Books: In Julieworld, no one can hear you scream

Married Alive by Julie Burchill Orion pounds 9.99
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To paraphrase a famous female columnist, there are two sorts of sacred cow. The first sort is one that we know is sacred, but we're encouraged to attack it, both for pleasure and profit. That would be the Queen, Cliff Richard and Julie Burchill. The second sort would be the Queen Mother, John Peel ... and Julie Burchill.

You see, you can't win with this particular heifer. This thirtysomething West Country working-class girl who made good in the Big Smoke is two sacred cows in one. If you take "Julie" - as everyone seems to call her - seriously and criticise her, then you risk being considered as someone who is not serious themselves. If, on the other hand, you merely nod and laugh, slapping your thigh, arching your eyebrow ironically at everything she does, you run the risk of joining the ranks of the most uncool people around - those who care about who's "cool".

Should she write novels? Well, probably not. But the important thing about Julie is that it doesn't matter. Julie is a national institution- cum-themepark for the meejah classes. In Julieworld you pay your money, queue up, belt yourself in and get out at the end, shaken, slightly stirred, occasionally slightly sick. And even though you might be a little bit disappointed sometimes, you never, ever ask for your money back.

In Married Alive, the latest ride to open in Julieworld, Nicola, a thirtysomething West Country working-class girl made good in the Big Smoke (sound familiar?) rescues her Gran from a Fate Worse Than Death (a home). In a gesture calculated to shock Nineties professional sensibilities in a way that a passion for necrophilia or even a taste for non-virgin olive oil couldn't begin to, our heroine takes her Gran back to London with her and shares her open- plan, trendy, bijou New York-style loft apartment, where she lives with her fashionable photographer husband, with this foul-mouthed, foul-smelling, savaloy-snaffling, lumpen-proletarian, provincial hag.

It turns out, of course, that Nicola is the one that needs rescuing. From her marriage to the photographer sleazeball, and the Soho slags (the new, shameless kind; not the old, decent kind) he calls friends. The Fate Worse Than Death isn't The Home beckoning Liza, but the home burying Nicola: the middle-class marriage, yawning bottomlessly, lovelessly in front of her. It doesn't take a shrink, not even one called "Dr Alibhai" like Nicola's, to suspect that, however autobiographical Married Alive may or may not be, Liza represents the elements of Ms B's own background, her "rootsiness", that made her both irresistible and irredeemable to the world of journalism, but which she left under a table in the Groucho Club sometime in the 1980s. And maybe this is why so many of the novel's reference points are from that era: Nicola dances to The Lexicon of Love, lusts after Daniel Day Lewis and talks about "the Department of Health and Social Security" - the Department of Health was separated from the DSS around the time Ambition became a best-seller.

Married Alive is not about marriage. It's about escaping from respectability. More than this, it's about being rescued from adulthood. In Married Alive, middle-aged girlhood triumphs over womanhood. Husbands turn out to be a poor exchange for the love of Daddy; men a poor exchange for pop music and Bunty; reality a poor exchange for fantasy. Hence it's probably redundant to point out that the characters are not terribly convincing, the plot is so thin it's sheer, and that the wise-cracking dialogue is often even more wincingly belaboured than a Jonathan Harvey sitcom.

What works are the sweeping generalisations, the arrogant asides, the conjunction of strange ideas, such as that salt and vinegar crisps "taste like regret". Or the mad discourses, such as this one on love: "Being in love, badly, so it hurts, is like being in some sort of queue that never ends. You're just waiting, for ever, for it to be over, so you can start to live again. Except - you always forget this bit - that, when it is over, your life goes all limp, becomes all boring and difficult to wear, like a piece of clothing where the elastic's snapped." In other words, the columny stuff.

Ultimately Married Alive, both in terms of its narrative and its writing, seems to be an argument for solipsism. No surprises there. "I knew that in the self-contained struggles of ... [Noel Streatfield's] Fossil sisters I would find far more soul, sass and succour than in the sympathetic phone calls of my friends," Nicola tells us towards the end of the book, after she drives away her husband. "Because the Fossil sisters were girls, small and mobile and inviolate units, while my friends are women, defined by men, and they cannot see perfect aloneness as anything more than the absence of a man." A return to adolescent self-sufficiency is all very well, and it's certainly a refreshing break from all that Bridget Jones how-can-I-land-myself-a-man neuroticism, but how many women would want to live with the Fossil sisters? How many women want to shelter from adult life in a happy childhood memory, even if they have such a thing?

Ms B may not be able to decide whether growing up is a good idea or not, and we may not be able to decide whether she ever did, but who couldn't love someone who pens a line like: "Then, get this, her mobile rings; it was her ex with sex on his pecs in some dismal Tex-Mex."

Whether this is the work of a genius or a fool it is impossible to say and probably not worth thinking about. It's simply "Julie".