- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 14, 2005

MY NAME IS LEGION

By A. N. Wilson

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26, 506 pages

REVIEWED BY MARTIN RUBIN

Of the generation of British writers born round about the mid-point of the 20th century, A. N. Wilson seemed to me the most promising as they began to take their place in English literature in the late 1970s and early 1980s. But three decades on, his contemporaries, Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, Julian Barnes, Peter Ackroyd and Ian McEwan, have all muscled their way past him to more prominent positions on the British literary scene.

Certainly this is true of their public personae, aided in various cases by parentage, political controversy, gay identification and even aspects of their marital lives which proved rich fodder for British tabloids. And it is they, and not Mr. Wilson, who regularly turn up on award lists, including that most glittering prize of all, the Booker.

Yet, in little more than a quarter century, Mr. Wilson has amassed a considerable oeuvre, an output averaging a book a year, which dwarfs that of most of his contemporaries. “My Name is Legion” is his 18th novel, and he has written 13 books of nonfiction, including serious works of history and substantial biographies of Sir Walter Scott, Milton, Hillaire Belloc, C.S. Lewis, Tolstoy, Jesus and Paul. Why, then, does he not loom as large on the literary scene as his contemporaries named above?

Part of the answer may lie in Mr. Wilson’s forays into journalism, although in the case of this latest novel, that has certainly provided him with inside knowledge of his subject. But it must be said that there are features intrinsic to his oeuvre which may have contributed to his position in the literary world. Promise must be fulfilled, and the central question about A.N. Wilson almost 30 years after he began his literary career must be whether he has justified the hopes so many of us had for him when he was first starting out.

Mr. Wilson’s first novel, “The Sweets of Pimlico,” was a charming, whimsical semi-bildungsroman set in that section of London. It was rapidly followed by four novels in which charm and whimsy were again on display, along with a playfulness and sweetness which made all these early efforts, slight though they were, a genuine pleasure to read.

With his sixth novel, “Wise Virgin,” Mr. Wilson seemed finally to achieve maturity; here, one felt, was a novelist who had found his real voice and who was now painting more expressively and revealingly on a broader canvas. Surely much could be expected from someone who did actually seem to be the new Evelyn Waugh while having something really distinctive of his own to contribute.

What a disappointment it was then to be confronted by his next novel, “Scandal,” which seemed very minor and even trashy compared to “Wise Virgin” and had the disadvantage of being too obviously based on a particular British political sex scandal. There were some good things even in this flawed work, however; Mr. Wilson’s ability to make the reader feel what it was like to be the hapless child of a central figure in the eponymous scandal has stayed with me, although it is two decades since I read the book. Missteps continued in the scattershot of diverse novels that appeared over the next two decades, notably in Mr. Wilson’s recent “Dream Children,” which took on the disturbing topic of child molestation and handled it in a distressingly slippery manner.

Like many a novelist confronted with the problem of finding a unifying force for his fiction, Mr. Wilson turned to that all-too-handy form, the roman-fleuve. Prolific as always, he produced five novels involving an English family, the Lampitts. Reading the first novel, “Incline Our Hearts,” I was hopeful that in the character of the astringent narrator always so scornful of his uncle’s obsession with the Lampitts, Mr. Wilson had finally found a fit vessel for his misanthropic attitude towards the world. But as the pentalogy proceeded, it petered out, as so many linked novel projects have a way of doing, forming a whole that seemed even less than its not especially impressive component parts.

And so we come at last to this latest piece of fiction by a writer who has given us a great variety of novels, but never one as raw and caustic as “My Name is Legion.” Mr. Wilson has taken on that most tempting of targets, the shameless British press, in the form of a rebarbative tabloid called “The Daily Legion.” As someone who himself has written for such a publication, Mr. Wilson is eminently qualified to skewer such a journalistic specimen and he has certainly done so, portraying it in all its cynical, destructive, capricious power. Mr. Wilson has routinely been compared to Waugh throughout his career, and his latest effort will surely be labeled his “Scoop.” The trouble is that “My Name of Legion” lacks the devastating spot-on punch of its predecessor’s satire.

Of course it is true that to satirize something you have to produce a dialed-up if not an actually worse version of it; and that the nether regions of the British gutter press are so awful, it is hard to come up with anything viler than the real-life original. In this sense, then, Mr. Wilson has set himself a more daunting task than one might initially have thought. Certainly, he has created a memorably revolting newspaper in “The Daily Legion.” The trouble is that doing so seems to have driven him off the rails and led him to write in a style that is literally painful to read. At times, the book sounds like one long screech or a fingernail on a blackboard.

It is filled with loathsome characters, starting with the newspaper’s proprietor, one Lennox Mark, his even less likeable wife and her terrifying mother. We may laugh along with the author when he lampoons Lennie’s compulsive eating or even his ostentatious Bentley (although this is a very predictable, easy target), but there is nothing funny about the stock-in-trade African dictator whose interests are intertwined with the tycoon’s. And when we are treated to a sickening description of the mother-in-law’s physical deformities (which admittedly do mirror her personality traits), we are on very shaky ground. Things get still more parlous with a far-too-long exposure to the rage-filled effusions of a teen-age sociopath/psychopath, most too vile to be quoted here. It’s the old story: Maybe you can serve up such stuff if you frame it correctly, put it into context; but Mr. Wilson is content to serve it up in raw chunks, and far, far too many of them at that.

Even the more attractive characters are besmirched by the novel’s endemic vileness. A pleasant young woman journalist called Rachel Pearl is subjected to a violent episode that makes for painful reading. Father Vivyan Chell, a charismatic, in some ways admirable, fighting man of God, not only commits a homicide (albeit one that some might justify in the circumstances), but also falls victim to the ugliness which Mr. Wilson seems determined to put on as many pages as possible of his novel. And, as in this description of Chell’s view of Queen Elizabeth II, the author seems unable to prevent himself from descending into ever greater depths of sordidness:

“The Queen, no longer a radiant young woman, now looked like an old frump made out of pastry, grumpy and about to crack into floury powder… . There was no difference between the wrinkled old Queen and the Danish tart… . He felt … an intensely personal anger with the Queen herself … . Instead of wearing an unbecoming tweed coat and hat in too-bright colours, she was dressed like the most dissipated and desperate old madam in a cheap brothel. She wore only a basque and crotchless fishnet tights… . Her fat old wrinkled arms wobbled as she waved and called out, in her parody of an upper-class voice, ‘Looking for business, ducky?’

“‘No,’ he said earnestly to her, ‘but you are. Copper business, cocoa business, funny business. If you had half a conscience, woman, you wouldn’t have sat in a landau with that murderous little [dictator]… .’”

How sad that A. N. Wilson, who started his career able to imbue his fiction with genuine sweetness and as well as insight into all manner of people and situations should have come to this: a raucous, cacophonous mess that leaves the reader profoundly depressed about what has become of someone who once seemed destined to be the brightest star in his generation’s literary firmament.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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