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Death of strong feelingsThe Next Big Thingby Anita BrooknerViking 1699 pp244Its a shock to come across a novel of Anita Brookners with as jaunty a title as The Next Big Thing but the jaunty mood is confined to the title The next big thing expected by the characters in the book is what Henry James called the distinguished thing - deathBrookners fiction of the 1980s was an odd mixture of astringency and wallowing reading Hotel du Lac for instance for which she won the Booker Prize was like taking an ice-cold bubblebath The main development in her work since then has been the disappearance of the astringent element In earlier books there was usually a token meat-eater a creature of instinct and selfishness to balance the withdrawn herbivore she favoured as her protagonistIn The Next Big Thing 73-year-old Julius Herz a cultivated shopkeeper in retirement duly anatomises every impulse and overexamines the little life he has left but the figures he sees as enviably greedy for life are only a pulse-beat or two more vital than him Theres Josie his ex-wife who couldnt cope with the demands of living in restricted quarters with his family then theres Fanny his long-ago first love and first cousin whose parents didnt see him as a suitable prospectAs he tries to fill his days coming and going from his flat in Chiltern Street he passes through a London that hardly registers In a more dynamic novel the absence of observation wouldnt matter but here in a narrative virtually denuded of incident Herz makes modest perambulations and rambling peregrinations he remembers he surmises he envisages the thinness of texture is damaging The West End restaurant Sheekeys often has fishcakes on the menu Cecil Court is full of secondhand bookshops Claudes and Turners may be seen in the citys art galleries Thats about as specific as the book getsThe author an eminent art historian opens her heros eyes or her own
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