Books: Anxious narrative strand (domestic)

Fortysomething

by Nigel Williams Viking pounds 15.99

After the strange and uncharacteristic experiment of Stalking Fiona, Williams is back on familiar ground with , the book being both comic, and set in Wimbledon. His 13th novel, may be his best yet. It is as funny as anything he has written, yet between the lines of this richly comic book lurks a dark and strange satire on the surreal nature of a middle-aged man's relationships to his family and his workplace.

Written in the diary form, using the carefully honed mock-artless prose common to the genre, is resolutely flippant in tone. However, while the most obvious comparisons are to Adrian Mole and Bridget Jones, a more accurate likeness is found in Joseph Heller's Something Happened. While Williams' book is more obviously comic, both writers are playing alienation for laughs, finding connections between the exclusion felt by so many middle-aged men in their corporate and familial lives.

Paul Slippery is six months short of his 50th birthday, which as the cover of the book suggests (a no U-turn sign), is a matter of some consternation. More worrisome still is the perilous nature of his job. He's been an actor for 25 years on a sub-Archers radio drama, and Birtist modernisers within the BBC are scheming to have his old-fashioned character killed off.

The anxiety which most dominates Paul's life, however, is the fact that he can't remember the last time he had sex with his wife, Estelle. Preoccupied with her new career, Estelle seems to have lost all interest in even talking to her husband, let alone sleeping with him. Paul's sexual frustrations are further exacerbated by the presence of his three teenage sons, all of whom conduct extensive and adventurous sex lives under their frustrated father's nose.

This situation is essentially played for laughs, but between the lines of Paul's failure to understand his wife and sons is a real critique of the retreat made by so many men from their families.

We are told, for example, that "Ruerighy came back five minutes ago covered in vomit. He assured me it was not his own." And that's all we get. This joke works not just because of the strange situation Ruerighy finds himself in, but because Paul has made some attempt to find out what has happened, but has simply asked the wrong question and got no further. There is no hostility between Paul and his sons - simply a mutual incomprehension so profound that their attempts at communication are at once farcical and surreal.

Inhabiting a strange vacuum somewhere between Samuel Beckett and Neighbours, revolves around the inability of Paul Slippery to understand anything that goes on around him in either his domestic or working environment. Williams dwells on the surreality of the quotidian, depicting a Wimbledon family that seems both normal and insane at the same time.

His workplace, the BBC, is equally recognisable, even when it is at its most bizarre. "Radio Drama Continuing Narrative Strand (Domestic) is going to be merged with Radio Drama Occasional Documentary Division (Overseas), and there is to be a new head of the new department which will be called Home and Overseas Radio Documentary Drama (Occasional and Continuing) ... This, for reasons I cannot go into here, is ominous news."

As with his sons, Paul tries to understand what is going on around him, yet events somehow defy comprehension. Nothing in Paul Slippery's world ever quite makes sense.

Williams' satire on the BBC, which forms a central strand of the novel, is so bizarre that one frequently feels it must be true. A long-time insider at the corporation, Williams presents a BBC in which 98 per cent of the employees' attention is focussed on internal restructuring and in-fighting, with only feeble left-over energies remaining for making programmes. In ominously believably Birt-speak, the fate of Paul's soap character runs through the novel as an increasingly surreal murder plot.

The BBC story eventually veers into farce, with the majority of BBC executives turning out to be rubber-fetishists or cross-dressers (one man even employing a female-clad incarnation of himself, and successfully carrying out his male and female jobs at once). Likewise, Paul Slippery's family relationships also slide away from reality as he attempts to restore his wife's affections using a love potion he finds in a catalogue of sex aids belonging to his son. This love potion is, of course, wrongly administered, and, Midsummer Night's Dream-like, the second half of the novel revolves around a series of confusions and mishaps in which the wrong people consistently fall in love with one another.

Williams is a master of the suburban farce, and it is for the second half of this novel that his usual fans will find themselves most satisfied. A darker and more interesting weirdness lurks in exposition of this novel, however. Williams has touched on the bleakness that lies behind broad comedy, and although we are not encouraged to take his characters too seriously, does an interesting job of sustaining the truism that tragedy and comedy are closer together than we like to think.

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