BOOK REVIEW / Pulling the wool over some leaky relationships: 'Now You Know' - Michael Frayn: Viking, 14.99

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The Independent Online
FOR FIVE days and nights a week Terry Little - the hero of Michael Frayn's new novel - inhabits a dingy office (camp-bed included) at the top of a flight of stairs somewhere in the warren of tiny streets between the Strand and the river.

Here, abetted by wealthy Jacqui, with whom he lives at the weekends, scatty Liz the librarian, Shireen on switchboard and Kevin and Kent in the post room, he fronts a pressure group dedicated to the cause of open government. It's a high- profile job and Terry, whose homespun epigrams have enlivened many a TV talk- show, has the frequent pleasure of being recognised in the street.

In many ways, though, Terry is a slightly incongruous libertarian. In fact, he's a bit of a lad, our Terry, for all his 61 years, his greying curls and his expanding midriff. Got a bit of form, too - theft, false pretences, actual - but then these are proud scars, worthy to be recorded in OPEN's press releases. Says 'don't' a lot rather than 'didn't', but who are we to quarrel with Michael Frayn's idea of proletarian locution? Our Terry? He'd be ripe for transfer to a Martin Amis novel, he and his ghastly bullying bonhomie, if it weren't for the heart of gold underneath.

Having 'done' Employment, Environment and the MoD, Terry's target at the beginning of Now You Know is the Home Office, at present the centre of a cover-up concerning the death of an Asian man held in police custody. His task is rendered that much easier when, through the unwilling auspices of a tame lawyer connected with OPEN, he meets a girl called Hilary, who not only works at the Home Office but is also intimately involved in the Hassan case.

Within hours, implausibly enough, Hilary is allowing herself to be given the Terry treatment athwart a desk in the office. During this he spins her an unlikely, though biblical, line about heaven resembling an office block whose windows are made of transparent gold: 'Why not try and make it like that here on earth?' he suggests. As a token of her admiration, Hilary then sends him a copy of the entire Hassan file.

As it turns out, the gesture is wasted: not wanting to jeopardise Hilary's career - leaking a document of this sort would mean two years inside - Terry declines to make any use of it. Hilary, however, having resigned anyway on the grounds of conscience, and appeared at an OPEN demo (another tumble with Terry in somebody's back garden), ends up working in the OPEN office. Jacqui, who offered her the job (Terry has his doubts), is blissfully unaware of Hilary's relationship with Terry, as is Hilary of Terry's relationship with Jacqui. The explosion, when it arrives, is a cracker.

As the summary might suggest, this is a fine, accomplished, witty novel. Here, regrettably enough, lies its undoing. One begins the book anticipating a tremendous satire on official secrecy and bureaucratic wool-pulling, only to end up contemplating a gentle comedy greatly concerned with the nuances of English social life.

None of this is helped by the predictable nature of the ironies, most of them connected with offices' conspiratorial atmosphere, which fall into place like iron filings obeying the magnet's call. 'Here we are,' Hilary complains, 'fighting against secret judgements and secret decisions and all the time we're making secret judgements and secret decisions ourselves' - a gratuitous spelling-out of something that was already evident.

There is also the question of the style. The novel is done in a series of first-person narratives, taking in most of the cast. Generally this has the effect of reducing the individuality of the characters, rather than confirming it: Terry with his barbarous chatter, Jacqui the upper-class twit. Poor old Kent in the post room happens to be black, allowing Frayn - who has clearly done some tough street-level research here - to insert the word 'wicked' rather too many times for comfort. Michael Frayn is let down by the slide into convention. While there are some good things in Now You Know - in particular Terry's unexpected fight with moral responsibility - the lack of ambition is pervasive.