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BOOK REVIEW / Clawing, brutish gargoyles: 'What a Carve Up]' - Jonathan Coe: Viking' 9.99 pounds - Anthony Quinn on a furiously political state-of-the-nation novel with a twist in its tail

MIDWAY through Jonathan Coe's new novel a character holds forth on the obsolescence of fiction and the ascendancy of film, reserving his particular scorn for the English novel because it has 'no tradition of political engagement. I mean, it's all just a lot of pissing about within the limits set down by bourgeois morality, as far as I can see.' If this is intended as a nudge to the reader then Coe needn't have bothered: What a Carve Up] avows its political engagement with the sort of fury rarely witnessed on our weedy domestic scene. State-of-the-nation novels during the Eighties became pretty much a laughing stock, a tired rehearsal of contemporary ills that failed to strike even the dimmest sparks off the old Thatcherite rock: the unreadable in pursuit of the unshakeable.

It would be absurd to expect Jonathan Coe to change the face of political fiction at a blow, but he has at least knocked its nose out of joint. Whatever else they were, one couldn't claim that the Eighties lacked colour, or drama, or interest, albeit of a fairly grotesque kind - yet there didn't seem to be any school of fiction which could properly encompass its stupendous barbarities. No pussyfooting here, though. Financial swindlers, political careerists, arms dealers, mediacrats, profiteers: Coe's novel arraigns a whole gaggle of gargoyles, and delivers a comeuppance with pungent brio.

The book takes as its springboard the 1961 comedy thriller What a Carve Up], which the author-narrator Michael Owen recalls watching one afternoon on a birthday outing to Weston-Super- Mare. His mother decided the film was unsuitable for a nine- year-old boy, and dragged him kicking and screaming from the cinema halfway through. Since that day Michael has been haunted by unfinished stories and obsessed by the image of the film's star, Shirley Eaton, better known as the Bond girl spraypainted to death in Goldfinger.

Cut to the summer of 1990, and Michael, a novelist of minor repute, has just resumed work upon the official biography of the Winshaw family, a breed who make the Borgias look like the Partridge family, their empire founded on 'every manner of swindling, forgery, larceny, robbery, thievery, trickery, jiggery-pokery, hanky-panky, plundering, looting, sacking, misappropriation, spoliation and embezzlement'. Michael had reached an impasse with the book sometime in the mid-Eighties, demoralised by the Winshaws' hostility to his investigations and confused about the direction his biography ought to take. Jolted into action by his friendly and sympathetic neighbour, Fiona, he decides to relaunch his 'fearless expedition' into the unlovely history of the Winshaws, beginning with the death of Godfrey Winshaw, a fighter pilot shot down by German anti-aircraft fire in November 1942 while flying a top-secret mission. Was he a casualty of war or the victim of an unspeakable treachery engineered between his own brother Lawrence and Nazi intelligence?

All will be revealed, though not before Michael takes to task the rest of the iniquitous clan within the pages of his book. There's Roddy, the art dealer, and Mark, the arms dealer; Dorothy, pioneeering the latest in battery farm and slaughterhouse efficiency; Thomas, the merchant banker trading secrets and favours with Henry, a turncoat MP with a special brief to dismantle the Health Service. And Hilary, a Glenda Slagg tabloid columnist with the usual pretensions to novel-writing ('We must think of a title', her agent tells her. 'A single word, preferably. Lust, or Revenge, or Desire, or something'). Coe has gone for the jocular as well as the jugular, so we accept these people as caricatures; yet, shaped as they are by a highly contemporary urge - 'naked, clawing, brutish greed' - and closely involved at key moments in recent history, they never seem very far from the real-life figures whose infamy still makes the headlines.

Bracing as it is to see the institutionalised pillage of the Eighties given such a vigorous doing over, the book would not be nearly so engaging without Coe's slightly nerdish narrator. Gone to seed during his three year exile from the world, Michael re- emerges to a sweltering summer and a Britain girding itself for war with Saddam Hussein. As he doggedly pursues his research into the book he finds that the Winshaw family increasingly impinges on his own destiny, and his belief that there's 'an explanation for everything' begins to take on a more sinister slant.

Via a tricksy bit of postmodern footwork, the plot becomes a mirror of, and an analogue to, the denouement of the eponymous film, with bits of Theatre of Blood and Ten Little Niggers (which also featured the great Shirley Eaton) thrown in. Yet just as the good seem about to end happily and the bad unhappily, Miss Prism's famous definition of fiction is overturned: this revenge tragicomedy has a final sting in the tale. What a Carve Up] is strewn with surprises, not the least of them Coe's ability to meld private concerns with political catastrophe. He has written a book that counts the human cost of the self-help, screw-you philosophy currently at large, but the sound it makes is not of tubs being thumped or hands being wrung - it's the raucous and far more apposite sound of horrid laughter.