FICTION: Shop till you drop

EVERYTHING AND MORE by Geoff Nicholson, Gollancz £15.99
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CAVEAT EMPTOR! The cover blurb claims this as the "very first shopping and terrorist novel''. Perhaps it is, though few of its characters shop and the lone terrorist does not even frighten even her victim. In fact, this is a story about a London department store and its staff, a fabulous glass structure shaped like the Tower of Babel, stuffed with everything and more, peopled by dreamers. For a comic writer of Nicholson's abilities Hayden Brothers may have looked like the ideal structure on whic h to hang a few funny stories, and the experience of reading it is rather like shopping in such emporia, good and bad in places, with a tendency to get lost or stuck on the wrong escalator.

Nicholson's quick scene-setting and punchy dialogue are always enjoyable. More exhausting are the tours around the store or into the characters' stuffy minds, making one long for a sit down and a nice cup of tea. The people who work at Hayden Brothers are not unlike the highly polished items they sell. What you see is what you get. There are no hidden extras, few past lives or post-Freudian labels to explain what made them the stereotypes they are. Thus there are no reasons offered for why, apart from sheer dullness, Charles has arrived here from university without friends or ambition, nor how Barbie doll Vita kept herself so ridiculously nice despite being perceived as sex object or teacher's pet. And what, apart from his pure white suits and a sexualinterest in new female staff, keeps the last reclusive Hayden brother on the shop-soiled side of sane?

Without more background about their lives outside, these characters come and go like window mannequins. Examine them too closely, or indeed any of the human look-alikes who bumble the story towards its farcical climax, and the whole place begins to resemble some elaborately painted trompe l'oeil.

Perhaps that is the intention. Their creator has been compared to Tom Sharpe and Evelyn Waugh, and the black humour is similar. There are some amusing moments: a famous author arrives a day early for a book signing and the staff are rallied to queue for his attention. When he discovers his error he is cheered to believe himself so popular he can always gather a crowd. Telephoning the store with a bomb warning the hoaxer fails to guess the codeword: " `Rubbish,' said the operator. `Not even

warm. Bye now.' And she put the phone down on him.''

Nicholson seems quite keen to put a bomb under such places. Despite his attempts to describe the store's extraordinary, ever-changing array of sights and smells, the book displays little sympathy with shopping itself. Woven through the tale is a debate between the terrorist and the store's owner about the meaning of shop life. In an unfunny aside the owner asks: "Do freedom and democracy exist merely to safeguard such humdrum pleasures as the joys of home and hearth, the new bedroom suite, the tea-set, the picnic hamper?'' He decides, rather grumpily, that they do. Yet as hobby, therapy, necessary evil or acquisitive greed, shopping is a passion which keeps big stores like this endlessly interesting and alive. Indeed, by the end of the book even the idiot Charles seems to have recognised the place as some kind of living art form. But despite so much carefully arranged humour, one longs for some real live shoppers.

May I suggest the Jewish mother who arranged to have her ashes scattered in Brent Cross so as to be sure her daughters visited at least once a week?