Gordon Burn's Fullalove blew me away.
I'm obliged to make the statement as bold and undiluted and non-ambiguous as possible because, once you have read it, you will find it hard ever to make poetic, alluding, literary-conceit-filled, smart talk ever again. You're sated on it after this, see. Finished. Spent. Fullalove is fiction as cacophony...it's all going on in here, and the intensity and richness is dizzying, a fatiguing mix.
The narrator is middle-aged burned-out tabloid hack Norman Miller (the Mailer nod is deliberate and gone into at some length) who is mainly, for the purposes of plot, such as it is, assigned to the grim deathwatch of a Barrymore-esque TV presenter, about to pop his clogs in intensive care following an assault by his latest sordid pick-up. This is merely a prompt from which Burn hangs a loosely connected series of gruesome encounters from Miller's less-than-salubrious greatest muck-raking hits. We cover a lot of ground here:
"...the baby-butchers and child flayers, the gerontomonsters and paedobeasts, the blood satanists, human goulashers and media-wise thrill killers..."
all of which, Miller says, will appeal to the 'lip-mover' readership at his gutter-y end of the market. There's a grim and sobering litany of nastiness to swallow, and Miller just reaches into his repertoire and casts the nuggets as he remembers them, or as they suggest themselves.
But this isn't another novel about how crap/tawdry/ugly/cynical tabloid journalists are. Miller is a pitiable creature, not a monster. Oh, he talks a good fight down the pub with his bent and dented colleagues but he's got a cancer, and that cancer is the very last, the very infinitessimally small amount of compassion he feels he still might have. It doesn't stop him being complicit in wincingly nasty scams to fleece victims and the familiies of victims of a good story, but it is eating away at him. The cancer has a name, fullalove, a stuffed puppy he forgot to put on an impromptu grave/shrine after promising the wife of the killer that he would do it for her. Rather like Mulder, in the X-Files movie ("I'm the key figure in an ongoing government charade, the plot to conceal the truth about the existence of extraterrestrials"), Miller suddenly offers us, at the half-way point, an explanation with no need for further detail, for the toy:
"...the cuddly creature [he] has become convinced possesses the magic necessary to deliver some tragically mislaid part of himself back to himself..."
He can't - and doesn't - aim for redemption. This doesn't mean he doesn't want to be good, it just means that he'd settle for not being any worse. Even so, the final moments...the despairing misuse of Miller's atavistic motif, his own sort-of-St-Christopher...well, it's eye-popping, and more shocking than anything else that has passed before (and that's saying something), so astonishing in fact that Burn feels compelled to give you a blank half-page to allow you to look away. And you do. The last paragraphs are read in stunned and appalled disquiet.
So much for story and agenda. The thing, THE thing, here is the language. Burn has always been a terrifically gifted writer. He suffers, if that's the right way to put it (and I think it might be), from the same problem that Will Self endures, the singular and stubborn inability to ever repeat a word. The super-literacy smacks hard into you at the first page and simply does not let up (apart from the words-fail-me blank page at the end, when Miller can't say anything). It's scary, blinding, startling stuff but thankfully short (230 pages). Good job, this sort of intensity could be harmful.
There are some extraordinary set-pieces here: a night-time creep through the hospital to sneak a deathbed photo; a lost weekend in a squalid flophouse; an excruciating Press funeral. But I loved the Greene asides (surely a Burn hero?), of which there are plenty. Especially meaty is the 90s update of that brilliant Brighton Rock opening. In this snip, he's talking about B&Bs along the front:
"Muffins was double-fronted, the big corner windows expansively curved. And into these fisheye frames stepped pretty much the mix as I had witnessed it on the train: retirees, cave-dwellers, simpletons, schoolchildren on the wag. Now joined by: the single homeless, the lone-parent families...the unfit mothers, the problem mongrel broods who gravitate here in the winter, unfurl their sleeping bags in the hotels and holiday lets and b-and-bs, and work at keeping the killer cold from establishing a beach-head in their bones. Of course it is no longer winter. It is June, nearly July. Nearly high-season, in so far as you can conceive of anything rising higher than knee-level in such a blighted, light-flooded, end-of-the-line place. Time for them to move out and on. But move where? How?
They walk the streets carrying all they own in blankets, paper-wrapped bundles, black refuse sacks. Bundles balanced on bicycle saddles, wheeled in supermarket trolleys and lurching buggies. Battering husbands. Whippet wives. Babies in crooked glasses. Like some way-station in a border war; some refugee camp, the number for credir card donations flashed up on the bottom of the screen. Teenage grannies. Winterwear chopped, slashed, cannibalised for the summer. Skulls-and-crossbones tattoos. Lost-to-the-world faces, in dream-sequence montage, swimming up to the menu card card in Muffins' window, staring blankly, lips going, conjugating egg, sausage, beans pot of tea/egg, sausage, chips, beans, pot of tea/egg, sausage, chips, beans, round of toast, pot of tea. Two, three faces looking together, grey dead eyes, mouths silently working."
If hell is other people, this is one doozy of a horror story.