Cartesian capers

Theory of Flesh

John Binias <em>Macmillan, 248pp, £9.99</em>

ISBN 0333766644

In his compelling first novel, John Binias explores the nature of human identity and the disjunction between the turmoil of our inner lives and how we are perceived by others. Rene Quite, a second-rate academic philosopher, suffers amnesia after a blow to the head. To escape hospital, his amnesia still intact, he accepts the identity of someone called Rene Quite, foisted on him by the doctors. Once free, he becomes determined to track down the man he thinks is trying to kill him - who, in his deranged state, he assumes is the "real" Quite.

And so begins a peculiar journey in which the amnesiac's present life interacts with his past in strange and unexpected ways. He heads first to Scarby-on-Sea, where he checks into a hotel on a pre-booked reservation. Enter his estranged wife, Eugenia, with whom he immediately falls in love, all over again, despite her protestations that their marriage is in fact over. After catching him in a compromising threesome, Eugenia makes a speedy exit, leaving Quite to battle with his amnesia alone. What follows is a series of encounters with assorted oddities - such as Brian the journalist who expresses interest in Quite's quest for his would-be assassin, but who uses him disinterestedly as mere story-fodder; and Churchwarden, apparently an archetypal middle-class British dog-lover, who invites Quite to a surreal house party where he meets a mix of disillusioned guests, none of whom have ever found fulfilment in life.

The latter part of the novel is a dark study in psychological disintegration. After an emotional reunion with Eugenia, Quite celebrates his birthday with a dinner at the hotel. Each guest - friends of the amnesiac - tell a story in order to help him reconnect with his own past. Tales of bizarre sexual fantasy, adventure and suicide spiral around the same basic theme: that life is nothing more beautiful than "a fat, farty old tart with gout and gonorrhoea".

Rene Quite is a fascinating creation. Stripped of identity - "Whatever I am, whoever I am, I am not" - his personality blank, he is free to experience the world as if for the first time. Binias's sharp prose is at its best in illuminating the frightening loneliness of life, of how we are all trapped in consciousness. As a result, Quite's final and sudden redemption through love ("the knowledge of joy at no distance") is unconvincing. Nevertheless, Theory of Flesh - baffling, intellectually provocative and entertaining - is a debut with a difference.