"Her Name Was Lola": Inside the head of lovelorn man gone mad

The worst part about reading Russell Hoban's novel, "Her Name Was Lola," is that the Barry Manilow song from which the title is drawn ("Copacabana") kept going through my head. Maybe Hoban planned it this way, given that his protagonist — a writer named Max Lesser — has bad things going through his head, too. Max has a bit of a split personality and is often conversing with Max's mind. Worse, Max sometimes responds aloud, to the confusion of those around him.

Just how far gone is he? In the beginning he leaves his London flat and encounters a foul-smelling dwarf who leaps upon him like a jumping spider and won't get off. No one else notices the dwarf, yet its presence — it's really Apasmara Purusha, the Hindu demon of Forgetfulness — may be the sanest thing about Max. It was sent by an ex-lover, Lola, who begrudges Max "even the memory of what we had," and tries to erase it by spending years in a New Age retreat learning the sarod. Apparently Max's years spent pining for her haven't been enough.

The novel plays with time and bends reality, and not just in the Hindu sense. Max creates a scene with a fictional character, Moe Levy, which Max himself will live through four years later. He literally imagines his own future.

For all this absurdity, the novel is grounded by good British cynicism. The sentences are clipped, and most chapters are just two pages long. The cleverness sometimes gets in the way of deeper emotions, but it's usually welcome. Max and Lola visit Chesil Beach, "where the waves sort the pebbles according to size." Max has just impregnated two women and thinks, "Events sort people according to size. It seems I'm one of the smaller ones."

By the end we realize we've been following the most conventional story line created: Boy meets girl, boy loses girl. "Lola" is quick and fun, and I enjoyed my time with Max, but all of it might be too harmless to stick. Apasmara has short limbs but a long reach.

"Her Name Was Lola"

by Russell Hoban
Arcade, 207 pp., $24