We say we love flowers, yet we pluck them

The Crimson Petal and the White

Walking into a room of your house, or climbing or descending the stairs, only to have to pause in complete forgetfulness of what you intended to do there, is generally considered to be a sign of encroaching old age or simple-mindedness; or both. It suggests a level of distraction that's humourous to watch but puzzling and sometimes upsetting to endure. And while watching someone dither so can be entertaining, being watched while you yourself dither is just embarrassing. So you can imagine how foolish someone might feel if they wrote a whole novel in a similarly aimless manner.

The Crimson Petal and the White, an 800-page doorstop of a novel, is Michel Faber's grand compendium of narrative senior moments. Ostensibly its faux-Victorian trudge through an excessively factual nineteenth-century England aims at the genre of Dickensian morality tale, but hoping to encompass the full range of human interaction at that time, not baulking at examining the very lowest levels of society and intercourse that Dickens—for all his portrayals of street-sweepers—could only ever allude to. Ultimately, though, Faber's novel only shares one aspect with Dickens' work—its length—an aspect unwarranted by the quality of the subject matter under discussion.

Faber begins with a chummy, garrulous narrator that seems to sit on the shoulder of the prostitute Sugar as she begins to lift herself out of her profession. This voice is probably intended to expose with sympathy and ironic moral excoriation the misery of every sexual detail, but it ends up sounding like the sinister, pawing uncle of every whore mentioned in the novel. But he quickly abandons this oddly leering interlocutor, occasionally lapsing back into it accident, when the action flags and Faber needs an omniscient presence to relate the characters' thoughts. Only when Uncle Leery returns for good to tell us about the fall of the house of Rackham do we realize that it's a standard bookending device, and we're on the home stretch.

In between we get all the cloacal, genital and medical details of the surprisingly few main characters: only half a dozen core personalities, with perhaps two dozen hangers-on; a lack of complexity put to shame by the very genre Faber wants to pastiche. The information is relentless, until we're quite fed up of what becomes crashingly dull and nauseating honesty, meant to convince us that this is a no-holds barred exploration of humanity in all of its gritty etcetera.

Meanwhile, some people die for no clear narrative reason; some nearly die but don't; some are charmingly stereotypical, like a sort of perverted Mrs Malaprop; some have dreams which come to fruition; some have dreams which don't; some have a kind of pitiable depth of feeling that goes nowhere and achieves nothing. Eventually, most of the main characters fade away, leaving Faber with a final chapter like a sentence finished at a comma; he terminates everything mid-plot, as if he too is quite bored with the story; or perhaps as if he had put the manuscript down, wandered off into another room, and then quite forgotten about it. It's a shame the publishers never did the same.