Politics, Adam Thirlwell

Sometimes, says Matt Thorne, much-hyped debut novels justify the fuss. And this candidate deserves your vote
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The Independent Culture

Adam Thirlwell's Politics is already a success. When a first novel is talked about prior to publication it is usually because an editor has spent a large amount acquiring it, or the agent has sold it to several countries. Often this precipitates a premature backlash, but Politics, remarkably, has become famous not just for these reasons but also because of its quality. It has won a Betty Trask Award and gained Thirlwell a place on Granta's list of best British novelists under 40.

Politics is also already notorious for its explicitness, and commentators began deconstructing the sex scenes as soon as they received a proof. It is rare for a novel by a fashionable young male author not to feature an anal sex scene, but Thirlwell goes considerably further, asking such questions as "If you have eczema, may you complain that undinism can be painful?"

There are still good reasons for taking Thirlwell seriously. His authorial voice is not entirely original: he is so heavily influenced by Milan Kundera that he has to negotiate his relationship with the author in the later sections of this novel, and there are also echoes of Alain de Botton's fiction and Toby Litt's early short stories. But Politics has a flexibility and muscle that elevates him above most debut novelists. The novel has an oddly 1970s feel, partly due to the louche voice of the narrator and partly the subject (the story, ultimately, of a ménage à trois), but a great deal of its content feels genuinely new.

Although the main achievement is the development of this new voice, Politics contains many incidental pleasures. Thirlwell creates a fantastic sense of place, setting his love affair among well-known, but not elitist, bars and clubs such as The Embassy, Freedom and The Clinic, which he manages to make authentic for anyone who has visited them and easy to imagine for those who have not. He pulls off that rare trick of writing a London novel that could be appreciated by an international audience.

Thirlwell's narrator maintains that Politics "has something for everyone" and if the reader thinks the writing obscene, this is because of his "vanity and other causes of illusion". He also considers his characters to be immensely likeable and easy to identify with. I'm not sure this is true. Some readers will be alienated by Thirlwell's rhetoric, and the three members of his love-triangle, Moshe, Nana and Anjali, are oddballs. Highly neurotic, they are strangely passive when it comes to sexual requests, and aggressive about their individual needs.

Thirlwell's theme is that "selfishness is sometimes moral too", and the most interesting question his novel poses is whether Moshe, Nana and Anjali are representatives of a generation which has yet to be depicted in fiction. These are people who have grown up with liberated parents (Nana's father is fascinated by his daughter's sexual adventures) and interact with full sexual equality. Yet in spite of Thirlwell's insistence on how nice they all are, they operate with ruthless efficiency. These are the children, or perhaps grandchildren, of Kundera and Woody Allen (another influence), and the granddaughters are even more self-interested than the grandsons.

Politics is a fascinating debut novel, but Thirlwell may face a difficult future. Upgrading from light comedy to novels of serious stature is not easy. It's hard to anticipate whether Thirlwell will choose to stick to the style employed here, or consider this his "Kundera novel" and move on to alternative acts of ventriloquism. In the meantime, Politics deserves your immediate attention.

Matt Thorne's latest novel is 'Child Star' (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)