The Afterparty

Considering the publishing industry's insatiable appetite for celebrity memoirs, it is odd that more novelists aren't tempted to get in on the game, populating their works with the likes of Elton John and Simon Cowell, to the accompaniment of ringing cash tills. The realms of The X Factor and celebrity drug addiction tend to be spurned by the serious novelist, cropping up instead in those pink-jacketed volumes that are aimed squarely at the readers of Grazia and Heat.

It takes a certain chutzpah, then, to staff one's debut with supermodels, "pop pups" and Elton himself, but these are among the milder risks taken by Leo Benedictus in what amounts to a topsy-turvy postmodern tour de force. For a start, The Afterparty isn't so much a novel as a series of emails between a wannabe writer, William Mendez, and an agent, Valerie Morrell, who he hopes might represent him. These missives are interspersed with chapters of his unpublished novel, Publicity (later retitled Publicity*****, the stars "perhaps . . . implying the book has had a rave review", as Mendez dolefully explains).

Publicity is the story of a celebrity party that takes a nosedive, and the narrative whirls briskly between four main characters: Hugo Marks, the reclusive film star whose birthday it is; his wife, Mellody, a drug-taking model of the Kate Moss school; Calvin Vance, an X Factor contestant as pretty as he is dim; and Michael Knight, an awkward, physically unattractive sub-editor who's gained an invitation by chance and who provides an outsider's wide-eyed view on events as they unravel.

It's little wonder Valerie's so excited: Publicity is a cracking satire on celebrity culture (the scene in which a pop star reminisces about having sex with a dog is a particular triumph and should certainly scoop a place on the Bad Sex shortlist). Mellody gulps down ketamine (an event that necessitates typographic mayhem of the kind Jonathan Safran Foer excels at), while Hugo weeps snottily over the burdens of fame ("I spend half my time terrified of losing everything, and the other half feeling guilty about having it"), and the vapidity of the celebrity existence is laid gleefully bare.

The email framing device initially seems to offer little more than a way of riffing on the travails of publishing. In time, though, it gains a tense momentum all of its own. Why is Mendez so unwilling to meet with his putative agent? Is it possible Publicity isn't quite the book it seems? Soon a character called Leo Benedictus has entered the frame, and a digi­tal marketing strategy is being planned that bears an uncanny resemblance to that of The Afterparty.

The danger with this sort of postmodern high-wire act is that it can fall a little flat emotionally, but that's not a criticism that can be made here. Without giving away too much of the trickery, what seems particularly well contrived is the way the two levels of narrative act something like a triangulation device, with the real story existing somewhere in between the lines. This has two results: it allows the reader some pleasurable detective work and it provides an emotional depth that meta-fictions often lack. That this is nothing more than another sleight of hand only underlines what a very deft writer Leo Benedictus - or is it William Mendez? - proves to be. l

Olivia Laing's book "To the River" will be published by Canongate in May

The Afterparty
Leo Benedictus
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £12.99

This article first appeared in the 14 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns the world?