Not clever enough

<strong>The Standing Pool

</strong>Adam Thorpe

<em>Jonathan Cape, 432pp, £16.99</em>

Adam Thorpe's first novel, Ulverton, told the story of a fictional English village over 300 years through 12 loosely connected stories in a variety of forms, from diary to film script, with a further postmodern twist at the end. His eighth novel, The Standing Pool, is a more traditional affair but it raises as many questions about the form of the novel as Ulverton did, and surprisingly so, because it is a failure in ways the earlier book is not.

Nick Mallinson is a Cambridge historian taking a six-month sabbatical with his wife and three young daughters at a farmhouse in the south of France. Here he plans to finish editing a collection of essays about oil in Africa and write a book of his own about the Suez crisis. Nick fell for Marxist theory in the 1970s but now regrets his background in interpretation over original research, saying of his current projects, "One will hardly be read and the other might earn me a bit extra." He has reached the stage where younger colleagues are promoted over him and his nightmares, especially those involving geographers who interrupt his core lecture, are full of academic bathos.

The Mallinsons' landlords are a London-based couple called the Sandlers. Alan Sandler is an art dealer who specialises in looted Iraqi antiquities and receives death threats from "the Russians", although other groups from his past could be responsible. The farmhouse has a murky history of its own. A local builder died five years earlier, falling off the roof as he rushed to complete work to the Sandlers' satisfaction, and the villagers now mostly avoid the place except to hunt wild boar. Jean-Luc the gardener lives with his elderly mother, stabs pins into his pet doll, and talks to the ghost of his uncle, who was shot for helping the Resistance during the Second World War.

The Standing Pool is a distractedly plotted book and each plot strand is unsatisfying for remaining unexplored. Other elements involve Sarah Mallinson's irritation with her husband, who still treats her like his student (as she once was), the growing self-awareness of their daughters, and the appearance of Nick's grown-up son from his first marriage.

A more caustic novel of academic life might have produced a modern-day Lucky Jim as Nick realises that he has turned into Professor Welch. Nick's pettiness towards his main rival reaches outstanding levels of self-absorption - and worse: "Occasionally he would imagine himself as a professor in somewhere like Freiburg in the late 1930s, and Peter as a Jewish colleague. How hard not to have denounced him, or at least watched the poor man being taken away and not felt relish." Edward St Aubyn's Mother's Milk is a good example of how it is possible to write about articulate, privileged characters and their precocious children. (Eight-year-old Tammy Mallin son has read T E Lawrence's translation of The Odyssey twice.) St Aubyn gets away with it by equipping his protagonists with scene-stealing, reader-dominating streams of consciousness, but Thorpe isn't brave enough to risk that here. It's as if he doesn't trust the reader to be alone with Nick for too long. Uncomfortable with its main characters, The Standing Pool chooses instead to switch repeatedly to inarticulate, unhinged Jean-Luc, but the tedium of his life is described in such detail that it's tedious for the reader, too.

Thorpe tucks the subtleties of the novel into his sentences - for instance, in Lucy Sandler's anxiety about ageing ("[Her] beauty was taking affectionate leave of her features behind a screen of cosmetics") or in Nick's practical helplessness as a father: "Beans stumbled to her mother who picked her up with the air of a superior humanitarian service." Far less subtle are the minor revelations towards the end of the novel: we haven't spent enough time with any of the targets to be surprised or to care. The despised Alan turns out to have done a Master's on Flannery O'Connor at Harvard (although most readers are surely thinking . . . "So?"). "Nick grappled with the novel concept that Alan Sandler might be intelligent, might even be more intelligent than him." Much worse than intimations of intelligence, however, is Alan's presence at Woodstock in 1969 - he is even in the film "for one shot of approximately two seconds".

The Standing Pool could have been a novel of ideas, but merely name-drops (Jameson, Habermas and Deleuze) without being interested in the detail. It could have been, but thankfully is not, a novel of expat life in France. It veers uneasily between domestic satire and an allegory about the invasion of Iraq. It takes the form of a well-made novel but is not well-made enough. If Adam Thorpe had tried to take on all of these subjects without embarrassment, The Standing Pool would probably still be a failure, but it would be a failure worth the attempt.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How to survive the recession