27 SEPTEMBER 2003, Page 53

Nowhere to hide in dystopia

Lloyd Evans

Too BEAUTIFUL FOR YOU by Rod Liddle Century, £12.99, pp. 172, ISBN 1844133788 London has never seemed so bleak as in this new collection of short stories. Rod Liddle has focused his withering gaze on a coterie of urban sophisticates whose names alone are a ghastly index of human vanity: Jamal, Muppy, Troy, Simba, Biba, Saul, Radu and Béchamel. Their pets — a chameleon and a Thai Spitting Cobra — are called Roger and Jessica. The interlocking plotlines are devised with a skilful eye for the absurd. A woman who uses an industrial gel to wax her thighs is rewarded by being transformed into a giant locust. A Leedssupporting father who prods his newborn baby in the neck is driven half-mad when the infant responds by reciting the names of the Chelsea squad.

Liddle has already acquired the seasoned novelist's habit of outmanoeuvring the reader's expectations. Even the baldest of his phrases bear re-examination, The title of the central tale, 'Fucking Radu', conceals a cunning ambiguity of the type that William Ernpson famously appreciated. The first word may be taken either as a) the gerund of a transitive verb meaning to copulate with, or b) as an adjective of emphatic excoriation, equivalent to 'damn' or 'blinking'.

Neither interpretation gives Radu a particularly savoury air. Radu is a Romanian tramp plucked from the streets by a drunken shipper who goes by the startlingly mundane name of Emily. After performing the perfunctory bedsheet rites they slither aimlessly into a relationship. In this book, all sensory gratification is fleeting and futile. Emily and Radu accord sex as much transcendent sanctity as one might impart to turning up the thermostat. They do it to keep warm. Drugs too are swallowed as easily as morning cornflakes. Wakey wakey, takey takey. Emily's dialect is a small triumph of linguistic anatomy. Here she is talking to herself in a nightclub: ... go over to the bar and order a vodka and slimline tonic and drink it down in this big gulp standing in between the odorous, guileless black-clad indie-boys with their endless

autistic maundering about who is best, Dogsh it, Rapemonkey or Anal Prolapse Alert and have you heard the new Cuntbreath single and so on and so On...

This is the voice of a modern archetype, the hash-junkie with an English degree. Her speech is copious, glib, tuneless and misshapen, and bereft of every quality that makes expression beautiful. Emily drags Radu off to meet her hippy mother who abandoned her as a child. As Emily decries her mother's betrayal, a little boy wanders into the wigwam. This turns out to be Emily's own son whom she too has abandoned. 'It was just a university thing,' she admits. She had been prepared to terminate the pregnancy but 'I just ... I just forgot'.

In Liddle's amoral dystopia this explanation seems perfectly credible. By offering his characters no mercy. Liddle shepherds us towards his moral conclusion: that a surfeit of indulgence imposes a new oppression, and that those whose mood is permenently wired for escape are left with nowhere to hide.