São Paulo: the brand


James Scudamore <em>Harvill Secker, 288pp, £12.99</em>

In Heliopolis, the follow-up to his Somerset Maugham award-winning debut The Amnesia Clinic, James Scudamore has written a subtropical tale of marketing and marketeers. Yet the most successful piece of product placement in the novel is undoubtedly the great and grubby Brazilian city of the setting. São Paulo seethes through the text, encompassing skyscrapers and the city-of-the-sun slum of the title, an immense metropolis where traffic is perpetually snarled and the wealthy zip overhead in an "epidemic of helicopters".

The hero of Heliopolis is Ludo, who at the age of 27 spends his days devising promotions and campaigns in the offices of an achingly trendy ­advertising agency. In a carefully woven double-plot structure, the novel is both an upwards ­Bildungsroman and a plummeting story of threatened personal collapse. We alternate ­between the tale of how the young Ludo was taken in and raised by wealthy mogul Zé Generoso and the later unravelling of the adult Ludo's life and love for Generoso's beautiful daughter Melissa. The result is that, as the boy becomes the man, so ­simultaneously does the man come to see the ­futility and shallowness of his mode of existence.

Scudamore is an accomplished stylist, and while his best touches are reserved for the wild psycho-geography of the city - "oiled razor wire" vying with "thickets of power lines" - he also skewers the excesses and banality of advertising with panache. Ludo's agency offices are a veritable penthouse of satire; a former squat, they have been coated in epoxy resin so the shabby-chic graffiti is visible but hermetically sealed. The reception desk, which in a previous existence served as the wing of a Vietnam War bomber, is a delicious comment on the bizarre rituals of the cult of cool.

Gastronomy is the other area where Scudamore engages in extensive verbal flourish. Food is everywhere in Heliopolis, as a metaphor for emotion, a means of silent communication, and, more often, simply in the form of thousands of calories of background description. This edible lens grows a little fogged at times, but still, "sea urchins, accompanied by carefully sculpted daikous relish", have rarely been so carefully word-painted.

Yet, if there is a weakness to this taut and engaging novel, it is that Ludo, the eventually repentant adman, is perhaps initially not wicked enough. Undoubtedly, he has well-paced Mach­iavellian turns, like the night when he is ­ordered to entertain an Australian new arrival at the ­office. Consumed by ennui, Ludo plies the hapless Dennis with drink and drugs, before lashing his comatose frame to a bed with a bra that he purchased from a transsexual prostitute and sprinkled in blood. Nevertheless, the storytelling seems to pitch between revelling in the hero's pranks, and then adhering to a relatively conventional redemptive narrative arc.

The result is that Ludo lacks the savage malevolence of the greatest adman in fiction, John Self in Martin Amis's Money, while at the same time he is still enough of a reprobate that his eventual ­rehabilitation seems somewhat forced. At the end of the novel, as the denouement takes place at an advertising campaign launch bash, it is not clear if Ludo's reinvention is the main event of the story, or just the sugared outer coating on a grand multi-layered joke.

Nevertheless, Heliopolis remains a triumph, in particular in its depiction of third world urban sprawl. São Paulo is just "the city" throughout, and through this anonymity it becomes universal. Part billion-footed beast, part intimate acquaintance, Scudamore's Brazilian metropolis is a new and forceful way to write of ferroconcrete and favelas.

This article first appeared in the 02 February 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Interview: Alistair Darling