Senseless, by Paul Golding

Suffering by comparison with Booker winner

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The Independent Culture

Paul Golding's novel The Abomination (2000) was an extraordinary debut: boldly conceived, finely written, engaging and wise. Sadly, despite critical acclaim, it was largely overlooked.

Paul Golding's novel The Abomination (2000) was an extraordinary debut: boldly conceived, finely written, engaging and wise. Sadly, despite critical acclaim, it was largely overlooked.

Picador think it was "oversold": a euphemism for when hype doesn't work. Consequently, Senseless arrives more quietly than its predecessor. Still, Golding's publishers believe in him; the novel was submitted to this year's Man Booker panel. However, unlike Alan Hollinghurst's victorious The Line of Beauty (sharing certain themes and settings), Senseless did not make progress in the prize.

In one sense, it is ironic that Senseless is not being trumpeted more loudly. It is narrated by a young man who embodies the brash Eighties "virtues" of surface and self-regard. George - confident, articulate, witty and egocentric - has the material world before him. However, he he experiences an inability to cultivate a similar wealth of emotional commitment. His two vital relationships - with his brother Kelly and his best friend Matthew - do not culminate in failure. Worse, perhaps, they achieve a clarity and depth at the wrong time - posthumously.

Kelly and Matthew each receive an HIV-positive diagnosis. George, healthy and virus-free, is left to experience not just "survivor guilt", but a sense of bafflement as to how to continue to live while the certainties of his pre-Aids life disappear.

The epidemic and gay London has been rendered in fiction before and the fact that Hollinghurst's novel is so proximate, does Senselessfew favours. The Line of Beauty allows the turbulent nuances of Thatcherite market rhetoric and reform to dovetail with the vicissitudes of Aids, but never to become indistinct. Golding's tale suggests that sexual politics and capitalist ethics might interrelate, but the how and why remain unclear.

More damaging is a comparison of period feel. Where Hollinghurst focuses on one decade, Golding appears to collapse early aspects of the British experience of Aids with incidences from the mid-Nineties. The novel's bagginess prevents us knowing when anything happens. There is a broader structural concern, too. As Kelly and Matthew become unwell, Golding's first-person narration cannot integrate their stories; George has successfully compartmentalised his life. A forced ending does not truly resolve the book's dominant themes.

Nonetheless, there are stretches of great and moving writing. Few novelists have so captured the sense of a child's early promise (here unfulfilled): "There'd been a brittle brilliance about me, for I was reckless, and stylish, and on occasion witty. People could tell that soon enough I'd vault into the future like a gleaming javelin."

The reviewer is writing a life of Ronald Firbank

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