Paperback Reviews

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Resentment, by Gary Indiana (Quartet £7)

Resentment, by Gary Indiana (Quartet £7)

Not, the author specifies, a roman a clef, but almost the opposite: "A narrative in which stray threads of reality reinforce an imaginary tapestry of the era's psychic life". Which is to say, any resemblance to actual events or people living or dead is purely intentional.

The setting for this loose-limbed satire is Los Angeles in the early 1990s, where the media is gripped by the trial of the Martinez brothers - rich kids who blasted their parents with shotguns, organised a flaky cover-up, then confessed, pleading justification due to a history of sexual abuse. This is familiar from real life: Indiana has borrowed freely from the Menendez trial, to the extent of quoting verbatim. Also familiar from reality are Fawbus Kennedy, the schlocky author trying to parlay himselfinto the literary big league (more than a tad reminiscent of Dominick Dunne); Teddy Wade, the possibly gay movie star who has "gone out on a limb" by playing a person with Aids; the showboating, quibbling attorneys; and the California earthquake that wraps it all up.

Elsewhere, in the spur-of-the-moment convenience-store robbery, the washed-up, nearly- famous actress, the gay serial killer and the internet sex chat, other fictions come to mind. At times, in fact, it feels as if Indiana couldn't be bothered to invent anything at all: he's not tapping into the zeitgeist so much as recycling cliches.

Two things give the book an edge, and keep you going through 350 dense, scarcely paragraphed pages of rambling sentences: one is the panoply of grotesque, almost overstated details - the expert witness who has Tourette's syndrome; the ferret droppings in which the Martinez brothers claim their mother forced them to roll; the private detective whose parents christened him Norman Bates. The other thing is the book's sheer moral force. Through Seth, the uncertain, semi-successful gay journalist who is the book's protagonist, Indiana depicts a vacuous, self-loathing society where public discourse has been stripped of ambiguity and inconsistency; where human complexity has to be trimmed to fit in a headline. In this world, there is no room for truth, for any realistic concept of guilt. In this world, it is impossible to distinguish doubt from weakness. Not, I'm happy to say, a book for the millennium, but definitely a book for the end of the 1990s. RH

Midnight All Day, by Hanif Kureishi (Faber, £9.99, 217pp)

Serious about love, cavalier about falling out of it, Hanif Kureishi's last novel, Intimacy , pressed more buttons with feminist critics than John Updike has managed in a lifetime. A pitiless account of a husband walking out on his wife and two sons, which closely mirrored events in the author's own life, it gave powerful voice to every new father's fantasy of leaving. Ever the suburban rebel, Kureishi has now followed up this paean to individual freedom with a collection of stories that touch on the unspoken pleasures of divorce.

A less cheery soul than the one who wrote The Buddha of Suburbia , Kureishi now writes about middle-aged men more likely to be moved by Schubert than house music. The 40-somethings who populate his stories have made it in artistic circles (as screenwriters, novelists, or actors) but still don't feel members of the club. Life only gets real when desire rears its head, and that's not likely to happen in the marital bed. In the story "That Was Then", Nick, a novelist, ends up sleeping with his flaky ex; while the title story plots the progress of an affair between a husband and his pregnant mistress.

A writer obsessed by London, Kureishi's topographical references are as seductive as his characters' internal monologues. Divorced dads spend wet afternoons in familiar parks, new lovers saunter up the King's Road.

Though some of the stories seem dangerously autobiographical - the story "The Umbrella" describes a quarrel between ex-partners as their two young sons scream in the background - Kureishi also takes some startling plunges into the surreal. "The Penis", the collection's only dud, tells how a famous porn star mislays his most lucrative asset. No doubt the story has a point, though when the aforementioned member goes flying off Tower Bridge, knocking out a tourist en route, you cease to care. EH

Coleridge: Darker Reflections, by Richard Holmes (Flamingo £9.99)

"One of the greatest literary biographies ever written" proclaims the jacket. I wouldn't argue about the greatness of Holmes's achievement, but what makes it great is precisely that it is not a literary biography at all: what fascinates Holmes is Coleridge's prodigious mind, and he's less interested in the literature than in the torrents of observation and speculation that poured out. This second instalment takes up the story in 1804, with Coleridge on his way to the Mediterranean, racked by sexual guilt and opium- induced constipation. The older Coleridge is harder to like, but Holmes still manages to convey the seductive power of his genius - to make you feel that this was one of history's great minds. RH

The New Oxford Book of English Prose, ed John Gross (Oxford £14.99)

Not at all a satisfactory anthology: but then, satisfaction is largely a matter of expectations met. Gross's collection consistently defies expectations, which makes it a source of both pleasure and frustration; a lot of the time it's hard to say which is which. There are dozens of writers you would never have thought of, and the predictable names are represented by things you wouldn't have looked for. Gross has kept things brief, very brief, so you often get a sentence, a paragraph, the wisp of a thought or a story, and sometimes the fun is in trying to work out why he chose this particular passage, how he thinks it exemplifies a writer's qualities. Strange, and the better for it. RH

Letters from a Lost Generation, ed Alan Bishop, Mark Bostridge (Abacus £8.99)

The correspondence between Vera Brittain and four young men - her younger brother, Edward; her fiance, Roland Leighton; and two other sentimental friends, Victor Richardson and Reginald Thurlow - all of whom were killed in the First World War. After Niall Ferguson's hardnosed revisionist job on the war, this is a reminder that most of the myths we've cherished (the misery of the trenches, the flower of a generation being cut down) had a solid core of truth. The matter-of-fact descriptions of trench-life still carry an emotional charge, and there is pathos in the sheer awkwardness of a love affair conducted by letter; but, for me at any rate, the power is dimmed by Georgian sentimentality and excruciating sub-Brooke poetry. RH

The Pollen Room, by Zoe Jenny (Bloomsbury £6.99)

Jenny's first novel is undoubtedly accomplished and refreshingly odd, but not altogether likeable. Jo, the narrator, leaves her bohemian father, who has brought her up, and goes to live with her beautiful, spaced-out mother, Lucy. When her lover is killed in a car-crash, Lucy retreats to his studio - the pollen room of the title - and Jo is forced to break in and rescue her from starvation. Jenny has a knack for compact, poetic observation, but the flowers and dead butterflies feel affected, and it's hard to say what all the separate observations add up to. Her spare, detached style and Jo's alienated worldview don't give the reader much to get hold of, either. RH

Barrow's Boys, by Fergus Fleming (Granta, £8.99, 489pp)

Gripping, hilarious, often flabbergasting, this is a splendid adventure book. Fleming had the idea of threading together the 20-odd expeditions in the early 19th century by John Barrow, a senior Admiralty official, to confirm his ill-founded beliefs in (a) the North-West Passage and (b) that the Niger flowed into the Congo. Most of his envoys roasted or froze. Barrow complained if they returned without suffering. Their guts are typified by the "slightly mad" Gordon Laing, who overcame ghastly wounds and plague to discover Timbuctoo and was promptly decapitated by Tuaregs. CH

Satyricon, by Eurydice (Scribner, £9.99, 256pp)

US sex columnist and university graduate Eurydice (her real name) explores the "new sexual frontier": transvestism, S&M, cybersex and similar delights. Over here, such specialised interests were giggled at by Kitty Churchill in her jolly saga Thinking of England . Eurydice's approach is darker and utterly po-faced, but not necessarily less silly. Discussing the kinky thrills to be had from blood-letting, she reminds us: "Jesus's undying power is in his shallow, self-inflicted wounds." One warning: this book is the reverse of arousing. CH