Fiction - Out of his mind

Her Name was Lola

Russell Hoban

<em>Bloomsbury, 207pp, £15.99</em>

ISBN 0747570248

Like Russell Hoban, Max Lesser is an American novelist living in London. According to Basil Meissen-Potts QC, who is mildly annoyed with Max for pinching his girlfriend, "Lesser always writes about the same thing: himself." Actually Max has a profitable sideline in children's books about Charlotte the hedgehog, rather like Hoban's books about Frances the badger, but here Basil is discussing Max's adult output. "In all three novels the protagonist betrays the woman who loves him and then she goes out of his life and he tries to win her back."

Although Basil is oversimplifying the link between a writer's life and work, the position in which Max finds himself, vis-a-vis Basil's stolen girlfriend Lola, is indeed the typical set-up of a Lesser novel.

Max and Lola share a Hobanish interest in high-end classical music. They meet in the record shop at the Coliseum (home of the English National Opera), where Lola works, and discover that they both own the same Monteverdi recording, bought after seeing the same production at Sadler's Wells. Max is impressed. "'This is it,' he says to his mind. 'This is the real thing. This is my destiny woman.' All through the shop heads turn. 'Did I say that out loud?' he says."

Having found his destiny woman, Max goes and blows it by pursuing Lula Mae Flowers, a homecoming-queen type from Texas who works in IT. He and Lola chat with her in the National Gallery and he later finds a feeble writerly excuse to drop by her office: "Max needs to research that part of town for a scene he might write in the novel for which he hasn't yet written a Page One."

Once he's lost Lola and made a complete mess of everything, failing even to turn the material into a novel - in his imagination the protagonist, Moe Levy, despairs at the "mental and moral squalor" and announces, "I just can't work with you," refusing to be written about any more - Max is pestered by a foul-smelling dwarf he recognises as Apasmara, the Hindu demon of forgetfulness and selfishness.

Hoban begins the story at this point, with Max visiting esoterically minded friends in Soho to get the demon exorcised, and the rest is given in flashback until Lola's return from the Scottish retreat where she has been learning to compose Indian ragas. The apparition of the demon is dealt with bluntly. "It smells like a backed-up toilet . . . It's a little man, black as ebony . . . writhing like a dog that's been run over."

Hoban apparently wants to see how much outrageous artifice and wilful exposure of literary technique he can get away with while still working his magic on the reader. The answer is plenty. Far from being an arid exercise, the novel has great charm and grace. Max's dialogues with his mind, which is treated as a character called "Max's mind", are an excellent device.

There are minor awkwardnesses: a couple of exaggerated coincidences intrude, and Lola and Lula Mae aren't quite flesh and blood - less so than even the non-existent Moe Levy. This is all right when we see them through Max's besotted eyes, but a little odd when the narrator visits them without bringing Max along, as it were. Hoban sets himself a classic dare by twice showing Lula Mae at lunch with a friend, no men present, and trying to intuit what the conversation is like. The chapters are even called "Girl Talk" and "Girl Talk 2".

But more striking are the curious images and phrases throughout: a toy Noah's ark lost down the back of a boiler; the sheep that "graze on the layered years" at Maiden Castle during an ill-fated picnic - and the sense of a master playfully at work.