Bullet Points, by Mark Watson

A shrinking sense of male insecurity
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The Independent Culture

The author of this accomplished début novel was born in (deep breath) 1980, is a rising star on the comedy circuit, nominated for stand-up awards and now developing a BBC television programme. Wisely, Mark Watson hasn't written an autobiographical book: with commendable ambition, he has chosen a middle-aged man, in the grip of his own crisis, as the narrator of Bullet Points.

Peter Kristal is a psychologist of mild success, whose life is dominated by an inferiority complex in relation to his childhood friend, celebrity shrink Richard Aloisi. The male envy novel, as told by an insecure self-described loser, is almost a genre in itself; Watson pushes past its boundaries into fresh and imaginative territory.

Peter's claim to fame is a system for analysis that uses bullet points to list influential events in a patient's life. The unacknowledged flaw is that deciding significance is a subjective process, which works best in reverse: once the problem is diagnosed, the bullet points make themselves evident. The novel has fun with the desire, in our celebrity-obsessed sound-bite culture, to reduce the mysteries of human psychology to chronological notes.

Peter's account of his own life suffers from a few too many bullet-shaped holes. The task becomes to figure out what Peter is omitting, lying about or exaggerating, and why. Peter focuses on three case studies, which are entertaining if a little sinister. He seems to treat patients any time, anywhere; he is not above running errands for them; he is alarmingly prone to fantasy. What's up with this guy? Is he even a shrink?

Watson is interested in what makes up an identity, and writes with tender restraint of childhood memories. There are insightful observations throughout (Peter fumes "with the terrible self-righteousness of a man furious to have his wrong exposed"), and wonderful flashes of humour, not quite in character, which you suspect Watson could not resist.

The trick is that this narrator is so full of gaps as to almost be non-existent. It's hard to get any sense of him as a man; neither his conscious crises nor his unconscious motivations seem truly felt. The narrowness of his observations means that Chicago, where he lives, never acquires grip. Peter's East Anglian childhood is more confidently evoked, but perhaps this objection is off the point: Bullet Points is mostly fiction as medical case-history. The intention could be that Peter is so blinkered he never looks around, but it's a limitation of voice that becomes frustrating. Another reading could suggest that Peter, far from living in Chicago, has never set foot there.

The novel becomes a kind of guessing game that, although lacking the genuine anguish of a case like Peter's, travels towards a gratifying conclusion. This is a clever and unusual book, and Watson is to be commended for the care with which he has constructed the puzzle.

The reviewer's novel 'The New Girl' is published by Picador