BOOKS FICTION: Just any old life

KISS AND TELL by Alain de Botton, Macmillan pounds 9.99
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The Independent Culture
"THERE has rarely passed a life of which a judicious and faithful narrative would not be useful," thundered Dr Johnson, and modern literature is in copious agreement. The world's gone biography berserk. But within this avalanche of studies and eulogies and debunks and hatchet-jobs of the great and famous, the name Isabel Jane Rogers has not featured. Possibly this is because she's only 27. Possibly it is because she works for a minor stationary importer and drives a grumbling Citroen Diane called Bug. Possibly it is, even, because she's only snogged 17 people and whole- hogged a paltry eight. More likely, however, it is because she doesn't exist.

Vivacious, daffy, graduate lead-free petrol user, Isabel is the subject of a fictional biography. Spinning a filigree of invented fact around his frumpy, plant-loving creation, Alain de Botton provides not merely an engaging suburban love story, but a lip-smackingly irreverent take on the entire biographical genre.

His narrator - a shadowy egoist whose own life remains firmly out of the frame - is stung into the role of biographer after a former girlfriend condemns him as "someone who would have trouble empathising with anything further than his own earlobe". Determined to prove her wrong, he latches onto the first, admittedly attractive, stranger he comes across and sets out to chronicle her life. The result is a patchwork of history, anecdote, observation and analysis, coloured by the fact that the student gradually falls for, and into bed with, the subject of his studies.

"What biography disguised, in its concern for unusual lives, was the extraordinariness of any life," explains our narrator; and from the humdrum mundanity of her diurnal existence Isabel indeed emerges as a creature of some fascination. She hails from a dysfunctional Home Counties family, drinks milk in pubs, sucks her fingers, gets stroppy if you eat her chocolates and likes Bob Dylan. It's amazing how infectious this information becomes. Before long you find yourself furiously cross-referencing oblique mentions of Isabel's sexual conquests with the "How Far Did She Go and With Who" diagrams de Botton has so thoughtfully supplied.

Underpinning the humour and anecdotage is a succession of incisive, thought- jangling stabs at the nature of biography. Every aspect of the process - chronology, memory, psychology, interpretation - is pulled apart and found wanting. Why, for instance, should a family tree be presented in exhaustive detail when the biographer's subject may well have had not the least notion, nor concern, who his Great Aunt twice removed actually was? When he suggests a "new form of biography" which would "leave out of the story of a person's life everything which they themselves did not remember" de Botton is being playful, but the points he raises are important.

Rich, intelligent and finely written, this novel offers literary philosophy in a praline shell of graduate romance made all the more scrumptious by the inclusion of a wedge of fascinatingly mundane photos. It is the perfect antidote for those suffering from a lack of conviction in their own uniqueness.