Doctor Jackal and Mister Snide

Bedlam Burning by Geoff Nicholson (Gollancz, £16.99, 298pp)
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The Independent Culture

Perhaps the most startling thing about Geoff Nicholson's 13th novel is the apparent subservience of form to content. This isn't to say that Nicholson ignores questions of style, or has no interest in the symbolist saucepans that most novelists keep boiling away: simply that his most pressing concern is to tell the story, and tell it straight. This narrative drive - a continual pulling out of stops and unforeseen climaxes - can sometimes be as much a hindrance as a help. At 300 closely printed pages, the reader is likely to end up exhausted as well as entertained.

Perhaps the most startling thing about Geoff Nicholson's 13th novel is the apparent subservience of form to content. This isn't to say that Nicholson ignores questions of style, or has no interest in the symbolist saucepans that most novelists keep boiling away: simply that his most pressing concern is to tell the story, and tell it straight. This narrative drive - a continual pulling out of stops and unforeseen climaxes - can sometimes be as much a hindrance as a help. At 300 closely printed pages, the reader is likely to end up exhausted as well as entertained.

Bedlam Burning takes its cue from a legendary, if rarely practised, literary scam. Back in early '70s Cambridge, two undergraduates - Mike Smith and Gregory Collins - are bidden to attend one of the famous "book-burning" parties thrown by their serpentine tutor, Dr Bentley. At the high point, all those present are expected to throw a book into the fire. Both men opt for a dramatic gesture. Mike incinerates one of Bentley's own critical works, while Gregory destroys the manuscript of an unpublished novel.

A year or so later Mike - now drudging in an antiquarian bookshop - is surprised by a visit from Gregory (now working as a teacher in his native north). He is even more surprised to find that Greg's latest has been accepted for publication. Conscious of his "homely" appearance when set against Mike's conventional good looks, Greg proposes that Mike should allow his photograph to appear on the jacket. To the fury of his soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend Nicola, who works in publishing and turned the book down, Mike agrees. The Wax Man, a sexy fable featuring an inert, wax-encrusted protagonist, appears to favourable notices.

From this small deception, much ensues. After a reading at a ramshackle Brighton bookshop, Mike is approached by a lusty-looking redhead and offered the post of "writer-in-residence" at a mental institution run by the enigmatic but self-satisfied Dr Kincaid. His method involves denying patients imagery - no pictures on the walls and no books in the library - in the hope that language alone will direct their senses to some kind of genuine perception.

At this point, what began as an amiable spoof on literary life changes course to offer a series of slightly predictable jokes about insanity. Mike's principal interest, when he isn't being ravished senseless by flame-haired, foul-tongued Alicia, is trying to work out whether the inmates are really deranged or merely have excellent reasons for wanting to be incarcerated. Things pick up when Kincaid decides the patients ought to produce a volume of the creative writing they bring to Mike by the sackload.

The real Greg is imported to edit the work; Nicola - whom he is now booked to marry - is persuaded to publish it. The book, Disorders, is a success, although Greg, thrown over at the altar, turns up at the asylum in distress and is admitted. Then an audience of journalists and academics shipped in for a publicity exercise turns out to include Dr Bentley.

In a grisly, tragi-comic dénouement, the tying-up of loose ends is meticulously done, without ever quite resolving the question of what Nicholson set out to achieve. As a "satire", whether of the literary life or insanity, Bedlam Burning is faintly predictable. As a comic novel with sharper adhesions, it fairly bustles along, while throwing up all kinds of incidental felicities.

I was particularly struck by Mike's account of the book-burning parties. Whereas certain guests bring works such as Mein Kampf, another option "was to go for books which, if not evil, are at least transparently worthless: Agatha Christie, Barbara Cartland, Frederic Raphael." What has Mr Raphael done to offend Geoff Nicholson? I think we should be told.

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