I have only myself to blame. After I read the e-mail rant heard around the world, my curiosity got the better of me when I spotted a copy of Giles Coren’s first novel, Winkler, on the shelves of my local library. When I say “novel”, I should point out that Coren’s book is not really a fully evolved specimen of the genre. Rather, like some snakes with vestigial legs, Winkler exhibits only underdeveloped, novel-like features: an eponymous anti-hero around whom the “free indirect style” narration revolves somewhat queasily; a plot (or rather several story threads that flutter in the narrative’s slipstream); and what might be described as the hangover from the novel’s efflorescence in the hard-grafting 18th century: a moral viewpoint.
Coren’s stab at the last item in that laundry list is perhaps the most baffling aspect of Winkler. For most of the book the insights we are given into the mind of Wink—as the charmless 29-year-old central character is occasionally monikered—suggest a consciousness and aesthetic sense largely derived from the cuttings of lads’ mags (from Loaded (is that still going?) to the loftier realms of GQ and Esquire). So fat chicks, the ethnic proletariat, and the grubbiness of urban life are given short shrift. And you might have thought the death of Kingsley Amis also sounded the death knell of a certain kind of English novel: the sort in which characters from the “provinces” (or the lower classes) are considered inherently absurd because their speech pattern deviates from the metropolitan middle-class norm. But Coren has exhumed the maggoty corpse of English “social comedy” and it’s not pretty: For instance, Winkler’s Belfast-born girlfriend’s speech is rendered phonetically so “fockn” seems to be only form of communication the Ulster simian can handle. And the criminal Uncle Bill who turns up like a bad penny at critical junctures in Wink’s existence sounds laughably like Fagin from Oliver Twist!
Rubbing against the pseudo-egalitarian grain of the times, Winkler even seems to make the rather surprising assertion that the rich, as well as having much more money than the poor, are also much nicer. Wink undergoes this Damascene conversion while temporarily shacked up with a bunch drug-addled old Etonians, who attempt to mask (but instead exaggerate) their well-born origins through Tim Westwood-style “gangsta” patter.
Squeezing all the the air out from this froth, and this is where Winkler veers from the merely unexceptional into truly disastrous, is the burden of Winkler’s growing awareness of his Jewish identity—and, yes, cover your eyes now—this journey of self-discovery leads him to the Holocaust. The device Coren uses to shoehorn the horror of the Shoah into what would otherwise be a slice of lifestyle journalism is as creaky as the heading of a pivotal chapter suggests: “The old Jew who lived under the stairs.”
The lurid revelations of inhumanity both endured and meted out by Wallenstein—the old Jew who lives under the stairs—causes something funny to happen in Wink’s brain. He abandons his dull job, dumps his saggy-arsed girlfriend, moves in with the aforementioned Old Etonians, and has great, albeit unconventional sex with an Australian Amazon named Albuquerque (the descriptions of his “Zorro” impersonation with the kinky Aussie earned Coren the not hugely coveted Bad Sex Award from the Literary Review.)
By the way, Wink also masturbates in front of a blind woman, is later falsely accused of that woman’s murder, and pushes another woman under a Tube train. But the last incident is an accident and anyway, she was fat and not very bright.
By the end of this ugly book I was left with the sense that Coren’s initial foray into fiction corroborated the unflattering profile that emerged from the profanity-strewn e-mail that first piqued my interest. Perhaps overly irritated at the time wasted on this disposable work, I felt like calling the author a word that he himself seems excessively fond of. My sense of decorum prevents me from saying anything more than confirming that it ends with a T. And starts with C. And rhymes with blunt.