Modernism with a smirk

Still Adam Thorpe Secker &Warburg £15.99
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The Independent Culture
What a falling-off is here. In 1992, the poet-turned-novelist Adam Thorpe published a book that dazzled. Ulverton did things with language that seemed almost beyond the power of one person's mind. In telling a series of tales about one British village, he switched from 17th-century pastoral to 19th-century realism, from 18th-century epistolary romance to 20th-century irony. It was a wholly unexpected surge of brilliance, but like the novelist lain Sinclair or the non-fiction writer Patrick Wright, Thorpe seemed to be mining a deep tradition: he was reaching into the dark roots of England, in a way that strenuously resisted the dinkiness of much historical fiction. He revivified the line that Thomas Hardy and Edward Thomas worked in - in which the people and the land entwine, and terrible tragedies have comic renewals. And he did it with such an eerie ability to disappear into his characters, it was as though we heard the dead speak.

Unfortunately, Ulverton ended with a clanger of a chapter, in which a few smartarse Eighties chaps come in to make a film of the village. Stuffed with sarcasm and knowing winks to the reader, the chapter fell flat on its face.

Still, Thorpe's second novel, plays constantly on this knowing, sarcastic style. In it, Thorpe turns his back on the humanism of Ulverton, and gets stuck in a dead-end of old-fashioned modernism. The novel describes a film made by the narrator, with a plot taken from his family's history. The screening is taking place at the end of the millennium, and the book comments on the history of the century by using the artifice of film combined with the "real" story of the family. Ring any bells? Yes, but Craig Raine did it rather better. His verse-novel History: the Home Movie is a glittering, rigorous in comparison with Still.

This book is destined for sudden death in the hands of most readers. The narrator, a self-consciously oafish failed film director, has only one expression, a smirk, and only one voice, an arch patter. The story of the film he is making has little substance; a boy (the narrator's great uncle) is sent home from school and his brother makes a pass at a maid (the narrator's grandmother). That's it? Just about, and it's almost buried under Thorpe's new style, a heavy weight of self-referential asides, nudging commentary and endless directions to cameramen, audience or students.

It's hard to give you a real taste of this style, without lobbing the whole volume into your lap, since it never lets up; there's never a gear- change or a switch of pace. Try this: "Agatha has no conception as she stands feeling the slightly slippy brass knob in her hand of WHAT HORRORS ARE TO ENGULF THE WORLD IN LESS THAN TEN MONTHS. Isn't that crazy? Don't we all just love that wickit little sense of Dramatic Irony when we see those old old films flickering merrily away, all those innocents bustling nattily along in their bustles and bodices and breeches or playing accordions in the picturesque ghettoes . . . doesn't it just so excite us, students of mine, think about it, discuss next week, more particly its use in any one o' Mr Hitchcock's works, the video library is open till five o'clock, now scram. . ." How interesting are these knowing allusions to culture's artifice? Enough writers have done it before to make Thorpe seem more imitative than experimental.

The aside to the students in the quotation above is reminiscent of Nabokov's late style. But Nabokov always used his brief lectures in good faith, to enhance the intellectual individualism of his characters. Thorpe has turned his back on such difficult tasks; he avoids fleshing out his characters except in the most obvious way - in flesh. So he constantly mimics the heavy physical intensities of Joyce: "He's just gobbed against the copper. It actually sizzles. Relatively, against George's spittle, the copper's hot. The gob's chocolate brown. I feel sick. He sticks his finger in his mouth and clears out the last bit of chocolate and licks it. Then - do I have to go through with this? - he smells his finger." Thus, his characters are lost between two extremes, the lavatory and the lecture hall; they are mere vehicles for the narrator's theoretical ramblings, or they are gabbing, farting, piss-scented dolls.

At other times Thorpe quotes Virginia Woolf. There are also knowing little references to Godard and Buuel, Hitchcock and Dreyer. But even Thorpe finds it tedious to drag this weight of reference around. I've never read a book so full of dismay: "I can't stand it"; "Am I talking to anyone out there?"; "I hope you're keeping awake". Given the book's lack of real interest, it seems dangerous to keep reinforcing the reader's boredom.