What is the novel supposed to be about? Class, sex, identity? Reality and illusion? Or about the supreme artifice, the business of making fictions? The consensus is that as the 20th century has progressed and decayed the novel has again become self-conscious, artifice its raison d'etre, realism a brief aberration.
Well, yes and no. The novel has always been an artefact, often a confection, rarely a reliable documentary form. Yet the novel remains the best index we have of where society stands. Even though the movies are more sensuous, pop music and television more immediate, nothing else captures the texture and the rhythm and the grain of a society half as well. No director could afford to set-dress Ross King's Domino (Sinclair-Stevenson Pounds 10). It's a brilliant pastiche of late century manners and morals that just about avoids tripping on its own cleverness. A young artist, George Cautley, escapes the village for London and flies straight into a web of intrigue and deception symbolised by the masqued ball in which identity (Big Theme numero uno) is flexible and ambiguous and conventional morals more or less suspended.
The sticky filaments of story are spun by Lady - in name alone - Beauclair and her recollections of the eminent castrato Tristano. King indulges himself not just with the props but also with a running philosophical commentary that is just about ironic enough not to be tedious.
Michael Dibdin's latest thriller Dark Spectre (Faber Pounds 14.99) concerns a group of "organised" serial killers who commit random atrocities under the influence of a fried-brain paranoiac who is convinced that William Blake's work contains intimations of the Second Coming and a fundamental transvaluation of values. Only the elect are truly alive; evil and pain are illusions; those who fear and suffer are mere "spectres", placed on the earth by an almighty and all merciful God to test the faithful. If serial killing is the contemporary obsession, Dibdin brings to it an acute awareness of class and social identity that lifts his characters out of Central Casting and the all-too-believable improbability of the plot, and turns them into convincing registers of contemporary American life. Only Don DeLillo and Russell Banks have registered class-marked variations of language as acutely.
Russell Banks's new novel is a remarkable achievement. Rule of the Bone (Secker Warburg Pounds 9.99) is the Twainish, Salingeresque story of Chappie, a morsel of abused, undernourished trailer-trash who manages to claw back enough psychic turf to create his own identity. As Bone, tattooed and emblazoned like the Native Americans his Mohican hairdo ironically recalls, he is initiated into the arcane mysteries of existence by an elderly Rasta, I-Man, who has escaped the entangling meshes that render Chappie less than human, less than entire. It takes the pair on an even longer journey than Huck and Jim, from the trailer-parks of New Jersey to the ganja fields of Jamaica, from compromise and victimhood to genuine self-determination. Rule of the Bone is a powerful work, verging on greatness. Like King's and Dibdin's books, like any convincing contemporary fiction, it reaffirms the novel as a viable form and restates its basic agenda, those things that once seemed too trite to mention. Like class, like identity.