Winkler, by Giles Coren

Bright spark doused in a swamp of disgust
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In Giles Coren's first novel, Winkler doesn't just inhabit it. He is a postmodern Gehenna. The few coherent memories he has are unreliable, based on faked evidence, rehearsed with ritual distaste. His job is opaque, contingent, destitute of meaning. His colleagues are caricatures; there is more existence in a persistent puddle on his way to work than in the people he collides with.

Their gestures, their movements about a semi-fictional London; their speech, actions: all are empty signifiers. And Winkler is too morally exhausted to attempt the construction of meaning for those around him. Winkler's default interaction is contempt or abuse, his disgust with the physical world - flopping flesh, sad food, corridor smells - boundless.

His girlfriend repels him; he abandons her. A fat woman is waiting on a Tube platform: he pushes her under the train. Nu? Nu? That's the seeming lesson of Coren's vast ranting exposition, the old Yiddish word now become the iconic utterance of deracinated humanity: nu? Nu? NU?

The problem is that the reader becomes drawn in, not to Winkler's snarling contempt but to his relentless narcissism. Winkler's disaffections begin to blur. Winkler hates, loudly. Winkler has bad thoughts about the old Holocaust bore and war-rememberer, Wallenstein. Winkler looks at us, mouthing "Nu?". Eventually, we look back, catch his eye. "Nu? Okay. What. Ever."

And so when Winkler pushes the fat woman under a train, the act and its (literal) inconsequentiality lose their force; as, too, when he masturbates silently in front of a blind girl. Fine. Nu? Just another bit of nastiness in Winkler's nasty un-life.

But this most inconsequential of acts triggers, at last, consequences. Police come; there's a sort of denouement at a cricket match. Evelyn Waugh raises his ghostly head, as, elsewhere, do Jacobson, Waterhouse, Amis, Amis Jr. and Iain Sinclair. But then the consequences recede. A policeman called Tolkien is not all he seems. Wallenstein, the Holocaust bore, is not what he seems either. There is a reconciliation of sorts. Some of the past is buried; some remains above ground.

Is Coren just another newspaper columnist showing he can hack the novel? No: because wrapped inside Winkler's nihilism is a serious mediation on deeper matters: identity, wandering, return, and two questions which still cast the longest of shadows. What of the Holocaust, and what does it mean to be a Jew?

Coren's approach to the profounder matters is elliptical, intelligent and witty in the original sense. He is a more serious man than the cool foodie-dude his editors want him to be. How he deals with this remains to be seen. In general, the great thing is to tell the editors to go to hell, but only if you have the spark. Coren has the spark, and needs the special effects less than he might believe.

Michael Bywater's 'Lost Worlds' is published by Granta