Books: How to Be Good ; Has LadLit Reached Its Closing Time? Brandon Robshaw Concludes That It's Still Possible to Write a Winning Novel about Hopeless Blokes. You Simply Need Some Talent
Robshaw, Brandon, The Independent (London, England)
NICK HORNBY is usually credited with having invented LadLit. High Fidelity, the definitive text of the genre, spawned a host of imitations. Most of these are hair-raisingly awful, but it's unfair to blame Hornby for this: he writes with a grace and wit few of his imitators can match. Moreover, Hornby himself has moved on to explore different themes; the imitators are soldiering on with the same old stories narrated in the first person by thirty-something blokes with emotional baggage and boyish obsessions; blokes who lose the girl in the first chapter and get her back in the last, blokes who drink too much and swear a fuck of a lot.
As in Phil Robinson's Charlie Big Potatoes. This book is described by the publisher as "a bittersweet delight". Well, it's bitter, in the sense that cheap instant coffee is. But certainly not sweet; and "delight" is a frank contravention of the Trade Descriptions Act.
It's the story of Charlie Marshall, a journalist, who collapses with drug and alcohol poisoning at his wedding, goes into rehab, falls out with everyone (except his dear old Nan - aah!), then gets better and wins the girl back. The biggest problem is that Charlie is such a repellent character that you just want him to die, but (because this is in the first person) you know he's not going to. The tone is whining and hard-done- by, with gobbets of facile cynicism and gloopy sentimentality.
It's also maddeningly long-winded: there's only enough material here for a five-page story of the sort that might win a runner-up prize in a Time Out competition. Perhaps the kindest thing to say about it is that Robinson was not well-served by his editors. But I'll never know how this novel got published at all.
John Harding's While the Sun Shines is shorter, so even if it were as bad as Charlie Big Potatoes it would have a slight advantage. In fact, it's not as bad, but scarcely brilliant: the usual cocktail of sex, drink, drugs and relationship problems, with the twist that the narrator is a 50-year-old lecturer (and lecher) with two kids and a wife.
Unconvincing and unfunny farcical situations abound, as when he is caught by his cleaning lady strapping a spirit level to his erection to check the angle (an excuse for the wince-making pun, "a tool upon a tool"). The academic likes cocaine, he's scared of death and he loves John Donne (puns on "done" occur with tedious regularity).
There is much repetition throughout, including a curious insistence on the fact that he wears Levi's (six mentions in all). The book seems unedited: Harding just puts down everything that comes into his hero's head, with nothing left unsaid, no lightness of touch. I must admit, though, that the last chapter is very good and totally unexpected. How much more effective this would have been if the reader had been able to develop some sympathy for the narrator; if the journey to chapter 30 hadn't been so long and slow.
By the time I came to Harry Ritchie's Friday Night Club I was heartily sick of LadLit. And what's this? A novel about not one screwed-up sweaty bloke, but three of the bastards - Alastair, a sub- editor on a Sunday paper (no girlfriend, smokes dope), Graham, a struggling artist (split up with girlfriend, drinks heavily) and Ian, a Tefl teacher (relationship problems with pregnant girlfriend, coke addict). …