Cleaver by Tim Parks

It's Paxman - with extra burgers
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The Independent Culture

Tim Parks is the Andy Warhol of contemporary literature; a writer so prolific and preoccupied with social and creative processes that he really should start penning odes to Campbell's Soup. In the past year alone he has produced a novel (Rapids), a collection of short stories (Talking about it), and a study of banking, metaphysics and art in 15th-century Florence (Medici Money). It's a testament to his skill as a stylist that the quality of his writing has remained undiluted by this tidal wave of work. And yet while Cleaver, his new novel, is at times funny and painfully honest, its narrow focus suggests that Parks should take a breather and consider his ambitions.

Harold Cleaver is a media behemoth. He's a political and cultural commentator with a bloated ego perched on an ever-expanding waistline: like Paxman with a few hundred burgers under his belt. At the age of 55 his personal and professional lives suddenly hit a critical juncture. He is hailed as the premier political correspondent of his time after a searing interview with an unnamed US President (a hilariously familiar semi-literate Texan dunce) leaves the most powerful man on the planet looking like a prize chump. But in the same week his eldest son, Alex, publishes a damning fictionalised portrait of Cleaver called "Under His Shadow".

According to Alex, Cleaver is "ambition, avarice and appetite incarnate". If that wasn't enough, the global face of journalistic integrity is, in his son's words, a big "glistening home-baked treacle pudding". The book is shortlisted for the Booker Prize and, understandably, Cleaver decides to withdraw from the world. Via a plane to Milan and a combination of trains, taxis and mountain hikes, he ends up in a rented shack on the edge of a gorge in the South Tyrol. There's no electricity, no hot water and, most significantly, no reception on his mobile.

What follows is a comic fable on how modern man can plummet without the reassuring safety net of technology and discourse. "Do I want to start filling the vacant mental space by naming everything here, he wondered, now that there are no more briefs, no more emails, no more newspapers... Cleaver has never known the names of plants or flowers. Never mind toadstools." Parks is adept at detailing the gristle and grime of middle age. Cleaver is a combination of J Alfred Prufrock and Reggie Perrin, floundering in the dusk of life, not knowing whether to confront his demons or retreat into fantasies. There is a fabulous moment when he should face up to Alex's claims of infidelity but instead resorts to lampooning his writing style: "How could they think of giving a literary prize to someone who wrote 'growing impotence'?"

However, some wry touches and Park's signature line in male ennui can't quite lift what is really an extremely protracted inner-monologue. Three hundred pages of a man obsessing over the detritus of his past is a waste of its author's talent. Sadly, as Warhol put it: "If you look at a thing long enough, it loses all of its meaning." Christian House

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