Life - compelling, if a little predictable

'I wasn't keen to review "The Book of Life", but the editor said he would let me off the next Anita Brookner'
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The Independent Online

It has been a long wait, but at last one of the most widely promoted publications of modern times is available to us all. Launched by none other than President Clinton, the Human Genome Project, widely known as The Book of Life or, simply, Life, is now on the market. "We're talking about reading your own instruction book," the project director, Francis S Collins, has said. "What could be more compelling than that?"

It has been a long wait, but at last one of the most widely promoted publications of modern times is available to us all. Launched by none other than President Clinton, the Human Genome Project, widely known as The Book of Life or, simply, Life, is now on the market. "We're talking about reading your own instruction book," the project director, Francis S Collins, has said. "What could be more compelling than that?"

To be frank, I was not over-enthusiastic when the literary editor asked me to review The Book of Life. Then he pointed out that it would be good for my profile and that, if I played my cards right, he would let me off the next Anita Brookner, so I agreed.

After all the hoopla, how does Life measure up to other major titles published recently? Obviously, it is quite a bit longer, being the equivalent of 200 telephone books, and is unusual in that it consists entirely of the letters A, T, C and G. Yet, in many respects, it is also disappointingly predictable.

For example, how often have we read a story in which the action opens with a sex scene? It is one of the most over-used literary devices, and yet it is one which the authors of this "compelling" narrative shamelessly deploy. Worse is to follow. As if to establish the seriousness of their venture, the early chapters of Life are nothing less than a grim, dispiriting catalogue of messily consumed meals, tantrums, sleepless nights and stomach-churning nappy-changes, lightened only by the occasional goo-goo moment.

Then it is back to the how-to-write-a-bestseller manual as Life sets out, in the manner prescribed by Mordecai Richler, to "shovel trouble" at its protagonist. From Chapters 13 onwards, an implausibly relentless sequence of disasters occur: hormonal uproar, plummeting self-esteem, physical unloveliness, family conflict, peer pressure and an unhealthy obsession with passing fashion. As the reader stumbles blearily onwards, it becomes painfully clear that the good folk of the Human Genome Project have neglected to read the chapter in the writers' manual entitled "Less is more".

Inevitably, there are now sex scenes - couplings of every description, some of which deserve a gold medal in The Literary Review's Bad Sex Prize - followed by a succession of relationships that hover between comedy and tragedy in a most unsatisfactory manner. Eventually, and not before time, the central relationship in Life is established - only to be revealed as a false start.

Perhaps I am being unfair. Life's blundering progress is occasionally interrupted by startling moments of tenderness, understanding or career breakthrough. Yet, at the very moment when its hero appears to have reached a level of sanity and adulthood, a further neo-adolescent sequence plunges the story back into despair and confusion at around Chapter 50.

The final third of the book sags badly and there are moments when all of us involved in this great enterprise - the authors, the central character, the reader - appear to have lost the will to live. Although it is considered bad form for a critic to reveal central plot turns, readers should be warned not to expect too much of the feelgood factor in the closing chapters. The phrase "downbeat ending" does not begin to cover it.

So what has gone wrong? Why, in spite of all the hype, does this instruction book fail to compel or even to convince? One problem is that Life repeatedly breaks the basic rules of narrative. Characters clearly flagged as being of minor interest suddenly hijack the story while other more important players fade inexplicably into the background. If there is a moral message or theme, it escaped this critic. Although this is a first effort, we were surely entitled to expect something less raw and shambling than what the Human Genome Project has laid before us.

Finally, a word about the publisher. Would it be old-fashioned to suggest that now and then the ancient art of editing might be deployed to rid the narrative of its inaccuracies, repetitions and scenes of irrelevance? Sometimes whole chapters of Life scream out for the merciful release of a blue pencil.

Frankly, you would be better off with Anita Brookner.

terblacker@aol.com

Miles Kington is on holiday

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