Charlie Hill’s Books – at least in part – is set among the shabby shelves of the kind of independent bookshop all too rarely found these days in provincial England: in this case, Birmingham. Its hero, Richard Anger – Hill’s explicit use of names is unashamedly Bunyanesque – is a bookseller, borderline alcoholic, experimental writer – come on, you know the type – whose path, on holiday in Corfu, crosses with that of an academic, Lauren Furrows (as in plough, or possibly rut…) when they both see someone die of a mysterious illness, an illness that will bring the two of them together to form as unlikely an investigative term as you’re likely to have come across since Hawthorn and Child. There seems to be a link between this death, and other deaths, and the work of a popular novelist, Gary Sayles – think, ungenerously, Tony Parsons, although the character morphs into a sort of David Icke figure as the novel progresses. But that’s enough summary, because one of the many pleasure the book offers is provided by the plot as it twists and turns, bringing into its orbit a couple of post-post-modernist artists, Pippa and Zeke, without whom, these days, no show would be complete. The novel is a delight as it sets up its target – the mediocrity of commercialised popular culture – and then throws every ball in the shy to knock it down. It’s sharp, caustic, intelligent, often hilarious and, yes, ultimately serious, as decent satire should be, as well as providing a handy check-list for movements in modern art and literature, and a hard look at the way these are commodified. What’s interesting is that both Anger and Sayles – in their different, indeed diametrically opposed, ways – are convinced that art and language can change lives. By the end of the novel, although there’s certainly no sympathy for the bombastic, vainglorious purveyor of banality, Sayles, the only people who seem to deny the centrality of art as a bearer of value are the artists, Pippa and Zeke. Which should put them in pole position for the next Turner Prize.
Much of Victor Olliver’s Curtains takes place in Raven’s Towers, the corporate headquarters of a lifestyle-cum-fashion Conde Nast-type glossy in the heart of the capital, although, here too, a significant part of the action ventures out into the dim provincial greyness surrounding London, in this case, a seaside town called Brightworth, famous for its pier and not much else, although fame, as the novel teasingly points out, is as up for manipulation as anything else. Following an explosion on said pier, Vicki Cochrane, editor of a high-end life style magazine, finds herself trapped between life and death in an astral waiting room, with the chance to virtually relive her last few hours and see what sense might be made of them. Olliver has enormous fun with the eavesdropping possibilities this offers, as Vicki enters and exits (in spirit form, naturally) not only herself, but some of the other appalling creatures that populate the world of fashion journalism. Think Ugly Betty with every opportunity for sentimentality surgically extracted and you’ll have some idea of the ambiance, and bitchiness quotient. At the heart of this wickedly perverse morality tale stalks Vicki the evil queen, a literary Wilhelmina (UB fans will know what I mean), but without the kittenish side. The setting, late 80s, adds to the fun and general campiness, as Vicki slots cassettes into her astral VCR, but the satire, relentless wit and narrative poise, are bang on today’s money. And like Charlie Hill’s novel, what sets out to make a point, as any good satire should, turns out to have not just claws but also, in the unlikeliest of breasts, a heart.