A less-than sharp satire on literary life

Novelist David Leavitt sets his targets up with skill, but fails to knock them down.
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The Independent Culture

Stanley Flint, the creative-writing teacher who inspires Martin Bauman and his fellow students, imposes strict rules for literary composition. Prime among them is that he loathed "stories in which the protagonist was a writer". Flint would find little joy in David Leavitt's new novel. Whether it appeals to less prescriptive readers will depend on whether their appreciation of the sharp satire on New York literary life outweighs their irritation at its narrow focus and the hero's parochial concerns.

Bauman is an aspiring writer in the early 1980s, whose age, precocious fame and subject-matter are too close to Leavitt's own to be ignored, although the correspondence need not be over-emphasised.

He is first seen at college, taking one of Flint's classes, drawn by a blend of heroworship and lust (a desire for "older, fatherly men who didn't desire me"), and last seen attending a reading by Flint after his erstwhile mentor has finally produced a novel, which is both a critical and commercial triumph.

Bauman's relationship with Flint, while deeply frustrating, is the most interesting in the book. Flint has a Widmerpool-like tendency to crop up at key moments in Bauman's life: he is appointed as an editor in the publishing house where Bauman is employed as an assistant; his novel succeeds when Bauman's fails; they even meet at the dermatologist's, where Flint is treated for skin cancer and Bauman for anal warts.

The rest of the novel is less sharply focused. The first third, where Martin is at college and a discontented observer of more fulfilled lives, particularly those of the lesbian sorority, feels like padding. The book comes into its own when Martin moves to New York and his personal and professional dramas move to the fore.

Leavitt's portrait of the literary world and, especially, the dictates of conglomerate publishing is wickedly apt. He demonstrates a keen ear for marketing-speak: "If you liked The Joy Luck Club and you thrilled to Watership Down, you'll love Cats of the Chinese Temple".

Martin's novel fails to attract the acclaim that greeted his short stories. His romantic life proves to be equally disappointing as, first, he falls for an editorial colleague who rejects him by revealing shocking evidence of his masochism and, then, is mugged by a man he has met at a Columbia dance.

His love-affair with Eli, a fellow-writer, which dominates the second half of the book, is destroyed by his insensitivity. Leavitt is unusually adept at writing about sex - not just the mechanics of it but the meaning - whether it be Martin's analysis of the way that fantasies interfere with true engagement, or his questioning of whether he uses the "safe-sex" code to justify his withdrawal from intimacy.

This is an engaging novel, written in Leavitt's customarily clear prose. The book's faults have something to do with Flint's strictures (too much of the book seems like navel-gazing) but has more to do with Leavitt's unwillingness to actually confront his own material.

Here, as so often (with the exception of the clotted family drama of The Lost Language of Cranes), he prefers to skim elegantly along the surface of events and emotions than to probe them more deeply. When Martin is challenged by an Aids activist, he replies that "I'm not sure it's fair to dictate to a writer what he ought or ought not to write".

It is, however, fair to expect him to explore the full implications of his creative world.

Michael Arditti's new novel is 'Easter' published by Arcadia at £9.99