March 2005

Clayton Moore

fiction

Too Beautiful for You: Tales of Improper Behavior by Rod Liddle

No way. There’s not this much sex going on in all of Western Europe, let alone central London.

Sex is mostly what holds together the bizarre collection of misfits and misanthropes that inhabit Rod Liddle’s Too Beautiful For You. Superficially a collection of short stories, the book really feels like one long novel filled with people at the very edges of their lives. It’s not long, mind you. It just feels long most of the time.

There are a few sympathetic characters from time to time and it’s easy to get wrapped up in their unfortunate little lives. In the first story, “The Window,” where Marian just wants to go, go now, go home from the office but the useless bastard who’s meant to fix the window hasn’t shown up. She waits, unknowingly, for Dempsey, drunk on a bottle of stolen Stoli and humiliatingly desperate for Lucy, careers through the building towards his fate.

And so it goes.

It just barely lays a finger on understated brilliance from time to time, dry and crisp like Hemingway on a good day. Better still, it sometimes echoes the quiet desperation of Raymond Carver on a bad day in some of his tales of adultery, although I could be channeling the film Short Cuts, based on Carver’s work and similar to Too Beautiful For You in its tangled relationships. I’ll even give a nod of approval to Liddle’s habit of jumping perspective between story arcs from third-person in one tale to first-person for another although whether it’s a calculated technique or a distracted one is anyone’s guess.

These are the secret lives that we don’t talk about, don’t gab about over the water cooler, don’t even admit to ourselves in the middle of the night lying awake. Unfortunately, that’s the problem, isn’t it? A few dozen pages of odd Sophie sexing it up in Southwark or James swearing at his baby while poking it with a ruler and you start to feel more unpleasant than anything else. The worst, really, is "What the Thunder Said," a man shags his mother-in-law in the bushes while his wife fetches ice cream.

Liddle, a former speechwriter for Labour, has been the bad boy of British radio with a stint on the BBC’s Today program that ended in resignation reportedly because of his outspoken column in The Guardian. He has also made something of a splash in the tabloids for his explosive divorce from journalist Rachel Royce, leaving her and two kids for a young woman he has likened to Keira Knightly, publicly, no less. Despite all this sordidness, it’s incorrect to say that there is no smart writing at work here. There are places here where Liddle finds a smart pace and some wonderfully cynical jabs at political correctness, racial tensions and the war between the sexes.

In “The Long, Long Road to Uttoxeter,” a man suffers no less than a severed arm in trying to hide his adultery. Perhaps Liddle is trying to work out the psychology of his own train wrecks. "The Lost Honour of Engin Hassan," the last story, takes a stab at an inept terrorist who blows his own suicide bombing and accidentally becomes a television star. I used to think about so many things, “Only in America.” Maybe I’m wrong.

Regardless, these tales of improper behavior seem to be at worst an interesting form of therapy for Liddle. Despite their drawbacks and intimate failures in places, at least Liddle is brave enough to stalk into the psychic wilderness and work it out. His unapologetic take on human relations may not be startling but at least it’s straightforward and he puts his money where his mouth lies. As he told the press during his divorce, “All men are bastards, especially me.”

Too Beautiful For You: Tales of Improper Behavior by Rod Liddle
Doubleday
ISBN: 0340834455
240 Pages