Fiction

4th November 1994 at 00:00
Because The Village (Faber Pounds 14.99) is by David Mamet, America's most important playwright since Arthur Miller and Edward Albee, the tendency has been to see it as a displaced stage work or screenplay, marked by brilliant dialogue and condensed settings. But imagine if it had been written by David Temam, a hitherto unheard-of young novelist. Then it would seem like a masterful piece of fiction, in which there are no awkward transpositions of genre or register.

Since he isn't, the analogies will persist. Mamet's portrayal of a small,nameless New England community is registered in a sequence of long shots (life in a small town, unlike a city, is made up of glimpses at distance) and startling close-ups. There are interior monologues, like that of the man who chops logs as his marriage silently folds, and there are the clipped, almost telepathetic conversations of people who have known each other for so long that a syllabic shorthand will suffice.

The only reasonable comparison is Faulkner, who seemed as possessed by his imaginary corner of rural Mississippi as Mamet is by his village. The girl Maris is a wonderful creation, caught at several focal lengths: the object of the men's nervous lust, threateningly underdressed in a truck cab on a cold day, sulkily vengeful in the confines of her own head; spotted making love in the woods, two anonymous bodies denied the anonymity city-dwellers take for granted.

Salman Rushdie has now long been denied the freedom of movement most Western writers have always taken for granted. That he should still be writing at all is wonderful. That it should be as thin as East West (c #163;9.99), a new collection of nine stories, is disappointing. They touch on many of Rushdie's past concerns and styles, from the overcooked futurism of Grimus, to the political machination of the still-underrated Shame (which was surely ten times more offensive than The Satanic Verses?).It is often easier to write one long novel, which only requires one big idea, than a book of short stories, which require one each. East West feels like a book conceived in isolation. The ideas are there, but they are fanciful, sporadic, detached from the wider reality.

The comparison with Heinrich Boll's The Silent Angel (Andre Deutsch #163;14.99) is instructive. Long thought to be lost, it was written just after the war, but only published in Germany two years ago. It is a story of shifting identity, of being torn between belief and scepticism, of the impossibility and absolute need for love, themes which (except the last, perhaps) Rushdie has also tackled. The difference is that the texture of Boll's account, even naively woven as it was in the German original, is so much more convincing. The big idea gathers life, experience, moral and linguistic resonance to it, like iron filings to a magnet. By contrast, Rushdie seems to have lost his lode.

It's a shock to be moved by a novel by Kingsley Amis, but You Can't Do Both (Hutchinson Pounds 15.99) is strangely affecting. Abandoning the odd linguistic games of The Russian Girl, and the fogey sagas of previous years, it goes back to the years before Lucky Jim and creates a character, Robin Davies, who has to grow and develop in that same odd environment compounded of the last flickers of late Victorianism and the early, phantom contractions of contemporary reality.

Much of it is predictable enough in outline - indulgentrepressive parents, school, cleverness, university, sex, unwanted pregnancy - but the pace of the story, with its disconcerting jumps, never allows cliche to settle on it. Robin's moral selfishness and occasional, self-serving altruism are nicely balanced with straightforward self-deception. It's a cruelly acute portrait, and the whisper of homosexuality gives it an additional dimension Amis has not always been willing to tackle. It is also recommended reading for anyone who still clings to the nonsense that Amis is a crusted misogynist who sees women as either doormats or ciphers.

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