THE GREAT FIRE OF LONDON by Peter Ackroyd

THE GREAT FIRE OF LONDON

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Think of William Golding's Darkness Visible--but without the rich prose, fearful imagery, or thematic coherence--and you'll have a very rough idea of the tone of this intriguing yet empty first novel by British poet/critic Ackroyd. In a just-slightly surreal London of the near future, idealistic filmmaker Spenser Spender decides to make a movie version of Dickens' Little Dorrit. Meanwhile, his bored wife Laetitia is experimenting with adultery--which will eventually lead her to VD, a suicide attempt, and a return to Spender. And, also meanwhile, there are glimpses of an assortment of more-or-less grotesque London losers, all of whom will somehow connect up with the film project: Rowan Phillips, a homosexual would-be Dickens scholar, who gives up gay bars (""Two young men stumbled in on roller-skates, to the evident disapproval of the men in leather"") for the shambling pursuit of laconic, accommodating young-working-man Tim Coleman; Tim's addled girlfriend Audrey, who comes to believe that she is possessed by the spirit of Little Dorrit; and Little Arthur, the dwarf proprietor of a pin-ball establishment, a molester of little girls who winds up in prison--and on the set of Little Dorrit. Ackroyd moves back and forth, from Spender's filming tribulations (accidents, strikes) to the psycho-sexual frazzles of the supporting cast, eventually connecting the threads up in a climactic fire on the set--a fire that spreads, becoming the Great Fire of London. (""It was popularly believed to have been a visitation, a prophecy of yet more terrible things to come."") And this stick-on apocalyptic ending is paralleled by Little Arthur's liberation of his fellowprisoners. But, despite such gestures towards social allegory, and despite the use of the Dickens novel as an organizing principle, this slight fiction-debut remains cold, thin, and archly contrived--best in its black-comic moments (the film biz, the homosexual pathos), weakest when trying to make a small fable out of madness, literature, and urban decay.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1982
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton--dist. by David & Charles