"When it comes to kinkiness in prose, I am a better writer than the Marquis de Sade," states the first-person authorial voice of Adam Thirlwell's debut novel. This person is never identified, so for the sake of ease I'm sort of assuming it's Thirlwell himself. Or at least an alter ego. Either way this voice keeps popping up, telling us why we should like a character, why we should feel sorry for them, even what exactly the book is about.
"This book is universal." "This story is not about sex. No. It is about goodness." "This story is about being kind." These comments are endless, and, I imagine, designed to be charming - in a sort of naive but knowing way. But how seriously should we take them, or this voice? Certainly the kinkiness on display here comes nowhere near that variously depicted by the Marquis de Sade. Okay, Politics starts with some anal sex, actually a pretty hopeless attempt at heterosexual anal sex: the guy, Moshe, keeps sticking his penis into its "natural home" as opposed to its "unnatural home", to the huge relief of his girlfriend Nana. Much later on there is some lesbian action, and there is a fair amount of group sex, at least threesome sex, but that's it. Not very kinky, for this day and age, or any age, actually.
But then, as the voice keeps telling us, this novel is "not about sex", it's about "goodness", "about being kind". About being nice. "This whole book is nice," the voice reminds us near the end. "Niceness," we are told, "is what you have come to expect from me."
At 25, Adam Thirlwell probably hasn't learnt that much about being horrible. Indeed, one has to wonder how much he's learned about life. A Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, he's definitely smart, and well read. Throughout the novel there are numerous asides and discourses concerning eminent writers, politicians, dictators and dissidents. Everyone from Chairman Mao to Hitler, Osip Mandelstam to Milan Kundera, gets a look in.
These snippets, such as Milan Kundera and Vaclav Havel's 1969 spat about altruism and the destiny of the Czech people in the aftermath of the Soviet invasion, are used to highlight various conundrums Thirlwell's characters are going through. For instance, should Nana be a little less altruistic and a little more self-serving? Effectively Thirlwell takes some pretty heavy political and philosophical 20th century dilemmas and directly associates them with his characters' emotional and physical, albeit sexual, well-being.
The sexual politics in Politics and the real story here is about a threesome - Moshe, Nana and Anjali's ménage à trois. Or as we are reminded by "me", it's a contemporary version of François Truffaut's Jules et Jim, and a take on Cabaret, which has the line, so "me" informs us, "Twosy beats onesy, but nothing beats three." Of course, this is bollocks and where a relationship involving two people might be complicated, one involving three can only be that much more messy.
Young actor Moshe - he's playing Slobodan Milosevic at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn - falls for tall, thin, beautiful architectural student Nana. Nana and Moshe spend much time pondering their north London upbringings, and discussing his Jewish roots. Then along comes sexually ambiguous Anjali - a not so successful actress with Asian blood and a love of all things Bollywood. "Anjali is often confusing," says "me". "That is one of the reasons I like her." Anjali probably likes girls more than boys and soon enough she's snogging Nana, who didn't realise she was remotely gay. To ease her guilt Nana then orchestrates a threesome, and before we know it they have set up home together. But just deciding who gets to sleep in the middle of the bed becomes a major issue.
However, as this is a "nice" book, it all ends, if not quite happily for everyone, then with everyone in the right place. While Thirlwell can be warm and funny, and very astute about fledgling relationships among 20-year-olds, his characters don't exactly leap off the page. This is partly to do with the whole artifice of the novel. Those heavy references are all very impressive, but you get the feeling they are meant to be. And despite them, and the desperately hip, multi-ethnic undertones, Politics is a surprisingly light novel, lacking much punch.
But then "nice" has always been a rather wimpy word. Recently named one of Granta's best young novelists under 40, Thirlwell is being talked about as the new Amis. Judging by this debut I would say he's more of cross between a young Jilly Cooper and an old Alain de Botton.Reuse content