Living in a material world

Obsession, voyeurism and fetishism - the staple diet of novelist Geoff Nicholson. Marianne Brace looks through his scrapbook
Geoff Nicholson once dreamt he was strapped into an electric chair on wheels. As the chair was propelled along, the electric guitar he was holding began to whine and Nicholson was shot into space. "I was Geoff Nicholson and The Flesh Guitars," says the writer. "Even as it was happening I laughed and thought it was a funny idea."

That idea has found its way into Nicholson's new novel Flesh Guitar which includes cameo appearances from Frank Zappa, Robert Johnson and Kurt Cobain. Its heroine - Jenny Slade - is part Suzi Quatro, part Jim Hendrix. She calls her band The Flesh Guitars and cites her influences as Willa Cather, Margaret of Anjou and Pamela Des Barres.

Nicholson brought us consumerism and terrorism in Everything and More, his surreal novel about a department store, "shrimping" (sucking toes) and stilettoes in the best-selling Footsucker (now to be made into a film) and in Bleeding London a businessman determined to walk all the streets in the A-Z.

In Flesh Guitar we plug in to a world where guitar solos consist of pouring motor oil down the guitar neck, exploding fireworks between the strings or attaching a dog's tail to the guitar's whammy bar to see what happens. A composer shouts computer generated messages using the musical letters ABCDEFG. ("'EGAD', he shouts. 'GEE! ACE! FAB!' A misty incomprehension settled over the audience... 'DEAF?' he enquired of several in the front row. 'DEAF? DEAF?... DEAD?'") And Jenny Slade has no ordinary instrument. Tan coloured like soft flesh, Slade's guitar has "growths of hair bursting out in thick black tufts and... blemishes that look... disturbingly like nipples".

Obsession, voyeurism, fetishism are staples in Nicholson's darkly comic novels. "I don't want to write naturalism," says Nicholson, who was recently short listed for the Whitbread Prize. "I'm interested in ordinary people in extraordinary situations rather than extraordinary people in ordinary situations. Speculative is the word I'd probably go for. In Everything and More, for example, it's: what if someone found a way of living in a department store? I wanted to take the idea of a store and turn up the volume, turn up the colours, amplify it."

Nicholson is a large, bespectacled man, the kind you expect to find beavering away in the stacks of a university library. The son of a carpenter, he was born in Sheffield and read English at Cambridge. "I came in on the fag-end of hippiedom. You know, the previous generation were taking acid before they did their finals. I was the conservative backlash. I'd stay up all night - reading Troilus and Criseyde."

After graduating, Nicholson got a job as a sales assistant in Harrods. "I once sold Joan Collins a white leather settee," he says, perking up. "Actually it wasn't white leather. But you feel it should have been." Selling sofas to starlets wasn't too demanding, then? "Furniture - it's a nice little number," Nicholson says, smiling.

In Everything and More the hapless university graduate, however, is employed as a furniture porter - the lowest of the low. His colleagues are intent only on skiving, pilfering and sabotaging the smooth running of the shop. "The porters were a wild and crazy bunch. They were the immigrants, misshapen, the ones with the limps and the birthmarks. I did come across people with strange little fiefdoms. There was this nice old guy - I had no idea what he actually did, but he had this office with a lot of televisions in it and I think he kept rum in there too. He was very popular with smart young girls."

If bargain basements and goods lifts are a closed world, Nicholson went for one even more hermetically sealed in his next novel. Footsucker has a narrator who only wants a woman from the ankles down - preferably in zebra-skin bootlets with six inch heels. "Footsucker got me readers I've never had before. Odd Germans wrote to me: 'At last someone who understands me'". Nicholson smiles slowly. "Only too well. Go away now. Thank you."

Fetishists loved Footsucker because Nicholson knows that - "God is in the details. It's got to be the right shape of toe, colour nail varnish, kind of feet. That's what true fetishism is, it's about repetition. The fetishist is only interested in one thing - that same sexual release. That's what gets him off and if it isn't done right it doesn't work."

There were murmurings that Nicholson might be a foot fetishist himself. "I'm not a genuine obsessive in the way my characters are. It's not what a novelist can be like. You have to celebrate diversity," he says slowly stroking his face. "Some people have compared Footsucker to Lolita. Both narrators are students of their own obsession. The one thing I learned writing the book is that I'm not a fetishist. I'm interested in feet, but it seems to me that sex is about being turned on by lots of things."

He spent a year in a fetishist's head. "I did some of the stuff that he was doing." Surely not masturbating into court shoes, or asking strange women for photographs of their sling-backs? "I cut things out of magazines in the way I thought he would, and stuck them in scrapbooks, thinking: If the police raid these premises... I did it to see what it was like, and, of course, it's kind of boring after a while."

Material objects are hugely important in Nicholson's work. In one novel it's a Volkswagen; in Footsucker it's peep-toes. In Everything and More it's merchandise, whatever you could possibly buy.

"There's an enormous quantity of stuff in the world. We're trying to impose some kind of order on this amorphous mass. That's what obsessional collectors do, those who want completion, the whole set. I suspect it's to do with a feeling of powerlessness. If you collect, say, stuffed animals, that's your little structure, you're in control.

"The relationships we have with objects are pretty crucial. They're used as a means of definition - fetish in the true sense. We're all fetishists in some way." In Footsucker the narrator argues that we live in "a fetishized society... We are beset with graven images. We see a man driving a Rolls- Royce. We see a woman in a Chanel suit... Is this really any different from seeing a woman in a pair of fuck-me shoes?"

Nicholson's characters are compulsive list-makers - another way of ordering the random. In Flesh Guitar, Slade counts among her audience wreckers and recyclers, scanners and cyberniks, boys in the bunker, hyper-drive cadets, ovary barons, twang bar princesses, wah-wah dudes, feedback addicts, napalm fanciers, nuclear klansman, neurone handyman, orgone punks... And her number one fan is Bob Arnold, a greasy-haired nerd in horn-rims who has chronicled every gig, every movement she has ever made. He's collecting her.

"One of the things that makes Flesh Guitar a fantasy," muses Nicholson, "is that Jenny has this rather male relationship with her guitar. I know lots of women who are very keen on music but never in the way men are. For example, women never know who the 'base blayer' is in Iron Butterfly."

Rock music was once very important to Nicholson. "But I don't have much time for people who think it's as good as Mozart. It just isn't. But it's easier to love." Nicholson plays guitar "enough to know that I'm not good and enough to parody it without turning myself into a complete trainspotter."

Nicholson now lives partly in New York where he says, beggars crawl on all fours through tube carriages and acquaintances "go to autopsies as a kind of entertainment". It's all too obviously ghoulish for Nicholson. "I'm not particularly interested in the grotesque or in disgust," he says, reflectively. Idiosyncratic fetishism is much more his line.

'Flesh Guitar' is published this week by Victor Gollancz, pounds 9.99.