BOOK REVIEW / On the road with a doll: Swallowing Geography - Deborah Levy: Jonathan Cape, pounds 12.99

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The Independent Culture
SWALLOWING GEOGRAPHY is the sort of novel which doesn't behave like a novel - the sort that can usually be put in its place by applying the label 'experimental'. Less than 100 pages, its matter is congealed into six dense, disorienting chapters with vatic titles like 'Riding the Tiger' and 'Book of the Open Mouth'. With no linear narrative to speak of, it is less a stream of consciousness than a heap of broken images. The one connecting thread is the central character JK.

But JK is as disconnected as the world she inhabits: like her namesake Jack Kerouac, she is always on the road. Travelling around Europe with a typewriter in a pillowcase, she is an outsider who 'never belongs to a person or a place'. In the bar at Roissy airport, she is cut off from her companion Gregory. His voice is too quiet. She can only catch odd words. In London, she plays the detached observer, while her crazy, alcoholic mother scribbles 'hymns of hate' and crushes a papier mache doll underfoot in an act of displaced revenge. In Oxford, she drinks champagne with a man in a fez whom the authorities have labelled an 'alien'. But JK is just as alienated. Her lover complains that she wants him to remain a stranger - she even keeps her shoes on during sex so she can walk away.

In a Mediterranean holiday resort JK sits in a restaurant searching for 'an imagined place, a place that is not this place'.

Through the muzak, Trotsky and Lenin, discredited inventors of imaginary communities, make a carnivalesque appearance. Trotsky reveals a penchant for 'women with big noses who nonchalantly cross their legs'. Lenin, more to the political point, takes offence at the sight of a sausage: 'And how many choices of sausage? Five? Yes, the people they like to have a choice of sausage. The sum of my life's work undone by a sausage.'

The final two chapters centre on lovers - offering fragments of JK's cross-cultural affaire with the German H, and of a triangular relationship between 'the settler X', his 'co-settler Z', and 'the wanderer Y'. At intervals throughout the novel, Gregory reemerges from chapter one. He finally dies of Aids after a species of apocalyptic transfiguration.

Through this haze of surrealistic images and situations, which are at once luminously precise and intolerably impenetrable, Deborah Levy offers a series of deconstructive meditations on the nature of identity. The things we use to stabilise our sense of selfhood and which form a frame for our relationships with other people - a name, a home, membership of a community - are systematically collapsed into a vortex of shifting subjectivity. The result is virtual solipsism. Communication becomes an impossibility. 'You see how I'm making you up? . . . Have you made me up too?' asks a disembodied voice (probably Gregory's) which soliloquises without hope of an answer.

Given the nature of her apparent message, Deborah Levy's decision to dispense with the readerfriendly conventions of plot and characterisation begins to make sense. She makes you feel as alienated as her displaced characters. It is hard to find your feet in a text where finely observed concrete detail - the green plates from Brixton market, the pink camellia growing on a concrete balcony - rubs shoulders with abstract questions which protrude out of the page in italics: 'Do we exist? What proof do we have?'

But Swallowing Geography is too accomplished as a piece of writing to be dismissed out of hand as the ravings of an adolescent who's read The Waste Land once too often. The prose is lean, unencumbered, and at its best in moments of pure lyricism. Yet although you can respond to Deborah Levy's vision either intellectually or sensually, what you can't do is to engage with it emotionally.