Children of Céline
Pierre Mérot Canongate, 216pp, £9.99
This novel comes in an exciting colourful cover with encomiums comparing the author to Michel Houellebecq and a celebrity endorsement from Frédéric Beigbeder. Mérot himself smirks benignly from the inside-back page. Admittedly, he shares something with these children of Céline: here is another novel about an overeducated cynic, a jaded escapist disgusted by this age of mediocrity.
Inside is a ranting, rambling apostrophe, a mias mal portrait of the modern world in lightning-quick prose. Narrated in a breathless, interrogatory present tense, Mammals charts the pro gress of "the Uncle" as he attempts to break away from his appalling family. En route are a failed marriage, alcoholism, louche nightclubbing, the degrading experience of work that leads to his moving back in with his mother, and resurrection at the hands of Cruella: the "violent, sexual, self-centred and crude" woman he truly loved. It is spiced with plenty of dissection of the modern condition, some perfectly laudable sal voes at the French bourgeois intelligentsia, and terrible (usually drunken) loneliness, all painted with frank seediness. This is a novel of unfulfilled potential, in which the Uncle's attempts at subversion are a defence against his repeated failures and a last-ditch attempt at attention-seeking.
So far, so unoriginal. Nor is the Uncle much of a travel companion. The extraordinary sarcasm and boyish jokes (seeing the family unit as "mammals", for instance) mark this out as an extremely self-satisfied book - and one that is never quite as hilarious as it would like to be. The Uncle is forever a victim: of endless dullards, chisellers, French bureaucrats and, especially, mothers. The pathetic conformity of those surrounding him (most of them fat, bald, sex-starved, moustachioed and suffering a mid-life crises) serves only to reinforce the rightness, the noble nature of his mission to destroy himself. The Uncle is a mess, you see, because life is shit and full of second-raters. In a world where he considers everything to be idiotic - his family, colleagues, pupils, even natural phenomena - all that remains is to wallow in self-destruction. And wallow the Uncle does, with his alcoholism and look-at-me suffering.
Some episodes are made funny by the Uncle's sardonic detachment. He is good at creating banal metaphors for love, or depicting the horror of pick-ups. But the humour is mitigated when the ha-ha callousness veers into truculence. When women are present, the words "stupid" and "vagina" are never far off. The Uncle eulogises his lover's life-saving skills in bed, but none the less sneers at her ugly furniture and lack of books. He is mildly xenophobic, with a notably patronising view of Poles. He is particularly glib about the physically deformed.
Of course, beneath the nonchalance and self-pity is the soul of a romantic. The world may be stupid, aggressive and hostile, but the Uncle knows that he is in the right. Alcohol has conquered most of him, but his intelligence is still razor-sharp and penetrating, and he misses no opportunity to show it off. His self-regard is staggering. It comes as no surprise when, two-thirds of the way in, the author lets slip that the Uncle has a big dick.
Having waded through pages of this, it is dispiriting to find that it has all been gearing up to a moment of extreme solipsism. This is the Uncle's gleeful epiphany, in which he effects a "symbolic matricide" by screwing (several ways) the trampy Cruella. Aside from itemising the Uncle's failures and indulging in some scattershot philosophising, this novel does not really go anywhere. Everything is made worse by the queasy suspicion that it might be auto biographical. At the end of it all is a crazed screed, a mad-dog attack on the Uncle's (genuinely horrifying) mother for using "love" as a cover for being petty, vicious and cruel. In short: his mother fucked him up. With a life like this, what else could the Uncle do but write a little shriek of self-justification? Houellebecq he is not. Nor is he Lowry, or Bataille, with whom he seems to think he has something in common. Perhaps Charles Bukowski? But Charles Bukowski crossed with Jim Morrison.