Living on the edge


Joanna Kavenna <em>Faber & Faber, 272pp, £11.99</em>

ISBN 0571232604

Joanna Kavenna's first novel, Inglorious, is a tricky book to write about. The heroine is Rosa Lane, a prominent thirtysomething arts journalist who one day has a crisis of confidence in the worth of her job, flips out, quits and descends into muttering madness. For a book reviewer, it's a little close to the bone.

The novel begins with Rosa sending a resignation email to her boss and marching out of the open-plan office where she has sat for years writing abstruse articles about Swedish contemporary dance. At first, this feels liberating. "I'm never going back to that stinking pigpen," Rosa says to her bemused father, who pleads with her not to "throw everything away". "I'm not snuffling for scraps any more."

But soon it becomes clear that Rosa doesn't just need a break: she's in the throes of a full-on, bombastic crack-up, and is in urgent need of psychiatric help. The sudden death of her mother earlier in the year had already sent her into an existential tailspin. But then her long-term relationship with a good-looking political lobbyist called Liam splinters apart.

She leaves their rented flat in a high-rise block in Notting Hill and bums around, kipping on friends' sofas and becoming increasingly detached. Slowly her friends lose patience with her "crustacean" behaviour: "She had kept herself under a rock and now they had stopped trying to prise her out."

Her state doesn't improve when she learns that Liam was cheating on her in their final sputtering months together - and with a woman, Grace, whom Rosa had met at a party soon after her mother's death and had come to depend upon to help her through her grief.

In short, Rosa's world disintegrates - and her mind starts going, too. She begins feeling "dislocated", mired in her own "internal chaos", convinced that the world is "a fractured mess, a wild confusion of competing atoms". She may no longer be a wage slave, churning out words for the Daily Rag (as she scornfully refers to her former employer), but she is in increasing danger of losing her marbles as the months drift past.

This mental meltdown forms the heft of Kavenna's book. For its duration, we are locked inside Rosa's head, watching her brain spark, fizz and Catherine-wheel from one thought to the next. She is a cultured, educated woman, and her stream of consciousness (which might, more accurately, be characterised as a spate) incorporates a wide range of references from Chaucer to Wagner. Rosa is especially attuned to linguistic nuance, and constantly vets the words of those around her for cliché and verbiage. When Liam dumps her, for instance, she picks up on an infelicity in his speech: "His use of the subjunctive was needlessly baroque. It didn't suit him."

The intensity of her thoughts begins to disturb her and she starts writing lists of Things to Do, which range from the humdrum (clean the toilet, buy tuna and spaghetti, go to the bank and beg for more money) to the high-flown ("Read the comedies of Shakespeare, the works of Proust, the plays of Racine and Corneille and The Man Without Qualities"). Lists become a leitmotif of the book, always combining Rosa's intellectual aspirations with the bathetic practicalities of day-to-day living.

As you can tell, this is not a quick-witted satire on the fourth estate in the mould of Michael Frayn's Towards the End of the Morning. Inglorious is heavygoing, full of gloopy, teeth-gnashing passages pointing out the pointlessness of the universe. The constant list-writing, initially mildly droll, becomes strained and irritating. When Rosa starts outlining what she's going to pack for a hopefully restorative break in the country ("A warm pair of shoes. A jumper. Your jeans. Socks and other small items. A shirt"), I came close to wanting to scream. Packing a bag is tedious; reading about someone else doing it is doubly so.

As for the constant name-dropping of heavyweight philosophers and writers in Rosa's lists - well, by the end I felt like shouting, "If you're not going to read them, shut up and buy a copy of The Da Vinci Code."

Too harsh? Perhaps. There is much to admire in Inglorious - not least the manner in which it conforms to some of the generic expectations of epic and romance, updated for the present day. (A billboard broadcasts the slogan "Abandon Hope", for example, echoing the inscription above the Gates of Hell in Dante's Inferno.)

Ultimately, however, Kavenna didn't turn my admiration into love. Rosa is too navel-gazing and flashy with literary allusions to be made of flesh and blood: I never believed she was anything but a construct of Kavenna's worked- at words.

Alastair Sooke works for the Daily Telegraph

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Russia: The beggar becomes the belligerent