Books: Latest of the literary shock Jocks

Scar Culture by Toni Davidson Rebel Inc pounds 9.99
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The Independent Culture
Toni Davidson's first novel is a clever, well-executed work that isn't easy to like. Already being compared to fellow Scots writers such as Welsh and Warner with unpalatable subject matter more in your face than on the page, Davidson looks set to take his place in the canon of those who go where others fear to tread. Whether his skills can amount to more than technically accomplished shock tactics and leave a deeper and longer lasting impression remains to be seen.

Curtis Sad is a psychiatrist specialising in child sex abuse cases. Two particularly extreme victims of abuse are brought to him, the Beckett- sounding Click and Fright, and in conjunction with an associate from the US, he attempts some radical treatment involving regression therapy and hallucinogenic drugs. That's it put simply - this is a complex narrative divided into three sections where scenes and voices interject without explanation save for simple headings. The novel begins with Click's chronicle of abuse - so-called because his account is made up of a series of photographic images - before the tapes of Fright's experiences are heard in the second section. Sad's treatment of them and his own incestuous relationship with his sister when a young boy are related in the third.

The relation of the two boys' experiences through another medium, whether visual or oral, has the obvious distancing effect the mechanics of headings, subtitles and notes in bold are meant to reinforce, and this has a number of consequences. Davidson is aware his reader, like Sad himself, is both the "eavesdropper and Peeping Tom" which such distance implies, and is aware too of the lack of involvement or emotional commitment on the part of the reader (as of the psychiatrist) to the terrible things which happen to the two boys. The maelstrom into which Sad's treatment descends has been compared to other tales of psychiatry gone mad, most obviously One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, but this isn't really an indictment of modern psychiatric treatment. This is Beckett all over - the impossibility of communication, the perpetual meaninglessness of language, all linked this time to the horrors of child abuse.

This is a technically skilful work then, although its material is problematic (especially when the dust jacket blurb includes the word "erotic"). It's not enough to say that an honest account of sexual abuse will, however unpleasantly, include information that is titillating. There is a Machiavellian impulse behind Sad's experimentation on Fright and Click to produce the desired effect which in some ways mirrors the impulse behind much of the novel too. But more than just shocking for shocking's sake, the novel's end is confused by the machinations of its elaborate and complex means.

There is one brief moment when a genuine sense of menace creeps in, as Sad recounts an early experience he had supervising a woman who had killed her husband and children. Underestimating the risk to himself, he is suddenly and violently confronted with her actions and narrowly escapes. Again, reader and psychiatrist are thrown together but this time the camera, the tape recorder and the superficial note headings are temporarily elided in a real moment of fear. Rumour has it that Scar Culture may make it to the screen with the same team behind Alex Garland's The Beach. It could be a scary one.