Books: Not what you might expect

DON'T by Jenny Diski Granta pounds 9.99
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
WHEN selections of one person's writings are laid end-to-end, as Jenny Diski's are here, any repetitive tricks - or tics - of style, personal obsessions or narrowness of range, soon become apparent. Indeed, as Diski herself comments on reviewing Julie Burchill: "It's a dangerous business collecting bits of journalism together in one place. A column of biting vituperation becomes an indeterminate fishwife shriek when multiplied by 250 pages. And a racy style loses its edge when someone has forgotten to edit out the repeated use of the same phrases ..."

Most of the pieces in Don't originally appeared in the London Review of Books. A good many are themselves book reviews, while others are essays grounded in personal experience. But, with due deference to Burchill - or perhaps to Granta's or Jenny Diski's own superior editing - the writing throughout not only avoids the pitfalls of the collected edition but is a constantly rewarding pleasure.

Having made her mark as a novelist, Diski is now in the front rank of non- fiction. And her recent memoir, Skating to Antartica, complements this book well, the former presenting the attached, revelatory author; the latter offering that author's detached views on the revelatory writings of others. Skating to Antarctica also details the pain in Diski's own history that lends so much authority and insight into her observations upon human weakness.

Don't is grouped according to various, general themes, with such laconic titles as "Looking at Monsters in the Dark", "Icons of Perfect Light" and "Madness and its Uses". In the first of these, reviewing a book on multiple murderer and mutilator Jeffrey Dahmer, she contemplates the possible mental promptings for the actions of men like Dahmer which had led, in recent years, to the appropriation of the word "evil" by tabloid headline- writers, and contemplates, too, the contemplations of others seeking intelligible explanations.

She brings a similar clarity of vision to the "larger-than-life", compulsive drives of Howard Hughes and Robert Maxwell and the often odious issuings of Roald Dahl into a world which has apparently lapped them up. Throughout the collection, Diski remains refreshingly free from political, philosophical or any other form of stultifying "correctness" - or indeed wilful incorrectness. Her approach to Maxwell, for example, is a long way from the normal knee-jerk response.

Such honesty enables her to be, given her intelligence and eloquence, an effective commentator on the mysteries and abnormalities of human behaviour. She takes issue with Oliver Sacks for subsuming his medical role beneath that of the romantic writer, attempting to create a literary pattern out of his patients' inexplicable distress. Diski, by contrast, has no problem in acknowledging that some of life's most insistent questions have no answer.

Diski divides the world into "those who look and those who look away." She is certainly of the party that looks. And any intelligent reader is bound to be interested in what she sees.