RADIO / From sea to opining sea: Robert Hanks listens to novelists getting novelettish and Balzac on top form

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The Independent Culture
'I am chocolate,' said one prostitute interviewed by William T Vollmann in his search for the Queen of the Whores. 'I can give you cavities, I can give you dentures. But I can give you everything you want.' Actually, listening to this gave me a craving for a bar of chocolate, which may tell you something about the mysterious associative mechanisms that govern the human mind.

It may also tell you something about Young Americans (Radio 3, Monday-Friday), which likewise seemed not to produce quite the effect desired. The young novelist Timothy O'Grady toured the USA from sea to shining sea, in company with the producer Noah Richler, seeking out the nation's best young novelists. He ended up with a series of literary profiles, broadcast nightly last week, that was an ambitious, clever and technically slick amalgam of travelogue, state-of-the-union commentary and talent-spotting, but which rarely made you feel you ought to read the books.

The highlight, and the low point, of this odyssey was Thursday's meeting with Vollmann in San Francisco - a city that was, we heard, pressed hard against the shore (the same was also said about the population of coastal Virginia, home of Monday's subject, Mark Richard). Vollmann was working on an idea for his next book: he had a vision of a woman who was for some reason revered by the city's under-class holding court among them - the Queen of the Whores. In order to find material to flesh out this vision, he got a friend of his, Code 6 (or perhaps, more formally, Code Six), to trawl the streets for prostitutes who would audition for the part of Queen.

The resulting tape was made in the absence of O'Grady and Richler, for the perfectly understandable reason that the women were nervous of being shut up in a strange hotel room with more than one man at a time, and was then (reportedly) filleted of much of its obscenity on the insistence of the powers that be at BBC Radio, for the equally understandable reason that few listeners would be prepared for the change of gear after hearing the Vienna Philharmonic at the Proms.

Despite the comparative lack of control that Richler and O'Grady had over this sequence, it was probably the most powerfully odd piece of radio broadcasting since Vaughan Purvis's unnervingly frank accounts of his relationships with Eskimo women in Vaughanssaga. It's hard to shake off the memory of Vollmann reassuring a woman that he wouldn't touch her, and her defensive retort that 'Nobody touches me for dollars 30.'

But this episode also crystallised the central difficulty of Young Americans as a whole: the unbreakable sense of collusion. Vollmann's attempt to get women to act out his fantasies for him, for all that he didn't lay a finger on them, felt like an abuse of sorts - at best, demeaning and patronising. Even as passive observers and transmitters of the event, Grady and Richler were implicated in that unpleasantness. But you couldn't dismiss the idea that the show was being put on for the benefit of the microphone - that they were the begetters of the whole sordid affair.

Another, more venial form of collusion between authors and broadcasters was the lack of challenge. The difficulty was partly that O'Grady failed to challenge his subjects' more self-indulgent claims. They had, it's true, been chosen for their literary abilities, so they could be allowed a little poetic exaggeration. But when Walter Kirn, Friday's writer from Montana, explained the average man's inability to comprehend life by saying, 'They don't know why they suddenly wake up on a highway going 95 miles per hour with a naked fat lady sitting next to them', you wanted to hear the obvious question: 'Exactly how often does that happen?'

More seriously, O'Grady joined in too much with the fiction-merchants. Time after time - visiting a North Carolina roadhouse bar where 'coiled violence was tangible', describing Los Angeles as 'California at its most fictional' or feeling the mountains of Montana 'throb with paranoia and distress' - he permitted himself the novelist's privilege of projecting his imagination on to the external world. It was a programme about fiction that fictionalised its subject, and it left you feeling rather short of reality.

The pleasures of fiction could be enjoyed more directly, and more thoroughly, in the new Classic Serial, Balzac's Pere Goriot (Radio 4, Saturday). Kate Rowland's production makes the necessarily drastic abridgement of the original into an asset, by moving with enormous speed and verve, and by never overdoing her effects - when the ancient Goriot, reputedly a roue, enters the boarding-house dining-room, the derisive applause is limited to a single pair of hands clapping in the background.

The acting, too, is well above par - Douglas Hodge, whose voice is never entirely free of a weak, wheedling edge, is singularly well-cast as Eugene de Rastignac, the ambitious young law-student trying to scrabble his way into Parisian society. And Stephen Fry's narration holds the action together with a beautifully sustained combination of authority and genial cynicism.

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