City of Dust

Julian Symons

  • A Den of Foxes by Stuart Hood
    Methuen, 217 pp, £13.99, July 1991, ISBN 0 413 65110 X
  • Dirty Tricks by Michael Dibdin
    Faber, 241 pp, £13.99, June 1991, ISBN 0 571 16216 9
  • A Strange and Sublime Address by Amit Chaudhuri
    Heinemann, 209 pp, £13.99, June 1991, ISBN 0 434 12348 X
  • Spider by Patrick McGrath
    Viking, 221 pp, £13.99, April 1991, ISBN 0 670 83684 2

What Carlyle called the Condition of England Question – in our day, the country created by Thatcher and her sub-lieutenants – is surely the ripest subject on offer to novelists. The centripetal tendencies of a government that every year has affirmed its centrifugal intentions, the encouragement for financial whizzkids to enrich themselves and the brushing aside of accompanying financial scandals, the building boom based on an everrising tower of credit, and the collapsed public and private notions of morality, all cry out to be dealt with in fiction by the flat power of the Zola who in La Curée excoriated those who made speculative fortunes from Hausmann’s rebuilding of Paris, and in Pot-Bouille savaged the social and moral attitudes of bourgeois lives as seen in an apartment block occupied by the middle class. But Zolaesque naturalism has been out of intellectual fashion for a generation. Although the Condition of England Question does engage the attention of novelists, they approach it with glancing allusiveness, like Martin Amis, or cover it with the cloak of magical realism, which, whatever its dubious imaginative benefits, weakens any intended social point. So it is no surprise that Stuart Hood and Michael Dibdin concern themselves with the present state of society and morality via Science Fiction and a crime story.

Both have produced ingenious – indeed, immensely clever – fictions. Hood’s Peter Sinclair, a battered ‘historical materialist’ (aka Marxist) in his sixties, has retired from academic life to a fisherman’s bothie in Scotland where he is preparing a book to be called The Failure of the Avant-Garde, once revolutionary but now merely ‘an expensive form of interior decoration produced for wealthy patrons, for the proprietors of art galleries and the decorators of the museums of modern art’. But the idea of actually putting finger to keyboard dismays him, and he is easily persuaded to take part in a wargame with a correspondent in Italy. The game is set to begin a century ahead, in 2087, and assumes that planet Earth has suffered ecological disaster, and that a colony of earth-dwellers is established on planet Andromeda. The mineral wealth of Andromeda and the deterioration of life on Earth prompt Andromedan expectation of a possibly hostile invasion.

The story operates on several levels. One is the life led by Sinclair in Scotland, where he upsets his landlord Major Campbell-Swinton by having an affair with the Major’s cousin Lucinda. Another is the wargame, which is invested by Sinclair both with his youthful idealism and his detestation of the strict but hypocritical morality of Thatcherism, and a third involves reflections by the author, who at times stands back to speculate on his characters, He offers, for example, three possible backgrounds for Lucinda, and comments that all three are commonplace in our society, so that it is hard to know which to choose. The story’s complexities and layers of meaning, which meld more easily in reading than they can do in a review, take Sinclair out to an area of Italy where he fought in World War Two. ‘Peter Sinclair’ becomes involved in the war-game, and offers an ‘Apology for My Life and Beliefs’ in which he rejects the savage strictness of the rules imposed by the Founding Fathers of Andromeda (women not allowed to choose their sexual partners, homosexuality forbidden, rebellion punished by ‘extrusion’ meaning death), and asserts ‘a faith long discredited ... in humankind as a brotherhood or sisterhood who might somehow live together in harmony and well-being’. A bit simplistic that faith as stated, no doubt. The point is that the very idea of such a faith is unknown on Andromeda, and the ending for Peter Sinclair in ‘real life’, as distinct from wargames, is downbeat enough: diagnosis of an inoperable cancer. The Failure of the Avant-Garde, a splendid subject, will be left unwritten.

Peter Sinclair is a Forties idealist gone a little soft, Michael Dibdin’s first person narrator a Sixties ditto gone sour. In the Sixties he was an Oxford drop-out (‘universities weren’t where it was happening, and particularly not Oxford’). Two decades later, part of the time spent in South America, he is back in Oxford as a badly-paid language teacher, prepared to live strictly by market-oriented principles. Sitting in his parked BMW, staring blankly at the harassed mother who complains that he is blocking the pavement for her kids in their pushchair, he reflects that ‘I was helping to ensure that her children’s chances in life would never be blighted by the well-wishing do-goodism which had crippled me ... The more those kids were deprived and maltreated, the more motivated they would be to get aboard the enterprise culture and start creating wealth.’

Sex is the narrator’s chief occupation, and he has earned his place at the wheel of the BMW by fucking the eager wife of Dennis, an accountant who lives in North Oxford, but is not really in North Oxford, rather in ‘the boreal tundra of pre-war suburbia out towards the ring road’. Dennis, after some hard drinking, drowns in an accident when all three go out in a punt on the Cherwell, and the narrator’s marriage to Karen follows. We have only his word that the death was an accident, as we have only his assurance that a second death in which he was involved also came about through accident, and that he was guilty of no more than a kidnapping, and concealment of a dead body in the BMW’s boot. One shouldn’t reveal more than this, because the book is a thriller with several twists that maintain pace and tension but become increasingly improbable. The villain’s (or hero’s) undoing comes as the result of outrageous stupidity on his part quite out of key with his earlier quickness of mind. The story is topped and tailed by the revelation that it has been written in apparent safety after a flight to South America, where some tags from his liberal Sixties past are about to bring his comeuppance. Clever and enjoyable as it is, the book doesn’t quite work as a thriller, though the Condition of England element is done with mordant vigour. Perhaps, instead of writing a thriller which involves social comment, Michael Dibdin should tilt the balance the other way next time.

Is Amit Chaudhuri’s A Strange and Sublime Address concerned with the Condition of India Question? The eight short sketches that make up the last third of the book might give this impression. They are about a Calcutta where power cuts are frequent, the TV won’t work, to lift the telephone is to become involved in cross-connections ‘woven by a creature called Calcutta Telephone’. The humans are no more efficient than the machines. Plumbers who come to silence noisy bath taps leave their singing sound untouched, the only mark of their visit bits of chipped concrete on the bathroom floor. Are they electricians, plumbers or ghosts, a despairing householder asks, and the reply is: ‘Whatever you wish, sir.’

The stories are charming but slight. The novella that gives the book a title is much subtler and finer work. Sandeep, a boy not quite a teenager, accompanies his mother on a trip from Bombay to stay with his uncle’s family in Calcutta. Sandeep’s father is commercially successful, Chhotomama (‘Junior Uncle’) much less so. The handsome 23rd-floor Bombay flat is exchanged temporarily for a small house, ‘unlovely and unremarkable’, and an utterly different kind of life. Chaudhuri’s achievement is to show that life with the exactness and detail of a child. ‘Calcutta is a city of dust,’ where a house must be swept and scrubbed twice a day, the dust dispelled in the morning settling again on surfaces by evening. The exactness of observation extends to the bathroom, small and square, a tap in the middle, at the top ‘a round eye sprinkled with orifices’ and a pipe ‘bent downward like the neck of a tired giraffe’. No hot water, no bath, but ‘no one seemed to miss what was not there’. In the evening people sit out on balconies, girls play hopscotch in the street, Sandeep talks to his cousin Abhi, his aunt brings out tea and milk to the verandah, then sits on the newly cleaned floor, ‘her bright red and blue sari thickening around her, crumpling into several folds’.

This is a world in which nothing out of the way happens. Chhotomama, ‘the ordinary breadwinner’, goes off to work in his ancient Ambassador car. Excitement is confined to shopping in a vegetable market where Sandeep is enchanted by a squint-eyed girl. Sundays make a break in the week. Chhotomama is at home, singing in the bathroom, spending much time in the lavatory reading the paper and brooding on world affairs. A visit to relatives living on the southern side of the city calls for tremendous preparation on the part of Sandeep’s mother and Chhotomama’s wife. At a certain point, with half a dozen such apparent trivialities noted, the author comments that they are the irrelevancies and digressions that make up the lives of individuals and the city. He suggests that a reader may cry ‘Come to the point,’ but there is no point, no story. ‘The “real” story, with its beginning, middle and conclusion, would never be told because it does not exist.’ The ‘story’ here offers nothing more than Sandeep’s return eighteen months later, Chhotomama’s fading business, the old Ambassador sold, his heart attack and recovery. Not much but enough, and enough to establish Chaudhuri as a writer of delicate, realistic and quite brilliant talent.

And a talent effortlessly exercised, which is more than can be said of Patrick McGrath’s. His eponymous Spider, whose name is really Dennis, lives in Mrs Wilkinson’s boardinghouse, eats the awful food she prepares for the inmates, and keeps a journal in which he recalls his youth in this same area of London’s East End. In the two-up, two-down Kitchener Street house the young Spider lived with his parents, dad a plumber who gave his son an occasional belting when he came home from the pub, mum who loved her Spider and tried to protect him. Then dad began an affair with loud fat laughing Hilda, whose name was also Wilkinson, mum disappeared, murdered by dad and buried in his allotment, fat Hilda moved in ...

By this time we are fully alert to the fact that Spider is an unreliable narrator, what with his hearing noises in the empty attic, smelling gas in his groin, and thinking his ‘internal organs’ are shrivelling, so that the revelations in the latter part of the book come as no surprise. Spider, like McGrath’s previous novel The Grotesque, is designed as a flesh-creeper. Both have been much praised, but seem no more than oddities – too deliberately devised as such to be emotionally disturbing.