The Death of Eli Gold, By David Baddiel

Writer's plight brings out Baddiel's best
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The Independent Culture

David Baddiel's early novels, Time For Bed and Whatever Love Means, centred on the contemporary urban male.

They were classified lad-lit, which was misleading: they weren't merely an extension of pop-culture Baddiel, they were more complicated than that. The Death of Eli Gold, his remarkable fourth novel, is a synthesis of those early books, namely the black-humoured Baddiel staples of depression, masculinity and sexual desire, and 2004's The Secret Purposes, a self-consciously serious literary novel.

Eli Gold, the world's greatest living writer, is in a coma in a New York hospital. The world's media are assembled outside. Bill Clinton is scheduled to pay his respects. The story partly revisits a failed suicide pact between Eli and his fourth wife (Eli survived), and her still-grieving Mormon brother, who has travelled from Salt Lake City intent on ending Eli's life himself.

Eli is revealed in the stories of his family: Violet, his first wife, in a care home in London, watching on TV; Collette, Eli's eight-year-old daughter from his fifth marriage (Baddiel creates a sublime voice for her, and, in so doing, breaks up the sometimes overlong interior monologues of the novel's main character); Harvey Gold, Eli's son – a cowering, tortured ghostwriter who suffers bouts of physical paralysis from his defeatism yet is a slave to his never-off-duty, one-tracked mind.

As he draws his last breaths, the memorable but lacerating effect Eli has had on his family spreads throughout the novel. For Violet, her marriage to Eli was hampered by his intellectualism. "It was complexity: that was the abuse. A simple soul – that was how, through the misty glasses of self pity, she sometimes saw her pre-Eli self."

"You've got to leave women," says the officer who questioned Eli in the aftermath of the bungled suicide pact. "I mean we all know that. You wrote the patent."

Baddiel hero worships John Updike and Saul Bellow. The novel is an ode to them, but at its heart is the notion of "greatness", or rather, a prehistoric, faithless notion of greatness – how these great writers got away with acting irresponsibly because they were great and, in an extension of Graham Greene's comment about there being "a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer", how this assisted with their greatness. It also asks how modern men such as Harvey (who's devoted to his first and only wife) cope now that the rules have changed – "breaking up with them [women] meant something it never meant for his father or his father's friends, who were all men: it meant destroying a close friend." Baddiel plays with these ideas but predictably comes up on the right side.

With the humour turned back on, this is by far his most entertaining and satisfying novel. The dénouement involving the Mormon is well earnt and exquisitely crafted.