Fiction - Cut and thrust

Utterly Monkey

Nick Laird <em>Fourth Estate, 352pp, £10.99</em>

ISBN 0007197489

As the less well-known half of a celebrated literary couple, Nick Laird must be used to fending off questions from journalists. What is life as Mr Zadie Smith like? Does he feel any extra pressure as a writer? Did the whirring of the couple's whirlpool bath really disturb their neighbours (as was reported in the tabloids last year)?

On the current evidence, Laird is not remotely overawed. Smith's much-anticipated third novel, On Beauty, is due out this autumn, but so far 2005 has been Laird's literary year. His first collection of poetry, To a Fault, was published in January to warm applause (Colm ToibIn called it "the most auspicious debut in Irish poetry since Paul Muldoon") and Utterly Monkey, his debut novel, is the first half of a two-book deal said to be worth £100,000. "I didn't want to write the kind of book that Zadie writes," he said recently. "I wanted to write a book that my parents would want to read." Earlier this year, though, Laird said his parents "aren't readers". So what kind of novel is Utterly Monkey?

The answer is: a strange combination of thriller and office drama. The central character is Danny Williams, who works

for a Magic Circle law firm. Danny has been damaged by office

life. He has been on antidepressants ever since working on a counter-claim between a crisp-bag manufacturer and the firm that manufactures the machines to manufacture crisp bags. He fantasises about feeding rolls of blank paper into the shredder.

One night, after Danny has mooched home to an empty fridge

in his Stoke Newington flat, Geordie turns up on his doorstep. Geordie is an old friend from Northern Ireland, where they grew up during the Troubles. Danny isn't wholly pleased to see him - Geordie is a "little cinder of a man", a spliff-smoking scally who doesn't quite click with Danny's new self.

Geordie is on the run and needs to kip on Danny's floor. He has arrived with wads of cash - almost £50,000 in used notes - belonging to paramilitary unionists back home. The ensuing action takes place over five days, during which time Danny

travels to Belfast for work, accompanied by an attractive young

black trainee. (There are notable parallels between Danny and his creator: both are Northern Irish, Cambridge-educated boys who became signed-up City lawyers before falling for beautiful black women.) The plot becomes frenetic, the scenes increasingly compact, as though Laird is already drafting the screenplay he no doubt hopes his book will become (at the end, a London street looks like it has been "cleared for shooting a movie").

But Utterly Monkey is more than a lightweight caper full of cartoonish scraps and scrapes. Laird has produced a raging, often darkly hilarious meditation on the modern workplace - a topic rarely addressed in contemporary fiction without exaggerated parody (think Martin Amis's flyblown newsroom in Yellow Dog, or the Nathan Barley-esque lofts in Hari Kunzru's Transmission).

Danny imagines himself as a mythical monster - half-human, half-desk - forever working beneath a "cinereous grey" sky. His firm is "some vast ruminant", the lawyers its "yellowy-pale" teeth. He is knackered by all "its concurrent bitchings and slobberings, its dog-eat-dog, backstab, leapfrog". Deep-pile carpets don't soften the cut and thrust. Everything is synthetic, sterile, dead. Even a colleague who e-mails about birthday drinks is called Kathy De'Ath.

In such a context, the overblown back story set in Northern Ireland - a world of bullets in calf muscles, red-hot pokers shoved down throats and women slapped around in their own homes - feels like office politics on another, grotesque level. No wonder Geordie the Ulsterman, ensconced on Danny's sofa, kicks back to watch David Brent on DVD.

Many of Laird's sentences are sweet observations: the first sip of Guinness is "like cutting a wedding cake"; a "seahorse of smoke" rides out from a cigarette; gum studs the pavement "like the beginnings of rain". Such similes send little shocks of pleasure to the brain. It doesn't matter whether or not you have a whirlpool bath in which to unwind and read: Utterly Monkey is a deft, highly enjoyable book.

Alastair Sooke works at the Daily Telegraph