Pure by Timothy Mo
Turnaround Books $44.99
Timothy Mo is a linguistic virtuoso, and he knows he is, and that's the problem. As problems go, this is one of the better ones to have to deal with.
Of the several self-conscious ironies implicit in the title of his latest novel - the first this triple-Booker-shortlisted author has published in over a decade - the greatest is that his style is the very opposite of pure.
His main viewpoint character is a Southern Thai transvestite dope fiend called Snooky. "I am not a native speaker," Snooky informs us a few pages into her hilariously over-written opening monologue, "but I have an affinity for the English language." She isn't kidding.
Snooky is a one-person fusion culture, a mix of so many different identities she has a purity all her own. Mo ultimately intends her as a vehicle for exploring Islamic extremism, the capacity of ideologically "pure" positions to attract people whose societies have consigned them to outsider status in one way or another. That's to say he intends this book to strike right at the heart of one of the thorniest subjects on the 21st century geopolitical menu.
But he could hardly be less po-faced about it. Snooky's gossipy prose is a richly referential polyglot pun-fest, studded with so many multicultural and multilinguistic in-jokes that it ought to verge on indigestible.
Mo ensures that Snooky always explains herself just enough for comprehension, and never so much that she bogs herself down.
He does the same for his other principle narrator, "the Venerable Victor Veridian, Archdeacon Emeritus, Fellow in Modern History and Senior Tutor, Brecon College, Oxford".
Victor, as you might gather from his job description, is a denizen of a far more rarified social stratum than Snooky's, and his crusty Oxford diction ought to register as a marked change of pace.
It doesn't, because Victor is every bit as gossipy, voluble and pun-prone as his co-narrator. He sounds like Snooky in Proper English drag; or in other words, he sounds like Mo, drunk on his own brilliance and revelling in the chance to play more stylistic games.
This has the perverse effect of neutralising the book's linguistic breadth: the ability to create distinct voices and the ability to range widely in your references and in-jokes are not the same thing.
Victor, whose day job is a cover for his work as an MI6 spy-master, has Snooky pegged as a potential asset for penetrating a group of Islamist zealots, and before long the book veers entertainingly off into high-end spy thriller territory.
Put a ring around the word "entertainingly": Mo's writing is a great deal of fun.
With a little more restraint, though, Mo could have given his characters the illusion of independent life. And then this book might have done more than entertain. It might have soared.
David Larsen is an Auckland reviewer.