Magazine article The Spectator

Ticking the Boxes

Magazine article The Spectator

Ticking the Boxes

Article excerpt


by Adam Thirlwell Jonathan Cape, £16.99, pp. 321, ISBN 9780224089111 . £13.59 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

How do you describe novels written by a Fellow of All Souls, laced with extreme post-modern se l f -consc iousness and lavish with cultural references, but revolving almost entirely around graphic permutations of the sexual act? As a genre, it can surely only be called cleverdick-lit.

This is Adam Thirlwell's second foray into this exclusive terrain. His first work, Politics, hit the news when he was included as the youngest writer in Granta's 2003 list of Best Young British Writers before the novel was even published, which may or may not have affected the reviews. A sour note of envy was certainly struck by some.

Often, a clever young author will show off by writing a completely different sort of second novel: a fine way to advertise that one's original narrative voice was only a brilliant, fooling, illusory persona. But Thirlwell's second novel ticks many of the same boxes. It begins with an aging libertine watching through a crack in a cupboard door as a young girl has sex with an abusive boyfriend; climaxes in a sex-scene which, as readers of Politics will almost expect, begins with micturition and bondage and goes on quite a long way from there; and ends with a postscript which boasts that the author has included quotations from 48 alphabetically listed sources (from W. H. Auden through to Virgil, but without footnotes).

Can Thirlwell really not see how irritating such a postscript is for all and sundry?

If you like spotting references (and I am afraid I very much do) it is annoying to have signposted what you know already; and we would-be know-it-alls will always want to know the provenance of those quotations we do not recognise. For readers who simply don't enjoy this vile elitist sport, however, quoting will always remain a form of oneupmanship. I have a strong prejudice that to be enriching in literature quotation should be embedded, discreet and unflaunted.

The anti-hero of The Escape is Raphael Heffner, a self-avowed practitioner of 'cowardice, obscenity, charm, moral turpitude'.

Charm is the hardest quality to convey; and Thirlwell perversely makes it hard for himself. Heffner is 'mediocre, unoriginal'; and even his best friend says that the only loveable thing about Heffner is that 'Heffner always thought there was so much more to Heffner than anyone else ever thought.'

So why should one be drawn into reading about a selfish, morally squalid and sexobsessed old man, who in the course of this novel half-seduces a vulnerable middle-aged woman, and then heartlessly dumps her to dangle after a much younger yoga teacher?

Thirlwell's answers, such as they are, do not lie in old-fashioned notions such as sympathy, or indeed plot.

Yet there is plenty to enjoy, as well as irritate, in this looping, deliberately digressive book. There are plenty of excellent ideas:

many clustering about the urge to escape from the traps of culture, race, and even morality - an urge which is both essential, if one is to define oneself, and yet impossible and even potentially vile. Heffner is a non-practising Jew, and a would-be hedonist who sees his 'only hope' to lie in the fact that with his many mistresses he has always been the 'one to leave'.

Heffner has arrived in a spa town to lay claim to a legacy from his dead wife, which had been appropriated first by Nazi, and then by Communist regimes. …

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