Top-shelf torments

Is the road to hell paved with centrefolds? Michael Arditti has some doubts; Hope by Glen Duncan, Viking, pounds 9.99
The jury is still out on pornography. Does it relieve sexual frustrations and deter violence against women? Do its objectified images inspire violence against women? Or are the images themselves violence against women? There is no doubt of Glen Duncan's view in this polemical first novel. In his book, pornography represents original sin.

Hope recounts the life and loves of 28-year-old Gabriel Jones, particularly in relation to pornography and sexual violence. He lost his innocence as a child through his friendship with a precocious neighbour, Katherine Holmes, who inducted him in fellatio and drinking urine. Later, when hiding in a wardrobe, he watched her being abused by her father with her mother's connivance.

Duncan intends this trauma to carry considerable psychological as well as symbolic weight, although it is unclear how much responsibility it bears for the failure of Gabriel's relationship with his undergraduate girlfriend, Alicia. It is always a problem in a first-person narrative when a character is seen through the eyes of love, and Alicia is no exception. Gabriel's paean to her perfection becomes off-putting and their love seems faintly puerile (it is no accident that she chooses to see herself as an Enid Blyton character, and he as one from Lord of the Rings).

Alicia is a feminist whose research requires her both to study men's magazines and to interview a stripper. When she discovers Gabriel at a strip-show in The Pig's Head pub, she breaks with him. This is a blow from which he never recovers, and his post-university career is a mess, enlivened only by friendship with Daniel, a would-be novelist, and visits to Hope, a high-class prostitute who is herself deeply disturbed.

It is refreshing to read a first novel that is unashamedly polemical and moral. Its key question is why Gabriel continues to do what he knows to be wrong. The problem is that Duncan's schematic morality allows no room for fictional ambiguity. Just as children find it unfair that the Fall should have been caused by eating one apple, so the reader may feel unconvinced that Gabriel's sexual fall should occur after reading a single magazine.

Even those (such as myself) who hold similar views to Duncan about pornography need them to be more subtly expressed. Gabriel's view of sexuality is simplistic, just as his wish to be cossetted by women (he visits the hairdresser purely to put his head in their hands) is infantile. The author also over- idealises women. As one who has reviewed a performance by the Chippendales, I can assure him that objectification works both ways.

When Duncan writes well, as in his description of childhood summers ("the evenings trailed, gracefully; like the cloaks of benevolent wizards"), he writes very well indeed. Unfortunately, he has endowed his narrator with a boundless taste for repetition. ("I'm still passionate. I still have passion. My response to life is still, by and large, passionate.") Duncan has written a provocative novel about a compelling subject, but it requires an editor's red pencil as urgently as the material he examines requires a censor's blue one.