Plutocrats in Thatcher’s Day-A Loving, Scathing Inventory

The Line of Beauty, by Alan Hollinghurst. Bloomsbury, 438 pages, $24.95.

The title of Alan Hollinghurst’s new novel, The Line of Beauty, refers to, amongst other things: Hogarth’s theory of pictorial composition; the line of cocaine snorted by the book’s hero, Nick, from the back of a Henry James novel; and the snaking line traced by the body of Nick’s gay lover as they engage in punishing sessions of sexual make-believe beneath Guardi’s Capriccio and S. Giorgio Maggiore. Mr. Hollinghurst’s novel-his fourth-won the Booker Prize earlier this year and was judged a worthy winner, if only because it meant that at some point in the awards ceremony, the great and the good of literary London were required to hoist themselves up from their tables, champagne flutes in hand, tuxes bulging, to toast a novel which hymns the joys of al fresco anal intercourse: “His middle finger pushed into the deep divide, as smooth as a boy’s, his fingertip pressed a little way into the dry pucker so that Leo let out a happy grunt.” I wonder what everyone had for dessert.

The novel is bookended by the elections of 1983 and 1989, the prime Thatcher years, and any American reader worried that they may have a hard time unraveling the warp and weft of Thatcher’s Britain-lovingly inventoried, from its property market spirals to its newfangled “Talkman” portable phones-will find instant connection with Mr. Hollinghurst’s summary of the Tory re-election in 1983: “The men did something naughty, and got away with it, and not only did they get away with it but they’d been asked to do it again, with a huge majority.” Oh, that kind of re-election.

Our hero is Nick Guest, self-proclaimed aesthete and Henry James fan, who, after graduating, moves in with the family of a college friend, the Feddens, in their Notting Hill townhouse. A social butterfly eager to show off his wings, Nick is soon drawn into the orbit of father Gerald, a blithely brutish Tory M.P., at whose dinner parties and fund-raising soirées he encounters all manner of social climbers, clingers, creepers and other assorted human foliage. “What would Henry James have made of us, I wonder?” one of Gerald’s guests inquires of Nick. “He’d have been very kind to us,” comes the reply, “he’d have said how wonderful we were and how beautiful we were, he’d have given us incredibly subtle things to say, and we wouldn’t have realized until just before the end that he’d seen right through us.”

Which is pretty much what we get here: beautiful, wonderful people, who are given lots of incredibly subtle things to say, and who realize only too late-or, in some cases, not at all-that we can see right through them. Mr. Hollinghurst’s great gift as a novelist is for social satire as sharp and transparent as glass, catching his quarry from an angle just an inch to the left of the view they themselves would catch in the mantelpiece mirror. Here’s a fat-faced M.P. “pop-eyed already from the tussle between pompous discretion and a natural love of scandal.” Here’s a gaggle of graduates “rowdy and superior at once in the Oxford way.” And here’s Nick’s lover, the fabulous Antoine Ouradi, descended from the cloud strata of the international rich-France? Beirut?-to hold forth at the dinner table: “His technique was to hold a subject up and show his command of it, and then to throw it away in smiling contempt for their interest in it.”

Ouch. In fact: double ouch. This sort of compounded disdain-Antoine’s for his listeners, Mr. Hollinghurst’s for Antoine for disdaining them-is so wonderfully beguiling that it may be some time before the reader plucks up courage to ask if this is all the novel is going to be: a thousand deft flicks of the knife, carving one of those glittering, heartless ice sculptures that command our admiration rather than our love. If you put this novel down, unpraised, what might it say about you behind your back? Better to go on reading. Something of the same queasy gravitational pull keeps Nick bobbing at the Feddon’s dinner-table, registering his delicately modulated disapproval, only to return and start his ascent up the greasy pole all over again. The reader may well find himself tiring of the Feddens a little sooner than he does, however, and longing for some breath of fresh air beyond the rococo gilt frames, damask curtains and Louis Quinze tables. How adequate a response to snobs is it to feel subtly superior to them? Isn’t it like teaching a thug the error of his ways by beating him up? Just like Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited before it, The Line of Beauty can at times feel queasily caught in its own honey trap.

It might have been written, in fact, in order to illustrate the proposition that aesthetic snobbery and social snobbery are two sides of the same coin. Jamesian aesthete turned Tory stooge, Nick’s sensibility settles on and conforms to the shapes and surfaces of this world as beautifully, and limply, as gold leaf. When Maggie Thatcher herself puts in a cameo appearance-“her whole head, beaked and crowned, which he saw was a fine if improbable fusion of the Vorticists and the Baroque”-you’re not sure whether to give him an A in art history or a D in political science. It’s hard to pin down the tone here: a kind of bitchy rapture, half in love with the political kitsch of the Thatcher years. As a record of such, The Line of Beauty is unlikely to be surpassed-whether as exhibit or exposé is for the reader to decide.

Tom Shone, author of Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer (Free Press), reviews books regularly for The Observer.