Two decades ago, Duncan Fallowell attributed the birth of the modern English novel to the 1920s writer Ronald Firbank. Only a small cult has ever attended Firbank, whose best-known work is probably Valmouth, on account of the musical treatment by Sandy Wilson. Still, Fallowell's point was sound. An important tradition of social comedy may be traced through Firbank - from Peacock and Austen to Waugh, Wodehouse, Mitford and Powell. None of the latter quartet could have written as they did without the example of Firbank's rococo prose.
What would Firbank - the "tea-cup vampire with a stammer", in Fallowell's phrase - make of 21st-century Britain? A History of Facelifting provides a kind of answer. There are many other reasons to commend this, Fallowell's third novel. But the knowingly-deployed Firbankian zest, wit and love of the improbable are good starting-points.
Fallowell may currently be more familiar for his journalism and travel writing: the lost classic One Hot Summer in St Petersburg, and To Noto, recently republished by Gibson Square. A History of Facelifting should change this, bringing its author the wide readership he deserves.
No cosmetic surgery is involved. Fallowell's true subject is the de-wrinkling of rural England. This relentless ironing-out of local traditions is effected by an unholy trinity of "enterprise" culture: the free market, national and European governments, and ubiquitous media culture. Don't be misled, however; the novel romps through such concerns without a let-up in the satiric pay-offs and memorable lines. Quite a stack of corpses is accommodated without any risk of seriousness.
The plot concerns the village of Milking Magna, long subject to aristocratic feuding between the Craddocks and the Popjoys. The latter own the Heavenshire estate, as well as Polpotto's masterpiece "Massacre of the Innocents" and - more important - a long-lost volume of poems by Leonardo, which might restore the family's dire finances. In no sense up to these challenges is "JJ", the debauched, pot-bellied Marquess of Heavenshire. He longs only to preserve "his lovely ankles, his only slimness" - and to keep in sight his roving catamite, "Glory Boy".
More immediately threatening to the wellbeing of the village - home of the church of Saint Wendy's and the Beowulf Caravan Park - is a new-town development. The government's Machiavelli, the "Minister for Power", has proposed a monstrous "City of Cognitive Neuroscience". It would swallow Milking Magna whole.
Embroiled in the plot's hairpin bends is a pantomimic cast. Stormy Weather, a cross-dressing cabaret singer from Hong Kong, is shacked up in the nearby resort of Puckermouth, home of "King Lear: the Musical". Ragamuffin the shepherd is the proud winner of the pub's hairiest bottom competition. Sylvia Wetmore's apotheosis arrives in the form of a hit BBC series, "The Fat Gardener". One memorable arrival is Mrs Glottle-Ganges, the Hindu intellectual.
As in Firbank, such sharp portraits occasionally draw blood. There's a sort of democracy of insult, however. Only the most mirthless of the politically correct will not be cajoled into a broad smile. Perhaps that's just the sort of facelift Duncan Fallowell has in mind.
Richard Canning is writing a life of Ronald FirbankReuse content