Fiction - Let's talk about sex

Too Beautiful for You

Rod Liddle <em>Century, 261pp, £12.99</em>

ISBN 1844133788

In a recent column in the Times, Rod Liddle, the former editor of the Today programme, criticised British novelists for failing to write convincingly about sex. "When it comes to . . . sex," he wrote, "our novelists usually slam shut the bedroom door." Or, he continued, if they leave it "slightly ajar, they suddenly stop being serious writers and turn, instead, into a strange, but very British, alloy of Frank Spencer and Sid James".

Just a few weeks after writing this, Liddle published a collection of short stories, all of them set in south London. Not surprisingly, they are all about sex.

Liddle doesn't leave the bedroom door ajar so much as fling it wide open. Nothing seems so squalid or disgusting that it must be excluded from his gaze. He revels in the muckiness and embarrassment of sex - bodily fluids of all descriptions feature prominently and semen, in particular, holds considerable fascination. Most of his sex scenes conclude with references to the "lagoon" of sperm on the bed or the "damp" taxi ride home.

Despite this being his first work of fiction, Liddle's frankness has already prompted some commentators to compare him to the celebrated French novelist Michel Houellebecq. But the two writers approach sex very differently. Houellebecq is a cool, detached observer who writes about sex with the air of a naturalist studying chimpanzees. The sex scenes in his novels are entirely devoid of embarrassment or awkwardness, and this is why some critics have labelled his writing pornographic. The sex in Too Beautiful for You, by contrast, is often extremely embarrassing - both for the participants and for the reader.

The stories in Too Beautiful for You (the title of which surely derives from the French director Bertrand Blier's 1989 sex comedy, Trop Belle pour Toi) are set among the pubs and bedsits of south London. This might seem an odd choice, given that Liddle lives in Wiltshire, but he was born in south London and the setting suits his thematic purposes. The lives of his characters are of a piece with south London's rather seedy image; their dominant characteristics are despair, hypocrisy and petty opportunism. However, the stories themselves are not at all depressing. As readers of his newspaper columns will know, Liddle is incapable of being downbeat or despairing. Just as he delights in the muckiness of sex, so he takes a perverse pleasure in describing the mess his characters make of their lives.

The best stories in the collection are those that rely on some comic inversion or surreal conjunction of ideas (again, these are familiar tropes from Liddle's journalism). In "The Lost Honour of Engin Hassan", Liddle's protagonist is a suicide bomber who is so bad at what he does that he ends up becoming a minor celebrity, appearing on Parkinson and various other television chat shows.

In one example of his ineptitude, he attempts to blow up a Jewish art gallery with a packet of fish. Finally, his former al-Qaeda accomplices track him down, leading to a hilarious showdown in his hotel bedroom. The collision of militant Islam with western celebrity culture is a clever conceit and results in some penetrating insights.

Liddle is less successful when he abandons pastiche and strives for something more literary. The longest story in the book is narrated by an extraordinarily lazy and dysfunctional single mother in her twenties who hangs around with a gang of similarly lackadaisical south Londoners. It opens with her getting drunk and sleeping with a Romanian asylum-seeker who, it eventually transpires, is one of Ceausescu's former henchmen. The story has some nice surreal touches (including a funny scene involving a nightclub full of sheep) and the extreme lassitude of the narrator is amusing (she reveals, for instance, that she only ended up giving birth to her son because she forgot to have an abortion). But the story is too long by 20 pages or so, and her implausible immaturity becomes frustrating in the end; at times she seems little more than a vehicle for Liddle's humour.

Despite his liking for French and American authors, Liddle is a quintessentially British writer. It is true that he manages to avoid the coyness of many of his fellow countrymen - but these stories are nevertheless firmly rooted in the tradition of British sex comedy. Still, it is impressive that he has been brave enough to leave the rarified heights of the BBC and slum it for a while down in sarf London. Let's just hope that he doesn't climb back up too soon.

William Skidelsky is the NS deputy books and arts editor