LIFE IN THE WEST
By Brian Aldiss
Carroll and Graf. 310 pp. $17.95
LIFE IN THE WEST is not what it used to be. This may be good luck for us all. It is certainly good luck for Brian W. Aldiss, whose Life in the West, a novel that caused some controversy when it was first published in Britain 10 years ago, now appears in America. The Aldiss chutzpah has weathered the years well enough, and the glad exuberance of the writing has faded not at all; but what makes its current release here so fortunate is precisely the distance we have traveled from the events and attitudes anatomized in its pages.
The truth is Life in the West never really worked as a tract for the times. Though he had already won a considerable reuptation as an essayist and man of letters, Aldiss in 1980 was primarily (as he remains) a realistic novelist of bustling energy and a writer of science fiction whose books in that field have had a domineering effect on his fellows. Life in the West is first and foremost a novel; and Thomas Squire, the philandering media-pundit who bruises through its pages like a miffed Alpha Male badly in need of a ewe, is primarily a creature of fiction. His opinions -- mostly trumpet-blasts of dissent against the mid soft-left consensus that obtained in Britain as late as 1979 -- constitute a novelist's rendering of political argument as something inherently comic. Intemperate, bullying, stunningly right, bullishly wrong-headed, Squire is exactly what his name declares. He is a late fictional version of the testy squire whose fulminations have graced the English stage for centuries.
If this was not entirely easy to see in 1980 in England, it should be perfectly clear today, now that the issues that ignite Squire have gained historical perspective. Life in the West, set in 1978, is a grand comedy.
Fresh from writing and starring in a television documentary series called "Frankenstein Among the Arts," and founder of the Society for Popular Aesthetics, Squire goes to Sicily as the guest of honor at the First International Congress of Intergraphic Criticism, where he finds himself jousting with dubious academics, tongue-twisting Marxists, a sharp desperate left-wing woman from America whose mind he wishes to sort out and whose body he lusts after, a massive Russian who might or might not wish to defect, some old friends, and some new rivals. He puts on a good show.
But Squire is not exactly what he seems. Quite oblivious to the moral ambiguity of his position, he reports upon his colleagues to the British secret service (and it is clear he has done so for years). And back in England, his life has become a nightmare, one almost certainly of his own making; and under the stress of a dissolving marriage, he is on the verge of abandoning the squirearchical role his family has long enjoyed in rural Norfolk. DUPLICITOUS and bluff, sensitive and crass, blustering and acute, Thomas Squire is a haunted man. He cannot tolerate the notion that his wife might be sleeping with a younger rival, while at the same time he rockets from affair to affair, pledging eternal devotion, boisterously, to each new lass. He cannot stand the bureaucratic mentality of the Marxists who dog his steps, but damages his own cause through the self-consciously masculine overkill of his own arguments. At the same time, he sees himself as a representative of what life in the West in 1978 means to the world. He sees himself, and the exasperated freedoms he espouses, as deeply important; and he is of course correct. At one point, he speaks of the soul. "We are all religious," he says:
"In our day, the Left has all the dialectic, the Right none. Yet lying to hand is the supreme argument that souls are not interchangeable. It is perhaps too universal a truth for the Right to use, too true a truth to fall to the service of any party. Nevertheless it is the vital factor through which the present world struggles towards the future, whether capitalist or communist, Caucasian, Negroid, or Mongoloid. It's our one hope, because undeniable."
At moments like this, the old bourgeois-liberal curmudgeon speaks for us all as he plunges onwards through Life in the West, slanging away at his targets like a Kingsley Amis anti-hero suddenly a-roar with thought. As the novel closes, and a new decade begins (leaving so much behind), it appears that he may even manage to keep his wife and his house more or less intact. This seems well. Thomas Squire is, after all, not interchangeable.
John Clute writes frequently about contemporary fiction. His most recent book is a collection of essays, "Strokes."