Paperbacks: The Average American Male<br/>What Happens Now<br/>Heroes: The Greatest Generation and the Second World War<br/>The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice<br/>Natural History

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The Average American Male By Chad Kultgen (HarperCollins £6.99) threestar

Kultgen's debut novel is narrated by a man in his 20s (name and profession not specified) who thinks about nothing but sex. His fantasies aren't even interesting; he just imagines himself performing the same few acts on lots of different women. Or bitches, as he calls them. The narrative has the same monotony of abundance as the internet pornography he spends his spare time downloading, and the only drama arises from the disjoint between what his girlfriend wants from their relationship (companionship, affirmation, security, children) and what he wants from her (sex, nothing else).

The novel's decontextualised interiority, the one-dimensionality of every character, the pop culture references and the protagonist's superficiality, emotional retardation and misogyny all bring to mind another calculatedly offensive novel, American Psycho. But Patrick Bateman had the excuse of being insane, whereas this American purports to be normal, nay, representative. Both books satirise the vacuity of their milieu (in The Average American Male's case, LA) and both books are also very funny in the same way, the humour arising from the incongruity between how the narrator is expected to behave, and what he's really thinking. In the mall with his girlfriend he is caught eying another woman and is asked, "Do you wish I looked like that?" "I wonder if the three hours I've spent looking at shoes and other gay shit could possibly earn me one second of honesty," he thinks, deciding probably not.

It's the aggressive frankness that got this book so talked about in America and online, most of the debate centred on the question of how representative its narrator really is. The answer is probably more than you'd care to think, but do we really need to know? Some things are best left unsaid, and as much as I enjoyed it, this isn't a book I'd feel comfortable recommending to anyone.

What Happens Now By Jeremy (DysonAbacus £7.99) threestar

This first novel of Dyson's, one of the writers of the macabre television comedy The League of Gentlemen, which is a compelling, not in the least funny coming-of-age drama and an exploration of the power of the imagination and the nature of fear, desire, faith and moral responsibility, has two parallel timelines. In the first, it is 1981 and Alistair Black is a timid 15-year-old Jewish boy whose all-consuming hobby is the creation of a populous fictional world on audiotape. His talent spotted by his drama teacher, he is put forward for a part in a BBC children's drama series in which he plays Marcel Vinteuil, the younger brother of an Anne Frank-like girl during the war. He falls in love at the first sight of his co-star, Alice, the daughter of a mentally ill theologian.

In the second timeline, Alistair is in his 30s and on a train to Cluj to visit the Vinteuil museum, while Alice has returned from a four-year pilgramage to the Holy Land. Something obviously happened during the making of that BBC children's drama that has haunted them both. What it was is the dark heart of an involving and well-told tale.

Heroes: The Greatest Generation and the Second World War By James Holland (Harper Perennial £8.99) fourstar

James Holland is the author of two previous histories of Second World War campaigns, praised for the sensitivity with which he recorded and integrated ordinary soldiers' tales. This is a different kind of book, an oral history in which the soldiers' recollections don't inform the story but are the story. Sometimes Holland or his interviewees will assume a greater familiarity with military terminology than it's fair to expect of a general reader, but for the most part this is a book about feelings we can all relate to, only intensified exponentially for having been played out in the theatre of war. There are stories of extraordinary bravery and resourcefulness, of course, but they are usually downplayed in the telling of them. "I don't know what makes you press on," says one bomber pilot, "but you just do. There's something in us... it's life itself."

As it happens, some of the heroes in this book became known in other fields: Ken Adam, the Bond film set-designer, Tom Finney, the England footballer. But this is a book that wants to record the testimony of ordinary men and women, whose times made them exceptional. An uncomplicated, worthy aim, well executed.

The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice By Greil MarcusFaber £12.99 fourstar

What links John Winthrop's 1630 "city upon a hill" sermon, Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address and Reverend King's "I have a dream" speech with Philip Roth's American Pastoral, Twin Peaks and the art-punk band Pere Ubu? They are the primary topics for discussion in the latest dispatch by Greil Marcus, but that doesn't count. He's so capricious a cultural critic he also hears Nirvana in the cadences of Lincoln's speech, and Roth nestles alongside Ruth, Babe and Ryan, Meg in the index.

The link is his thesis that the narrative which culminates in American exceptionalism is a re-enactment of God's call to the Children of Israel in the book of Amos, except that where Israel made a covenant with God, America made a covenant with itself. Winthrop, Lincoln and King's speeches are all reiterations of that narrative about America as the promised land; Roth, David Lynch and Pere Ubu are prophets foretelling doom because America has broken its side of the covenant.

Vivid rhetorician that he is, this all makes a kind of sense when Marcus explains it, and explains much about America's present standing in the world.

Natural History By Neil Cross (Simon & Schuster £11.99) twostar

Neil Cross's fifth novel, about an unhappy family that relocates to an ailing Devonian monkey sanctuary, only to fall further apart, builds towards "a climax so devastating", according to the jacket blurb, "it subverts every expectation". Of course, brutal though it may be, now that you're expecting it, the novel's climax does no such thing. Don't be too hard on the blurb writer, though: Cross had already liberally scattered portents of doom throughout his story, and illustrated it with vignettes of man's animal nature and nature's redness in tooth and claw. Apropos nothing, for example: "Dave wasn't really morally responsible, any more than a Spider Hunting Wasp, which paralysed its prey before allowing its larvae to eat them alive from the inside out". Probably not by coincidence, it was the existence of just such a wasp that Darwin cited as the reason he couldn't believe in God. Cross's novel is in part about the crisis of faith of an atheist.

Primate displays of aggression, war in Zaire, big cats in the Devon countryside, comets in the sky: it must all add up to something, but Cross's untidy plotting and uneven pacing make it hard to care what.

Comments