BOOK REVIEW / Bluff and double bluff around an old chestnut: 'Betrayals' - Charles Palliser: Cape, 14.99 pounds

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A REVIEW of Betrayals that followed the procedural lines favoured by the novel itself would be an odd animal. It might plausibly begin with an account of the telephone conversation - imperfectly recorded, inevitably - between literary editor and prospective reviewer. The fact that this conversation was largely about football would, of course, only increase its aptness. The 'review' might then continue by discussing the allusiveness of the name 'Palliser' (it occurs in Trollope, for example) or the resonances of the word 'betrayal'. A few random hints might convey some vague approximation of what the novel was 'about'.

'I'm not sure that there's an about for a book to be actually about, are you?' wonders a character in a Malcolm Bradbury novella. It is difficult not to believe that Charles Palliser's immensely tricksy third novel wasn't written with this admittedly humorous sentiment in mind. Oblique, piecemeal, convoluted, held together by a few signs and tricks, Betrayals might be described as a philosophical detective novel (the phrase recurs), a series of dips into the post- modernist bran-tub that turn up some amusing pastiche along with a fair amount of unappetising bran.

Beginning with a three-page academic obituary of quite transparent bitchiness, before proceeding to an account of stranded travellers regaling each other with creepy tales (prior to the unexplained demise of an elderly female member of the party), and then to a reader's report on a 1950s romantic novel, Betrayals only begins to yield up its purpose - its lack of purpose, perhaps - during Chapter Four, the recapitulation of an academic scandal involving a post-structuralist psychoanalyst, Galvanauska.

Succeeding chapters - an episode from Moorish history, a fragment of literary rivalry, dramatised thoughts on the perfect murder - further extend this web of inter-relationships into a complex game of bluff and double-bluff.

Amid these twists and doublings back - the whole turns out to have been an abstruse tale of academic jealousy and revenge - some very elderly chestnuts loom into view, mostly to do with the nature of reality, 'truth' and so on. Inevitably, too, in a work composed of a series of pastiches, there are technical flaws. Writing a novel by way of pastiche imposes several exacting duties on the writer, not only that of mimicking an existing, or notional voice, but also that of inconspicuously alerting the reader to the development of the plot. Many of Palliser's efforts in this line are a touch heavy-handed. The opening obituary is insufficiently feline; the reader's report on the romantic novel supplies all kinds of information that the reader needs to know but which would in truth be absent, while the novelists' exchange of views is transparently written for the benefit of a third person.

Or perhaps, on the other hand, what looks like technical blundering is merely part of the gag. One of Palliser's fictional men of letters tells the other: 'You know exactly what you're doing, and what looked to me at first like clumsy, pompous over-writing is deliberate. What you're out to do is to deconstruct the fictionality of the realist illusion.' Certainly, jokes about Galvanauska's faint resemblance to the late Paul De Man suggest that the whole thing is a sort of extended skit on the wilder extravagances of literary theory.

Betrayals confirms the interest in artifice and reader manipulation apparent in Palliser's two previous novels, The Quincunx and The Sensationist. Interestingly, one of his fictional novelists goes on to commend 'the realist illusion' while admitting that he knows it's 'very unfashionable these days'. A little less outmoded than he thinks. At any rate, for all its dazzle and cargo of excellent jokes, the novel seems a touch old-fashioned in its approach. Writers have been playing these games for years.