Thursday's book: Vital Signs by Ian Penman (Serpent's Tail, pounds 10.9 9)

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Cultural overload is a fairly new affliction, but it affects most people to some extent. Individual voices are rare, especially those who can span many media. The critic Ian Penman negotiates this vast territory with grace and passion. Vital Signs is a collection of pieces culled from a long career. Having started as a music journalist on the NME, Penman now writes about virtually anything, and brings in a historical perspective. Drugs, condoms, the Moody Blues and Norman Mailer are among his topics. He is easy to read and will suit the casual browser and the paid-up intellectual.

A piece about Quentin Tarantino was written at the height of the Pulp Fiction craze. What was a lone voice now reads like a definitive statement. Tarantino's films are likened to "cheeseburger and milkshakes and cheap speed; an unrelieved diet of something simultaneously over-rich and under- nourishing". Reservoir Dogs is like "Mean Streets done by the Top Cat team". Penman is a sensualist, and emotional in his reactions. His pieces on the baffling esteem accorded to Frank Zappa is a long exasperated howl against sneering misanthropy and its supporters.

Penman is often at his best when standing back and approaching the mainstream with a fresh eye. Michael Jackson represents "the creepy, shadow's-spawn side of US celebrity". The world of the micro-celebrity is even more strange. Penman assesses the flickering progress of the "Who? - Oh, them" celebrity, where "we know everything there is to know about people there is nothing to know about...".

Penman is, unfashionably, a believer in soul in art, and even makes a few pleas for sincerity. Squaring up heavy-metal music alongside the style culture which would disdain it, he settles, a little bashfully, on the side of the headbangers. Music most frequently sends him into gorgeous, swooning descriptions. A piece on Nic Roeg unlocks the poetry in his films, noting their "intoxicated lyricism... the delirium of an eye in overdrive".

Many of these pieces were written for men's glossy magazines and share their preoccupations. A longish piece on the failings of the Comic Strip seems self-evident and dated. Yet you also get the best description ever of Robert de Niro's performances in Scorsese films, and a thoughtful overview of Jack Nicholson's career. Penman coins new phrases for recognisable things: the "post-LSD Western", "genius as stubble", "the Blokebuster" - which often transcend the feebleness of the phenomena.

The looseness of the subjects covered contributes to the amiable bagginess of this collection. There's often a big difference between pieces written out of inner necessity and those commissioned for topicality. Still, this book will sharpen your mind, reset your reflexes and send you out into the cultural marketplace refreshed, knowing you can trust what you feel and think, rather than what you've been told.

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