Acts of Revision

Dwight Garner reviews Martyn Bedford's novel "Acts of Revision".

Published August 14, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

"My name is Gregory Lynn. I am thirty-five years old. I am an orphan, a bachelor, an only child from the age of four and a half. My feet are size 12, I am six feet two inches tall and weigh 263 pounds. I am not clumsy, it's just that my body sometimes misinterprets the signals emitted by my brain. I have one brown eye and one green."

So begins our introduction to the protagonist of the British writer Martyn Bedford's shrewd and unsettling first novel, "Acts of Revision," a book about schoolboy humiliation and long-simmering revenge that should rank among the year's best and brainiest psychological thrillers. "Acts of Revision" is about what happens to Gregory, a virtual recluse, after his mother dies and he discovers, in a dusty box in the attic, a pile of his long-forgotten school reports. "Gregory must learn to accept constructive criticism more graciously," one reads. Others say: "Disappointing" or "Little progress." Each points to him as an early, irredeemable failure; they're a virtual road map to his blasted life.

Gregory broods over the reports, and then sets out to exact revenge on the teachers who so blithely squelched his sense of self. He'd been branded as unoriginal and uninspired, and he wants to show these men and women exactly how wrong they were. He plots his "revisions," he intones, with the kind of "precision, calculation, and methodical thoroughness that Mr. Boyle and all the other bastards wouldn't credit me with being capable of." Grim but almost comically appropriate fates awaits each of these hapless tutors. Gregory provides his former history teacher, for example, with a brutal example of the fact that, indeed, "History is the study of cause and effect."

Part of Bedford's achievement here, beyond his darkly stylish prose, is that he keeps you hooked despite the fact that the story is told primarily in flashback. Like the guilty protagonist in John Banville's masterful "The Book of Evidence" -- which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1989, and which "Acts of Revision" resembles in several respects -- Gregory is already in prison when this book begins. ("Fact: I did it," he says.) That "Acts of Revision" brings Banville to mind is even more remarkable when you consider that Bedford's first novel was plucked from a heap of unsolicited manuscripts just a year ago by a junior literary agent. Bedford -- as well as that agent -- deserves a long, productive career.

By Dwight Garner

Dwight Garner is Salon's book review editor.

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