Books: All dressed up, nowhere to go

Miranda Seymour on a natty but static stylist; Soon to be a Major Motion Picture by Jonathan Keates, Chatto & Windus, pounds 12.99
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The Independent Culture
All that is best about Jonathan Keates' stories is on show in "It's Never You", the seventh in this glittering collection. Cal and Tom are a young, intensely self-aware gay couple to whom style is everything. A New York apartment is their goal; when Keates introduces them, they are lounging on a dusty stretch of grass on Clapham Common. Glamour, so far, has stepped no nearer than a rare opportunity for one to ignore a celebrity in the restaurant where he works as a waiter.

The twist, deliciously managed, comes when the waiter's day out leads him into another world. Adrift among jam-selling matrons at a garden fete, eyed by the little girl from the manor house who identifies him as a homosexual and promptly hands him a copy of Cranford, the stylish urban boy begins to sense that appearance may not, after all, amount to everything.

That, at least, is what the story seems to be about: the surface of Keates's fictions gives off such an intense shimmer that it isn't always easy to be sure what, if anything, is going on below.

"La Dolce Prospettiva", another little masterpiece of elusiveness, stands neatly between Henry James and Tennessee Williams. Here, Keates examines the motives and desires of a homosexual art historian at the moment when his wealthy patroness is expecting him to declare his love. Behind them, at the altar of a Venetian church, an Italian woman curses the aloof madonna she holds responsible for her lover's death.

"The Cherry Thief", one of the most bewitchingly obfuscatory of the tales, witnesses the life of an Italian family through the gift and loss of some magnificent cherries. Their boredom and frustration is made exquisitely palpable by the Proustian young narrator through whose eyes we look.

Boredom itself becomes the subject in "Les Osages", Keates's account of a ravishing young Senegalese lady's research for a history of mental fatigue. The detail is as rich and intricate as the case of a Faberge egg; Estifania's mythical history as a muse, model and mistress is presented with breathtaking elegance and panache.

Less successful is "What Avi Told Me", in which a Golders Green orthodox Jewish boy hungers after the more cultured and decadent life of the Kensington Bassanos, who mix with Gentiles and care about Art. The division here is a bit crude; where the story lets him down is in the obviousness of the denouement, about decadence in Avi's own family. Plot, as this tale demonstrates, is not Keates's strength, but neither, one can't help feeling, is it his driving interest.

Avi's attitude to his parents and the disillusion they cause him take second place to the presentation of externals, the significance of his feeling "a total dude in my new Hugo Boss" or seeking "some well fit birds" on Hampstead High Street. As with almost all of the stories, we know a good deal more about Avi's appearance than about his nature.

The scenery and background to each of the nine tales is beautifully presented; the narratives and the characters left me in a state of worried detachment, wondering what was missing. It's as though, in his meticulous, passionate registering of details and nuances, Keates had lost concern with his protagonists and their motives, allowing them to become cyphers in an elegant dance of allusions.

But this, Keates might argue, is precisely his intention. These stories are about people whose secret fantasy is to become someone else. The hollowness which suggests itself as a weakness is, in fact, a testimony to the skill of the author's creation.

Perhaps. Yet, if we are to understand the craving to shed their skins which these characters are supposed to feel, we need to be able to sympathise and to believe in them. I did not. Brilliant though the detail is, it acts as a veil behind which motives are only dimly perceptible.

The blurb draws an analogy with the art of cinema indicated in the title. Unwittingly, the allusion points the flaw. This is cinema as it would be if it was the creation of the stylist, the skilled designer of settings who places everything, selects a sympathetic colour scheme, ensures that no detail mars the correctness of the whole. All that escape the stylist's creation - and Keates's dazzling fictions - are the vulgar, simple elements for which cinemagoers pay: a story they can swallow and characters they can understand.