PAPERBACKS

Asylum by Patrick McGrath, Penguin pounds 6.99. "The catastrophic love affair characterised by sexual obsession has been a professional interest of mine for many years now." Handily, our psychiatrist-narrator is working in a late-Fifties mental hospital when a classic instance falls into his lap. Edgar, the inmate, is a handsome, fleshy man, a former artist, in for murdering, decapitating and then "enucleating" his wife (ie he tore her eyes from her face). Stella, the inamorata, is the elegant but frustrated wife of a hospital shrink. They dance at a hospital party, his erection pressing at her leg. They make assignations in the hospital gardens. They run away to London and live, for a time, the life of bohemian and muse ... McGrath uses his narrator a bit like Conrad used his Marlow. We watch events unfolding at third hand, via prose which is clinically calm. The institutional details - "it was the summer of 1959 and the Mental Health Act had just been passed" - are psychological sensitive, and quietly turned to Gothic effect. This is a neat, tight, frisson-filled tragedy, the sort of thing Hitchcock would have loved to have filmed. Interestingly, it is dedicated to Jack Davenport, the actor who played Miles in This Life.

Hungry For You : From Cannibalism to Seduction - A Book of Food by Joan Smith, Vintage pounds 8.99. Which anecdote did Samuel Pepys consider "the best Story I ever heard"? The one "about a gentleman that persuaded a country fellow to let him gut his oysters or else they would stink". Boom- boom. And there's plenty more where that comes from in this fascinatingly all-over- the-place book. Joan Smith splits her food selections more pedagogically - and much more thoughtfully - than most anthologists do. "The Art of Starvation" deals with anorexia, "Eating Shit" with poisons as well as coprophagia, "La Dolce Vita" with the Brillat-Savarin tradition of gastronomy as the good life. Each comes headed with a neat, issues-raising mini-essay. There's a very fine section on dieting as "Obsession", nicely capped with excellent Muriel Spark Plan for Corporeal Reduction, as outlined in A Far Cry From Kensington: eat the same as you always do, but cut all the quantities in half. And Smith wittily ends the book with recipes for Peperoni Arrostiti and Fegato alla Veneziana - among other sensuous but straightforward delicacies - and with a scandalously cream-topped, impeccably Elizabeth David, Mont Blanc chestnut puree for pud.

! Oyster by Janette Turner Hospital, Virago pounds 7.99. Imagine a Picnic at Hanging Rock in Castlemaine XXXX country. That's what the creeping dread and mystery of this novel is like. Outer Maroo is a Queensland outback settlement which strives its utmost never to appear on maps. On the face of it, the people live like Pennsylvanian Amish, good time-warped fundamentalist Christians. But they are mining the opal fields which lie beneath their grazing. And they are stockpiling Kalashnikovs in readiness for the coming millennial war. Recently - "Two years Ago", "Last Week" "This Week" is how the chapter headings move - Old fuckatoo, the desert stench, has been thickening. What really happened to Susannah Rover, the uppity Anne of Green Gables-like schoolteacher? And what of the appalling Oyster and all the daft young Americans he lured to his cult? JTH cleverly combines a tough critique of the whole staunch-Protestant frontier-fiction mythology with an Australian meditation on the horrors of empty heat and dust.

Polaroids from the Dead by Douglas Coupland, Flamingo pounds 8.99. "This book," says Coupland, "explores the world that existed in the early 1990s, back when the decade was young and had yet to locate its own texture." Sixties survivors mixing with grunge kids at the California Grateful Dead concerts, 1991: Ossi Berliners in 1994, "a headless bear of jealousy that slouches through the Brandenburg Gate, not knowing what it wants, only that it wants more". Born in 1961 - and hence rather old now to identify with his original Generation X youth thang - Coupland appears, throughout these intermingled essays and short factions, to be maturing well. There's a particularly fine, Benjamin-like meditation on the LA suburb of Brentwood, desirable once for its very anonymity, famous now and for ever as the empty, "de-narratised" neighbourhood in which Nicole and OJ Simpson made their marital home.

X20 by Richard Beard, Flamingo pounds 6.99. The hero of Richard Beard's first novel is a young man who is trying to stop smoking. That's what "X20" refers to, and that's why the story is divided like a fag-packet into 20 agonising parts. Gregory, 30, is a late starter but a professional one, a paid guinea-pig for a tobacco company. The connections he uncovers in his insomniac ramblings range wide and strike pretty true: the pathetic rings puffed by the smoker around the probability maths of cancer: "an article in Cosmopolitan which said that cigarettes are a substitute for the mother's breast"; the sublime sexiness of girls with ashtray mouths. Up until now, the only novel worth reading about smoking has been Italo Svevo's magnificent Confessions of Zeno (1927). It's nice to have another to help prop up the duty-frees.

Manchester Pieces by Paul Driver, Picador pounds 7.99. Paul Driver writes like a Mancunian Stephen Dedalus. The first in this series of autobiographical essays, "My Manchester", is like a tourist's potted history, only with no punctuation. The last, "Salford Toccata", is constructed contrapuntally, "recapitulating, too, the book's kaleidoscopic form". A radio producer and music critic, Driver was, he tells us, as a schoolboy convinced of his musical "genius". But arriving at Oxford as a northern pleb in the 1970s knocked that notion on the head: "uprooted from Salford's dullness and normality, deprived of a minor local fame, I floated uncertainly through my Oxford days and homesick nights". This book sees the author revising the primal scene of his artistic trauma, embellishing his thoughts about his Nana ("much later, he discovered it was a northern working-class endearment") by putting himself into the third person and numbering the paragraphs from 1 to 28. The effect ("Ethics and Aesthetics of Grandmother"? - oh, for heaven's sake, please, no) I found a bit sophomoric and tiresome. Other reviewers, however, liked this book a lot.

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