The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth by William Boyd
Artists’ affairs, literary revenges and Bond-style thrills – mercilessly amusing short stories from the acclaimed novelist
In William Boyd’s teasing short story collection, a second-rate artist called Fernando Benn peddles a painterly style he calls “faux-faux naïf”: “‘Naïf’ painting is crap but charming … ‘faux naïf’ is good painters trying to paint in a crap but charming way and ‘faux-faux naïf’ is just crap but everyone will think it’s amazing.” Most of Boyd’s characters are dilettantes, or in some way on the make – would-be artists, actors, film directors or writers – and he is merciless in skewering their pretensions.
The stories themselves, which are glossily knowing in the manner of Somerset Maugham, are anything but naive. They are unfailingly amusing and clever; their only fault is that they sometimes strive for effects of pathos that the urbane narrative angle can’t quite support. In “The Man Who Liked Kissing Women”, a narcissistic art dealer, Ludo Abernathy, remains technically faithful to his wife by foregoing full-blown physical affairs in favour of creepy stolen kisses. Ludo (as his name suggests) likes playing such games, but gets comprehensively played when trying to kiss, and defraud, an enigmatic client who may or may not be the daughter of the hardcore philanderer Lucian Freud. The emotional payoff of this slick story should come when Ludo realises that he’s been professionally and personally outmanoeuvred. Unfortunately, he is so wedded to his rationalisations, and Boyd is so wedded to Ludo’s smugly superficial voice, that we don’t really care about his loss.
“The Road Not Taken” aims at a greater seriousness in its account of a failed relationship, told backwards. Meredith has traded a love affair with her former college English tutor, Max, for an affluent marriage to a banker. Years later, she and Max bump into each other and have coffee. In a series of wry vignettes, Boyd traces their doomed liaison back to the moment when Meredith first wandered into a class taught by Max on the famous Robert Frost poem of the title. Meredith has flunked taking the road less travelled. Yet the real clue to this downbeat little tale isn’t Frost – it’s Proust. Meredith’s surname is Swann. Though there are no madeleines to go with those late-life cappuccinos, the story’s whimsical flashbacks are too slight to carry this heavy freight of significance.
The long title story – the picaresque tale, in 10 chapters, of a fey young woman who drifts from romance to romance and from dead-end job to dead-end job – is more leisurely, and more convincing. At the beginning, we meet one of Bethany Mellmoth’s boyfriends, another poseur, showing off “a new art form that he has invented”: blasting Bob Dylan tracks over silent 24-hour rolling news footage.
Bethany’s own life, as related in the story’s dreamy episodes, has the same disconnected quality. She gets a bit part in a film, but her role is cut. She temps in an art gallery that is displaying the latest hokum (Fernando Benn makes a cameo appearance, having abandoned faux-faux-naïf painting for photographs of other people’s photographs). Inevitably, Bethany tries to write a novel, which becomes the occasion for a poignant encounter in her local park with an elderly novelist, Yves Hill, who, having realised the ephemerality of literary fame, is writing a taxonomy of winds. Like Benn, Hill appears in an earlier story: in “Humiliation” he is a young writer wreaking an ingenious revenge on the critic who has slated his most recent book. Now he is reincarnated as a wistful savant; one of the many men who shape Bethany’s musings on art and love. A lot happens in this quirkily beguiling story, and at the same time nothing much happens, and no sooner are we seduced by its possibilities than it’s over. Youth is like that.
But Boyd can ramp up the pace gloriously when he wants to. His other long piece, “The Vanishing Game: An Adventure …”, is a Bond-like caper in which London film actor Alec Dunbar is commissioned by a mysterious stranger to deliver a bottle of holy water to a remote church in Scotland. A nailbitingly camp chase ensues, complete with dawdling black saloons and eastern European-accented blondes, in which Dunbar outwits the villains at every turn by drawing on the plots of the thrillers he’s starred in. Having staked its faith in the saving powers of plot, however, the story stops short of giving us closure. Like that bottle of water, it simply falls off a cliff. “In this instance ignorance really is bliss,” reflects Dunbar. “You’ll never know what was really going on.”
Boyd – author of a cracking James Bond pastiche, Solo (2013), for the Fleming estate – knows perfectly well that, as the ending to a thriller, this just won’t do. Is it a final dig, in a collection that has poked sly fun at various kinds of artistic activity, at the neatness of the short story form itself? Or is he being shamelessly faux-faux naïf?
256pp, Viking, £14.99
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