Books: Sowing his seed in the garden

Alex Ivanovitch is assaulted by two hyperactive first novels; Sap Rising by A A Gill Doubleday, pounds 15.99 The Hat of Victor Noir by Adrian Mathews, Fourth Estate, pounds 8.99

That force majeure of the media world, A.A.Gill has written his first novel. Sap Rising is a renovated farce for our decade, the story of a love affair and a minor conflict over the use of a communal garden. Like most farces, it is also about sex, class and shit (and all that appertains to it - haemorrhoids, constipation, diarrhoea, mucus etc). Generally speaking, English farce presents the underbelly of middle-class life, but in no particularly threatening way, and makes use of a coy, centripetal language (innuendo, double entendre) that revolves around the sexual without ever actually touching upon it. Expositions and revelations are carefully arranged, and only after a busy preliminary foreplay of entrances and exits will the farce reveal its still heart (adulterous husband in closet, trousers round ankles or in drag). One thing we expect from the farce we know is the conjunction of humour and sex - what is required is sex disarmed, sex stripped of brutality and danger.

But Gill's book is not keen on indirection, and very keen on brutality. Sap Rising presents us with a West London square-ful of hypertrophied characters, who are all busy feuding and having unnatural sex. Buchan Gardens is home to Charles Goodwin, timid, unassertive, our sap-hero, misogynist Stephen and his nasty lover, Vernon, Angel, the gardener, Lily the wannabe Saigon street urchin, foul-mouthed colonialist Bryony and others.

It is not so much the public lives and conflicts of these characters that interest Gill, as what happens off-stage. Sap Rising is all exposition; its depiction of sexual excess is remorseless and explicit. Sandwiched between the buggery and troilism is a graphic bestial (homosexual) rape; poor Vernon Barnstaple gets on the wrong side of a neighbour's dog. This has almost all the bases covered - an earlier scene of bestial necrophilia in which a dead actress is given a final seeing to (and sending off) by the same dog covers almost everything else; unfortunately the actress and the Alsatian are fully grown and unrelated, but you can't have everything. In times gone by, books justified their grossnesses in the name of duty - the exposition and condemnation of vice. This being the Nineties, Sap Rising offers itself as an affirmation of excess, and ends with an eco- idyll of Green solidarity.

Books may have no need to justify themselves but farces need to he funny. And this is a book that solicits our laughter often quite aggressively. At times Sap Rising even tries to provoke uneasy laughter, that troubled complicity that is often the comedian's revenge on his audience for his dependence on them. But this book's problem is simply that it isn't very funny.

Adrian Mathews's first novel, The Hat of Victor Noir, has its affinities with Gill's Sap Rising. Philip Kovacs, teacher and dilettante intellectual, begins the novel as a divorce and ends reconciled with his wife and young child. In between, however, the poor man finds himself the subject of some unwanted attention from a mysterious and predatory woman who stalks him through the streets of Paris. Mathews, like Gill, makes much of an all-important male relationship: where Charles Goodwin has Angel, Philip Kovacs has Babalu. Babalu is a Brazilian expatriate and a character cut in the same mould as Gill's gardener; both men have a kind of grubby authenticity about them. Our uneasy, rather passive heroes approach redemption through their dealings with these men, who are simple, in the know, and in touch with nature.

The Hat of Victor Noir, like most first novels, wears its aspirations on its sleeve. This is a book that would like to be intelligent, subtle, playful; it aspires to a little intellectual iridescence. The world it conjures up gestures towards Kafka: it wants to be the site of odd coincidences and dream-like improbabilities, and to evoke a gloomy, grey Paris that eludes its unresponsive hero.

Unfortunately, it sounds all too often like a bad thriller: "pause, explanation! (thump)", and the pages are sprinkled with glib couplings of the "grim smile", "wizened crone" sort. Bad also are lines like "Cognition and cognac were cognate terms" and the linguistic ringing of the changes on "white" that closes the novel jarrs. This is a haunted book, and the absent presence of which we are always aware is not Kovacs's stalker, nor the ghost of Culture, but what might have been had this promising first novel achieved its full potential.

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