by Rod Liddle
A prominent journalist leaves his wife for his 23-year-old receptionist. The bitter ex retaliates by dishing out newspaper columns exposing salacious details of rejection and rebound sex. The adulterer strikes back by vilifying her in other media outlets, and the nubile office assistant also gets her 15 inches of print.
The story reads like the plot for a typically bruising British comedy--part illicit fornication, part black humor--but these are details from the scandal-ridden real life of the Spectator magazine's editor Rod Liddle. Liddle has spun his acrid personal angle on felonious affairs into a collection of short fiction titled Too Beautiful for You: Tales of Improper Behavior.
Too Beautiful leaves no gauche stone unturned, jabbing with sardonic prose at issues ranging from suicide bombers to despised newborns, each chapter zeroing in on the fraying cords that tether his characters together and cutting at them until they just about snap. The 11 stories center on socially reprehensible types fucking over the less fortunate with tabloid-level delight--whether that means a husband unable to keep his dick clean or a different dirty creature incurring the wrath of a homely woman with bug spray--and living existences so miserable they make Mike Leigh movies seem sunny.
Liddle first turns his lens on a drab office, where a glowering woman mans her workstation while the rest of the staff is cavorting over drinks. She's awaiting the arrival of a "fuckpig roach of a workman," and when a man finally arrives looking for a window, she tells him to "make it snappy." In a case of mistaken identity, though, she accidentally gives marching orders to a suicidal spurned lover hoping to be stopped from leaping to his death; instead he's swiftly shown the path to becoming concrete pudding.
With his deadpan tone set from the start, Liddle spares his sad saps no sympathy, instead using dry humor to describe with relish everything from banging an in-law to taking on a piss-scented terrorist lover.
Cheating, indifferent, and unsavory couplings populate most of Too Beautiful's narratives. And while Liddle occasionally gives his creations' moral conflicts depth (one character feels "himself swimming in a pool with no bottom and no sides" after sneaking a quick one with a libidinous elder), their encounters are mostly treated with Bret Easton Ellis-level exploitation. The emotional disconnect proves to be an entertaining device, though, and allows Liddle to become, as in Ellis' best novels, increasingly detached from reality as the book progresses. A married man too comfortable with calculating lies for his extracurricular liaisons is caught in a violent mishap where he must choose between continuing his false front or losing a limb. A fumbling anti-Semite crisscrosses between the surreality-TV circuit and his even more bizarre interactions with would-be victims. Side plots include Kafka-esque physical transformations and the social hierarchy of the common household pest.
The insect chapter is actually one of Liddle's best, as it offers a glimmer of hope that these truncated, juicy morsels of immorality will end up woven into a larger narrative by the end. It's tied to "Headhunter Gothic" about a bitterly disappointed new dad (descriptions of father and son include, "He advances on the foul creature with his trusty Perspex ruler held out before him. 'You grotesque, disgusting little cunt,' he tells it, prodding the ruler in its fat neck") who has a nervous breakdown over his apartment's bug population. That story is juxtaposed against "St. Mark's Day," told from the perspective of a droll father fly dealing with his pestering offspring who hope to hop around in shit at Flyworld©. The latter parent is more adapt at handling his frustrating brood, observing that "indeed little Jermaine and Bryony and poor, dumb, Edmund, the runtiest of the runts, are flying headfirst at the glass trying to pulverize their way through, bang bang bang bang they go, and they're young and stupid."
Unfortunately, though, none of the other chapters connect in this way. And if there is one flaw to Too Beautiful it's that short stories ripe for a sharp, overarching Altman-esque connection are left with little more than despicable human--and insect--relations threading them together. Yet the book is still a compelling, quick read, as Liddle turns delicate interpersonal issues into devilishly unsacrosanct delicacies.