Toby Young: Tom Shone takes on the all-powerful cult of Alcoholics Anonymous


Sunday 12 July 2009 00:00 BST

Over the past 10 years, the recovery movement has emerged as one of the staples of contemporary literature. Indeed, no misery memoir is complete without a description of the author's drug or alcohol addiction and his or her subsequent involvement in a 12-step programme. As a general rule, organisations such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous are treated with great reverence – without them, the authors wouldn't be alive today, etc, etc.

Even in Fight Club, Chuck Palahniuk's novel about an ultra-violent men's group, the recovery movement is treated with some respect. The emotional openness fostered by the feeling of trust within the various groups featured in the novel is presented as a therapeutic alternative to the soul-destroying materialism of consumer culture.

Given how respectful the treatment of 12-steppers has been by the literary community, it was only a matter of time before someone decided to send them up. Tom Shone, the former film critic of The Sunday Times, has written a comic novel called In the Rooms, in which the protagonist – a British literary agent living in New York – decides to fake alcoholism in order to infiltrate an AA group. His target is a famous literary recluse whom he hopes to befriend and sign up as a client.

"It was partly inspired by James Frey and A Million Little Pieces," says Shone. "When it emerged that Frey had fabricated some parts of his memoir, I became intrigued by the idea of a character who would pretend to be an alcoholic in order to advance his career."

In the Rooms has just been published in the UK and has so far been politely received. However, it is bound to provoke a more hostile reaction when published in America. The recovery movement is still a sacred cow on the other side of the Atlantic, thanks to the fact that so many people in the media and entertainment business are themselves members of 12-step programmes. Like his protagonist, Shone now lives in New York and he may find himself being shunned at parties for daring to take on this all-powerful cult. For his sake, I hope the book does well. It is rare for a writer to exhibit such bravery.

'In the Rooms' by Tom Shone is published by Hutchinson at £14.99

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