Marks of weakness, marks of woe

Justin Cartwright thinks he has written The Great London Novel. Nicholas Lezard disagrees; In Every Face I Meet by Justin Cartwright Sceptre, pounds 15.99

The title is a snip from Blake, his poem "London": he wanders through each chartered street, marking, in every face he meets, marks of weakness, marks of woe. Cartwright is very good at picking up marks of weakness: his protagonist is a weak man whose weakness leads him gradually into disaster. What is more, he is from London. Well, he works in London. London is a town Cartwright has been trying to get to the bottom of for some time now. If you want to get to the bottom of London, take the tube: "And now Anthony sees, as the mineshaft walls rush by all coated in mineral waste of some sort, that in the face of the capriciousness of this city ... this pride in one's own weaknesses and follies, so characteristic of Londoners, is quite sensible."

Not bad, is it? Apart from that limp "of some sort", and the fact that the sentence as a whole succeeds more by virtue of its euphony than its contribution to knowledge. The paragraph continues: "The boy with the fraying Mohican opposite catches his eye. He scratches his balls as though there is some complicity and indeed there is a bond of understanding."

Indeed? I doubt it. Anthony Northleach is a man in young middle age, a newly-promoted company director of a struggling firm, a rugby nut, born in Africa and - a little surprise to stop us from imagining him to be like every other rugby nut we know - obsessively fixated on Nelson Mandela. But that is inside knowledge. Anthony's exterior is unremarkable; like Richard Tull in Martin Amis's The Information, he is now invisible to passing women. That line about the understanding between him and the Mohican is pure guff. It is only there because Northleach (did Cartwright struggle to think that name up?) is Cartwright's representative on earth, and the novelist likes to think that there is a bond of understanding between himself and everyone on the planet. And I don't know about you, but if I want to telegraph a common bond between myself and my fellow tube-travellers, I don't scratch my balls.

Anyway, Cartwright certainly knows Northleach well. His travels around the city on 5 February 1990 dance to the tune of his own interior monologue, a relentless parade of banal observations and received opinions. Like: "irrationality survives. That's why religious cults are springing up and alternative beliefs, often quite mad, are flourishing. Like suppressed memory and satanic abuse. You don't want to underestimate the pulling power of the irrational." Et cetera.

The technique reminds you of Joyce, but is it meant to do so? (How can't it?) After a few dozen pages of this you wonder how much more you can take. After a few more, you wish you were reading Ulysses instead.

There are interludes: scenes with Jason, a young black pimp, and the prostitute "Channelle", pathetic crackheads with vague but unrealisable plans to escape from their predicament. The pages devoted to the workings of Anthony's mind outnumber those about Jason and Chanelle by about ten to one, suggesting that Cartwright's bond of understanding with them is a little more tenuous. But you can tell their destinies will cross with Northleach's, and they do.

Their fates are bracketed by a prologue and epilogue set in the mind of Julian Clapper, a freelance writer called up for jury service. The trial will determine the events of the day, but Clapper gets everything wrong due to a misguided concern for the underclass. Clapper, a pitiful figure to begin with, emerges as deeply unpleasant, as if Cartwright had taken violent exception to him for private reasons in the intervening pages.

With its po-faced nod to literary precedent, its tiresome, fin-de-Thatcherisme wisdom after the event and its eager, puppyish concern to be The Great London Novel, its ambition is embarrassingly plain, which is a pity. because Cartwright is very good at turns of phrase and local description. When something actually happens it is efficiently tense. But there's no point in Cartwright trying to be Martin Amis, let alone James Joyce. Amateurism is honourable in rugby, but not in prose.

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