Smooth operator

Monogamy by Adam Phillips Faber, pounds 6.99; Geoff Dyer fails to fall for the sweet talk of a seductive psychoanalyst
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For Albert Camus in 1942 there was "but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide." Flirting - which is what, along with kissing, tickling and being bored, he is best known for - with this stark existential admonition, Adam Phillips in 1996 declares that "for some of us - perhaps the fortunate, or at least the affluent - monogamy is the only serious philosophical question." This book is, therefore, an enquiry into the word "we" - and into how deftly a coat of irony must be applied to stop us taking that "serious" too seriously.

That "enquiry" consists of 121 aphorisms, or about 150 paragraphs. If this seriously skimpy offering bears the implicit sub-title "A Couple's Discourse" that echo reminds us that Roland Barthes' masterful array of fragments was not only a brilliant book but a substantial one, too. It's not, as they say, a question of length but of whether a work has achieved a form adequate to the theme addressed - and the answer to that depends on whether we are persuaded that the book is really about what its title declares ("the content," Phillips warns at one point, "is often a smokescreen"). Is monogamy really the theme of this book? Perhaps not. In fact, despite their ostensible variety of concerns, all of Phillips's books orbit a topic he has not addressed directly in any of them: seduction.

The quotes on the back of these books have considerable pulling power, the titles are alluring, the author's considerable erudition is turned down low - but you can never quite give yourself to them. Phillips is too smooth an operator, you never enter into a relationship with his books the way you do with certain writers. You flirt with reading them. This is why Monogamy is so revealing. The ostensible examination of the relations between couples between its covers turns out to be an analogue of the relationship between its writer and reader.

Think of those times when you are so involved with a particular writer that for however brief a period - even just a couple of tube stops - you have time for him or her alone. In the case of Phillips I am struck by the impossibility of remaining even briefly faithful to him. In the case of this book I often found myself unable to finish the tiny chunks of text that seemed designed expressly for readers with attention deficit syndrome. Why?

Phillips himself offers a clue. When reading about monogamy, he counsels, we might be better off if, instead of asking whether "the author is right," we concentrate on the "question of tone." What is most seductive about his psychoanalytic essays is, precisely, his tone of patient reasonableness. It may have been logical to pare down his already uncluttered style into bleached pages of aphorisms but Phillips's essential reasonableness works against this. The great aphorists - one thinks immediately of E.M. Cioran - are unreasonable: it is an unreasonable form. With none of the automatic compulsion of progressive exposition to rely on, the writer has to make sure that the reader is button-holed with a storm of ideas.

We often mark passages in books we read. In works of fiction a pencilled tick every 70 pages is enough to keep us satisfied. Aphorists need to aim for the almost impenetrable density of marginal approval - or rebuke - that we grant Nietzsche or Cioran. They have to detain us, forcibly, and this is contrary to Phillips's style as analyst-writer. "Partner, spouse, wife, husband, co-habitee. The problem of monogamy is that we have never found the words for it."

You might not feel too short-changed if that fell out of a Faber Christmas Cracker but in its current context of proud textual isolation it seems curiously similar to the white page that surrounds it: i.e. empty. Of course, there are plenty of smart observations ("This is what makes relationships last: the disillusionment that is the key to a lifelong romance") but often what we get is the tone ("contradiction is the foreplay of logicians") or syntax ("In our erotic lives we... This is why...") of cleverness rather than its substance.

Likewise, much of the fizz of Phillips's thought turns out to be released by relatively few rhetorical devices, specifically the epigrammatic inversion or caesural turn-around: "This is why no one ever really separates from anybody. And also, of course, why people are never quite together."

What's happened, in a nustshell, is that the author has seduced himself. The resulting performance is more appealing to voyeurs than readers.