30 APRIL 1994, Page 36

Amiable, angry and eyebrow-raising

Tom Shone


by Jonathan Coe Viking, £15.50, pp. 512 he novel had been trundling along quite contentedly, somewhere between middling and sub-standard, and then suddenly someone dropped a trifle on the floor, and I knew that the game was up: another write-up of the Eighties had, in the space of one short paragraph, become a complete write-off. It may sound harsh, but you ought to know that the character drop- ping the trifle was a yuppie bitch and that the date was Sunday, 19 October, 1987, the eve of Black Wednesday. You guessed it: no mere trifle, but the doomed arc of a decade, the nose-dive of a nation, and just desserts for the greedy, all in one symbolic pudding, over-egged and fast turning to slop.

Oh well, so much for one of the many atrocious state-of-the-nation novels written over the last few years. Now for Jonathan Coe's What A Carve Up!, a novel whose bloody climax serves up just desserts for its rogue's gallery of characters, but only after we've supped our fill of a full-course meal of fury, fine whines and farce. What A Carve Up! does just what its title promises: carves out large chunks of post-war British life — from arms dealing to political profiteering, from Sid James to Saddam Hussein — and pins them, raw and wriggling, to the page.

Doing most of the wriggling are the Winshaws, an aristocratic dynasty boasting a family tree grown strong and tall from rotten subterranean roots — taking in, as they do,

every manner of swindling, forgery, larceny, robbery, thievery, trickery, jiggery-pokery, hanky-panky, plundering, looting, sacking, misappropriation, spoliation and embezzle- ment.

A long list, and a tall order, but the first chapters of the novel are a near textbook example of stage-managing a large, unruly cast of characters. Meet Thomas, film financier and part-time Peeping Tom; or there's Dorothy, junk food farmer and an expert at slaughterhouse efficiency; or look, here's Hillary, right-wing hackette for a middle-market daily. For the stories she's turning a blind eye to, see Mark, arms deal- er and friend of Saddam Hussein; and for those stories she does print, look no further than her brother Henry, political turncoat and freemarket visionary.

As satire goes, this is pretty broad stuff: covering a lot of ground, travelling light and mapping its intentions far in advance. 'Dorothy had no intention of ever consum- ing the products which she foisted on an uncomplaining public' is, perhaps, what the reader should be left to find out for him- self, not what a novelist should have to bother pointing out; and those who like their satirical vitriol to strike like lightning may, on occasion, find themselves having to settle for the rather more predictable rum- blings of broad farce. As compensations go, though, they are more than generous: plot machinations rarely come as well-oiled as they do here. Swinging between political conspiracy thriller and gothic mystery, What A Carve Up! needs a firm hinge, and Coe has provided one in the form of Michael Owen, a young novelist who has been commissioned by batty Aunt Tabitha Winshaw to write a family history and get to the bottom of the possible murder, in 1942, of her brother, Godfrey.

Sexually starved, emotionally crippled, creatively stalled, Michael could have walked straight off the pages of many of Coe's contemporaries. He also provides him with the opportunity to gild his story with some post-modern touches. If these sound ominous they also make for what is by far the novel's funniest moment, in which Michael, attempting to write a sex scene, ends up simply listing his alterna- tives:

He looked in the rough direction of the bed and raised a provocative eyebrow/ A sugges- tive eyebrow/ He raised one of his eyebrows/ He raised both of his eyebrows/ He raises his right eyebrow provocatively/ He raises his left eyebrow suggestively —

before settling on: Raising both of his eyebrows, one provoca- tively, the other suggestively, he pulled her gently in the rough direction of the bed.

But What A Carve Up! does so much more than this. It is one of the most ambitious novels I have read in years, and one which has pulled off the seemingly impossible trick of managing to be both amiable and angry at the same time.