Enthralling flatness

<strong>Manual</strong>

Daren King

<em>Faber & Faber, 240pp, £10.99</em>

So, what to make of Daren King? It appears obvious. His extraordinary debut novel, Boxy an Star, told of two fourth-generation Ecstasy abusers. It was nominated for the Guardian First Book Award and only narrowly missed out on the Booker shortlist. Writing in the Guardian, Nicholas Blincoe said that the language of the book was "unsettlingly juvenile" and the effect was like "skateboarding around an abyss". Of his second novel, the absurdist provocation Jim Giraffe, Ali Smith wrote: "It's an unshockable, cynical book, and at the same time a peculiarly innocent one . . . The hopelessness and the hilarity are equal, and connected."

And so a theme develops. These observations could equally apply to King's latest adult novel, Manual. It is the story of two workers in the fetish industry, Michael and Patsy - a "confused woman" - who provide services for men in suits. A typical punter is described by Michael as "bilingual, multilingual and yet he cannot tell us what he wants". One such is a banker, Edward, who pays the pair to accompany him on his outings with the object of his obsession, the 15-year-old Baby Girl.

They meet in a succession of bars and hotels that are literally characterless, but desired none theless. This is a world of fetishism as both deviance and allegory:

The bar is modern. Square stools, square lights.

The bar is called Box.

There are men in suits. I have never worn a suit. I wear trainers, jeans.

At the scrubbed wood table, Patsy sings.

I look at the clock. The clock is above the bar. On the clock, information.

We wait for Edward.

Then later:

"We should not have met here," Edward says. "My colleagues drink here."

"We are your colleagues," I say.

Edward thinks that this is a joke. It is not a joke.

There is repetition in the writing and this builds up a terrible momentum. Both Michael and Patsy are damaged, unable to function within the confines of conventional society, and King makes us fear for their well-being. We are told repeatedly that "in Patsy's world, everything is true". She dotes on a stuffed toy that is very much alive, yet even the author's absurdist touches do not assuage the feeling of dread. Even so, the book is funny, too: "At the counter I buy a can of Coke. The cafe is called Demur. The name is odd. The cafe is in Shoreditch. In Shoreditch, the name is not odd."

With Manual, King continues to demonstrate the originality that characterised his previous three novels. The idiom he employs is technically high-end. He does an awful lot with not very much. Despite the flatness of the prose, he is playing a game. Writing in this childlike style about people on the edge of society, living in the hinterland between what is real and imagined, he toys with our perception of infantilism.

And yet it's not as simple as that. I have to say that, much as I enjoyed Boxy an Star - to the extent that I was happy enough overlooking the indulgences of Jim Giraffe - I tried hard not to like this book. Quite early in the piece, the thought occurred that King's shtick - the way in which he uses language to distance himself from the mainstream of our culture - was a defence mechanism; if he got too close, we'd see he had nothing much to say, or at least much that mattered. After all, it's easier to stay on the edge, to point at the darkness of the abyss while skateboarding around it, than it is to jump in, lights ablaze. At times it seemed as though the game he was playing - all winking and anomie - was tired. I told myself that although he does an awful lot with not very much, by now - four novels in - he should be giving us more than this consistently anti-intellectual exploration of the periphery and the arch presumption that this is all we need from our novels.

But . . . it was never going to happen. I loved this book. Daren King may not be a writer who tries to make recognisably profound sense of things. His books may not give us what we should be demanding of the novel in these most brazenly interesting times, or worse, what we would like to expect. What they do is enthral and confound and leave us in wonder. With Manual, he has reached the zenith of his craft; by the end of the book I had been enthralled anew by this wonderful, confounded writer.

So, what to make of Daren King? He's too damned good at doing just enough.