Books: Transcending the Zeitgeist
Sunday 11 April 1999
by Matthew Baylis
Chatto pounds 10
How many good novels can you name which imply their locale in their titles? And how wise was it for Matthew Baylis to call his fictional debut (Chatto pounds 10) - a strap which seems to invite the reader to think "Ah yes, Fulham" and spiral off into an ecstasy of recollection or excoriation.
The first half of the novel's title plays on the name of its protagonist, Alastair Strange, a refugee from grim up-Northness who finds himself cast adrift in the choppy sea of London's vanity publishing business. Alastair, who measures out his life in soap opera instalments, evades the more meaningful kinds of relationship and struggles to steer clear of dope, is the lodger in a house owned by an absentee musician and shared with a mentally erratic barmaid. His existence appears to consist of avoiding his wilfully worldly brother, attempting to track down an obscure magazine called TV Forum and lamenting the foul-mouthed excesses of Londoners.
In all likelihood this sounds unpromising. The ingredients are a blend of Come Together urban youthstyle commonplace, North-South chippiness and Remembrance of Bad Jobs. But Matthew Baylis manages to transcend the blandness of his genre: more than this, he redeems it. What at first sight looks like another disposable psalter for Zeitgeist-surfers, turns out to be a work rich in humour and insight. Where so many other novels of this type content themselves with complacent list-making and the odd lurid orgasm, probes and pricks, passing carefully casual comment on sibling rivalry, office politics, pub ritual, bedroom etiquette and quirks of the human heart.
Baylis has the ability to capture the odd modulations of everyday speech: the narrative is consciously strewn with spoken idiosyncrasies. Through the peculiarities of their speech, the careworn and lovelorn account of life's little ironies, his characters endear themselves. There's also a little anthropology, a sliver of espionage, a stray reference to the films of Marianne Sagebrecht: Baylis definitely wants to prove that although he's aiming for the mainstream he knows its tributaries as well.
In the end, this practice works. is not a novel hung up deciding what it is about, but it combines a certain amount of keen observation with comfortably droll mistrust of convention and an exaggerated characterisation which never quite strays into stereotype. Its broad array of minor interests are skilfully drawn together in a pleasingly unexpected conclusion, and there is an enduring sense that a title which could have seemed cosy is in fact a playful, maybe even coolly subversive joke.
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