Novel of the week

Angelica's Grotto

Russell Hoban <em>Bloomsbury, 271pp, £10</em>

ISBN 0747546118

When you descend into your millennium crisis bunker during the afternoon of 31 December, this is the novel you should take with you. Subterranean in its humour and vision, Angelica's Grotto is a weirdly engaging read, an off-beat examination of love and death, of art and intimacy, of illness and overcoming, and you'd be foolish to disappear without it.

Harold Klein, the novel's 72-year-old hero, has a problem. He has lost his inner voice, and can't help but speak his thoughts aloud. Not surprisingly, this automatic articulation of his every whim is getting him into trouble. Twice he's been attacked for muttering something inappropriate. In a bid to remedy this "terrifying kind of aloneness", he attends the George III Mental Health Centre, where he is seen by a trinity of shrinks. In the resulting consultations, Hoban has great fun debunking and to some extent vindicating psychoanalysis in a series of brisk and funny observations about the talking cure for those who can't talk to themselves.

As an art historian working on a study of Gustav Klimt's nudes, Klein is fascinated by the representation of the female form, and he is soon searching the Internet for even more graphic portraits of nudity. He clicks on Angelica's Grotto, a website run by Melissa, a feminist academic who is researching the power dynamic in sexual relations between men and women, and who preys on men's fear of women and on fantasies of submission. Klein is bewitched. He contacts her. They meet, and after a bizarre sequence of sex acts and philosophical conversations about the differences between pornography and art, Klein gets his inner voice back.

But there is much more to this oddly salacious and entertaining book than a plot synopsis could possibly accommodate. On one level, it's a tale about coming to terms with love and death through language and art (Klein's wife killed herself.) So it's relevant that Klein's new-found inner voice is that of Oannes, the Babylonian god of wisdom, because creation myths - stories of death and renewal - play a key thematic and structural role in the book. As Oannes is "between the times of one thing and another", it's all very fin-de-millennium, but the mythic patterning is always kept in check by healthy doses of self-mockery and contemporary cool. "What is this non-existent grail that millions are seeking on the Internet?" Klein asks.

On another level, Angelica's Grotto is a kinky celebration of culture in all its multiple forms, from comic books and pop songs to classical music, jazz and painting. This novel could well be your favourite junk shop, and you'll certainly feel like having a good root around.

But it's Hoban's joyfully dark wit that gives this book its eccentric, strangely endearing voice - one you come to like so much that you don't want it to go away. "I'm on the edge of madness," says the ailing Klein at one point. "On the other hand . . . I've got a lot of company." And when you finally emerge from your bunker having read this novel and avoided all the parties and the perils, you're bound not to feel quite so alone.