BOOKS: Look out! He's behind you!

RIVEN ROCK by T Coreghessan Boyle Bloomsbury pounds 16.99
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The Independent Culture
READING this novel is like wading through marshmallow. The author's love of repetition, paraphrase, lists and unnecessary adjectives makes it about three times as long as it needs to be. The narrative is clogged with words just as arteries get clogged with fat. The story is that of a rich man driven to excess and surrounded by excess, but the lushness and exaggeration of the prose style underline the meaninglessness of the hero's life rather than provide any ironic comment upon it.

Often the lists are supposedly comic and sometimes the adjectives come arranged in sevens, as in this account of the death that starts the whole tragedy in motion: "Cyrus Hall McCormick, inventor of the reaper, multi- millionaire, recipient of the Cross of the French Legion of Honor, cranky, old, bullheaded, unloving, rheumatic, wheezy and tyrannical, was dead at 75."

From there on it's downhill all the way for the heir, young Stanley. It's the early 20th century and Stanley is supposed to be glorying in the new age and all the wealth he will accumulate, but he is doomed. Traumatised by his family background, which consists of those hoary old stereotypes, the patriarchal father, the over-possessive mother and the hysterical, self-harming sister, Stanley goes quietly mad. He finally tips over the edge after getting married to Katherine, the woman he truly loves, who has been silly enough not to realise that he fears and loathes female sexuality. Well, of course. Wouldn't you?

What with his mother preaching purity and his sister pulling up her night-gown to show him her genitals, poor Stanley has got his underpants in quite a twist. Naturally, he begins attacking any woman he sees, his would-be rapes being attempts at controlling the beast within by taking vengeance on the beast without. It's a very familiar story.

Perhaps the piled-on baroque decoration of the language is an attempt to compensate for a certain dullness of plot. Not a lot happens. Stanley is locked away in a mansion in California and waited on hand and foot by a gang of nurses, warders and psychiatrists, while Katherine reveals to us, in flashback, the succession of peculiar acts and sayings that led up to his incarceration. Much fun is poked at serious, bumbling, pompous shrinks. Every so often Stanley beats someone up, makes a dash for freedom, tries to attack another woman, and is captured and put back into restraints.

These episodes crop up regularly, accumulating like the details in a shaggy dog story. Every 100 pages or so you brace yourself to shout, "Look out! He's behind you!" Katherine, unable to admit, in her idealistic way, that she might have been mistaken in marrying a man who can only be violent towards her, goes on loving Stanley. We are meant to feel the pathos of this hopeless devotion, but it lacks lustre. Katherine is too much the figure of the correct feminist of the times to come across as more than a starched surface of intellect, while Stanley, endlessly psychoanalysed, is not fleshed out as a character at all. Poor thing, he's stuck back in the horrors of adolescence and the belief that women are castrated men, with their "breasts that hung there like the stumps of something missing and that scar between their legs where there should have been flesh. It was an excoriating vision, a waking nightmare."

What redeems the novel is the lively narrative of O'Kane, one of Stanley's male nurses, which takes its turn, from time to time, in pushing out the slow boat of the plot. O'Kane is a bit of a bully, sentimental, lecherous, would-be cunning, alive in a way that the main characters are not and in a novel committed to making the reader care about its protagonists, this does matter. O'Kane is also violent towards women, hitting both his wives, but he doesn't excuse his behaviour as madness.

O'Kane's power struggles with the formidable sex-hungry females ranged against him, his moodiness and vulnerability, his very ordinariness, make him a rather modern hero, up against the wall but trying to charm his way out of disaster. In a novel about troubled masculinity, he's the only figure to suggest that the male psyche has any depth and humanity and can't be reduced to mere caricature.