Books: City of false claims

William Boyd's London is a multicultural jungle of office blocks and urban wastelands. Penelope Lively hits the streets; Armadillo by William Boyd Hamish Hamilton, pounds 16.99
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Contrary to the expectations aroused by the title, this is William Boyd's London novel. He does the city proud, sending his protagonist into a landscape that is at times like some mad wonderland in which everyone seems to be wearing fancy dress and each pub or cafe has to be strenuously themed. It reminded me of his early novel Stars and Bars, in which he so effectively recreated the hallucinatory effect that America can have on the first-time visitor.

Boyd's London is the churning deceptive multicultural jungle of the century's end, a place of jack-in-the-box office blocks, urban wastelands and a populace that seems for the most part to have arrived from elsewhere yesterday. This is the other side of the coin from Peter Ackroyd - the past subsumed into a raffish present.

The style is urban streetwise - with a whiff of Raymond Chandler, even. And the figure who lurches from mishap through villainy to some unreliable resolution of his problems is a second-generation immigrant from a family of Transnistrian gypsies: one Milomre Blocj, who has re-invented himself as Lorimer Black, loss adjuster. The background of insurance fraud is a nice conceit, serving up the opportunity for fun in the arcane world of insurance and telephone-number finance alongside some Dickensian rumination by Lorimer's volatile boss about the symbolic role of loss adjustment: "We were the people who reminded all the others that nothing in this world is truly certain, we were the rogue element, the unstable factor in the ostensibly stable world of insurance."

The shadowy underworld of false claims provides the storyline, and this is a bit opaque at times for those unaccustomed to the intricacies of loss adjustment. No matter: events whip along at such a pace that occasional bewilderment gives way to relish for a robust and quirky set of characters. Foremost is the appalling Torquil Helvoir-Jayne, a braying would-be Sloane who is foisted on Lorimer as a colleague, gets sacked, moves into Lorimer's flat and ends up driving for the Transnistrian minicab firm, pulling in more money than he ever got in insurance: "He never realised how much many working-class people can earn."

The novel abounds in set-piece scenes. One of the best is the fearful dinner party at Torquil's stockbroker-Tudor home in Barnet, at which he tries to pass off his girlfriend as Lorimer's, ends up in bed with her and is thrown out by his wife Binnie (a beautifully accurate name).

Lorimer's girl is called Flavia Malinverno - although she isn't his, but someone else's wife, an elusive vision glimpsed from a taxi and subsequently pursued through the city as the incarnation of inaccessible perfection. Flavia is as self-interested and nasty as pretty well everyone except for Lorimer's invalid father, who hasn't spoken for 10 years, and Lorimer himself. He is the appropriate signifier for this sort of novel - shrewd enough but decent with it, put upon but opportunistic, a person riding the tide of the city with just about enough dexterity to get by.

Lorimer is an insomniac who has signed up with an outfit called the Institute of Lurid Dreams. In return for intermittent recording of his sleep patterns, it has undertaken to come up with a solution to his problem. These monitored episodes are slotted rather uncomfortably into the narrative, illuminating enough about Lorimer's character and motivation but unsatisfactory in that they seem too hefty a device for the purpose. Perhaps more uneasy still is something called the Book of Transfiguration, a running subtext of excerpts from Lorimer's own commentary on events, along with perceptions of the city and dips into his distant past. Again, it rounds things out but seems to have slid from some altogether more portentous kind of fiction into what is essentially a fast-moving and neatly plotted satire of contemporary manners.

The best of the novel lies in the detail: a precision of speech which is Amisian (senior) at times, graphically presented eateries such as O'Reilly's restaurant (which has William Morris wallpaper and a Moroccan owner called Pedro), the vision of a factory of incinerated plastic mannequins with expressions of unchanging good nature. Time and place are sharply evoked, with Lorimer Block at the heart of it all as the manifestation of the city's fractured identity.

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