My Name Is Legion by AN Wilson

Rumpus in the reptile house
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A N Wilson's triumphant popular history The Victorians was such a Victorian work itself in its gusto, its ambition, its sheer size, that the idea must have occurred to him whether it wasn't possible to go ahead and write a Victorian novel - but set in the 21st century. It would be one of those grand tales with a huge cast, a vast panoramic sweep, a plenitude of incident and theme - money, sex, power, religion, ambition, adultery, murder, betrayal, faith and love. Like Bleak House, it would take the reader from the heights of power and privilege to the people with voices in their heads sleeping rough, and weave them together in one baroque plot.

In the two years since The Victorians, Wilson has published a mischievous memoir of Iris Murdoch, a short history of London (all of a week ago) and now the 500 flamboyant pages of My Name is Legion. The many leading characters of this novel include some - aristocrats, a military hero-turned priest, a fogeyish man of letters-turned tabloid columnist - that you might expect in a Wilson novel, and others - an Afro-Caribbean woman called Mercy Topling, who works for "the planning department of the local council in a clerical capacity" - that you most definitely wouldn't.

Wilson is not ashamed of Victorian melodrama and vulgarity, or drastic shifts of tone. He gleefully uses the trashy narrative device of a character whose father may be one of a number of different men, in a world where the question can now be settled by DNA technology. He can veer from Carry On-style slapstick to dry theological debate, and there's something authentically Victorian about that as well. One of the questions raised by this rumbustious performance is whether it really is possible for the slightly dry, almost Barbara Pym-like narrative voice of this novel to go into these different worlds, whether giving us a funny description of Tony Blair's shift of accents within a single conversation or a phonetically-rendered version of dialogue between Mercy Topling and her mother. There is artistic courage in the attempt, but I think it's all too clear to which milieu Wilson and his two most beloved characters want to escape.

At its heart, this is a novel about the tabloid press in modern Britain. The scenes involving "The Legion", its monstrous proprietor Lennox Mark and its variously brutal, corrupt or self-loathing journalists, are where Wilson's imagination has really been unleashed. Wilson has always led a curious double life as, on the one hand, a donnish litterateur, author of nuanced biographies, and, on the other, a columnist always ready with an extreme opinion on the subjects of the day.

He is obviously aware of the looming shadow of Evelyn Waugh's Scoop over this territory. The first appearance of Lennox Mark is closely modelled on the first appearance of Waugh's Lord Copper, just to show us that he knows we know he knows. But Waugh (and Michael Frayn after him) were too detached from the journalistic world really to hate it. In this book, it's as if Wilson has let loose all the humiliation, hatred, even self-hatred, built up over 20 years. The result is terrifyingly funny, and sometimes just terrifying.

He gives an all-too-plausible and vivid account of a world where deranged bullies employ people to write articles they know to be false for newspapers they despise. One of the leading characters, the ex-man of letters turned pugnacious columnist LP Watson (what does that name sound like?), "never read the paper through. In fact he had reached a stage of his career where it was no longer possible for him to read". An editor is excoriated for the headline "Father Fagin" not just because the readership hasn't heard of Oliver Twist any more. It hasn't heard of Oliver! either.

There are jaw-dropping descriptions of a monstrous female interviewer, of a brilliantly successful magazine editor, of a socially insecure newspaper editor, all of whose originals are - even to an outsider like me - so identifiable that you fear for Wilson's safety if he ever strays into a dark alley in central London. Admittedly, some of the portraits are disguised by being based on a composite of models, but I doubt whether this will achieve more than spreading the wrath more widely.

Some of Wilson's targets - the hysteria of tabloid moralising, the excesses of conceptual artists - are not difficult to hit. But the anger feels authentic. As a taxi driver arrives in Soho from Canary Wharf, Wilson drily observes that "a sum showed on the meter which was equal to the amount given to an old-age pensioner each week by the state". You can almost smell the bile rising in his throat. As resignation letters go, this is a good one.

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