A negative in New Orleans

<i>Bellocq's Women</i> by Peter Everett (Jonathan Cape, &pound;14.99, 250pp)
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The Independent Culture

Rediscovery rarely comes as dramatically as it has for E J Bellocq. After years of neglect, Bellocq's reputation was established when Lee Friedlander discovered the glass plates of his photographs of New Orleans brothels in the 1900s and published them as Storyville Portraits in 1968. They inspired a central strand of Michael Ondaatje's Coming Through Slaughter. Now, Bellocq is the subject of Peter Everett's last, posthumous novel.

Rediscovery rarely comes as dramatically as it has for E J Bellocq. After years of neglect, Bellocq's reputation was established when Lee Friedlander discovered the glass plates of his photographs of New Orleans brothels in the 1900s and published them as Storyville Portraits in 1968. They inspired a central strand of Michael Ondaatje's Coming Through Slaughter. Now, Bellocq is the subject of Peter Everett's last, posthumous novel.

Coming Through Slaughter is a dark, disjointed novel which brilliantly reflects the rhythms of the jazz musicians at its heart. Ondaatje's Bellocq has much in common with another artistic habitué of brothels, Toulouse Lautrec, being deformed, merely 4'11" high, "the cripple who is hardly taller than his camera stand". Everett's Bellocq, on the other hand, shares Lautrec's upper-crust French origins but little else. His appearance is never described; at times, he seems to be no more than an extension of his camera. Even in this third-person narrative, his is the dominant eye.

With his three fictional studies of artists, Matisse's War, The Voyages of Alfred Wallis and this novel, Everett enjoyed a late flowering. It is not too fanciful to see the style of his subjects' work reflected in the novels: the complex pattern and highly-coloured narrative of Matisse; the raw authenticity of Wallis; the formal snapshots of Bellocq. Everett writes as Bellocq photographed, with detachment and control.

Bellocq's world is suffused with violence. The novel opens with the 15-year-old protagonist regaling his mother with reports of her dentist's trial for the rape and murder of a 12-year-old girl. Later, an even younger girl is sold by nuns to a brothel and forced into coprophiliac acts. Bellocq undergoes a near-rape at gun-point by a man who, having failed in his attempt, seems to be perversely gratified by the savage blows he is dealt by Bellocq's friend.

Everett's prose, like Bellocq's camera, simply records what appears before it. Its strength lies in its lack of prurience and acceptance of the quirks of human nature, its weakness in a coldness which leaves the reader unmoved. At times, Everett's characters seem to be as embalmed as the corpses who were among Bellocq's first subjects. Ondaatje's narrative, however, exudes a barely suppressed frenzy and darkness, far more evocative of low-life New Orleans.

Both writers suggest that Bellocq was a voyeur and that his photographs of whores represented some kind of sexual substitute, but Everett does not explore his central character in sufficient depth. The most telling passage comes when Bellocq watches the seduction of a cinema projectionist during a screening, adding to the layers of voyeurism. A brothel-keeper acknowledges the central issue when she asks "Do you like women or what?": a question that the author fails to address.

Bellocq's Women is a fascinating novel although not, to my mind, the match of its two predecessors. Its problem lies in its fidelity to the medium it aims to represent. Photography, far from stealing the soul, merely captures the outer image. It offers the record of a fleeting moment, not the narrative of a life. A novel that relies so heavily on its methods risks not just leaving gaps but also lacking heart.

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