Books: Somewhere between the bagel and the banal

Everything You Know by Zoe Heller Viking pounds 9.99
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The Independent Culture
Zoe Heller is best known for her "confessional" columns - most recently in the Sunday Times - in which a sharp eye for the hip and the cool and a way of describing amatory exploits made a cocktail of schmaltz and bitters for the morning-after crowd. (That Heller herself owns to the embarrassing nature of this weekly offering was revealed recently in the Bookseller when announcing her withdrawal from "lifestyle" journalism: "I tend to judge things I've written by how much I cringe on rereading them," she confessed).

Everything You Know is the novel which replaces those ephemeral jottings. We are therefore invited to judge its potential for posterity; even if we cringe as we read we must envisage a time capsule, with the Heller novel buried within. Can Everything You Know be judged as Literature? Will a survey of the last great works of the millennium be incomplete without Heller's book? What is the difference, in fact, between this and "me" journalism - apart from the hard covers, a price tag of a penny under a tenner and the licence to indulge in aphorisms?

The first answer lies in the petite difference - in order to distance herself from the persona established in the press, Heller writes as a man. His name is Muller, but any resemblance ends there. The time-honoured method, for a woman writing in the first person as a member of the opposite sex, of introducing a pipe, along with shaving gear, at the first possible opportunity, is replaced, as befits a cool and hip writer, by reference to the pudenda. For pipe read penis. There's no mistaking the fact that Heller, in this confessional account, has transmogrified into a male.

Willy (another hint?) Muller is a murderer, a man so second-rate - he's a ghost-writer of celebrity memoirs, a multiple-version scriptwriter of his own film-optioned life, a liar and a 55-year-old frump - that he calls out for the prose and imagination of Nabakov to rescue him from the banality into which his creator has so rashly plunged him. These he is denied. "Depression and irritability are common symptoms among cardiac patients. My doctor told me so the other day after I had thrown a stale bagel at one of the Asian trolls who brings me my breakfast," confides Muller at the outset of this chronicle of bad behaviour and worse behaviour recalled. "Naturally I resented his banal diagnosis!" Not as much, the reader might put in here, as Muller's style of reminiscing about himself, a kind of Amis-man Chandlerised; a guy who pushed his wife against a fridge door and killed her - but hey! - who cares?

Everything You Know makes its claim as a novel by taking Muller's life odyssey, from horribly neglectful father of two daughters (the younger has just committed suicide, miles away in London) and cheating low-grade writer, and attempting to give us what all studio heads demand on their mobile phones - Redemption. How can a man as debased as Muller - a man who has not only murdered his wife but can hardly bring himself to read his dead daughter's pathetic diary, her own confessions of an unloved life - be transformed into a caring, sharing member of society? Will Muller understand that his treatment of the woman he allows in his bed - ghastly Penny with her "seduction garments", poor freckled Fiona, who is like a "very pale person looking out through a scrim of ginger" - is totally unacceptable? The journey to recapture his soul will take him from Los Angeles to Mexico to London. Can we in turn care enough to follow him?

The answer lies in the detail. The inclusion of Muller's dead daughter Sadie's journal is mistaken, for it gives us yet another voice, in this case cringe-making in its bathos. The repeated and probably unintentional changes in Muller's voice fail to convince. Sometimes he's heavy and American- pedantic, on the occasion of his visit to London he is Dickensian, describing with 19th-century severity the council flats where his surviving daughter lives; in Mexico he's plain bitchy, etc. What remains - and persuades - is what Zoe Heller had all along, a sharp eye for soft furnishings, along with the manners and mores of the achingly hip. Everything You Know cannot pass the test as a novel, though it can amuse as it swings between the bagel and the banal.