Prisons of desire

Adultery and Other Diversions

Tim Parks <em>Secker & Warburg, 136pp, £12.99</em>

"One admires those books," writes Tim Parks, "whose complexity of content and vision gets closest to the grain of experience." Hardly original, perhaps, yet the sentiment bears repeating. The grain of experience is of necessity irregular, yet a lot of contemporary writing suffers from an excess of self-regulation, as authors do their best to prove themselves regular guys. So the grain of experience is smoothed or polished away, as truth becomes gunged with sentiment, larded with the humour of evasion, or sweetened with moral politeness till it rots your teeth. In Parks there is irregularity aplenty and the grain is rough. "Job and marriage are our two greatest prisons . . . clearly it is very exciting when you start destroying everything . . . I could never feel as much anger towards the Nazis as one feels, on occasion, for the obtuseness of a colleague, or wife, or child, or editor." Just gimme the facts, ma'am, said the detective in the spoof Dragnet (as I recall), and that is what Parks does.

These essays/reflections/autobiographical tales are a perfect vehicle for him. You can see why the late Joseph Brodsky admired him. Parks is a sort of moral subversive: he respects the forms in the sense of grudgingly observing them, but nothing more. A family man, he follows official policy on the necessity of co-operative male-female relationships, the need for families to stay together and for fathers to be good daddies to their children, but is buggered if he is going to be nice about it. "The whole crisis in contemporary child-rearing," he observes after a set-to with his young son in "Conformity", which leads him to muse on the pointlessness of pretence about who is in charge, "has to do with our insistence on articulating explanations." Another grain of experience we do our best to smooth away.

Nothing here is smarmed over and nothing evaded, certainly nothing of himself. In "Charity" he turns down an offer to do a piece for Benetton, on obvious moral grounds. The company ups its offer to US$6,000. He accepts. He joins them on a trip to Corleonesi, near Palermo, whose Mafia notoriety has ruined the economy, and where Benetton is on the lookout for marketable victims. He then writes a piece in praise of the town, because one or two people he met impressed him.

These pieces are strangely affecting because Parks tells truths we have become unused to hearing, except perhaps from Philip Roth. Honesty always comes as a shock, and at times one starts at his directness. In his last novel, Europa, irony, in the form of a comic exasperation, helped the medicine go down. Here he writes in the first person and does not go out of his way to amuse, in the humorous sense. He speaks of "our constant apprehension of the offence that might be created by a careless, or honest word," so you can imagine his accounts of his dealings with his students. The brightest one, a woman, is appalled at the way D H Lawrence had treated her sex. "She hadn't expected that of a great writer." He tries to engage her in a discussion of the great writer's insistence on the continuity between corruption and vitality. "But my student stops me. She puts a soft hand on my arm. She has decided not to complete her thesis." Exit brightest student, leaving the rest.

Things like this tend to happen to Parks, sod's law incidents that set him off about Plato, Coleridge or Indian mythology. And always you follow him, because the writing is so good. The prose is stark, the sentences sliced down, some to the point of abruptness, his style as terse in fact as it can be flowing in fiction. Because of its unfamiliarity his realism will be seen as perverse, and his stoicism, because he makes no virtue of it, will be mistaken for resignation. Tired of wading through treacle? Cloyed to the gills with false sentiment? Parks will perk you up. It is not often you get a writer whose bullshit count is low to non-existent.

This article first appeared in the 11 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, Plato rules, OK?