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THE RED HAT by John Bayley

THE RED HAT

By John Bayley

Pub Date: May 18th, 1998
ISBN: 0-312-18658-4
Publisher: St. Martin's

Postmodern mysteries from Paul Auster to Martin Amis have generally been dark and despairing. But noted critic Bayley’s American fiction debut is lightly, brightly comic--that is, if it really is a comedy, or indeed a mystery. Three artsy Brits are in The Hague to stare at some Vermeers. Charles Martin, who teaches fine arts at the University of London, is gay, but he’s fighting his biological inclinations on behalf of Cloe Winterbotham, perennial gallery secretary, who’s straight. Cloe’s friend Nancy Deverell, who narrates the first half of this urbanely playful story, doesn’t seem entirely convinced that she’s a girl. Neither does the man in the hotel elevator who masterfully takes her (or maybe him) on his lap, and later turns up in her room, identifying himself as a policeman, for a marathon night of sex. Nancy compares herself to Vermeer’s girl in the red hat, who’s obviously not a girl at all despite her earrings. This coy bit of gender confusion is the signal that every melodramatic contrivance Bayley can spring on (and through) Nancy may be more, or less, than it seems. Has Cloe really been kidnaped by Palestinian terrorists? Is the elevator policeman truly a Mossad agent? Does he actually return to Nancy’s bed and nearly strangle her in her sleep? Finally--as Nancy later claims to Cloe’s friend Roland, who’s gone to the sleepy French village of Mouriez in search of Nancy and the possible significance lurking beneath the banalities of her cryptic postcard home--does she end up marrying him, preparing for still another dozen turns of the screw? In true postmodern fashion, Bayley declines to use the larger units of narrative to build suspense, and Nancy’s adventures with Roland in France manage to be even more delicately inconsequential (think Claire’s Knee with spies) than the intrigue that may never have happened in Holland. For readers in the right mood, a giddy dose of helium; for others, a farrago of tediously precious folderol.