Sad little Willy
Everything You Know
Zoe Heller Viking, 198pp, £9.99
Before the social diatribes of Tara Palmer-Tomkinson were launched on to an unsuspecting Sunday Times readership in 1997, it was Zoe Heller who entertained us in her autobiographical columns. Colloquial chattiness has obviously left Heller feeling a little bereft of the important things in life, and as well as her more serious journalism in the Daily Telegraph, she has turned to the novel, as so many celebrities do, to fulfil her needs.
That journalists who turn to writing novels are greeted with caution is understandable: either the desire to write fiction is in you or it isn't. If it is, it's only natural to experiment. Heller is on record as rather regretting her early columns, which she says led her into bad habits and were more about meeting deadlines than searching for the mot juste.
Rather than write a thinly veiled version of her own life, Heller has created Willy Muller to speak through, a lonely, grumpy, ungrateful 50-year-old chauvinist hack writer who is suspected of murdering his wife. The problem is that Muller is so much the self-doubting, jaded writer (reminiscent of Martin Amis's protagonist in The Information) that he is only just about worthy of our attention.
Here is a man who gets an erection at the sight and feel of female tears, whose skin (with the "ancient battered look of fried liver") and eyes (the whites of which look "as if someone has been pissing in them") are only the beginning of his unattractiveness. He can be very funny, but you are left wondering what Heller's point is: that men can be disgusting and awful? That no matter how awful, they, too, are worthy of redemption? Do we even care?
The novel - as well as Muller - is saved by Sadie, his second daughter, and the excerpts from her diary that he reads after her suicide. The narrative moves between Sadie's diary and the cynical ravings of a writer wedded to bad luck. Sadie's voice is so fresh that it cuts through any illusions of comfort we may have had as we laugh at Muller and watch him move clumsily through his selfish world.
As Heller depicts a London of neglect, insecurity and sinister relationships, charting Sadie's fall into depression and her sister's isolated life, she shows what a good novel this might have been. As it is, the grit of the London passages provides a welcome counterpart to Muller's movements in Los Angeles and Mexico and the people he meets there. Largely caricatures, they exist, it seems, only to be pulled out at suitable intervals to provide Muller with another moral lesson or an object to insult.
The overwhelming impression of Everything You Know is of Heller fighting an instinct to write a book centred on a female, which is a pity since she is at her most authentic when depicting women. Her novel deserves to be read, but it shows the potential for something better. And it's a shame that it has such a hugely uninspiring and inappropriate title: one that is going to make it a little bit more reliant on marketing than any first novel already is.