The dreaming

Amaryllis Night and Day

Russell Hoban<em> Bloomsbury, 176pp, £9.99</em>

ISBN 0747552851

This is Russell Hoban's tenth novel and, like his others, it's a literary curio, a slim, witty book in search of ever stranger ways to ask the ultimate questions of love, death and memory. The search, for Hoban, often begins with paintings; in this novel, for instance, he pictures (and through his story tries to recreate) the terror and fantasy of Goya and Bosch, Edward Hopper's thresholds, and Waterhouse's mysterious women, any one of whom "could lead a man to somewhere he'd never get back from".

It is fitting, then, that this peculiar little book is narrated by a painter, Peter Diggs, an American whose work could be said to bear all the influences of those listed above. And then he meets a woman, Amaryllis, who bizarrely insists that they rendezvous in their dreams.

One of Hoban's skills is the ease with which he merges the colloquial with the poetic and portentous and, from there, the mythological with the everyday. As Diggs studies labyrinths and Klein bottles (twisting glass that appears to have no inside or outside), he sits on the Underground, or ponders the tourists milling around Trafalgar Square. Yet when he is drawn into the dreams of Amaryllis (whose name puts her in the same herb family as deadly nightshade), his obsession with "the idea of something continually passing through itself" leads to meditations on the nature of time and perception.

Diggs's speculations are seldom cumbersome, such is the fun that Hoban has in mixing the cultish with the kitsch, high art with low. And when it all becomes too much, his characters pass the time drinking whisky chasers. The dream-driven narrative can lose its way, and there is a sentimental chapter showing how childhood events influence adult dreams. Hoban tries to add ballast with a few chunky lists but, for the most part, his story is light in its shape-shifting and mischievous in its fascination with odd phrases or exchanges.

Hoban tends to fetishise his female characters: they are unusually beautiful and talented (often artists) and, in the end, they are helplessly drawn to the hero, despite initial displays of independence. What's more, the mock-Hollywood happy ending is annoying, regardless of any ironic intent.

Yet Hoban has a gift for being almost inadvertently contemporary. He follows his own obsessions, but cannot help revealing aspects of a society that refuses to "achieve grown-upness". Often inspired by the internet, he is acutely aware of our culture's fixation with the transient and the trite.

Without ever being didactic (although sometimes overzealous), he invokes images that have been around a little while longer than the net, or the latest advertising campaign. And by doing so, his fiction offers us a more rewarding way of patterning the space between reality and dream.

This article first appeared in the 29 January 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of Mandelson