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The Man Without Qualities

THE ABOMINATION A Novel By Paul Golding; Alfred A. Knopf: 438 pp., $26

November 26, 2000|JONATHAN LEVI | Jonathan Levi is a contributing writer to Book Review

This is how it looks to you, hetero-Yank though you may be, a veteran of the original second-person club-hopping Bolivian marching narrative of Jay McInerney's "Bright Lights, Big City." You're sitting on some poorly sprung sofa or some peanut-stained airplane seat and opening up this new thing called "The Abomination," which is not the name of some coke-sugared disco confection in the McInerneyland below 14th Street of New York. No, no, you've moved two decades and an ocean to the east, where the tempo is England at the new century and the tune pops to the beat of "Amyl and the Nitrate Visitors."

For "The Abomination" is a first novel by one Paul Golding, a novel that came to you as teasingly touted as the ad for the Big Uncut Male prostitute that kicks off the hero's plunge through the seedy night into a gay club in South London where faint hearts are checked at the door. "And so you wade away, vaguely in search of an exit but uncertain of your route; and what you thought was a way out turns out to be a secret grove within a grove, a hidden arbor, wrought of scaffolding and oily ropes and sagging nets of camouflage and, like dead birds, leaves of grimy cloth. And as you turn to quit this corner that is forever Sodom, you find yourself entangled: You find that you are caught, caught by the wrist once more. And as you try to pull away, you look down to the source of your trouble and discover that this time the trouble does lie with your watch, which has become entrapped in the glinting nipple-ring of a downturned, genuflecting, shaven-headed, all but naked, leather-harnessed clone. . . . And as you release him from his torture and his shock, you catch yourself, absurdly, and in equal contravention of the rules, apologizing, for God's sake, blurting out how you're So Sorry, and forgetting, in the process, even to deepen your voice. Just like the naff bloody Sloane for which you were taken, unable to pass muster even as a voyeur. Like some pitiful bumpkin, staring at guests at a Vatican ball."

And so you, the reader, follow the hero, Santiago Moore Zamora, known more Anglicanly as James (although we mustn't forget how his bilingual name enacts the Shakespearean drama between Othello of Venice and his nemesis) out of the club and through the latex barriers of memory, back to the nursery and then to boarding school, as he does battle with the snake that gave him his first bite of the love that dare not speak its name in prose less colorful than purple, "James Moore and the Chamber of Dirty Secrets."

There is, unfortunately, something as manufactured and ritualistic about the adventures of James Moore as there is about the perils of Harry Potter, but exponentially so. James is a character built of symptoms, clothed in cliches. The son of a most John Bullish, ex-pat, Old Boy kind of a Brit and a flirtatious Franco-era fashion plate of a Spanish duchessa, young James is born with less of a chance than most fictional characters. As Golding's prose flashes back from McInerney to Joyce (and, thankfully, the third person)--his parents send 11-year-old James to a suitably Jesuit boarding school, where he learns to rub his choirboy thighs against whichever master might give him tea and sympathy--"The Abomination" constructs a portrait of the artist that leaves little to the imagination. As the young Stephen Dedalus has his glasses broken on the cinder path for being innocent, the young James Moore has his head flushed in the toilet for being anything but. And though experience leads the growing Stephen away from belief to self-knowledge, experience has little effect on the teenage James.

For Golding has painted a hero with no soul whatsoever, sans qualities, sans virtues, sans personality and ultimately sans sympathy. As he tests the brush of one prose master after another, he misunderstands thoroughly that soul is the reason McInerney, Salinger, Joyce, Nabokov and even Sade were so successful at capturing the drama of men caught between belief and desire.

Still, as you turn the final page, you know that there are those who, either because they find mirrors in Golding's pages or glitter in Golding's glam prose, will ooh and aah over "The Abomination" with all the fervor of Golding's own club-goers. "And as a consequence, all that these pitiful crestfallen idolaters ever do, ever can do--and you can spot them a mile off, trudging away, slightly stooped, before the final lights of the club come on, before the merciless truth can dawn--is make their solitary way back to their flatlets, to steal into their moistening beds and roll about the seas of their synthetic quilts and float on their flabby backs and frott themselves to kingdom come about some golden argosy that could, but would hardly, have set sail for such an unpromising shore. Inventing, as best they can, as they go along, a groaning dialogue that never was." Sic jacit Iago. Put out bright lights, with the Moore's last sigh, and then put out bright lights. *

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