The Abomination by Paul Golding

LITERARY REVIEW                                    August 2006

THE ABOMINATION by PAUL GOLDING (Picador £16.00)

In 1988, Alan Hollinghurst’s The Swimming Pool Library was the first English gay novel to cross over to the mainstream. It was deservedly praised both for the originality of its perspective and the delicacy of its prose. Its combination of sex and sensibility was quickly established as the template for gay literary fiction.   But the acceptance of such work, far from expressing a new liberalism, often seems to exhibit a hidden homophobia. In place of earlier books where gay characters were punished for their tendencies by coming to a sticky end (thereby confirming King George V’s claim that ‘I thought such men shot themselves’), these new novels permit such characters to engage in the most outrageous practices, so long as they record them exquisitely. Gay men are Justified by Style.

Paul Golding’s The Abomination is the latest in the line of such novels and it makes for a grim read. On the first page, James Moore, the narrator, stands in a sweaty London club, contemplating ‘cruising the pissoirs'; on the second page, he has a highly unsatisfactory encounter with a self-hating, prematurely ejaculating young man; and, on the third, he rings up Big Uncut Man, a prostitute from a contacts magazine. Meanwhile, his literary credentials are established on the same page by a reassuring reference to Hamlet. It is small wonder that, at the book’s conclusion, the prostitute, who has returned, describes him as ‘jaded’. James expresses surprise. The only surprise is that a narrator so self-conscious is not more self-aware.

Although the novel is framed – and coloured – by James’s adult proclivities, the bulk of the narrative concerns his childhood on an island off Spain and his boyhood and adolescence at a Catholic prep and public school in England, The model for the long, meandering memories of childhood is clearly Proust, but it is significant that, when the adult James has his head shoved into ‘books by people beginning with P’, he narrowly misses Proust. Golding himself misses Proust by a considerably larger margin. His literary antecedent, if anyone, is Huysmans, whose arid, airless prose-style and materialistic concerns he shares.

The public school novel has become unfashionable of late, although William Corlett’ s Now and Then breathed new life into the genre with its depiction of adolescent passions re-ignited after thirty years. The problem with The Abomination is that it is both plotless and pointless. Golding seems unaware that the experiences he describes – the misery of leaving one’s parents, the sense of isolation in a crowd, the humiliation on the sports field – are totally unexceptional. The only distinctive note is sounded by the narrator’s surprise that other nine year-old boys mock his obsession with eau-de-cologne.

Homosexuality has been an overt feature of public school novels since Alec Waugh’s The Loom of Youth and a covert one as far back as Tom Brown’s Schooldays. Once again, Golding’s lengthy treatment of it seems predictable. True, he is primarily interested in relationships between staff and pupils, with James seducing one master at prep school and being seduced by another at public school – while still finding time to ‘relieve’ most of the boys in his dormitory (whose name, Leviticus, is by far the best joke in the book) – but such relationships have already been treated with infinitely more subtlety in Michael Campbell’s Lord Dismiss Us.

I have no way of knowing whether The Abomination is Golding’s own story, if he was indeed born of a wealthy Anglo-Spanish family, educated at Ampleforth and now spends his time in night-clubs called ‘Fist or Shit, something like that’, or if he was born in the North East, went to a comprehensive in Sheffield and is now happily married and living in Grimsby. That I incline to the autobiographical view has less to do with the authenticity of the prose than with the arrogance displayed by both author and narrator.  The contempt with which the narrator treats his fellows, for example going into an A’ level exam which he barely needs to pass, with ‘arm-loads of bangles whose rattle was intended to distract other candidates, and a can of air-freshener to quell the stench of humanity’, reflects that with which the author treats his readers. Why should he suppose that we wish to read long descriptions of his depilatory habits as an adult any more than of his lavatorial habits as a boy.   They are neither interesting in themselves, psychologically or sociologically revealing, nor relevant to the plot.

In fact, The Abomination has no plot, any more than it has either developed characters (father is a James Robertson Justice-style buffer, mother a remote and idealised ‘silent film star’, the two masters twin poles of gay frustration, and the other schoolboys ciphers) or sustained ideas. What it does have is a sensibility – five hundred close-knit pages of it – but it is one with a singular lack of appeal. It is impossible to comprehend what led Picador to puff as ‘one of the most outstanding literary debuts of recent years’ a novel with so few redeeming features. At the end, a second unsatisfactory encounter with the Big Uncut Man leaves James depressed and frustrated… which are precisely the feelings of the reader on finishing the book.