Fiction In Brief

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The Independent Culture
2 Bag Of Bones by Stephen King, Hodder pounds 16.99. Stephen King is one of the best-selling writers in the world. He has over 80 million books in print. He cruises to the top of the best-seller lists and his many books have been turned into 40 odd films. He's worth a phenomenal amount of cash and has reached that stage in a popular writer's career when anything he writes will be published and anything he publishes will be read.

And King keeps writing: Bag of Bones weighs in at 516 pages. I think he's struggling to make it a story almost as soon as it begins. You get the feeling that his new editors treat his every word as a return on their $17million investment; the more words there are, the more value for money they get. Here's a lazy line that's forgivable until you read several thousand just as loose: "I waved back and made my way in that direction, weaving between little kids playing tag, skirting a couple of teenagers making out on the grass, and ducking a Frisbee which a German Shepherd leapt up and caught smartly." About as flabby as one of his putrifying corpses. I wonder why he or any of his team thought we'd want to hear any of that.

Mind you, it's a horror writer's job to inform the reader of any number of unnecessary and unpleasant little particulars. What's a horror story without eyes dangling on stalks or a brain "simmering like spoiled egg in its case of skull"? The problem with Bag of Bones is that you only get the actual horror stuff after wading through several hundred pages of build-up. By the time we get to the gore it's not scary but silly, like sitting in a rollercoaster that spends hours getting to the top of the track only to find a drop of a few feet on the other side.

Our fortysomething hero Mike is out walking by the lake - Oh no, don't go down to the lake! - when the villain of the piece appears in his motorised wheelchair accompanied by his evil assistant, another old crone called Rogette. In an embarrassingly improbable attempt to upholster his elderly cast with some genuine physical threat, King has these two geriatrics corner Mike and force him into the water where they throw stones at him until he almost drowns. Mike decides not to report the incident to the police because he's worried he wouldn't be believed. He's damn right.

King is much more convincing when he's dealing with the supernatural world: the fridge magnets that spell clues of their own accord or the bell around the neck of the moose over the fireplace that rings in answer to Mike's thoughts. These are the creepy touches that have sent a million shivers down as many spines, but there just aren't enough of them. In their place are a pile of issues such as racism, single parenthood, custody law, grief, guilt and writer's block, all of which I don't particularly trust his opinion on. I don't distrust it either, it's just that wisdom is not his strong point. Horror is. Joe Cogan

2 Blast From The Past by Ben Elton, Bantam pounds 15.99. Ben Elton's fifth novel is 271 pages long and could be compressed into a tenth of that length without losing anything of value. At 27 pages, indeed, it might make a compelling short story. There are three main characters: Polly, a 34-year- old council worker; Peter a pervert who is stalking her; and General Jack Kent, a bigwig in the US army who had a passionate love affair with Polly back in the Eighties, when he was a soldier guarding Greenham Common Base and she was a demonstrator outside. He turns up at her flat unexpectedly after an absence of 16 years, on the very same night that Peter the stalker decides to put in an appearance.

It is no surprise to discover that stalkers are the scum of the earth, that American generals are duplicitous bastards and that Polly's only faults are naivety and a tendency to love too much. The writing is stretched out by pages of waffly, sweary dialogue - the function of this, presumably, being to delay the action and increase the suspense, but all it increases is one's desire to sigh and tut and leave the book on the bus.

The 16-year gap between Kent's disappearance and reappearance makes for plenty of flashbacks, which means that a large part of the novel is spent in the 1980s, and this is a grave mistake. What are the key images of the 1980s, after all? Margaret Thatcher, the Miners' Strike, Greenham Common ... and Ben Elton in his spangly suit, gabbling into the microphone about Thatcher, the Miners' Strike and Greenham Common. It's impossible, reading this, not to hear Ben Elton in his Eighties incarnation saying "Yes indeed, little bit of politics there." There is even a minor character who is a stand-up comedian and who always begins his act: "Good evening, ladies and gentlemen - would you like to see my bollocks?" If this is meant to be satire, it backfires horribly.

The humour (such as it is) is aimed at safe targets like motorway service- station restaurants (like we all thought the food there was good until you put us right, Ben). To be fair, Elton isn't for the most part trying to be funny. He's trying to ... well, what is he trying to do? Is he trying to write a thriller? There are too many digressions, the style is too chatty, and no self-respecting thriller would put up with the incongruous, tacked-on happy ending which occupies the last page.

Perhaps Elton is trying to demonstrate how the personal and political are inextricably linked? But the point is made by means of such an unconvincing plot, with such two-dimensional characters, that it could not possibly persuade anyone who didn't already believe it. Besides, everybody does believe it these days, don't they? If this is supposed to be a political novel, then it is woefully lacking in insights about politics.

Then there is the prose. At times it is as flatly didactic as a Guardian leader ("In truth, Britain's role is nothing more than adding a spurious legitimacy of international consensus to US foreign policy"). Sometimes it is merely banal ("She was wearing her nicest dress"); sometimes downright crude ("She could not have sounded more unwelcoming if she'd said she was serving turds instead of sausages.") This represents no advance in technique on Stark, Elton's first novel; it's also a good deal less fun. Clearly, the novel is not the form best suited to his gifts. But he is a brilliant writer of television comedy. Please Ben, give us another sitcom. Brandon Robshaw

2 Habitus by James Flint, Fourth Estate pounds 16.99. Spanning three generations and three continents, Flint's hugely ambitious debut is an epic novel about the links which hold our lives together and the relationships we have with one another, with our history and with the cosmos. It charts the lives of three main characters: Jennifer Several, born in a mental institution in Stratford-upon-Avon on the same day as NASA's ECHO I demonstrates the feasibility of global satellite communications; Judd Axlerod, half- caste son of a movie star and an IBM programmer, conceived in LA in July 1962 after nuclear tests over the Pacific result in his mother's ova being released a day early; and Joel Kluge, born in Brooklyn to a Hassidic Jewish baker and circumcised on November 3 1957, the day the USSR launch Sputnik II. Its cargo: Laika, the first dog in space.

Flint's control over his complex fictional world is masterful and his range of perspectives immense. Although presumed dead back on Earth, Laika the spacedog develops an advanced state of consciousness and, from her viewpoint in the planet's orbit, monitors our transition from the space age through the digital revolution. From this omniscient vantage-point Flint zooms in to focus on the lives of Jennifer, Judd and Joel; three characters with wildly different backgrounds whose lives are nonetheless interconnected and inexorably brought together. Frequently, the narrative zooms in much closer, until it focuses on the basic building blocks of these characters' lives; their cells and DNA. In chapters called "Spermatogenesis" and "Half An Egg", Flint describes his pubescent characters from the inside out and of Jennifer's DNA he writes: "via her mitochondria ... Jennifer is linked to the eukaryotic cell from which all plants, fungi and animals are descended." Characterisations are thus grounded in the context of not only parental upbringing and environmental background, but also of an ancestry reaching back into prehistory.

At times these ineffaceable links to prehistory mutate into a sense of biological predestiny, which in turn renders the characters motiveless and thus lifeless. But this is offset by a series of random, often cruel, twists of fate best exemplified in the chapter "Fishfingers Can Be Fatal" (I'll leave you to discover how for yourselves). In an imaginative and increasingly bizarre book Flint forces the reader to suspend disbelief further and further, daring us to challenge pseudo- scientific explanations which are so endearingly far-fetched that we are, in fact, inclined to accept them.

The author's academic background (philosophy and literature) is evident throughout, but his frequent asides on evolution, computers, and chaos and quantum theories are usually well integrated into the characters' own obsessions. The layers of thematic complexity add to, rather than suffocate the deep-rooted humanity that suffuses the book and only occasionally does the veil of fiction slip, when characters are invented for the sole purpose of being lectured to by other characters.

The sheer complexity of the plot allows a few non sequiturs to slip in unnoticed and the pacing is a little uneven, but overall, Habitus is a highly promising debut, inventive and packed with wit, which suffers only from an attempt to cram in more than could ever really fit in its 460 pages. Laurence Phelan