Deeper than thou

Helen Birch discovers Barthes, Beckett and a soupcon of Joyce in NW3
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The Independent Culture
Oblivion

by Josephine Hart

Chatto, pounds 12.99

Damage, Sin, . Even the titles of Josephine Hart's novels demand to be taken seriously. Let's not splash about in the shallows. Let's get to grips with the meaning of life.

In , Hart's latest journey into the world of interiors, people talk about "truth", "death", "soul" and "spirit" as casually as most of us twitter about the plot of EastEnders or Tory party sleaze. It's a bit like sitting in an undergraduate seminar on existentialism with the team from the Moral Maze. The trick: never use simple phrases when you can fuddle the reader with more verbose ones. So a plastic surgeon becomes "a sculptor of the body", a stage is "an acting space".

Hart also likes short sentences. Each clause punctated with a full stop. To anyone with a passing acquaintance with Pinter, this indicates Meaning. So on page three, when Andrew, a successful journalist who lives in Hampstead (of course), is about to have sex with his girlfriend, we get this: "She is tall. We are virtually the same height. I must concentrate only on her... Her breasts are small and pointed. I concentrate on them." This, you'd better believe, is no ordinary shag.

For Andrew is still mourning the death of his wife, Laura, and he just cannot put his life back together. Until, that is, he watches a "play" written as a series of monologues by dead people who long for remembrance. This takes up most of the book, giving Hart the opportunity to rehearse some old standards from said undergraduate seminar. Cue the death of the author, absence of grand narrative, life as a script, a bit of Barthes, a dash of Beckett, a soupcon of resonant silence from Pinter. And, of course, an epiphany from Joyce.

Snobbish and trite as all this is, it might be sufferable were it not for the fact that her characters, if you can call them that since all use the same diction and vocabulary, never actually do anything, only describe things. Hart's very occasional insights do not come through drama but through constipated melodrama, usually relayed as aphorisms which sound fine until you think about them: "I have found much in life which is considered interval is in fact finality" or "the seduction of what is not". Deep, that.

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