As a child I was fascinated--and vaguely perturbed--by a picture on the cover of a round tin box in which my mother kept her sewing materials. The box featured a Victorian lady in a bonnet, cloak and voluminous skirt strolling down a country lane, accompanied by a mustachioed Victorian gentlemen with a walking stick. In the background were trees, a fence, a cottage; and in the lady's hand was a round tin box on which was depicted the self-same Victorian lady, accompanied by the aforementioned gentleman, strolling down the same country lane, and carrying, yes, a round tin box with the same picture on it. The thought that this went on forever, and ever and ever, with tinier tin boxes, somewhat appalled me.
The endlessly self-referential story-within-a-story is just one of the many literary conjuring tricks in Charles Palliser's new novel, "Betrayals." From the author of the Victorian teaser "Quincunx" one would expect no less. If the prospect of trying to follow the machinations of a labyrinthine pattern of wheels-within-wheels gives you vertigo, this is probably not the book to take along on that trip to the Grand Canyon. But if you love puzzles and mysteries and appreciate the fine art of parody, "Betrayals" is chock-full of ingenious twists and turns, and better still, some richly hilarious takeoffs on some all-too-prominent features of the current literary landscape.
The title, not surprisingly, is double-edged. Each of the 10 seemingly self-contained chapters making up this novel involves one or more acts of betrayal inboth senses of that word: a calculated breach of trust and an unwitting act of self-revelation. Written in a different voice and style, each chapter represents a parody of a different genre, from the trashy romance novelette to the jargon-riddled pontifications of "post-structuralist" criticism. Yet these seemingly diverse narratives--at first glance, about completely unrelated subjects--are filled with hidden connections.
Setting the stage, the first chapter is a very British-style obituary of a prominent scientist written by a colleague who clearly has it in for him: "Although his warmest admirers . . . always claimed that he never behaved dishonorably except when he believed it necessary to achieve the aims he held most dear, even they conceded that he was extremely susceptible to the belief that his own success was essential to the advance of science," notes his disgruntled ex-collaborator. Appropriately enough, the deceased's specialty in "immunotoxicology" was studying the effects of venom.
Subsequent chapters include a misspelled, ungrammatical report of a publisher's reader on the equally sub-literate manuscript of a romance novel; a group of Kiplingesque travelers' tales involving unsolved murders, unreliable narrators and untold secrets; and the pathetically pompous screed of a young academic who is fanatically and self-deludedly committed to defending the reputation of his controversial mentor, a "Post-structualist, psychoanalytical" critic recently accused of war crimes--all this even after the aforesaid guru, one Henri Galvanauskas, has expelled his ardent defender from the institute as a traitor.
The longest chapter, "An Open Mind," is the diary of a prudish (he writes "s-x" instead of "sex") bachelor who works in a mildly disreputable Glasgow bookstore. He is very interested in "true crime" stories, and, indeed, his interest may be more than academic.
When one of his favorite authors strolls into the bookstore one day, an unlikely friendship is formed. The author, Horatio Quaife (who is also a disciple of Galvanauskas--or as the blissfully ignorant bookseller thinks, "Galvan Oscars") wears a deerstalker and treats the bookseller as a kind of Watson. The pair spend long hours watching television: a Scottish soap opera set in a rural village and a series about a tough-minded detective called "Biggert" that is so complicated even the actors in it don't know what's going on. The naive diarist at first doesn't even realize that both shows are only fiction. His sophisticated, nutty friend Quaife, with is deconstructionist training, takes them very seriously, formulating wildly improbable, wrongheaded theories about them that reveal nothing so much as his own obsessions.
The funniest--and to my mind most successful--chapter features the self-justifying confessions of a best-selling novelist and Tory politician (and, as he keeps reminding us, a close friend of Margaret Thatcher) who is "betrayed" by a wily enemy and by his own avarice into committing, first plagiarism, then murder. Ambitious, slick Jeremy Prentice, although "never one to flout my wealth," resorts to the services of a ghostwriter to supply his eager publisher's demand for his next blockbuster. He does have his standards, however, and rewrites the sex scenes in accordance with his belief, which he shares "with the Great Victorians, that you can write a highly erotic scene without using four-letter words." Palliser furnishes us with a sample of Prentice's erotic art that will have readers laughing out loud from start to finish: "As he made love to her, she moaned and twisted with pleasure. Her whole body throbbed with passion. She came convulsively again and again. And then again.
"Afterward he laid prostate and drained beside her, and they smoked quietly, sharing a packet of Worcester King Size cigarettes, the coolest, longest smoke in the world."
Palliser is at his best mocking the false gentilities and real vulgarities of bad writing--and the muddled thinking, vacuous emotions, and moral sloppiness behind bad writing. His super-ingenious plotting can be a little harder to take. Clearly, there is some risk in offering an overly ingenious book that satirizes among other things--the dangers of over-ingenuity. If Palliser's considerable skills as a satirist and parodist ultimately save this novel from being "betrayed" by its own cleverness, his tendency to overindulge his talents does somewhat compromise the pleasure to be found in this novel.