Mountains make us feel spiritual, at least since Shelley, Byron and assorted Romantics became inspired by their threatening grandeur. Itchy shares this legacy of awe, though much of his reverence for the peaks around Chamonix stems from the superior skiing they afford. In Jonathan Trigell's novel, he works as a bartender in "Cham", and hits the slopes in between partying with tourists and other boho ski bums.
Itchy is addicted to powder – not cocaine, but the powdery snow that makes for the best skiing. Powder, thinks Itchy, is "purity and transience and pleasure distilled". His other addictions are less innocent. He hardly needs skis to help himself downhill, enslaved as he is to booze and casual sex.
Cham is being likened to Alex Garland's The Beach. It explores another youth-oriented sub-culture – think skis and snowboards rather than backpacks – and the writing has a similar crafted intensity. Sharp metaphors are cut into its pages: a cheesy ski rep is "as cool as the other side of an insomniac's pillow"; when Itchy pushes his skiing beyond his limits of physical endurance, his face becomes "scrunched in pain like a screwed-up bill".
The plot hooks are prominent, yet snag us effectively. First, Itchy cannot come to terms with something in his past; second, his sexual adventures have a disturbing parallel in the depredations of a serial rapist loose in Cham. The rapes are taking place in an underground car park and sometimes Itchy hides himself away there, partly to drink in private but also to see if he can catch his dark alter ego.
Where the prose lacks elegance it compensates with pace, as Trigell propels us insistently around the slalom of his tale. The main narrative is made more measured, however, by interpolations of historical material on Byron, Shelley and other Romantic superstars, plus three short stories inspired by Romantic texts and supposedly written by Itchy as a student. If it is hard to believe he authored them, that is because they are outstanding imitations, and some of the best material in the novel.
Potentially offputting is the boho milieu, complete with wayward offspring from monied families – although it is to Trigell's credit that he does not obscure that. More taxing is Itchy's tendency to take himself unusually seriously, and some readers might find his latterday doomed-Romantic stance overblown. More in the way of Romantic irony would have been welcome here.
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