Misanthropy with frills

WOMEN IN THE BACKGROUND by Barry Humphries, Heinemann pounds 19.99
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The Independent Culture
THE only remotely funny bits of this pompously narrated first shot at novel-writing concern food. Barry Humphries scores a small hit when he satirises the excesses of anxious Sloaney Emma, caterer to the nouveaux riches who drool over her disgusting and ersatz nouvelle cuisine. Early on in this tiresome book she serves our narrator, Derek Pettyfer, with lumpy brown hare in blood gravy accompanied by swede puree. Just as Humphries' burp-like running gags keeping coming back, Emma's fricassee reappears at various bashes Derek attends. Even on location, shooting a commercial in the Caribbean, our gourmet hero discovers, to his horror, that it's Emma's hare on the menu for lunch, swiftly followed by "skate in a parsnip batter served with a camembert and cashew nut sauce, or mushrooms stuffed with strawberry cream cheese, deep fried and served with a kiwi fruit coulis".

One of this narrator's least appealing little habits is to spatter his text with arcane words plucked at random that render his prose irritating and meaningless. In his peculiar and sentimental epilogue he defends his "lifelong taste for the sesquipedalian; that unerring giveaway of the provincial. To me, the meaning of fancy words does not matter: I merely throw them in for colour and flavour, as if I were cooking with them." The awful Emma is an inept cook because she lacks simplicity and tries too hard to impress. Humphries is an inept writer because he is too self- satisfied and doesn't try hard enough.

Any decent writer loves and respects language. Humphries simultaneously over-reveres and mistreats it, piling pedantic constructions on top of screaming cliches in a kind of hysterical baroque. This mixture of envy and contempt towards writing mirrors his attitude towards his female characters. It's only when he describes Derek's collection of early glass that his words go close-up, become caressingly precise and expressive. Derek Pettyfer is the kind of bachelor manque who loves precious objects more than people. His aggression and hostility provide the motor energy of the book, just as his unconscious fantasies of damage and revenge stalk the sub-text like bogeymen evoked to scare the children into good behaviour.

Derek is a poor little rich man only longing to be loved and trusted by his wife and his manager. He's an innocent luvvie who makes a living impersonating the dumb housewife Mrs Petty. Derek's a convincing cross- dresser, but he's less successful as a spinner of a tale of woe. Sensible man, he sticks to his day job, and whiles away his entr'actes by sorrowing intensely over the state of the world, self-pityingly inventing a supporting cast of nasties who exploit him and let him down. But this be-frilled and be-flounced misanthropist stomps his main clauses and swishes his subjunctive moods in vain. We just know that this chorus-line of ugly and vicious menopausal hags, monstrous scheming cock-teasers and idiotic black people strut their stuff only in his imagination. They don't come alive as characters.

What we're given as plot is Derek's nightmare come true: a lacklustre parade of banal stereotypes, literary cheerleaders wearily kicking against the pricks of political correctness. The eagle-eyed and super-sensitive Derek, who has such X-ray vision on entering a crowded party that he can suss instantly that the "heterogenous library" contains "the romances of A S Byatt, Anita Brookner and Margaret Atwood", is similarly gifted when it comes to meeting people. Confronted by "two rather attractive women" he immediately discerns that they are "probably desperate - divorcees perhaps - undoubtedly nymphos, or part-time lesbian, or even art historians doing a bit of phone sex of an evening to put their kids through college ... Driven by a kind of uterine fury, they were clearly at the party for one thing and one thing only: they were trawling for it, screaming for it."

There are two things you could do with this book. One would be to give it to someone you dislike.

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