Victorian values

Boyd Tonkin enters a satirical time-warp; A Vicious Circle by Amanda Craig, Fourth Estate, pounds 15.99

Storms in teacups don't come much frothier than the spat that postponed this oddly Victorian panorama of high and low life in 1990s London. Some months ago, a journalist read a proof and decided that he recognised himself in Amanda Craig's mordant anti-hero. Lawyers lumbered into action; Hamish Hamilton dropped the novel; Fourth Estate picked it up. A new preface talks archly of "satirical archetypes" with no resemblance intended, etc... (Tell that to the model for portly "Ben Gorgle", editor of "Grunt", who promotes the "dirty axle" school of fiction.)

This quarrel helped to prove Craig's point. Throughout the book - and in accordance with its core metaphor - intelligence and talent turn inwards, reflect themselves, chase their own tails. Beyond the media's hall of mirrors, where "venom is the elixir of success", single mums on sink estates languish while dying vagrants moan in run-down A and Es. Head and heart, word and deed, culture and society: all drift as far apart as the "Slouch Club" elite and the tower-block poor, now linked only by Dickensian bonds of secret kinship or household service. Coincidence alone unites the scum and dregs.

The social-climbing pundit Mark Crawley reaches the top in "a monstrous glide of savage indignation". He dumps his kind Irish girlfriend Mary for the gilded heiress Amelia, daughter of the Maxwellian magnate Max de Monde (a premise that recalls Aldous Huxley's Point Counter Point). Pregnancy deepens Amelia while Mary befriends Adam, a martyred gay novelist. And, together with a saintly medic, Tom, the heroic lone mother Grace opens up our views into an abyss of suffering.

At first, Mary wreaks her revenge by out-bitching Mark with "tawdry, spiteful rubbish" as a reviewer. Then she re-invents herself as an angel in the house while Adam dies slowly of AIDS ("the usual"). Meanwhile, the fleshly fixer Ivo Sponge - literary editor and serial groper - embodies a venal journalistic market ruled by "fear and favour".

Vice and Virtue thump each other senseless like puppets in a Soho Punch- and-Judy show. Only Amelia's pregnancy and motherhood - with magnificent scenes of a life "devoid of logic, radiant with feeling" - really shift into a higher gear. Otherwise, the assault on "cruelty and callousness" still leaves room for some pretty coarse-grained phrase-making. A Filipina maid has a "simian gaze"; nurses show "bovine good nature" and so on.You wonder if Crawley's snobbish, carping spirit has triumphed after all.

Craig finds herself trapped in the vicious circle of the mainstream British novel. Terrified of too much intellectual strain, it can only voice social unease in ever-fiercer bouts of join-the-dots moralism. Thus Max de Monde may fly a helicopter, but as a plutocratic villain he doesn't add a lot to Trollope's Melmotte. Indeed, our satirical novels have changed much less than the world they try to scourge. This one delivers plenty of gratifying wit and rage - but for a glimpse into a media hell that belongs to our fin-de-siecle rather than the last, read Fullalove by Gordon Burn as well.

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