Down and Out in London and Amis

Zachary Leader

  • Ripley Bogle by Robert McLiam Wilson
    Deutsch, 273 pp, £11.95, May 1989, ISBN 0 233 98392 9
  • The Burnt House by Adam Lively
    Simon and Schuster, 264 pp, £12.95, May 1989, ISBN 0 671 69999 7
  • Two Women of London: The Strange Case of Ms Jekyll and Mrs Hyde by Emma Tennant
    Faber, 121 pp, £10.99, June 1989, ISBN 0 571 15242 2
  • The Magic Drum by Emma Tennant
    Viking, 142 pp, £11.95, May 1989, ISBN 0 670 82556 5

Robert McLiam Wilson was born in 1964, which means that Ripley Bogle, his first novel, was written in his early twenties. The novel’s qualities are those of immodest youth: it is ambitious, energetic, self absorbed, bursting with hormonal vehemence and self-consciousness. Structure and sequence (or plot) are not its strong points. The good bits are bits, hit you straight on, and mostly have to do with the narrator-protagonist, his wishes, delusions, comical pretensions and embarrassments. No one else gets much of a look-in, and those who do – parents briefly, a school friend, first loves, a mentor – are perfunctorily, instrumentally rendered: they matter because of the way Ripley reacts to them. All this is quite openly, cheerfully admitted on the narrator’s part, and is meant to be indulged. Whether it will be, though, depends upon one’s tolerance for the narrative voice, a voice which is startlingly familiar. Here is a representative passage:

It suddenly comes to me that I am hungry. Well, perhaps ‘hungry’ is not quite the right word. Bowelwitheringly fucking ravenous might well be a more just and measured phrase to describe what I am currently experiencing. All right, so I’m a young man and, no doubt, prone to the overstatement of youth but this is the real thing.

The voice here is like that of Martin Amis, whose mark is all over this novel, not just in the muscular, shouldering prose style – the style of John Self – but in Ripley’s rich tangle of adolescent preoccupations, his Charles Highway-like obsession with bodily products (‘matutinal lungbung’ in particular), with his own appearance (‘My tasty eyes ... Much is the womanly bullshit that has been spouted about my eyes’), with ‘knowing’ (‘My word,’ Ripley announces at one point, ‘isn’t all this relentless self-awareness bracing?’). If you don’t like or approve of this sort of thing – some people simply haven’t the stomach for it – you won’t get on with the novel at all. If you do, you’ll still have trouble, since you’ll be forced into diminishing comparisons. These Wilson has himself courted – with typical heedlessness – but he ought not to be sunk by them completely. Ripley Bogle isn’t as good a novel as The Rachel Papers, let alone Money, but its author has talent and nerve.

Like his creator, Ripley was born in West Belfast, though the novel opens in London on the eve of his 22nd birthday. Ripley lucks and talents his way out of childhood squalor and neglect, winning a place at Cambridge. There, after much posturing, he is sent down and then dumped by his girlfriend, ending up adrift in London – a cool and stylish (if rather thinly motivated) tramp. Ripley’s history of rise and fall alternates with lengthy descriptive passages detailing the life of the London streets. Each chapter begins in a different borough or district, elaborately pictured, and then moves on either to Ripley’s recollections or extended tramp anecdotes – a pub brawl, a stabbing, soup-kitchen charity. Some of the tramp-lore (how to keep warm, where to kip, which is the tramp’s best season) is authentic-sounding; of the memories, the most successful are those that have to do with Belfast and the troubles, for these show that Wilson can frighten – even move – as well as dazzle and disarm. Two scenes of sectarian violence are especially gripping, and quite unlike the rest of the novel, in that they take Ripley outside himself. Such moments, together with the style’s sure rhythms and vivid particulars, suggest that Wilson is a writer worth watching – for all the present novel’s indebtedness and clamouring, bumptious self-regard.

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