Novel of the week

The Abomination

Paul Golding <em>Picador, 515pp, £16</em>

ISBN 0330392662

The narrator of Paul Golding's debut, a thirtysomething man of Anglo-Spanish descent, is ensnared in a London gay scene offering abundant opportunity for bad sex and precious little intimacy. Iago - or James, as his English acquaintances know him - is disenfranchised from the gratuitous physicality around him. He fixes, with delusional intensity, on a prostitute called Steve, whom he feels (for some reason) will be the source of the love he craves. When their initial encounter ends confusingly, Iago begins a recapitulation of his early life: first as an unwanted boy in his parents' Spanish home, then as a boarder at an English public school.

The opening chapters are interestingly written, with Golding striving to evoke atmosphere and mood. An account of a night in a subterranean gay club, rendered in the second person singular, echoes Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City - a fiction concerned with the dispiriting consequences of unbridled self-indulgence. From there we are plunged into Iago's recollections of his early years in Spain, scenes that Golding - at this stage - takes great pains to refract through the unselfconscious perception of the child. With their semi-hallucinatory quality, and with Iago's mawkish longing for affection, these passages constitute a sub-Proustian remembrance of things past.

If Golding intended these literary allusions to take on an intertextual life beneath the surface, he soon abandons the exercise. The bulk of the novel, dealing with Iago's schooldays in English Roman Catholic institutions, is at odds with the overt literariness of the opening chapters. The promising early characterisation is allowed to atrophy, and Golding seems no longer concerned with crafting an authentic narrative voice. Childish naivety and camp adult cynicism are whisked up with all the miscibility of oil and water. The resulting voice is inconsistent and irritating. This might have been negated by a compelling story; but for a large proportion of this long novel the reader is left doggedly following wooden characters as they engage in incredible schoolboy-teacher debauchery, with a few half-baked sub-plots concerning public-school intrigue and blackmail thrown in along the way. The result might best be described, for those who remember Anthony Buckeridge's boarding-school yarns, as Jennings and Darbishire meet Queer as Folk.

The themes of The Abomination are also problematic. By squeezing the lengthy account of Iago's childhood between two thin slices of his adult life, Golding works hard to establish a connection between the adult misery and the experiences of the boy. He struggles to pull it off. To start with, there is the disjunction of tone: moody and tortured in the adult sections, frothy and unrealistic elsewhere. More importantly, Golding's characterisation of the young Iago appears ill considered. A nine year old subjected to sexual relations with teachers is the substrate for severe psychological damage, yet Golding presents the pre-pubescent Iago as a mini-adult: knowing, implicated and ultimately controlling. The portrait is simply not credible. To pass his fictional creation off as an "abomination" is glib. The abuse of vulnerable children is too important a subject to be treated as a flippant fantasy of adult-child sexual relations, recounted with an absence of psychological insight.

There is no question that Golding can write. But The Abomination is very uneven. Passages of genuine merit are outweighed by the difficulties he has with pace, character and with establishing an authentic voice and viewpoint. If he is to fulfil his undoubted potential, he will need to ignore the pre-publication hype of his publishers, who describe this novel as "one of the most outstanding literary debuts of recent years". It isn't. One can only hope that Golding, at least, is able to put such nonsense aside and to build on a debut of many flaws - but one with unmistakable signs of nascent talent, too.

This article first appeared in the 20 March 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: yet again, they are lying to us