Talking About It. By Tim Parks

Soporific short stories that reek of a glum internationalism
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In the title story of Tim Parks's Talking About It, two married men meet regularly to play squash. Then, over a pint, they reveal their sexual situations. One is ashamed by his attraction to a younger female colleague; the other is apparently having a fabulous time with a divorcee.

In "Something Odd", a wife smells strange perfume on her husband and finds blond hairs in bed. Since he is currently innocent, what can have happened? "The Roo" concerns a flat whose rent is apparently shared by two friends with mistresses to entertain. Ho hum. The reader who knows Parks as not only a novelist but an exhilarating observer of life through the lens of Italian football may be disheartened by these glib binarisms.

An entire collection of such stories produces the sedative effect of a film jointly financed by European partners. There is no danger of mistaking the result for life, though there may be admiration of the inexplicable commitment required to produce the neutered result. Parks's characters go through the erotic motions, win, lose, hate and accept each other, adjust and return to the nowhere from which they come.

It's not that Parks can't write. He works with emphatic economy and fluency, moving his people briskly around their property-deals and language schools, their medical work and non-specific spheres of commerce. It's just that there is rarely any friction between language and the world, or between one word and another.

There is the smell of superior men's magazines about the book, as well as that glum internationalism that makes one place sound much like any other. Talking About It is surely not what the recent advocates of the short story have been hoping for - this smug homogeneity, this privileged discontent, this tolerance which reads as bad faith.

Yet two stories threaten to break the mould. "In Defiance of Club Rules" follows a canoeist seeking a dangerous stretch of water under a bridge colonised by illegal immigrants. The task of evoking something other than bedrooms and offices seems to wake Parks up and, while the story is at the last sunk by its uncertainty, the flaw itself is a sign of life.

And in "Lebensraum", three generations of a family set about each other over a boozy lunch. The energy and malice of the dialogue escape the surrounding narcotic stylishness: here are actual people, monstrous and amazing, irrational and hilarious, not to be tidied away or patronised.