The misery of not being a blob

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The Independent Culture

Dating Big Bird by Laura Zigman (Hutchinson £10)

Dating Big Bird by Laura Zigman (Hutchinson £10)

Women and sperm: it's all a matter of decade. In our teens we're a terrifying tadpole-leap from pregnancy and Cardiff council flats; in our twenties we smirk about staining, and queue in Boots with careful sang-froid; then our thirties strike, and there is no sperm to be had for love nor ...

Money. Money can buy, if not devotion, then several tubes of frozen chromosomes. It is the answer to biology's last stand: the baby-less thirtysomething's sudden desperation as all around her mate and spawn, while her body, like a giant bubblegum machine, slowly expels its remaining eggs. Ellen, the protagonist of Laura Zigman's second novel, has the Manhattan apartment, the important job - and the womb whose time, she knows, is running out. When her sister, mother of Ellen's adored niece "the Pickle", and Karen, her apparently unmaternal boss, both become pregnant for the second time, Ellen realises she cannot wait. She vows she will either persuade her bereaved boyfriend to impregnate her or commit, finally, to going alone into the hinterland of stretch tunics, daytime television, sleep deprivation, and urination as performance art.

That "there is something wrong with every picture" is a universal relationship rule. In Ellen's world, men are always secretly gay, impotent or want "a year off doing nothing", and women resort to the same expedients: pretending they are their nieces' mothers, begging for daily updates on infants' footwear, fantasising about "Sperm-Harvest Victim[s]".

Despite Ellen's worrying preoccupation with being a child's "only focus", she avoids mentioning the obvious solution - for her sister to die and bequeath her the Pickle. Elsewhere Zigman's honesty is the novel's greatest strength. From her heroine's single-eyebrow adolescence, to sisterly competition over who feels fatter: "She let her arms and legs go limp so she would look as bloated and blob-like as possible"; from the romanticisation of female friendship to "air-kissing and ass-kissing and general falseness and fakery", Zigman is at her best when describing the rituals and weaknesses of human interaction. Dating Big Bird is less sharp but more human than the current New World order of pun-a-minute novels, though its funniest moments - panicky hair-flicking, the grotesque ceremony that is Karen's baby-shower - have the glint of perfect farce.

But like motherhood, America is another world. For farce to travel well, it has to be recognisable; and Dating Big Bird is fraught with opaque references to baby paraphernalia, celebrities and grade point averages which add little but annoyance for English readers. Equally irritating is Zigman's apparent carelessness in linking her set pieces, with strikingly unfunny e-mails, with the blurry tautology of a "three-volume Proust-length trilogy", or with dully prosaic sentences: "She picked up her glass, drank from it and put it down"; "She began to convulse ... her limbs jerking this way and that".

More seriously, this seeming casualness infects, and undermines, the novel's chief subject. Infantile chatter may be sweet, but babies are loving and nonsensical everywhere. It takes more than stock mispronunciations - "no asparagrass, mum-mum" - and repeated insistence on Ellen's broodiness, to maintain reader sympathy. When Ellen, in a fit of auntly "rapture", leaves a pool of Pickle urine on a cake-shop floor, it is difficult not to side with the assistant.

Dating Big Bird resembles a telegenic transcript of thirtysomething conversations everywhere, but fails to convey either the dark heart of potential childlessness, nor the intensity of real love.