6 SEPTEMBER 2003, Page 42

Sex, please, we're British

Robert Edric

POLITICS by Adam Thirlwell Cape, £12.99, pp. 279, ISBN 0224071041 Appropriately for a book entitled Politics, Adam Thirlwell's first novel — another of Granta's previously unpublished Best Young British Novelists — is concerned with spin, with the appearance and interpretation of things, with surface reflection and endlessly interjected rumination.

Politics, Cape's independent publicity and marketing consultants insist, is not about politics. Of course a modern 'tender, shocking, playful and original' novel called Politics would not be about politics. Nor exactly, and again not surprisingly, is it all of those other things. What Politics is about is sex. But Sex would have been far too obvious a title. It is about the menage a trois and the various (and all too predictable) combinations and complications, side-shifts, hurts and excitements such menages inevitably (or so it seems) create.

It is not Thirlwell's intent simply to chronicle the build-up and collapse of these relationships, but to view the whole thing through the prism of its telling, to interpose himself, or, rather, his alternarrator between everything on view here (and the story — boy meets girl, girl meets girl, boy meets girls — is as honest and as unvoyeuristsic as Thirlwell can make it) and the reader.

It is Thirlwell's aim to intervene as comprehensively as possible between the reader and the tale being told. And in this he is wholly successful, creating an unsettling, fracturing and endlessly reforming novel in which the characters — Moshe, Nana and Anjali — and their progression through its pages are all too often obscured by the narrator's remarks and occasionally claustrophobic in-filling as they go. There is no doubt whatsoever who is in control here, who insists on both appearing centre-stage and shouting from the wings.

Politics is a short novel. Any longer and the devices, interlocutions and reflected surfaces might have begun to infuriate. What does begin to pall, however, are the somewhat contrived asides — on, to quote again the independent publicity and marketing consultants, Chairman Mao's personal hygiene, blow jobs, Bollywood, shopping, Hitler's sexual fetishism, the late Queen Mother, thrush, Stalin on the phone and pink fluffy handcuffs — which more often than not appear forced and gratuitous, giving the otherwise engaging tale of the menage the feel of a dog being wagged by its stuck-on tail.

Equally annoying (for this reader at least) are the pointless phonetic spellings which lace the speech of three otherwise intelligent and articulate Twentysomethings — 'restron', 'internaschnal', `arkitetcha'. There are other excesses: 'Something squealed or bleated. It squealbleated.'

Perhaps, because of the BYBN spotlight shining on it, and in view of the fact that Politics is Thirlwell's first novel, too much is expected of this book. It is intriguing in its aspirations and, as previously noted, in view of Thirlwell's intent wholly successful. The detached eye and antiseptic prose are both precisely controlled and telling.

There is no doubt that Politics will attract attention — not because it is as different or as groundbreaking as its publicity suggests, but simply because it is, at heart, and beyond all Thirlwell's denials and smoke and mirrors, a novel about sex and trust, about compassion and affection, and about those most underrated of all human traits, common decency and the expression of kindness in a world where both are all too often synonymous with either weakness or failure.

Sex, it seems, in all its tired and breathless combinations, endlessly has the power to titillate. As I'm sure Thirlwell would agree, it is no bad thing to look at the whole exciting, messy and guilt-ridden enterprise through a different keyhole or from a different angle every now and again.

For all its faults (they are the faults, perhaps, of all first novels, and they are few, though repetitive and insistent) I wish Thirlwell and Politics well. It's sex. We're (most of us) British. It's how it works. God bless us all and Now Wash Your Hands Please.