Readers making their way through Michael Bracewell’s latest novel may gradually become aware of a small but persistent ache: it comes of the author nudging them in the ribs. There is no chance of being caught napping during the various crises and cruces of The Conclave because Bracewell signposts them all with a diligence and clarity that would not disgrace a sightseeing guide. Here is a novelist who simply cannot resist underlining his point. The sentimental progress of suburban aesthete Martin Knight is weighed down by his creator’s lofty annotations, as when the poor sap first goes window-shopping: ‘This walk was crucial to Martin’s development. It instilled in him, for the first time, the realisation that he would approach the end of the decade aware of three things: money, aesthetics and romance.’
What Bracewell is telling – as opposed to showing – us is that Martin’s ‘development’ will be emblematic of an era. Having survived the ennui of an unremarkable boyhood in the ’burbs and education at a minor public school, Martin packs his bags and heads for Liverpool, where he has scraped a place to do Accounting and Business Studies at the polytechnic. By the time he has finished there, the novel is poised on the dawn of the decade that really interests Bracewell. One afternoon in the summer of 1980 – the book is quite assiduous in its time-keeping – Martin informs a friend: ‘Everything’s going to be about money; money’s going to be so important. People are tired of pretending to be urchins – they’re going to start pretending to be aristocrats.’ This prescience would sound a little too pat in anybody’s voice, but in Martin’s it’s especially unlikely, for he is, we are given to understand, supremely vague. At various times we see him ‘vague with misery’ and ‘vague with sleep’; as an usher at his sister’s wedding there are ‘complaints about his vagueness’; in office discussions ‘his arguments were vague,’ while his politics, of course, are ‘wholly vague’. Indeed, sometimes ‘his vagueness was so acute that it frightened him.’ We may be onto a fictional prototype – l’ uomo vague.
Nevertheless, as the Eighties blossom into boomtime, Martin is very much on the alert, ready to catch the market wave as it rolls towards prosperity and privilege. Acquisitiveness supplants beauty as his guiding principle. He gets rich quick as a number-cruncher in the City. He gets a bijou top-floor flat in Vauxhall. Best of all, he gets a fabulous girlfriend called Marilyn, the bright but indolent daughter of a revered documentary film-maker; Martin is delighted to find that her taste for fancy restaurants, expensive clothes and designer goodies is entirely consonant with his own. When promotion beckons him to Bristol, the couple set up home in a beautiful Georgian terrace whose interior design Bracewell, as if in a trance, details over five pages. And so it goes: the credit-card sprees, the acquisition of what Marilyn calls ‘nice things’, the contentment which comes of a hard day’s shopping.
Amid this conspicuous consumption one hears the blank ticking of a time bomb – we know that an almighty crash is on the way. So does Bracewell: ‘Their tastes and ambitions flattered, a generation of young consumers was taking up residence in an urban wonderland.’ Then, right on cue, the nudge – ‘Later, Martin would say that they were led like lambs to the slaughter.’This proleptic tendency sits rather awkwardly on what is, after all, a historical novel. Bracewell knows his obligation is to tell a story, but he also wants to play the vatic sage, and the strain of these conflicting impulses becomes quite an irritation. One evening, as the end – their end – draws near, Marilyn makes a spectacular trifle; unhappily, the bowl slips through her fingers and lands up shattered on the floor. But, of course, this confection can’t be a mere trifle: Marilyn’s culinary disaster occurs on Sunday, 18 October 1987, the eve of Black Monday.
Is The Conclave intended to be about a particular kind of couple, or is it a mocking Anthem for Doomed Yuppie? What is puzzling is Bracewell’s reluctance to see Martin as anything other than typical of his generation. Refusing to be surprised by Martin, he never surprises us, as he charges through the novel pressing the irony button for all it’s worth. Bracewell’s knowingness manifests itself above all in the use of inverted commas, a favourite reflex of Post-Modernism. As students in the late Seventies, Martin and his girlfriend ‘busied themselves with looking for the latest “new wave” releases’; in the mid-Eighties, ‘Martin Knight and Marilyn Fuller became a couple; or, in the jargon of their generation, a “unit”.’ The inverted commas allow Bracewell to make free with contemporary speech and to belittle it at the same time. The novel’s twin tics – the nudge and the wink – are combined in Martin’s pompous pronouncement over dinner: ‘We’re approaching an age of inverted comma.’ We’d never have guessed.
Bracewell’s attempt to distance himself from the idioms of his generation accentuates his problem as a writer: there is nothing distinctive, or quirky, or identifiable about his voice, nothing, indeed, to separate him from just about any other British thirty-something novelist at work today. The Conclave is by no means a weak book; it is gracefully composed, it has a sly wit, and it displays a keen eye for the vanities and pretensions of the newly rich. But the writing seems detached from its subject; it has no rough edges, strange accents, unexpected nuances. Here is Martin, seduced by the prospect of owning a flat: ‘The whole property was quite delightful; in such a setting, he believed, he could live most happily. Informed by such a dwelling, his confidence and his attitudes would find new strength.’ These musings of an upwardly mobile computer analyst could be those of a junior curate in Trollope. Michael Bracewell has something to say about the way his generation is going; what he hasn’t got is a language to make us sit up and listen.
Will Self’s idiolect is more inventive than Bracewell’s; the suavely metaphorical turn of his prose and the yawning insolence of his tone are far more captivating. But Cock & Bull has none of Bracewell’s amiability. It consists of two novellas, the one the mirror image of the other: ‘Cock’ is about a woman who grows a penis. ‘Bull’ is about a man who wakes up one morning to find a vagina on the back of his leg. So – just a pair of phantasmagoric, psychosexual, tragicomic shaggy dog stories.
The first story begins innocently enough, tracing the courtship of Carol and Dan from beery student days to the dreary terminus of marriage (‘Neither of them was religious – and the list was at Heal’s’). The couple move from the provinces to Muswell Hill, where Carol stays at home getting bored and Dan stays out with the lads getting drunk. Too soon Carol has the measure of her husband – ‘slight, sour, effete, unsure of himself’ – but through the fortuitous and belated discovery of masturbation her life takes an upward turn. In the course of her exertions she also discovers a small ‘gristly frond of flesh’, which excrescence in time burgeons into a fully-fledged penis. The story spirals from domestic farce to demented sexual frenzy as Carol gets to grips with her new member, and ‘great cracking thermofaxed plashes of jism’ go whizzing past the reader’s startled gaze.
Self keeps a brake on his narrative by casting it as an encounter between strangers on a train. The story is told by a ‘poofy old don’ to an unsuspecting young man who has had the misfortune to fetch up in the same carriage. The gothic motif of the storyteller-and-listener gradually degenerates into a vicious torturer-and-victim confrontation, to nobody’s surprise. Self has a high old time with what he evidently regards as the savage consequences of sexual empowerment, though there is something slightly fifth-formish in the way his tale plunges into cartoon grotesquerie.
‘Bull’ begins with a familiar matter-of-fact starkness: ‘Bull, a large and heavyset young man, awoke one morning to find that while he had slept he had acquired another primary sexual characteristic: to wit, a vagina’ – then sends its hapless eponym through the sweating horrors of concealment and discovery. His new orifice excites the passion of a philandering doctor, who neglects both his marriage and his practice in crazed pursuit of this genital anomaly. The liaison which ensues between doctor and patient is strewn with hurdles for both: Bull has to conduct his trysts out of reach of the hearty attentions of his rugby clubmates, while the good doctor is required to shuttle frantically between his beefy paramour and a ‘Learning Jamboree’ in Wincanton, a weekend of role-playing games for the medical profession.
Self keeps a lid on the gleeful nastiness that courses through ‘Cock’, though he doesn’t scruple to hunker down in pools of grease and gunk. He notices, for instance, the way ‘moss shone like verdigris on all the rubber runnels of the aar,’ and how ‘a fat porky pole of kofta kebab twirled a greasy pirouette in the window’. His alertness to physical disgust and his knack for a neat metaphor call to mind the flashy dexterities of Martin Amis, as here:
She had eschewed the sagging bed in favour of the kitchenette floor. She had gone on top. Bull had found himself contemplating a thick yellow rheum of grease and crumbs that formed an actual ledge under the edge of the gas cooker, while Juniper’s hard chassis of crotch’n‘bum’n‘thighs had hammered down onto him. Her vagina had gripped Bull’s poor penis with the riffling hand-clasp of an aspirant mason. Her chinless face had zoomed over Bull with Vorticist foreshortening.
Amisian echoes abound, from standard lavatorial nightmares (‘she sweated and twisted on her plastic horseshoe of a torture throne’) through arch rhetorical asides (‘It’s an everyday story, wouldn’t you say?’) to triple-decker appositions (‘Bull sensed internal changes as well: shiftings, muscular growth, sinister accommodations’). No question, there is some wonderfully fluent riffing throughout Cock & Bull; open at almost any page and you find a language that is vividly textured and ingeniously cross-referenced. The virtuoso expressiveness will already be familiar to those who read Self’s collection of short stories, The Quantity Theory of Insanity, a book which won plaudits from, inter alia, Martin Amis. Yet for all its singularity, the experience of Cock & Bull fades very quickly: not so much a meditation on gender politics as a bizarre and calculatedly repellent party-turn.