BOOKS FICTION: Darling, your son's in the fridge

THE DREAMER OF DREAMS by Sean French, Granta pounds 13.99
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The Independent Culture
SEAN FRENCH is a middle-class writer who lives in North London and writes a column for New Statesman & Society about being a middle-class writer living in North London. He has written a novel whose main character is a middle-class writer living in North London. The first effect on this reader of such a tight circle of theme and authorial biography is irritation. The second is boredom: French doesn't have Martin Amis's ability to make this circle compelling; instead he squeezes all dramatic air out of the book's opening pages.

These make a dreary, small canvas, just the "numbed repetitions" of Henry Dean failing to write and dragging his seven-year-old son Horace out for walks on winter-grey Hampstead Heath. French can muster a clever simile, likening Henry's pre-recession sacking from an advertising firm to a "fragile ornament sticking out at the front of an automobile, warning the rest that it was in the process of running into a brick wall." But such threads of wit come buried in layer upon layer of columnist's fluff. Meanwhile the story barely proceeds: Henry moans; his shrewish careerist wife Lori scowls; Horace plays in a world of his own.

Finally, on page 133, French remembers he's writing a novel: "One day, the day on which this whole story really begins..." Soon afterwards Horace, whose child's-eye mockery of his narcissistic parents has been the book's saving grace, decides to climb inside their fridge. The door locks behind him. At first, the Narnia he finds within is a child's idea of a good time, with a succession of breakfast treats served by a compliant old man. Then Horace meets his beloved soft toys in animated form - and finds they've turned into swearing, vicious monsters. Soon the teddy bear and tatty dog are dragging Horace through waterlogged caves and forests made of metal, threatening to kill "anybody who bores us or becomes irritating". French's language, which had been flat with domestic banalities, rises into florid peaks as Horace flees his captors by sea: "The water could be smooth as a rippling sheet or it could explode and heave vastly, tipping the tiny boat sickeningly down its vast temporary slopes."

Unfortunately, the tedious Henry chooses this moment to open the fridge. A numb Horace is hauled out, his hallucination halted, and the last section of the book given over to an extended self-flagellation from Lori about her generation's comfortable despair. "I'm aware this is a major non- insight," she says during one agonised dinner- table gathering, "We're all in our late thirties now." Horace's nightmare aside, she has caught this book perfectly.

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