The Dreams of Bethany Mell­moth by Wil­liam Boyd

Artists’ af­fairs, lit­er­ary re­venges and Bond-style thrills – mer­ci­lessly amus­ing short sto­ries from the ac­claimed nov­el­ist

The Guardian - Review - - Fiction - El­iz­a­beth Lowry

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

To or­der The Dreams of Bethany Mell­moth for £12.74 go to book­shop.the­guardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Ramp­ing up the pace … Wil­liam Boyd

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