And where does the Bulger murder come in? It's Blake Morrison's equivalent of coming out

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The Independent Online
There's been so much flak and flap, cries of "obscene" and "How dare he?" that I'm beginning to feel that I'm alone in appreciating As If, Blake Morrison's controversial book about the murder of Jamie Bulger and the subsequent trial of his 10-year-old killers, Robert Thompson and Jon Venables. I am probably alone in my reasons for appreciating it. Which are all the reasons why its critics - many and loud - apparently detest it. I like, they loathe: the style - or, more precisely, the styles (part-journalism, part-autobiography); the mode (confessional) and the subject-matter. The last of these, of course, is objected to both in itself - what's to be gained from reminding us? - and (this circles back to style) because Morrison has been accused of appropriation: of stealing the subject for his own (dead) ends. What, nay-sayers thunder, entitles Morrison to fuse, with disturbing, misplaced candour, his life, his children, his upbringing, his parents, with the Bulger murder? Why would a nice, well-brought-up lad want to - morbidly choose to - tell us of piddling stones he chucked as a boy, as if there were a vital connection between such naughty high spirits and savage acts committed with bricks and iron bars? As if. As if: Morrison's point, exactly.

Actually, As If is consistent thematically. It may be all over the shop (not a complaint) but it's certainly on to something. If it goes unnoticed - even, perhaps, by the author - that's because the theme itself is so all-prevalent, so ingrained, so there as not to need to announce itself. For me, anyway, that theme is the perils, pains and rewards of male heterosexuality, and more precisely, male heterosexuality in crisis; how this state that we're told is natural is actually taught, passed on by parent to child. Page after page advances and retreats on how heterosexuality is performed, and how it might damage you, drive you crazy: how boys are praised for being "little devils" and then find themselves in the dock for it. A thin, wavering line for the ages of one to whatever, especially when you're taught to stifle your feelings (sometimes for a lifetime). Maybe that's why I feel a distinct whoosh of relief when Morrison obsessively starts to turn male heterosexuality inside out, exposing it, admitting to impulses that some might call sick and other blokes might laugh at as normal, mate. Check out the passages about bouncing his baby daughter and having an erection. Sick or normal? The inside of the heterosexual male head: a pathological place. No wonder the contradictions regularly explode into violence.

You can see what attracts me. Seeing the bovver boot on the other foot. (Well, homosexuality is usually the pathologised state.) I hadn't even considered the psychic trauma, or, a red-faced father tells me, "the daily sensual excitement", of children. Oh, these secrets daddies are privy to: the strange twilight world of the straight ... But Morrison has considered, and his consideration makes him, and the book, kind of "queer".

The trafficking in manifold modes (literally not doing it "straight"); that overwhelming urge to spill your guts, not always coherently, so like the immediate aftermath of "coming out": at last I can tell! The seeing yourself not as spontaneous, but constructed (and up for reinvention). Morrison might be an "insider", but his position is that of passionate observer - a traditional "gay role" in relation to heterosexuality, hearth and home. Dawning consciousness teaches you to watch "them" with a fine, cold eye - almost a novelist's eye. From that viewpoint, what's striking about the erection story is not its intimacy but its distance. To be able to examine yourself thus is a fierce act of detachment. And where does the Bulger murder come in? It's Morrison's equivalent of "coming out": the Bulger murder is the cause of Morrison's detachment, the shock that propels him into parallel, makes him question the collapsing system that raised him, and Thompson and Venables. This is how men are mainly made, class and cultural variants included. He's saying: Venables; Thompson; my father; my sons; me. The link the reviews declare missing.

Those much-derided "I threw stones/They threw stones" quotes are actually inevitable, not forced. In pursuing the why of the Bulger case, Morrison has to stumble through territory he may not have been wholly ready for: his own heterosexuality. And the uncivilised side of it, too. Nasty male heterosexuality as opposed to nice male heterosexuality (Fever Pitch, Lost in Music, High Fidelity). Which, luckily, turns out to be part of the book's veering tension; a sense of numb, and, yes, occasionally dumb, discovery.

This could be construed as many things, but cynical annexation of the Bulger case isn't among them. If Morrison is being punished, it is for sincerity and not being ... sure. He may even be being punished for the "unmanliness" - the "queerness" - of his fumbling approach, embarrassing in its shameful revelations, its lack of narrative that thrusts ever forward - Yes! Yes! Yes! - its insistence on exploring the self in relation to the big picture: the personal is political. How girly! And what a girly, poufy book! He hasn't delivered the exhaustively researched, minutely detailed bang-bang-bang blockbuster the reviews want. A big, hairy bear of a book that knows what happened, and can place the blame (video nasties, reduced school funding, the death of God). Blake Morrison places it closer to home: in sons bashing their Power Rangers, in husbands hogging the remote control - not over there but here. And who needs to hear that? So: is Blake Morrison getting it because he's not writer enough, certain enough, or butch enough? As ifn