Novel of the week

Politics

Adam Thirlwell <em>Jonathan Cape, 280pp, £12.99</em>

ISBN 0224071041

At 24, Adam Thirlwell is a conspicuously youthful writer. In January he was named one of Granta magazine's 20 best young British novelists, even before his first novel appeared. His inclusion - along with Monica Ali, also unpublished at the time - caused a stir. Now, finally, we get to see what all the fuss was about.

Politics is set in fashionably multicultural north London. The novel opens with Moshe, a small-time actor attempting anal sex with his Jewish girlfriend, Nana, who is handcuffed to the bed. It isn't going well. Moshe desperately wants to be a successful sodomite, yet he is crippled by self-consciousness; his every lick and thrust becomes a parody of the fantasy he had envisaged. Nana, too, is hoping for something more.This is the last in a long line of progressively extreme sexual excursions, none of which has resuscitated their dying relationship. The rot set in the moment they formed a menage a trois with Anjali, a bisexual actress. Nana has also recently discovered that her beloved father is dying. The spiralling depravity of her private life troubles her, so starkly does it contrast with her sense of herself as Daddy's little girl.

Thirlwell is interested in the politics of the personal - the discordance between the exterior world of words and actions, and the interior life of thoughts and feelings. Encounters between his characters are probed and examined from every conceivable angle. Frequently these are sexual, and Thirlwell's anatomically explicit descriptions have a distinctly hard-core flavour. Yet Politics is not pornographic; it seeks to subvert the sanitised perfection of sex as it is portrayed in films and literature. The characters are afflicted by a gamut of unglamorous frailties, both physical and psychological, and set against these, their cloacal contortions assume an almost endearing pathos.

Thirlwell's unnamed narrator observes the protagonists' antics with an aloof objectivity and launches into diverting, though at times pretentious, cultural-historical digressions at the slightest provocation. While this adds to the comedy of the novel, Thirlwell exercises little control over his creation. The narrator looms too large, constantly interposing himself between reader and characters. At every turn we are told how we should feel about events, and what conclusions we should draw about the characters and their morality. It is unwise to patronise an audience - especially when insisting upon sentiments and reactions that the reader has had no chance to develop. Even if one is prepared to go along with all this as so much postmodern japery, it's hardly new. After all, writers such as Italo Calvino and Milan Kundera have done it long ago, and with a great deal more finesse.

Despite these problems, and the slightly repetitious prose style, Politics shows promise. Thirlwell displays a pleasing ear for the rhythms and pronunciations of the spoken word, and offers some good insights into the mixture of motives, and the failures of understanding, that characterise our interactions. But the cumulative effect is enervating. Once Thirlwell puts Kundera back on the shelf and discovers his own voice, he will produce far better novels. This one insists that politics with a small "p" permeates every facet of human life - read into it what you will.