Occupied City

When Jesus and Saint Peter play golf, the schoolboy joke goes, Saint Peter tees off nicely, but then Jesus's ball soars high into the heavens before falling bang into the hole, amid a clap of thunder. "Look," says Saint Peter with a sepulchral sigh, "are we going to play golf or are you going to fuck about?"

This is the second part of David Peace's Tokyo trilogy (Tokyo Year Zero being the first), but instead of giving us the goods on the hallucinatory horrors of postwar Japan, Peace has fucked about with textual tricks and pseudo-metaphysical mannerisms, in the belief that they will help his prose soar skywards. The result is that large parts of the book are scarcely readable.

This is not entirely the author's fault. One of Granta's best young British novelists in 2003, Peace was extravagantly praised for Tokyo Year Zero. Though a lot better than this one, that book, in truth, had grave defects of a stylistically overweening kind. On these its successor has built,
to disastrous effect. If only the critics had called time on Peace's more ponce-worthy proclivities more loudly, they might have helped curb them, for his own and the greater good.

Why the overindulgence towards the youngish author from Yorkshire, whose work has included themes of class conflict, as well as a fictional portrait of Brian Clough in The Damned United? Maybe I've answered my own question.

Some of the blame must lie with our bloated culture, with its perpetual need for wunderkin­der. As another of our boy wonders, the former cabinet minister James Purnell, told us when he was culture secretary, Britain is living through a Renaissance comparable to that of Italy in a literal and not a figurative sense. The hype that such comfortably born, condescending and pettily nationalistic barkers for the arts as Purnell encourage means that, to keep the whole sordid pretence going, stupendous new talents must be conjured constantly from the air. In that sense Peace is a victim of his times and of his betters, so to speak, who may have helped delude him about the nature of his gifts.

Occupied City is an imaginatively conceived re-creation of a macabre massacre at a bank in Tokyo in 1948, a tale of cover-ups and corruption that Peace uses to convey the depravities of a defeated and occupied country. What might have been a strong and truly original crime story is spoiled partly by the author's apparent belief that it is poetic to repeat portentous riffs literally a hundred times and in capitals ("IN THE OCCUPIED CITY"), giving us page upon page that one could continue to read only to a background of techno music, stoned.

Then there are his catastrophic breakouts into blank verse:
They are here, they are here, they are here
now - IN THE oCcULT CITY,
And they are crying, and they are pleading.
But now they are gone, they are gone, they
are gone again,
For now he is here, he is here, he is here again . . .

Like so much of our officially proclaimed Renaissance, Peace's originality is embarrassingly passé. Capital letters screaming at you? Where do you start? Wyndham Lewis in Blast and Hubert Selby Jr in Last Exit to Brooklyn come to mind at random. Textual fooling around, in oCcULT mode? Well, Apollinaire wrote in circles a century ago, when it was innovative, then there was Raymond Queneau. Lines crossed out? Done two centuries ago, in Tristram Shandy.

Reading Peace can be dispiritingly like watching a naughty YBA lady putting fried eggs on her tits in the belief that it puts her up there with Tristan Tzara. Sad really, all the more because when Peace is not playing at being quirky and original, his work can be much more interesting than that of the YBAs.

If this book is not a write-off, it is because the themes of defeat and decay in a society and an era with which most of us are unfamiliar are potently suggested; but then these are smothered in their cradle by that serial killer of good and truthful writing, Art. I don't suppose it has often been done, if ever, but the only solution would be to pulp and rewrite this novel, in the way you might with a book that has to be withdrawn because of a hundred heinous libels. A rigorous expurgation of Art would leave it fresh and raw and genuine.

“You behave like a man with no talent," Degas once said to Whistler, a master of bullshit artiness, as well as an occasionally fine painter. When his natural talent is obscured by bullshit prose, that is the problem with Peace. Of his own early work he has said: "At the time, I thought I was the William Burroughs of Manchester; looking back, it was pretentious rubbish." Looking forward, let's hope there's none of that in part three of the Tokyo trilogy.

Occupied City David Peace Faber & Faber, 288pp, £12.99

George Walden was a Conservative MP from 1983-97

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan: The Lost War