Fay Weldon. Viking. 222 pages. $21. Fay Weldon keeps turning out novels that are witty and enjoyable, with an undercurrent of seriousness. In "Life Force," she turns from the omniscient, jokey tone of some of her earlier novels to take the viewpoint of a narrator writing about herself and three friends, all of whom had affairs in their youth with one Leslie Beck. His reappearance at the beginning of the book after many years upsets their quiet lives in London.
Early on, Nora describes the Life Force that is the connecting thread for the novel's events and characters: "Leslie Beck's Life Force is the energy not so much of sexual desire as of sexual discontent: the urge to find someone better out in the world, and thereby something better in the self; . . . sparking off happiness and unhappiness; creating in our excited heads wild notions of ++ victory and defeat, but, when it comes to it, mindless and about little else than accident and survival."
After that description of the attraction of the Life Force, the rest of the book is about the chaos it causes. Nora is writing the book during her part-time job at Accord Realtors -- with the real estate market so slow, she has plenty of time.
Nora has lived a cheerful companionable life with her husband, Ed, for close to 20 years. Ed is the more intellectual one. "We live with a certain formality . . .," Nora writes. "TV programs are carefully selected for their cultural and political correctness, and Ed is right -- it's just that sometimes I long for the energy and brashness of what is random and to the common taste."
Those are, in part, the qualities that attracted her and the other women to Leslie Beck. For the novel is also about the clash between two worlds: the aesthetic, intellectual world of Nora and Ed and their friends, and the brash, modern world of Leslie Beck.
Nora recognizes that her friends are intellectual snobs, hating the unstoppable forces of money-grubbing developers -- of which Leslie Beck is a prime example. They despise him for his lack of idealism and of any sense of aesthetics -- yet still the women feel drawn to him.
In enjoyably roundabout fashion, Nora tells the story of how she and her three friends each had an affair with Leslie. Nora's lasted a few months, and clearly she still pines for him.
Then there is Marion, the only one who never married. In some ways, she is in the best position to understand Leslie because they both came up from humble origins -- he through his talent for making money, she through brains and the luck of meeting Ed at an art opening. He rescued her from a dreary provincial existence as a bank clerk and brought her back to London, where she worked as an au pair for Leslie Beck and his first wife.
We learn most of the above from chapters written by Nora imagining Marion's viewpoint, since the entire novel is written by Nora. It is a kind of fiction within fiction, a device that Ms. Weldon uses more dramatically later in the book.
Vinnie and Susan are another couple in the group. Nora had an affair with Vinnie, whom she refers to as "our taste-and-culture leader." Susan's affair with Leslie Beck, which lasted only for an afternoon, produced a daughter.
This is a novel about how the unplanned messiness of life -- the Life Force -- intrudes on the best-laid plans. Nora ends her narrative on a moral note, saying, "Nor do I think Leslie . . . is necessarily a bad man: the cards he deals at least consist of pleasure and children, not like, say, those of General Schwarzkopf, who hands out cards of glory and death." The balance of frivolity and seriousness is uniquely Fay Weldon's and, as usual, she does a marvelous job.
Ms. Mooney is a writer who lives in Washington.