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Dreamers Adrift in Too-Hip London : WORK AND PLAY by Carlo Gebler (St. Martin's Press: $12.95; 160 pp.) : THE CRYPTO-AMNESIA CLUB by Michael Bracewell (Carcanet: $8.95; 110 pp.)

May 15, 1988|Jay Parini | Parini, a poet and novelist, teaches at Middlebury College in Vermont. His most recent books are "The Patch Boys" (a novel) and "Town Life" (poems). and

Here are two brief, rather droll and nicely written novels by young English writers of promise. The oddity is that their publishers wish, through dust-jacket copy, to enforce a comparison with "Bright Lights, Big City." Both novels are better than that, and the comparison leads one to expect plotlessness, narrative lethargy, a hip affectation of discontent as well as dull prose, none of which will be found here.

Carlo Gebler has written two previous novels and several acclaimed television and film scripts. As a result, "Work and Play" does not feel like beginner's work, even though one identifies its subject--the portrait of a sensitive young man in the process of finding himself--with first novels. It's refreshing to see this somewhat hackneyed story done by an experienced writer who does not make his readers feel like they're being dragged through someone else's psychotherapy.

Gebler's anti-hero bears a heroic name out of Irish folklore: Fergus. The novel opens with a compelling scene where the feckless Fergus goes swimming with his father, with whom he clearly has much to work out. Fergus has not been doing well. He has not been doing much of anything, in fact, and his father questions him explicitly about his progress:

"What were you doing in London all last term?"

Fergus' face reddened.

"You don't want to tell me?"

"I wasn't doing anything."

A few pages later, James Maguire is dead, having taken a heart attack in the water. Fergus, left fatherless, already suffering from a chronic inability to take control of his life, sinks into the shocking state of paralysis that is Gebler's subject.

Fergus moves into a new flat in London, works at a tedious job (answering letters at a TV station), and plays around with drugs and "relationships." Sex, for him, is less than thrilling. Having had a typically unconvincing encounter in bed with a girlfriend called Lura, for instance, he suddenly "wondered if there was not more to the experience but didn't ask. . . ."

He is led, through desperation, to experiment with the full range of contemporary turn-ons, even heroin. The cops nearly get him at one point, but he is let off the hook, as usual. Responsibility seems to elude him, almost to mock him. The downward spiral of his life continues until he meets Jennifer, who is fiction's latest version of the Modern Girl. Through Fergus' rather dizzying encounters with her, he comes to realize, near the end of the novel, that there "was only oneself making sense." In the past, this idea had terrified him. Now, tipping forward into manhood, he realizes that he is "free to act."

The novel ends with an explicit moral, with Fergus understanding that he must exercise his freedom: "He knew now what the penalties would be if he didn't." One cringes, slightly, when a novelist makes a "point" so nakedly. But one accepts it from this writer because one accepts everything else in his wonderfully unassuming, superbly realistic novel. Gebler's achievement is modest: This is not "The Catcher in the Rye" nor "Afternoon Men" (books alluded to by Fergus). But it succeeds within its relatively narrow limits.

"There are a million stories in the strangely dressed city, and none of them makes sense," says Merril, the engaging hero-narrator of "The Crypto-Amnesia Club," Michael Bracewell's first novel. One of these stories, which makes no more sense than any of the others, is his own. He sets the scene, his scene, nicely:

"I am the reluctant manager of The Crypto-Amnesia Club, a forum, bar, dance hall, living hell--call it what you will. I took over the club quite a while ago, and I hate it already."

Bracewell's London is a contemporary Babylon. Modish people--the self-consciously chic, the boringly rich, the crazy, the merely young--shelter in Merril's club for much the same reason: to forget their lives. But they can't really forget them or, if they do, they remember something else that's just as bad. Only Merril, or Mr. Merril (as he's sometimes called), sees and, worse, remembers everything. He is Tiresias, the visionary and voyeur, the prophet of doom.

Like Fergus in "Work and Play," Merril is drifting. He is 33, rootless, without occupation or prospects. Also like Fergus, he has a girl: Lisa. Actually, he doesn't have her. He wishes he had her. "Movement had been Lisa's big mistake," he says:

"She moved with a bodily gentleness into a portfolio of violent people. She got caught up with the hectic and the obscene, and now she is lost forever on distant streets and different sheets, when she was meant for better or worse to be mine."

The novelist's self-consciously "cool" wordplay and his encyclopedic knowledge of the punk/hip world give "The Crypto-Amnesia Club" its relentlessly contemporary flavor. One can't imagine how Bracewell can make a career of this sort of thing, but he has nonetheless produced an original, even dazzling, portrait of London and its privileged young seeking to define their fin de siecle mode.

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