Books: Gagging on bad jokes

Richard Canning plumbs the depths of the year's worst novel
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Whatever Love Means

by David Baddiel

Little, Brown, pounds 14.99, 308pp

A PLOT synopsis and "Q&A" with David Baddiel accompanied this book - designed, presumably, to steer a busy reviewer away from the fiction itself. But why worry, when Baddiel's first effort, Time for Bed, sold 500,000 copies? Especially when replicates its formulaic love triangle, while ostentatiously reaching out for "big" themes like heterosexual Aids and mortality, as well as the perpetually relevant issues - like why blokes like Vic lust after "new pussy".

How abysmal is ? It opens: "Vic fucked her first the day Princess Diana died." That oddly placed "first" suggests the author's uncannily bad ear for both style and dialogue. The idle reference to Diana's death anticipates many finger-wags at the "radically unoriginal thoughts" of most people, such as the mourners who "spent the whole week mistaking the word `I' for the word `we' - the fundamental error of fascism". Similarly dumb ideas spring from everyone. Joe reflects in Woolwich that "anywhere else in the world - starting with Rwanda - would be preferable".

Baddiel's grasp of human nature is unerringly skew. Some observations are lifted straight from Pseuds' Corner. Emma and Joe buy a house because "a house is a narrative; a flat, spatially, expresses only the present". Vic worries he "had unpinched the fingers holding the tip of his balloon of self too quickly". Descriptions are equally lame: a naked woman has "parallelogrammatic buttocks"; Emma's fingers play the harp, "plucking at the strings like synchronised spiders". Ah, spiders!

Humour, we're told, "is the modus operandi of all human communication". This, the comedian's conceit, is compromised by the many flabby jokes. Vic finds some illnesses "really cool": "motor neurone disease... sounded like a fucking Ferrari".

Baddiel, like Vic, thinks that nowadays "you needed... to bounce-refer your wit across the pop culture spectrum from Evel Knievel to Barbapapa". While he gamely "bounce-refers", though, an underlying puerility emerges - and a nervous suspicion of his naked lack of talent.

Bodies issue forth constantly. Babies vomit; a dog has "shit spurting out his arse like water from a fireman's hose"; a plane's fuel trail resembles "a huge sperm searching out the giant yolk of the sun". Less savoury expressions of male sexual self-interest are disingenuously rendered through others. Vic had "a simple, unalloyed... longing for - to use a phrase that, say, Eddie Murphy might prefer - new pussy".

Baddiel's own literary insecurities appear in his book's condescension towards others. Vic hears someone "ride his moral high horse across the canyon of unoriginal thought". Another character is "not much concerned with originality of expression". Today's unexacting, celebrity-led book market cries out for Whatever Shit Sells. Baddiel himself comments that, these days, "the Fool... is King". Enough evidence of this novel's self- absorption and smugness? Read anything else.