Paperback Roundup

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The Independent Culture
The Untouchable by John Banville, Picador pounds 5.99. Acclaimed Irish novelist John Banville's latest work considers the life of the infamous spy Anthony Blunt. It displays Banville's impressive command of measured, weighty prose, and demonstrates the quiet tragedy of self-awareness through the elusive hero at the heart of his story. He transforms Blunt into an Irish family man, Victor Maskell, who realizes his homosexual nature too late. Covert activities therefore come naturally to him - the tactics involved in discreet cottaging are equivalent to those required by a successful secret agent: "Even the territory was the same, the public lavatories, the grim suburban pubs ... the city's dreamy, tenderly green, innocent parks whose clement air I sullied with my secret whisperings." Like Blunt, Maskell goes through the usual espionage hoops: Marlborough, Cambridge, recruitment by the Soviets, directorship of the Courtauld Institute, secondment to MI5, and eventual exposure as a traitor in the House of Commons. Elegant phrase-making comes easily to Banville, and he employs it here to collude with his narrator's patrician complacency. Occasional hints of self-disgust break through, and build up to puncture Maskell's front as an art critic ("I seemed to be looking not at the pictures, but at myself looking at them"), a father whose children avoid him, and a man. This is quintessential Graham Greene territory, and Banville, as if to pre-empt the disadvantageous comparison, thows in a cameo in the shape of Maskell's "quondam catamite", Patrick Quilly. The cool beauty that Banville fashions out of this dry stick of a spy goes a long way to explaining the motivation of a bored, frustrated and frighteningly clever man.

A Glossary for the 90s: A Cultural Primer by David Rowan, Prion pounds 6.99. If you know what it means to go affirmative shopping, or recognise when you have suffered a negative gross profit, you won't need this guide to neologisms. On the other hand, if you're a techno-babbling, netspeaking dwerb, you'll love this frivolous addition to the fast-expanding lexicographical canon. David Rowan translates the lyrics of obscure rap songs, trawls web sites, infiltrates skateboarders' gangs and the criminal, media and medical fraternities to find out what the English language is up to these days. He also trawls the respective jargons of spin meisters (apparently, "to enterprise" means to leak) and doctors with their notorious TUBES ("totally unnecessary breast examinations"). Happily, Rowan's efforts are as edgy and buzzing with street life as the argot he describes.

Ark Baby by Liz Jensen, Bloomsbury pounds 6.99. A mysterious, millennial downpour sends Homo Britannicus hurtling towards extinction. It is 2005 and there has not been an unmanufactured, intra-uterine conception since the flashflood of 1999. Buck de Saville, corrupt veterinary surgeon and Elvis-impersonator manque, is fleeing London for illegally exterminating the cherished baby- substitute of a nororiously litigious pet owner. His new life in the northern town of Thunder Spit becomes ingeniously entangled with that of a 19th- century foundling who looks suspiciously like a hairy ape. From the orange- haired monkey-boy's birth in 1845 to Saville's sampling of species in 2005, Jensen maintains a firm grip on the hare-brained digressions of her narrative. All this mad-cap scene-setting and riotous plotting find her, in only her second novel, constructing a hilarious story of Darwinism gone mad ("Monty Python's Origin of Species" said the New York Times) and a clever improvisation on our assumptions of 20th-century social progress.

Revolution in the Head: The Beatles' Records and The Sixties by Ian MacDonald, Pimlico pounds 12.50. The Beatles changed the world. Everyone knows that. But no one really knows whose was the guiding hand - McCartney's or Lennon's - behind "Being for The Benefit of Mr Kite". MacDonald admits as much, but he, nevertheless, attempts to set the record straight. Although he's no dwerb (see above), he painstakingly sets out the context of each song the Beatles ever recorded, detailing sound effects, arrangements and chord changes in each instance. His introduction provides a fascinating insight into the place of the art school in the cultural milieu of Fifties England. It seems that most of the innovative singer/songwriters of that era (Lennon, Ray Davies, David Bowie - and in this era, Damon Albarn) were academic misfits who were given the time and space to find the right outlet for their unchannelled creativity in these liberal, inter-disciplinary institutions. MacDonald's work has far-reaching implications for the current pop scene, and almost casually evokes, in chronological order from their first amateur efforts in 1957 to their final "reunion" in 1995, the gloriously inspired atmosphere of the Fab Fours' sessions. (He also gives due to Ringo's unsung, impeccable time-keeping skills.)

Different for Girls: How Culture Creates Women by Joan Smith, Vintage pounds 6.99. Feminist theory seems to have reached a dead-end in academic circles. It is now the province of journalists, or celebrity commentators like Camille Paglia and Naomi Wolf, who seem much more interested in sparking controversy than expounding theory. So Joan Smith, journalist, novelist and critic, might as well have a go at it. Here, her premise is that men and women are not alike, but that, as Dorothy L Sayers once said, women are "more like men than anything else in the world". Despite this sociological certainty, she unravels a rigidly constructed apartheid in which women are the inevitable losers. And she does so with great wit and timely examples. Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Onassis and Princess Diana are all exemplars of the much-loved, vulnerable woman. "We like our icons best when they are in distress," says Smith, which is why, she says, Madonna can't get a date. Nothing much that is new here, but she is much more incisive on the demonisation of Myra Hindley and Rosemary West, carefully sifting the tabloid evidence of our inability to deal with violent women. And in a society that worships motherhood, Mandy Allwood's famous foray into multiple maternity is rationalised as a woman's attempt to fit in with the stereotype. She concludes with a hymn to tolerant pluralism - quite right, but hardly radical.

Alligator Playground by Alan Sillitoe, Flamingo pounds 6.99. Alan Sillitoe was born in 1928, and is one of our elder statesmen of literature. He is best known as the authentic voice of the northern English working classes, with classics like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner leading the field of angry young men. Now that he is pushing 70, he turns his attention, in these short stories, to the poignancy of time running out, on chilly lovelessness and wilting lust. Each story, naive in dialogue and devices (a dinner party is always useful for introducing several characters at once), nevertheless locates with pinpoint accuracy the lurking loneliness of married couples.

Lilian Pizzichini

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