Novel of the week
Kill Your Darlings
Terence Blacker Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 352pp, £12.99
Gregory Keays teaches creative writing at the West London Institute. He also does hack work for Professional Writer magazine. He tells us that "there are interviews and interviews. With Julian and Jeanette, AS or AN, even with Martin himself, I would invest a serious amount of time and consideration." He details a leisurely rigmarole of research, lunches, phone calls and popping over for drinks. Then he admits: "As it happens, I have yet to put this action plan into effect."
Terence Blacker plays a classy comic trick: "I would invest" initially implies that Gregory is well used to interviewing such people. But it is, in fact, a conditional clause, and he has never interviewed any of these big names. His job is to ask mediocre first-timers for "tips", and he likes to close each chapter of his self-deluded narrative with extracts from these, and from his forthcoming Book of Literary Lists ("Five Great Red-Head Writers" ,"Shortest-Living Great Novelists in Reverse Age-Of-Death Order" and so on). The effect is not so much painfully funny as funnily painful.
Gregory's tragedy is that, in 1983, on the strength of his frisky satire Forever Young, he was included in Granta's famous promotional roll-call of the "20 best young British writers". He keeps in his wallet the Snowdon photo of the group, showing him alongside Salman, Martin, Ian, Graham, William and the ones we can't quite remember. Since then, Gregory has been blocked. He's begun half a dozen novels, but he hasn't finished any. Mainly, he blames Martin Amis: "Just as I considered new themes for my fiction, a work from Martin, covering the same ground, would appear gleaming and complete in the bookshops." You may deduce that the reality was different - that, like countless other saps, Gregory was trying to imitate "the small man", and was failing.
"Martin" even appears in one scene, standing next to Gregory in the gents at a Gloucester Festival event and omitting to recognise him. Martin, naturally, produces a "great manly, lagerish stream"; Gregory, nerve-struck, can't pass a drop until his nemesis has zipped up and gone. Martin then gives a flawless reading from his childhood memoir to a largely female audience rapt "with an enthusiasm that was more erotic than intellectual". Gregory, whose only consolation of late has been the glaring superficiality of Martin's work, its sacrifices of substance to style, is devastated. This new piece is profound and affecting. "He had become a chronicler of the human heart. Fuck. Fucking Martin had done it again."
Meanwhile, Gregory's wife, a successful interior designer, despises him and is having an affair. Their teenage son has moved out to live in a crack den. Their circumstances, combined with Martin's crushing triumph, precipitate a breakdown.
Gregory finds himself resorting to a gay one-night stand with Peter, a brilliant student on his creative writing course. When he doesn't return Peter's increasingly desperate calls, Peter kills himself. As we already know from the flash-forward in the opening chapter, Gregory discovers the body, and his reaction is to steal the just- completed manuscript of Peter's remarkable novel and pass it off as his own work. The book wins a huge advance and the media start to trail Gregory's phenomenal comeback with features and profiles. The only snag is that Peter might have shown the manuscript to one or two other people; but Gregory has done some ghost-writing for an ex-gangster who can arrange disappearances.
There has been a considerable interval since Blacker's previous novel. A classic "tip" for beating writer's block is to write about it, and Kill Your Darlings may have its origins in some such exercise, perhaps begun with the dubious help of those manuals that Blacker spoofs so ruthlessly. It shouldn't really work, but it does. Although literary envy and the mid-life crack-up are not necessarily the most compelling subjects, this perverse humour exerts a horrible fascination.