, a teenage slag who becomes Ludwig's protege; Ludwig being a testy London gangster who fancies himself as a fixer. It's a startling opening, but within this first sentence we have it all: a topographic snapshot which conjures images of whorishness and vice, a character with an improbable name, the self-reflexive rhyme of "Scotch" and "crotch", the bizarrely revisionary spelling of "brakes".

If this vignette does little to suggest a plot, that's because the plot of is gossamer. May is much more interested in creating atmosphere - in recording the last breaths of a decaying England. She uses words with great care, but sometimes she is careful to skew or twist them, and her writing is often jagged, as unsettled as the narrative it propels. The effect is disturbing, and the book's rather wilful sense of its own theatre can be suffocating, it's all-pervasive weirdness not a little costive, and the dark inflections of the prose too mannered to be credible.

One of the novel's more irksome traits is its daft nomenclature. Dickens and Smollett made a point of blessing their characters with telling but unlikely names. The bug has been passed down to Saul Bellow and Thomas Pynchon, and thence to Martin Amis. But the monickers of Dickens's Mr Pecksniff or Pynchon's Oedipa Maas are teasingly allusive, whereas here we get an Aesop, an Aurelius and an Achilles - tags which encourage an unavailing quest for classical parallels - and, less forgivably, a Machiavellian twister called Mack Velli. This feels heavy-handed, and it adds nothing palpable to a story which repeatedly cries out for more meat and less relish. Self-indulgence runs right through . With its shamanistic undertones, quasi-magical shifts of scene and brutal oddness, it is a fiction of smart originality. Some of the writing is beautifully measured. Furthermore, one really has to admire the courage required to present a tale of such unabashed strangeness at a time when what publishers most seem to want is blundering stories of twentysomething copulation and second-hand angst. But there's no escaping the fact that this is a debut which, precisely because of its boldness, reads uncomfortably, like a journey by dinghy through a tropical storm.