Books: Paperback roundup

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The Independent Culture
Paroxysm: Interviews with Philippe Petit by Jean Baudrillard, trs Chris Turner, Verso pounds 11. The "pimp of postmodernism" predicts the freefall of political economics into a "jeu de catastrophe" whereby speculation is "no longer surplus-value; it is the ecstasy of value, without reference to production or its real conditions". Similarly, forms (which can be equated with reality) have dissipated by means of "metaphysical entropy". Only storage counts for something now - because there is no longer "any criterion of value", we simply take stock of things ad infinitum. This is a crude summary of Jean Baudrillard's position in this collection of interviews, and it is brought to bear on a range of topics including the collapse of Communism, the Gulf War, Bosnia, the return of ethnic nationalisms, virtual reality and nihilism. The interview format ensures that Baudrillard cannot retreat into abstract circumlocutions, and it is refreshing to find him at once trenchant and concise. The translation retains the conversational to and fro of ideas and speculations, essentially a re-hash of Baudrillard's cultural criticism. His view of Hollywood blockbusters is suitably lofty and full of pathos for what he sees as the debasement of the image: "the bloody drift of their content, the weakness of their plots and their technological tricksiness reveal an extraordinary contempt on the part of filmmakers for their own tools and trade." There is no real violence, he contends, no "theatre of cruelty", merely a ferocious resentment for a culture which cannot manage to come to an end, or achieve any kind of apotheosis. He concludes, worryingly: "the sabotaging of the image by the image professionals here joins the sabotaging of the political by the politicians themselves." This book is exciting and illuminating precisely because, after reading, nothing is capable of sustaining its face value.

The Househunter by Henry Sutton, Sceptre pounds 6.99. Gentle satire is Henry Sutton's speciality, and out-of-shape, pallid estate agents bear the brunt of it in his third novel. At 42, Eleanor has been married to a boring (and now balding) man for 11 years. They have lived in the same house for 15 years, have no children, and Eleanor has just lost her job. Something has to give, so Eleanor decides to move, and begins an odyssey that takes her to properties for sale around London. It is clear from the outset that the inhabitants engross her more than the houses (although Sutton details their dusty interiors with an almost fetishistic precision), and that Eleanor's househunting is a metaphorical quest for a raison d'etre. Sutton's approach is subtle, however, and warmly sympathetic, and the pervasive melancholy of these fragmented stories creates a sense of quiet revelation.

Russia: The Wild East Granta 64, pounds 7.99. The latest issue of Granta contains the stories of a people who have suffered under two of this century's great experiments: communism and capitalism. The most affecting piece is Anna Pyasetskava's, whose "The Lost Boys" recalls her search for the body of her son, who died, along with 10,000 other young conscripts, during the war in Chechnya. "How did the army help? Not at all." And yet a representative of military unit 41450 tells her that, with his death, her son was obeying "the call of duty". Colin Thubron writes about his journey through Siberia, a fascinating piece of contemporary history, and, in "Moscow Dynamo", young Russian novelist Victor Pelevin contributes a short story full of a generation's suppressed rage that vents itself in the consumption of vodka and football. In an exercise in light relief, Barry Unsworth communicates the exhilarating chaos of Naples, and his frustrated attempts to carry out a piece of historical research. He comes away more enlightened than he could ever have anticipated.

Intimacy by Hanif Kureishi, Faber pounds 6.99. "It is the saddest night, for I am leaving and not coming back." So begins what is intended to be a cleansing act of storytelling, told with lacerating honesty and self-awareness. Kureishi's fictional account of the last night of a crumbling marriage generated a gratifying (to him, no doubt) amount of controversy on first publication, but leaves this reader with a bad taste in her mouth. After a while, the self-pity, endless recriminations (the narrator blames his parents for his own inadequacies), and rebellion against the cloying intimacy of family life become tiresome. Jay loves his children, but their constant demands get on his nerves; his wife no longer attracts him, and Jay, a writer, must survive with his "soft pencil and hard dick" functioning. Familial obligation must not stand in the way of Jay's pursuit of self-fulfilment and happiness (ie a nubile young woman called Nina). Yah boo sucks. This pseudo-philosophical framework ain't fooling anyone.

Europe: A Cultural History by Peter Rietbergen, Routledge pounds 16.99. European culture as we know it is the result of a 1,000-year interaction with other cultures. Even one of its foundations - Christianity - is a result of ethnic and religious syncretism. In this admirably succinct account of Europe's history, Peter Rietbergen, professor of cultural history at the Catholic University of Nijemgen, the Netherlands, makes a case for the development of our culture as a series of "phases" of continuity and change. His aim is to ask pertinent questions about the notion of identity and the status of Europe as it faces a third millennium, and he even finds room to quote from the lyrics of Iron Maiden and Sting.

Other People's Children by Joanna Trollope, Black Swan pounds 6.99. By 2010 there will be more stepfamilies than birth families in Britain. This fact spurs Trollope, in her ninth novel, to deal with the consequences of divorce as typified by our malcontent family man, Hanif Kureishi. Only there is no need for self-vindication here. Each character is humanely drawn, the harsh realities of parenthood calmly anatomised, and, most importantly for Trollope, the needs of children highlighted. She is also an old hand at setting up a complex dramatic situation and coercing it into a satisfying climax. Perceptive and funny, there's more to her than the Aga saga.

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