...dear God, you were right, she thought as she smoked and looked at them all, what a lot of bloody bores they all are!

I've heard it regarding movies and comics: if ever the characters start remarking on how stupid the plot is, you know something's gone drastically wrong. It means that instead of actually fixing the plot to make it less preposterous, the author has decided that evincing an oh so postmodern awareness of its shortcomings is all it'll take to get the readers to forgive them. (The frightening thing is that for a lot of people, this is actually the case — I can't count the number of times in the past year I've heard someone say, "Oh, it's totally stupid, but it knows it and has fun with it!" about something. Yeah, great. I'll stick with stuff that's smart and knows it and has fun with that.) But what about character pieces that don't really have a whole lot in the way of plot? Is there an equivalent? You bet. Not to discount boredom as a theme entirely — when dealing with, say, the idle rich or your average 13-year-old, to not have a lot of whining about boredom would come off as simply wrong — but there are other ways to evoke the theme than to write 171 pages of boring people being boring and then have one of them speak the line above, as happens in AN Wilson's Dream Children. Having characters mock the plot holes doesn't fill them in; having characters remark on the tedium of the proceedings doesn't make the book any more entertaining.

Okay, this is probably excessively harsh. The novel, while very far from gripping, is also not excruciating — it's just dull. The narrator seems to greatly prefer telling us about the relationships between the characters to simply showing them relating and letting us do the math; of course, those occasions where he takes the latter approach come off more or less as dead air, since none of the characters is exactly sparky. For instance, while the main character, Oliver Gold, has women throwing themselves at him right and left, he achieves this with no discernible charisma — apparently chyx just dig bland philosophy professors. Of course, he's not interested in said chyx, being a pedophile involved with a 10-year-old girl with no discernible allure. And while any author taking up this theme is just asking for the inevitable comparison with Lolita's Humbert and Dolly, Wilson's pair just doesn't stack up to Nabokov's. Humbert is a verbal fireworks show; Gold is... well, it probably says it all that I spent several minutes staring into space trying to come up with a way to describe him and the only thing I could think of to say is that he has a beard. Humbert leaves no doubt whatsoever that all Dolly would need to do is dart her eyes or snap her gum to leave her target writhing on the ground in an agony of desperate longing; Wilson's Bobs is a sanguine kid with weird pets, which is slightly more in the way of personality than possession of a beard but not by a hell of a lot. And then you have the treatments of their respective affairs. Both rely heavily on circumlocution, but Humbert's is a desperate attempt to transmute the events he's describing, or rather not describing, into art, into black comedy, into poetry, into a religious pageant, into anything but an account of the sordid details of how his semen ended up inside the local twelve-year-old — still, though, we wind up with a pretty exact idea of what's going on underneath the smokescreen. Lyricism, psychological insight and clarity all at once: this is the sort of stuff that makes for great literature. Wilson, by contrast, is just vague. We're told that Oliver and Bobs have an inappropriate relationship, and that the potential discovery of this has Oliver considering suicide, but for whatever reason — perhaps a fear of being accused of sensationalism — Wilson skirts miles around anything approaching details. This is a major mistake: it's hard for readers to know what to think about a situation, or care about it, if we have no clue what the situation is. (Toward the end there's a suggestion that the author has deliberately left things vague, counting on the old "the scariest things are what you don't see" rule. It doesn't work.) "Oliver was in love with Bobs, but not in the essentially ephemeral way that his friends had been in love: the hectic taking up of a boy or a girl, the ups and downs of their passion descending into mere repetitiveness, quotidian affection punctuated by domestic irritability, or ending in resentment and separation. His love for Bobs, by contrast, had been a daily unfolding of joy and strength, giving him peace of mind at last, after those years of intellectual struggle when but to think had been to be full of sorrow, when the thinking-machine had been clogged and unequal to its task." This kind of summary is just death.

Summer movies tend to be little more than vehicles to show off special effects. Sexy Beast's special effect is the spectacle of Ben Kingsley of all people frothing at the mouth. There's a bit more to it than that — the film does actually have a meaningful storyline, if a slight one, about how the effectiveness of using terror to get one's way does have some risk attached, as Nikolai Ceaucescu can attest — but still, this film is likely to be remembered for not much more than the stunt casting which is almost certainly what 99% of the people at any given showing are there to see.

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