Modernism with a smirk
Still Adam Thorpe Secker &Warburg £15.99
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.
TV reviewBroadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair
Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere
TVThe Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Migrant crisis: Greek soldier saved 20 people singlehandedly off Rhodes beach
- 2 Sofyen Belamouadden murder: The inside story of a crime that horrified Britain
- 3 Company breaks open Apple Watch to discover what it says is 'planned obsolescence'
- 4 Aaron and Melissa Klein: Oregon anti-gay bakers ordered to pay $135,000 after refusing to make cake for same-sex wedding
- 5 UK weather: Britain braced for snow as arctic air mass moves in
Poldark, series 1 finale, review: How a costume drama became a Sunday night swoon-fest
Al Pacino admits he was nearly fired from The Godfather and it's still his most 'difficult role'
Warner Music owner Len Blavatnik tops Sunday Times Rich List
Game of Thrones season 5 episode 3, review: Sansa and manhood-lopping torturer Ramsay Bolton - really?
The day I starred in Only Fools and Horses
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
The sickening truth about food banks that the Tories don't want you to know
Migrant boat disaster: Ukip candidate mocks victims in sickening Twitter post
Nigel Farage wants the BBC to stop making programmes like Doctor Who, Strictly Come Dancing, and Top Gear
Global warming: Scientists say temperatures could rise by 6C by 2100 and call for action ahead of UN meeting in Paris
General Election 2015: Britain would become a 'communist dictatorship' under Ed Miliband and Nicola Sturgeon, claims wife of Michael Gove