Hemorrhaging Novel

BLEEDING LONDON by Geoff Nicholson Overlook Press $23.95, 320 pp.

As a general rule, writers of fiction are flabbergasted when they read their first screenplays. The dialogue is eye-strainingly self-conscious, the characters flail about with disingenuous emotions and the "stage" directions describe less than clues on a treasure map. Geoff Nicholson's newest novel, Bleeding London, is a book that should have been a screenplay.

Nicholson constructs the book as a series of vignettes that ricochet between various times and modes of exposition--several scenes are unveiled as journal entries--but that all converge on London. Not surprisingly, the city becomes the novel's catchall metaphor, and therein lies the book's essential problem: to complete the metaphor, the characters get stitched rather awkwardly into the narrative, as if merely to cover holes in its fabric, and the clumsiness of their insertion detracts from the clever manipulations of Nicholson's plot.

Take Judy Tanaka. Ostensibly the first character proffered up to the reader, Judy hamhandedly announces her role in the book to her therapist in the opening pages: "It's not just a metaphor. Look at me. Don't I remind you of anything?... It doesn't need a genius to see what's going on. Greater London, c'est moi." Fittingly, the city will be the meeting place between Judy and the novel's hero-oid, Mick.

Mick's reasons for jaunting to London from his home in Sheffield are quite different from Judy's--less hokey maybe, but not much more believable. Mick speeds to the city in order to exact revenge on six men who (he is told) raped his girlfriend, Gabby, after her act at a private strip-show. As he knows nothing about the city, Mick ducks into a bookstore to buy a map, but comically, he accomplishes little more than entertaining us with the plop-thud of his wooden dialogue: "'What's your name?' Mick asked. She hesitated before saying, 'Judy. Judy Tanaka.' 'Very exotic,' he said. 'Not really. In Japan, Tanaka is the equivalent of Smith. But we're not in Japan, so it's still exotic, OK?'"

Then Nicholson throws his change-up. The very next scene reads as an undated journal entry from a guy named Stuart (in you guessed it) London. But unlike Nicholson's earlier chapters, "The Walker's Diary: The Penultimate Days" gives a man's account of London meanderings and musings that is wistful, genuine, eerie and, above all, nuanced. It is, in fact, so scintillating that it shines light on another flaw in Nicholson's text: it needs to be written in the first person. The peculiarities of Nicholson's style--in particular, his penchant for sprawling over-description--sound flat in the voice of an outside observer: "He knew what a wasteful, hopeless emotion jealousy was," or "[Absence] was what she called it, though it was not the most obvious term. It was not any sort of physical absence." Since Stuart and Stuart alone is allowed to heave his heart into his mouth, one leaves the book with the odd feeling that he is the only "real" character--everyone else is just cardboard.

Despite his journal, Stuart never rises far above the plot-aid rank of Nicholson's other characters. A tour guide with an uncanny knowledge of London, Stuart seems merely manufactured to attach himself to Judy (the self-declared incarnation of the city), clinging long enough to influence the story before breaking off like a virus--never quite away from her, though never really part of her.

Interspersed throughout this dramaless drama are scenes of Mick's idiosyncratic revenge, his growing doubt (jeepers!) about Gabby's claims of rape and his unerotic tryst with Judy. Gradually, a hilarious irony unfolds: Mick, the most over-touted character in the book ("Meaningless violence was not his style" or "Running was no more his style than waiting...") is in fact a pathetic negative image of King Midas--everything he touches becomes dull. All the sex that he witnesses or takes part in is at some point described as "athletic," and every character with whom he converses stoops to his moronic level of interaction. Making the book's leading man the reader's worst enemy seldom works to an author's advantage.

Though the story requires one or two leaps of faith along the way, its orchestration is undeniably remarkable. Nicholson begins, cloudily, in medias res, and labors throughout the middle of the novel to thread his scenes together. He presents his readers with a scene and then, subtly, shows how it came to be. The early appearance of Stuart's diary, for example, is explained by a later scene wherein his wife snoops through his desk and alights on a computer disk. His non-linear development echoes the innovation of the cubist painters as it fragments, abstracts and reconfigures the narrative.

But plot is hardly a consolation when the scenes on which it depends can hardly command a modicum of even vague interest from readers. True, the novel's pages bleed together, but Bleeding London is a wounded creature. A writer once said of Ezra Pound, "he is a great poet who has never written a great poem." In the world of lyric prose, Nicholson neither leads nor follows. Rather, he occupies that awkward region in between--usually above reproach, seldom awe-inspiring--where many decent writers languish in anonymity. Bleeding London is, well, bloody awful.