Too Beautiful For You By Rod Liddle

Sex and bugs in south London
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The Independent Culture

Rod Liddle used to be editor of Radio 4's Today programme till his newspaper column wore his cloak of impartiality a little thin. Now that he doesn't have to get up at dawn every day, he can keep regular hours and even has a little time on his hands. Not a lot: he's still got columns to write and a desk at The Spectator to man. Liddle has used these extra hours to get down to a bit of fiction, but he has not had quite enough time to write a novel.

You're keenly aware of that, reading this collection of short stories. The characters and plots seem to want to weave themselves into a novel, but Liddle keeps them separate like a series of news bulletins. The setting of Too Beautiful For You is South London, a place which Liddle regards with the natural disdain of a man who lives in Wiltshire. His characters teeter on the edge of chaos - they drink heavily, have sex with all the wrong people and leave their kitchens in a terrible state.

They try, though, to bring a little order into their lives. None more so than Christian: he is an expert on Turing who tells his wife he's off to give a lecture on the computing pioneer in Uttoxeter. In fact, Christian will meet Joanne in Cambridge, where he reckons the odds on having penetrative sex are just about even. In the event his calculations are on the conservative side and he makes the homeward journey working out how much extra-marital activity he gets into an average year.

Then the train crashes, horribly. There's blood and guts everywhere and Christian finds himself in an ambulance with a severed arm. Still his brain must keep scanning the options, weighing up the chances and forcing him to make a dash for Uttoxeter so that the careful alibi will stand. Christian's brain, slightly unhinged at the best of times, keeps trying to come up with a fixed, definite solution to a random event. It's a great piece of comic writing, destined to go down a storm when read out loud.

A sadder character is Emily. She hangs around wine bars with a group of friends, none of whom really has to work, drinking too much, taking too many drugs and sleeping with those wrong people. A bit of Kafka drifts in here as one of the friends starts to turn, from the legs up, into an insect.

Liddle is a bit of an insect man: one south London tale is written from the point of view of a fly trying to bring his children up under trying circumstances. Liddle is tough on his characters, few of whom will come out with much of a happy ending.

It all ends with a bang as Engin, an incompetent terrorist, makes an appearance on Parkinson. Engin, the Eddie The Eagle of extermination, has made so many failed attempts at suicide-bombing that the British public have taken him to their hearts. It's the strangest story in the book, mixing farce and tragedy with assurance: something Liddle does throughout. Like crazy Christian in the ambulance, your own brain keeps trying to make a pattern out of all these random stories. Only this sense of a lost novel mars what is otherwise a funny, clever and sometimes moving book.