Philip Hensher
The Fit

By Tom Roundell

The Fit is a perplexing little novel. It's a complete contrast to Philip Hensher's previous effort, The Mulberry Empire, a Kipling-esque epic that sprawled, both in terms of its subject (19th-century Afghanistan) and in terms of its length. The Fit is a compact, stylised domestic drama about the mundane and aimless trials of a freelancer caught in a minor tragicomedy in suburban Wandsworth. Gone is Hensher's imperial, purple prose – abandoned for short, child-like sentences and basic, non-figurative language that give the whole book an air of childlike simplicity.

The novel opens with John, the narrator, in his garden, beset by hiccups that begin after he discovers that his wife has left him. He then encounters a bizarre, ageless girl who persuades him to drink champagne, propounds a few meaningless prophesies, and disappears, only to reappear at the end. The surreal, perverse air of these events sets the tone for the rest of the novel, which rests on John's befuddled misunderstanding of what is going on around him.

John is an indexer, "the best in the business" and a typical example of the highly ritualised, emotionally retarded male figure that has become so familiar. His narration is naive and simple – "Before the party at which I met Janet, I had been born in Bromley" – and he greets the events that engulf him with mild-mannered perplexity. John finds all relationships difficult, failing to understand or even register his wife's increasing frustration with his habits and inadequacies, preferring an odd relationship with Mrs Granger, a rather unsavoury old woman whom he visits every week. Other details, such as the fact that John wears the same suit everyday and has trouble understanding simple metaphors, all confirm the suspicion that Hensher might be another devotee of the old "maleness is a mild form of autism" idea.

Alongside this catalogue of bizarre and comic events are several rather puzzling references to the death of John's sister, who was murdered outside a nightclub. This clearly has traumatic connotations for John, and is meant to add some sort of seriousness to the tale, but it doesn't fit into the narrative in any meaningful way. Likewise the episode with a conceptual artist called Wasia, who breezes into the story and hangs around with John and his family taking photos, before she mounts an exhibition that exposes him to general ridicule. One suspects that this may have less to do with the plot than Hensher's public spat with Tracey Emin, whom he accused of sending him hate mail, before he was forced to issue a public apology in The Spectator.

The Fit does have its moments of genuine pathos and insight during john's gradual mental deterioration after his wife leaves. Hensher is always capable of an incisive metaphor and the odd flamboyant piece of prose. Yet the novel is very patchy, and gives the impression of being little more than an amusing trifle dashed off between more serious projects. From mid-way through the book, you can almost sense the author's attention wondering – which adds to the final impression that The Fit is a slightly self-indulgent, half-finished sketch.
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