Alex Massie

A Revengers’ Satisfaction

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There's something awful about a bad review. By which I mean, one can sometimes feel rather sorry for the poor writer suffering under a prolonged and vicious barrage (one thinks of some of Dale Peck's screeds in the New Republic for instance) that leaves him - and by its end, the reader too - shell-shocked. All that time and effort spent, just so some hack bastard can tear it to pieces for the (undoubted) entertainment of bastard readers who weren't going to buy the bastarding book anyway.

On the other hand, sometimes the author is Alastair Campbell. Fair game, in other words. And, to be honest, Peter Kemp's Sunday Times review is kinder than it might have been. That's to say, other folk will enjoy plunging the knife in deeper than does Kemp. Though he draws plenty of blood himself:

This book is a revelation. Anyone for whom the name Alastair Campbell conjures up the image of a glowering bully professionally adept at manipulating words to suit his purposes will be confounded by it. For the personality emanating from his debut novel, about a psychiatric practice, is that of a swimmy-eyed sentimentalist whose verbal and inventive powers are remarkably meagre.

Slackly put-together sentences meander through thickets of irrelevance. Grammar slips awry (“Each of the morning's patients was challenging in their own very different ways”) and tautology (“knock-on consequences”) distends prose that is painfully prolix. Robotic dialogue (“You have lost your wife, though I am not convinced that cannot be salvaged at a later date”) goes along with an unfortunate propensity for jargon even at moments of would-be intense emotion: as his domestic life implodes, the novel's hero unhappily reflects, “With his family, he got into certain habits early on, and never really changed the skills set.”

Occasionally enlivened by unintended ambiguities (“The worst thing about going to a whorehouse was the moment of entry”), Campbell's writing is for the most part unwaveringly banal. One character lives in “a nice flat provided by the local authority”; another has liked to visit “a nice flat or a nice house with a nice enough prostitute living inside”; a third takes his mistress to “a nice hotel in Ireland”. Perceptions are matchingly trite: “Like people, some papers looked more important than others.”

And so it goes...

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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