Bloomsbury, £12.99, 242pp. £11.69 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Angelica Lost and Found, By Russell Hoban
It's a short, delicious book: consume it quickly. A number of ingredients seem contrived at the outset, but plunge into Hoban's ridiculously engrossing fiction and enjoy Angelica for what she is: a sexy, confident and audacious confection that should tickle the surliest of palates.
It's all about sex with a hippogriff. Volatore is the offspring of griffin and mare, and the winged steed of "valiant Ruggiero", a slightly rubbish knight who flies in to rescue Angelica. She is the naked damsel bound to a rock and menaced by a lusty sea monster in Ariosto's 16th-century poem Orlando Furioso. By dint of sorcery, Volatore manages to escape Ariosto's epic and emerge in San Francisco in 2008, in mutable hippogriff or human form, desperately seeking the Angelica after whom he now lusts. In short order he alights upon 30-old Angelica Greenberg moments after she has dismissed an eligible suitor. Announced by his strong pheromonal, horsey presence, Volatore wafts in through a third-floor window to cover Angelica's eager self, thus precipitating a metaphysical love affair that rattles the sanity of this sassy and adventurous Mission District art-gallery proprietress.
As Hoban aficionados might expect, Angelica is an impassioned and improbable love story with billets-doux of light opera and sporting metaphors thrown in to comic effect. If you're interested, chapter 70 (of 71) gives a neat summary of the plot, but of far greater interest is the verve with which Hoban has his principles conduct their metabestial trysting. Remarkably unfazed by her sexual encounter with a well-hung "poetic invention" who tantalisingly disappears, Angelica spends the novel trying to re-connect with "the funky animal smell of him".
Three shrinks, two cheesy art collectors and a couple of smelly painters later, she manages to have her cake, so to speak, and eat it. Hoban applies his own semantic sorcery to Volatore's plaintive suit. There's a playfulness to his imaginative drama of an "ontological outlaw... an existential desperado" scoring with a purveyor of figurative art.
Any admirer of the author's pidgin epic Riddley Walker will enjoy the linguistic drollery that fashions these brief chapters. Angelica's father, for example, a cartoonist who absconded with a lap dancer 15 years earlier, re-appears for lunch as a "graphically novel parent". This neatly catches the mischievous tone of Hoban's prose, which lies brazenly between A Wild Sheep Chase-era Haruki Murakami and the spirited wordplay of Italo Calvino's witty entertainments.
Serious art, sex and the blurring of reality with fantasy are well-trodden Hoban themes. But there is a refreshing lightness here that carries his material. Real life is hectic and complicated, this book seems to suggest, but little is more important than establishing how a girl can mate with a tumescent figment of her imagination.
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