24 MARCH 1990, Page 31

Apocalyptic first novels

Andro Linklater

Like elvers they come, a dark carpet of fantasies writhing from mind to page, through the shallows of indifference to publisher, up the falls of delay to book- shop, past the herons of criticism to the reader. Abundance is Nature's way - So careful of the type she seems So careless of the single life . . .

and though thousands die at every stage, instinct drives them on to achieve the metamorphosis of fantasy into novel.

The language of apocalyptic symbolism conveys the mood of these first novels. They are concerned with large matters, violent societies, and the decay of all things. These are appropriate subjects for the end of a millennium, and as a heron with a taste for elvers of robust flavour, I approve.

The most satisfying of them is James Lovegrove's The Hope (Macmillan, £12.95, pp. 232), an allegorical, Grand Guignol comedy set on an ocean liner five miles long by two miles wide and one mile high. Abroad this leviathan of fools, an ideal society was to have been created, but it has degenerated to a chaos of violence and selfish greed. Starving mothers are beaten up, young lovers are impaled on spikes, below decks ectoplasmic bilge crea- tures suck the life out of the crew, and above deck the passengers are extermin- ated by a homicidal rat.

All this is very proper for a young novelist to dream of, and Mr Lovegrove recounts it with a distanced emotion which is both sinister and comic. The cannibalis- tic Diane's elegy to her dead lover is a characteristic passage:

Of course, it could never be the same again for her and Eddy. She'd been silly to think that. You only had to read his body lang- uage: the fingers of his ribcage thrusting up through the hole in his chest as if in prayer; the sagginess at the top of his scalp where the hair was dark and matted and folds of skin were torn back and points of bone gleamed through; the missing organs . . . Diane wiped her mouth. He was hers now, body and soul, heart and mind.

Like Eddy himself, this will not be to everyone's taste, but excess is not a fault in a first novel. As an allegory of late-20th- century existence, it catches admirably the rust, waste, and putrescence of consumer ideals. I am glad to think that the 1990s will be decorated by more of Mr Lovegrove's fiction.

In The Way You Tell Them (Deutsch, £11.95, pp.160) Alan Brownjohn attempts to hit a similar target, although it reads rather more like a warning against the corrupting effect of a free lunch. Mr Brownjohn is a poet of some consequence, and a former Chairman of the Poetry Society, but as a novelist he is too prosaic by half. His late-20th-century society is set in Britain in 1999 — well, the Channel Tunnel is open, the currency is ecupounds, and British Rail is privatised — but its theme that Thatcherism today breeds tyr- rany tomorrow has been current at London dinner parties since 1982. The free lunch is offered by a Mr Mega-Big (who owns the country's railway stations and its televi- sion stations) to the last remaining satirist in Britain in exchange for telling him a joke. The satirist accepts, and having thus compromised his principles, goes steadily downhill, and ends by selling all the rest of what he holds most dear for a price of £50,000 and the promise of a night with an Anna Ford-type newscaster.

There is something of Dean Farrar's Eric, or Little by Little in this view of human nature. The downward path of the Dean's hero began, you remember, when the unhappy youth first sullied his lips with the oath `Pish!', and once launched on the slippery slope he was soon heard swearing in the coarsest terms, 'You surly devil!!', after which he was for some time more or less lost from view of decent society. The Way You Tell Them is not quite as meaty as that, but it would like to be.

The most intriguing of these apocalyptic debutants is James Sorel-Cameron's Mag (Hamish Hamilton, £12.99, pp. 352). Its view of the dissolution of society is taken initially from below stairs in a 19th-century inn called the Three Stars, later from a gentleman's house outside a town ravaged by cholera, and finally a carpenter's cot- tage in the country. The connecting link is the figure of Mariola, later known as Mag, a hunchback mute who grows up in the Gormenghastly society of the inn where lurking murder is inadequately guarded against by careless whores and violent matrons. As a woman she is befriended by the sister of a Trollopean vicar, and finally she achieves marriage and motherhood in an Eliotish setting of rural squalor. The scope of the book is considerable, many of the scenes of degradation are vividly achieved, and the stylised writing has a wonderfully gamey effect, as in the de- scription of Mr Tow, the inn's flesher:

The chopping board was sticky with visceral fluids, and about it lay the day's offals, piles of minced purple organs. Above it loomed Mr Tow, his small, bald head atop a swollen body wrapped in layers of smeared white aprons. His face was round in all its features apart from the nose, which was thin, a tiny pyramid of gristle with nostrils slit into its under-surface.

At times, and particularly in the first part, this book seems like the most remark- able discovery — a new novelist taking risks with language, character and setting in a way that only the most assured writer would attempt. When Mag leaves the inn, the mood is broken. It is clear she is being sent forth on a kind of Mother Courage survival course, but there is no inner logic to her travails, and the different styles of storytelling fit uneasily together. Neverthe- less, by any standards other than those the author sets himself in his opening chapters, the book is a considerable achievement. Judged by his own long yardstick, I am more doubtful. I went back to it in an attempt to come down on one side or the other, but in the end I can only say that whether Mr Sorel-Cameron is saint or sinner, he is so in the extreme.

`You lure me into the garden, then suddenly you have this great idea for a poem.'