Books: Computer malfunctions

Frances Fyfield switches off
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The Independent Culture
Stalking Fiona by Nigel Williams, Granta, pounds 15.99

Enter the alternative heroine, on big feet. Fiona is a lonely girl secretary with an ugly flat and undecided life. There was once a man called Dave ,but she got rid of him. Her closest relationship of any kind is with her mum, a grey specimen of parenthood who never opens her mouth except to state the irritatingly obvious ("Oh, you're in, are you?") - a style of dialogue which is obviously infectious.

The substitute for life as other 23-three year olds might know it is the regime of her office. Here, Fiona is the apparently anonymous focal point for three accountants, Peter, Paul and John. There may be something significant in their apostolic names, but in any event, this is no ordinary set-up. One of the accountants is a psychotic murderer who, complete with marigold gloves and horrible mask, has invaded Fiona's dreary apartment and raped her, leaving her with the immortal threat, (in a heavily disguised voice, of course), "If you tell anyone about this, I will kill you."

There follows the murderer's second attack, in bizarre circumstances, when again it could have been any one of the three. His communications both confess the crime to her and their computers, while pretending to be one of the other suspects at the same time. The bits on disc are in block capitals, to save confusion.

The two innocent accountants, who secretly love Fiona, conspire in separate communications to save her and themselves. Yet they remain equally suspect, since the pall of corruption hangs over the place. One of the accountants is a lecher, the second a victim of childhood trauma and the third a model family man.

Fiona and reader, between them, are supposed to decipher which one is guilty from her first person-recollection, via a diary and narrative, and from theirs, with letters, discs and so on.

In the meantime, Fiona is safer than she might be anywhere else for as long as she is with two out of the three suspects - unless they are all in it together.

Three voices, all in the first person, with scarcely a shift in tone or style, make this novel a monochrome nightmare to read. There are the conventionally violent, pornographic fantasies of the culprit, which could have been learned from under-the-counter merchandise at any video store. Then there is the prospect that Fiona might be making it all up to add a little titillation to the suspense - although finding much suspense at all is like looking for an envelope when there are none in the house.

It would be a clever conceit to weave a plot around four, anonymous people if there were indeed something distinctive about their voices, and only if we could be made to care about the fate of at least one of them. Frankly, towards the middle of this novel (let alone the end) it was difficult to give a shit whether poor, passive Fiona was impaled on a stake, never mind raped.

If the other three were to spend the rest of life sharing a cell, so much the better, so long as their conversation was not recorded for posterity. Perhaps Williams is being too subtle in failing to realise that first- person reported narrative is notoriously difficult to sustain, especially when diffused between so many narrators. Maybe this is a cult book for pre-dawn Internet freaks, in love with the screen and incapable of other communication. Could it even be a private joke, without a public laugh. Perhaps it is simply, a failed experiment.

There is no obligation on a writer as fine as Nigel Williams can be to define either his genre or his motive. And there is certainly some elegant and lucid prose in this book, which gives it the feeling of a Pinteresque script in the making. But it has all the signs of an author drunk with subject matter, writing in the absence of anyone tapping his shoulder.

That figure at his shoulder should have reminded him that the crime genre, into which this novel inevitably falls, is rich in literary talent these days. Anyone who dabbles in it must at least create genuine sympathy and suspense. Taking the minimalist approach is fine, but not at the risk of clarity or heart.