Where are the libel writs? A N Wilson's eighteenth novel, My Name is Legion, is an attack on the tabloid press - something that you might think otiose to satirise - and features a number of characters who have been fingered as real-life journalists. Having myself experienced a most unpleasant time at the hands of various male hacks over the publication of A Vicious Circle, I have been waiting. And waiting.
Let other pens reflect on the intrinsic sexism of the British press; certainly this novel will do nothing to dispel it. Like Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities, and like the Victorian "baggy monsters" which clearly inspired both, My Name is Legion weaves a compelling modern morality tale of crime and punishment that links the world of the rich and powerful to that of the poor and dispossessed. A crazed black teenager, Peter, is told his father is Lennox Marks, the vulgar proprietor of The Legion, a newspaper where most of the cast, including his own mother Mercy, work or have worked. Attempting to rob Mark's wife Martina, Peter gets employed as her butler instead - other servants having fled the couple's squalid, imperious habits. Peter's other possible sire, Father Vivyan, a poor monk working in a grim area of South London, is also connected to Marks. Long ago, both were involved in an African country from which Marks's wealth derives. Marks, who sees Father Vivyan as his "guilty conscience", uses his newspaper to prop up a dictatorship even crueller than his own, and his paper libels the priest as a paedophile when he is in fact tormented by guilt over his affair with Peter's mother. The novel begins with Vivyan dying, having shot Peter, then traces how, by a process of ambition, distraction, uglification and derision this is orchestrated by a group of people bullied into writing what they know are lies for people they despise.
Wilson switches tone and style with manic confidence, moving from the mad Peter's multiple personality disorder to the brutal jokes and schemes of Martina Marks, and from elegant musings on the nature of faith to coarse comedy and melodrama. His imagination and indignation are fired by the tabloid world he knows and writes for as they are not by poor Afro-Caribbean families; one applauds the effort while remaining riveted to the depiction of a monstrous regiment of hacks. Those Wilson describes are almost all women, and lesbian to boot, from the proprietor's ferocious columnist wife, Mrs Marks, to the cross-dressing literary editor, Dot Saxby. There is also a "fallen archangel", who writes a "why oh why" column not dissimilar from Wilson's own, and a self-loathing ex-soldier, Sinclo, mooningly in love with the beautiful arts editor Rachel Pearl. The Markses's schemes against Vivyan are confounded by a terrorist campaign, but even bombs do less damage than malicious tabloid lies.
All of this is highly enjoyable, and kept going with an irresistibly waspish verve. Yet one wonders where the interest is for readers outside this tiny world. It made me sad - sad not for a fallen England as seen by Father Vivyan - but sad that Wilson's early, very real brilliance should have failed to blossom into something rich, humane and new. It would have been so much better a novel if, like Trollope, he had allowed his characters (Vivyan included) to be more than caricatures, but that would demand more distance from the world he describes, and more affection too. Satire demands not just savage indignation but a sort of love - a love that newspapers, which do after all publish the best of the best as well as the worst of the worst, still deserve.
Amanda Craig's novel, 'Love in Idleness', is published in paperback this month (Abacus)