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.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year


Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Arts and Entertainment
War veteran and father of Peter and Laust Thoger Jensen played by Lars Mikkelson

TVBBC hopes latest Danish import will spell success

Arts and Entertainment
Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd
FilmCarey Mulligan’s Bathsheba would fit in better in The Hunger Games
Arts and Entertainment
Pandas-on-heat: Mary Ramsden's contribution is intended to evoke the compound the beasts smear around their habitat
Iart'm Here But You've Gone exhibition has invited artists to produce perfumes
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

    Everyone is talking about The Trews

    Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living