BOOKS: FICTION IN BRIEF

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The Independent Culture
2 Lives of the Dog-Stranglers by Simon Mason, Cape pounds 9.99. When G K Chesterton wrote "must fate act the same grey farce again" he could have been reading the minds of any one of Parkside's residents. Mason's fictitious late-Victorian suburb of an anonymous southern English city exists in a "middle ground of desirability" where the terraces and avenues are home to a breed of chattering, disrespectful Peeping Toms who guess everything, know nothing and where even the weather is confused. Neighbours could be virgins, bakers or dog-stranglers. Within this environment of mulch and young families, a mosaic of separate stories emerge, stories which occasionally collide as they flit back and forth over the Nineties. There is the young doctor who cares for his patients and yet cannot accept his own paternal streak, the doting husband whose wife leaves him first and then whose cat begins to ignore him in the street, and the museum curator who cannot accept the beauty age has bestowed on her. Simon Mason jigs together a novel in the manner of American authors such as Garrison Keillor or Armisted Maupin, and yet this fractured narrative fits in perfectly with his string of paint-flaked, Volvo-besieged dwellings. This, the doctor cries, is not a community but "an echo-chamber".

While much of Lives of the Dog-Stranglers is tragic, in a been-there, felt-that style, Mason manages to grease the axle with some of the funniest scenes of suburban misfortune since The Wimbledon Poisoner. He is a consummate comedian of the observational rather than the wisecracking variety: a husband in the process of penning a farewell note resorts to quoting the chorus to The Buzzcocks' "Ever Fallen in Love", the hurried adulterous sexual encounter that progresses like the inept construction of an IKEA shelving unit ("Wait, No, Here!"), there are so many wonderful moments in this book. "In times of lethargy ... farce is the only mode of expression," announces Mason. This could so easily have slipped into slapstick but Mason's saving grace is his humanity. It is more than simply rooting for the underdog; he has created impotent, lonely characters that incite empathy and compassion. It is laughing with, rather than laughing at. Hope still exists on the outskirts of town, in the nebulous form of metamorphosis. As one character explains, "it doesn't matter if the house falls around us. We're lying here together, in the dark, motionless but changing." Most of us have at one time lived in a Parkside; what Mason shows us is that once you've moved on you can look back and see the funny side.

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