Lost in thought


Tim Parks <em>Secker & Warburg, 249pp, £14.99</em>

ISBN 0436220881

The English like their great writers to entertain, and when a great writer's work falls short in this way, they demand that it at least be readily comprehensible. They also know by now where they can stick their preferences when they read a book by Tim Parks. In Destiny he has produced another novel that refuses to compromise, another that could certainly not be called an entertainment, although even in this regard it has its moments. Light reading it is not, and if one did not know better it would be easy to assume Parks was fulfilling his statutory obligation as a writer to offer at least one study in madness during his career. But this is how Parks always writes. He will only gain admirers with this latest effort.

The narrator, Christopher Burton, is, by normal standards, no more than slightly unhinged, although the subject of the novel - aside from love and death - is schizophrenia. Working on a book on the predictability of human behaviour, Burton is unable to predict his own behaviour, let alone that of his flirtatious wife and their son, whose suicide opens the story, when Burton hears the news by telephone at the reception desk of a Knightsbridge hotel. His son was a diagnosed schizophrenic, whereas Burton's own schizophrenia, and by implication that of all of us, is manifest in the contradictory ebb and flow of his ordinary stream of consciousness. Our ease with inconsistency is explored, as he collates his impressions of his marriage, his affairs, his work and the decisions he must now take, chief among them being whether to leave his wife. Burton is a man for whom the making of a connection is the catalyst in both his work and his internal life. The comparisons he draws form the web of the novel, as he skips between interviewing an uncooperative former Italian premier, consulting his son's psychiatrist, plotting his future work, trysting with his mistress and lamenting his wife's caprices. The contradictions involved in all these activities drive him to the brink of understanding the condition suffered by his son.

At times, following Parks's thought-association game is more like reading phenomenology than literature, but Husserl and Merleau-Ponty were never this readable. Like Parks, they showed that the ordinary stream of consciousness can hit the windscreen as piercing articulacy rather than the more familiar slurry of uncut emotions and unfiltered trivia made all the more unpalatable by being contrived. Where they differ is that they did not intersperse their texts with the cameos of love and lust that Parks creates from an apparently inexhaustible supply of truth. The bawdiness of these episodes complements the rude health of his approach to writing, an approach that consists in a lot of straight talking. Whereas less sophisticated writers will impute a kind of innocence to the stream of consciousness, Parks realises that the truth is not necessarily the first thing that comes into one's head, which is then suppressed or perverted to produce a lie. Lying does not have to be like that - or perhaps even cannot be like that - because, as his narrator points out, the "I" is always separate from the way it expresses itself, and because those expressions have a mind of their own. The stream of consciousness is not a stream but a delta. One can view the writer's employment of the style as a form of experimentation or an attempt to tell it like it is. Whichever was intended, it succeeds as both.

This article first appeared in the 13 September 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Kids just say no to party politics