Tag Archives: humour

Girl, 20 by Kingsley Amis

“I advise you to retire to one of those places in California where nobody knows anything or notices anything.”

Girl, 20, of the title isn’t actually 20–Sylvia, the latest in a long line of extra-marital affairs indulged in by middle-aged composer and conductor Sir Roy Vandervane,  is a mere 17 and a great deal of trouble. Still no matter, what she lacks in years, she makes up for in ferocity. It would be false to say that Sylvia is Sir Roy’s latest conquest, as in this case, it seems that Sylvia is the conqueror and Sir Roy the eager booty. Anyway, the novel starts with our narrator, music critic Douglas Yandell finding himself dragged into the domestic tribulations of the Vandervanes. Douglas chronicles Sir Roy’s troubled home life with his delightfully neurotic wife, Kitty–a woman who usually tolerates Sir Roy’s clumsy affairs, but in this instance, he has simply gone too far. Kitty monitors her husband’s affairs by counting the pairs of underwear in his drawer, so when the number is depleted, she knows there’s another woman. This latest affair or “goes” as Kitty calls them, seems to be serious.

Girl 20Kitty, herself a product of an “ancient go,” which resulted in Sir Roy’s divorce from his first wife, is very familiar with her husband’s MO. He seems to regard extra-marital affairs as his right, so he doesn’t bother to cover his tracks, and there’s also the argument that his refusal to hide these affairs is a provocation. Kitty summons Douglas to the Vandervane mansion, north of Hampstead, and demands his help–although Douglas’s  first inclination is to support his own sex, “on ordinary male-trade-union grounds,” in these matters. After a few hours at the Vandervane home spent in the company of the family, particularly the obnoxious brat, Ashley, Douglas has only sympathy for Sir Roy’s desire to escape his domestic situation.

Kitty, at forty-six or seven, must feel, and could not understand why Roy, at nearly fifty-four (twenty years my senior to within a week), should have to grow sillier as he grew older, except that his growing wiser would have been unbelievable.

Sir Roy’s affairs have been indiscreet, numerous, and sometimes disastrous. Kitty says she doesn’t “mind him just having a go occasionally,” it’s his long disappearances she objects to. He’s considering taking a “tour of Brazil” no doubt with his latest paramour (whose identity remains a mystery) as part of the luggage.  Kitty is adamant that her husband mustn’t “throw himself away on some filthy little barbarian of a teenager.”

“I don’t know anything at all about her, but they’re been running at about twenty to twenty-six over the last three years or so. Tending to go down. Getting younger at something like half the rate he gets older. When he’s seventy-three they’ll be ten.”

I checked the last bit mentally and found it to be correct, given the assumptions. It seemed to me extraordinary that anyone capable of making these in the first place, and then of following through to their ‘logical’ conclusion, should (as Kitty clearly did), see the final picture as nothing but tragic or repulsive.

“And when he’s eighty-three they’ll be five,” I said experimentally.

“Yes,” she agreed, glad that I had followed her reasoning.

That quote gives a taste of the sort of humour found in Girl, 20. Aging, sexuality, and infidelity all come in for a ribbing here, and when the book is funny, it’s very funny. Poor Douglas is recruited to discover the identity of the other woman as well as determine how serious the affair is, and according to Kitty then  “we can sort of make a plan.” Led on by his curiosity, Douglas becomes embroiled in the private lives of the Vandervanes.  Douglas makes a good narrator for this tale–he’s used and abused by all sides–Sir Roy, Kitty and even other members of the Vandervane household. Although Douglas is ostensibly the wobbly moral centre of the novel, he has a peculiar ‘arrangement’ of his own–he ‘shares’ his girlfriend, Vivienne with the “other bloke,” who gets “every Tuesday and Friday.” So while Sir Roy is in a triangular relationship, being tugged back and forth between wife and mistress, our narrator, Douglas is juggled with another man, but then Douglas begins juggling another woman with Vivienne. Douglas occasionally tries to take the moral high road with Sir Roy, but it doesn’t work, and Douglas, who has a lurid attraction to Sir Roy’s grubbier exploits, doesn’t really have his heart in any firm moralizing.

Author Kingsley Amis stated that the book is about irresponsibility, and the monstrously irresponsible Sir Roy is the larger-than-life character who carries the novel. While he’s exactly the sort of person you wouldn’t want in your life–an egoist, supremely selfish, a champagne socialist with a penchant for pontificating, he’s fun to read about as he careens from one disaster to another. Everything seems to be falling apart, so we see Penny, Sir Roy’s daughter from his first marriage, experimenting with drugs even as her father experiments with a series of young women.  Sir Roy feels that he’s come of age in the 60s and can take a leap just as much as any 20 year-old. He’s convinced that “the whole generation-gap idea’s just an invention of the media and the Yanks.” He’s out to prove he’s just as hip and swinging as … well … Sylvia. According to Sir Roy, he hasn’t been breaking the law “much,” and this is how he describes his torrid relationship with Sylvia:

Ageing shag tries to stimulate jaded appetite by recreating situation of days of firse discovery of sex plus whiff of illegality, corruption of youth, dirty ole man luring child into disused plate-layer’s hut and plying her with dandelion-and-burdock to induce her to remove knickers and slake his vile lusts

This is the swinging sixties, and the novel feels like it with the disintegration of traditional values, sexual experimentation, alternative lifestyles etc, and this novel is so 60s, at times it has an anachronistic feel. Everything that was so successful in Lucky Jim, isn’t quite as successful here. Lucky Jim, Amis’s first novel, gives us the backdrop of academia and a young don who tries to flatter his boring boss–even as he self-sabotages his attempts at sycophancy.  In Girl, 20, we have a younger man who has no idea what married life is about, telling an older married man how to behave, and sometimes he even means it.  Douglas and Roy’s misadventures are very funny, but the spaces between these social explosions are not so interesting, with the result that  Girl, 20 published in 1971, is a much less even novel than Lucky Jim.  Still this is classic Amis, and that means when it’s funny, it’s very funny. And a word of caution for foreign readers who wish to read this in English. Some of the dialogue is written to reflect upper class accents, so there are occasionally sentences such as:

I’m really moce grateful to you two for doing this.”

“What a terribly nice fluht.”

“Uhbsolutelty different.”

I can see foreign readers scrambling for their English dictionaries….

Review copy

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The Deep Whatsis by Peter Mattei

“I’m an asshole and not loyal to anyone, not even myself.”

Just what makes people laugh is hard to predict, and although I’m always on a quest to read something comic, it’s rare that a book is so funny that I laugh out loud. For sheer unadulterated cheek, The Deep Whatsis by Peter Mattei is going to make my best of the year list. It’s not a perfect book, and it wobbled on the ending, but I loved this book for its no-holds barred, outrageously nasty narrator.  For anyone who’s read and enjoyed early Max Barry (Syrup, Company), you should know what I’m talking about when I say that The Deep Whatsis, set in the cutthroat corporate world intent on downsizing, could be written by Max Barry’s evil twin brother. If he had one that is. As much as I enjoyed this book, my wholehearted recommendation comes with a Black Box Warning: if you’ve recently been the victim of downsizing or termination, or if the prospect looms in the near future, then you probably shouldn’t read The Deep Whatsis as it might send you spiraling into the abyss.

The Deep WhatsisSo let’s get beyond the cover, and sink into the nastiness I so enjoyed….

Our pathological liar narrator, Eric Nye is thirty-three, a right piece of work who’s hired at an indecently huge salary by Tate, a worldwide ad agency as “Executive Creative Director slash Chief Idea Officer.” Nye’s job is to move into the New York offices and “clean house,”–a euphemism for firing people. According to Nye he was “brought in to create a culture of innovation and creativity, meaning get rid of the dead wood, shitcan the old and the slow and the weak.” Nye is already horribly overpaid, but he’s also slated to get a big fat bonus if he meets his goal to fire 50% of the staff. Those targeted for termination are in their late 40s and over–those about to qualify for  a small pension. Together with the anorexic  “HR lady,” Nye “creates a dynamic of fear,” as he selects one person after another for firing and then begins his “danse macabre” with his “prey.” Nye compares the way he has developed of “ritualizing” his elaborate methods of firing employees to bullfighting, and of course, he’s the armed matador. It’s a well-drawn comparison, for Nye ruthlessly plays with his victims, letting them know that his attention is on them which sparks a frantic range of paranoid reactions in those about to be fired.

So while Nye spends his days at work (when he bothers to show up) either firing his next victim or playing a game of cat-and-mouse with the next candidate for downsizing, he spends his nights in a hazy drunken state. And it’s this sort of soulless behaviour that leads to Nye’s “meta-doom” when he takes a girl he cavalierly calls “Intern” back to his swanky pad full of expensive designer items–including his eight-hundred-dollar Dalai Lama Edition Tibetan throw rug. There’s something about this girl he just can’t shake, and when she joins the Tate office, Nye begins to get the uncomfortable feeling that he has a stalker.

The story careens between Nye’s heavily medicated days at the office and his drunken and chemically wrecked nights–some of which are spent with Nye’s only friend (and I’m using that term loosely), Seth Krallman “playwright turned pot dealer turned yoga guru,” who hopes that Nye will get him a job and purchase his expensive car. Nye,  a would be-playwright stuck on page two, and Seth secretly despise one another. Here’s Nye on the subject of Seth:

He’s a pretentious idiot, a so-called avant garde playwright who had twelve or thirteen seconds of notoriety in the east Village in the late ’90s when he chained himself to the stage of a tiny theater for a month as some kind of protest slash performance, peeing in a crystal bowl and mixing it with champagne and drinking it every night at precisely midnight, while reciting some poetry.

In a world obsessed with the getting and spending of money, the morally reprehensible Nye is aware that there’s no meaning to life. Even art is served up as some sort of tasteless parody of itself, and in one section Nye attends an art show called, “Show Us Your Tits!” While Nye claims to “feel fine” about cutting employee after employee loose, and outwardly appears to enjoy the massacre he’s conducting at the office, there are indications that at least on some level, he’s paying a price for his cutthroat behaviour. Perhaps it’s his conscience that causes his insomnia and lack of appetite. With his life in a downward spiral, Nye still manages to operate on two levels–on one level he’s slick, hip and conscienceless, but there’s also a sly self-awareness.

Here’s Nye lying to a therapist:

“I’ve never really had a relationship with anyone and I’m thirty-three. I guess that’s not so weird since the advent of video games and reality television, not to mention that new porno app everybody is talking about, thirty-three is the new nine.”

Then I put an unexpected twist into the story, a MacGuffin.

“I guess it all goes back to my mom,” I say and then without thinking what’s coming up next, there it is sliding out of my mouth. “She died in a car accident when I was ten years old. I saw the whole thing.”

The rest of it writes itself. “I was standing in our front yard and my mom was driving down the street. In my mental re-creation of that day I surmise that she was drunk because when she got to our house instead of slowing down to let a garbage truck pass she must have hit the gas instead of the brake. She lurched forward right into the front of the truck as it was zooming by.”

I figure this would be an excellent place for a pause and so I put one there. I look up at him and waited, wondering why I am making up all these tales when there are perfectly valid truths I could be telling him.

The Deep Whatsis is hilariously, savagely funny, and so of course, while Nye’s victims pile up, we can’t wait for him to get his comeuppance. Even Nye, who is unleashed at Tate, has to answer to someone, and in one wonderful scene, he’s called in to get chewed out by his boss.

What a disgusting man, I think, how many awful chemicals there must be lodged in every crevice of every tissue of his body, which may be why at sixty-whatever he’s still working here, still alive preserved in chemicals, he’ll never die because technically he’s already dead, he’s undead, he’s pickled by fear, lies, and nicotine.

“I gotta get off the goddamn phone,” he says to whoever he’s talking to and tosses the thing away. “Nye,” he says to no one in particular but since that is my name I know he must mean me, “get your hipster ass in here.” Then he stuffs his breakfast sandwich into the fleshy maw located in the center of his colorless face and keeps pushing until most of it is jammed in there and then he begins chewing, bent over the desk so that the egg yolk drips out and runs down over his chin like yellow chicken cum onto the crumpled tin foil in front of him. “Where’s your cohort?”

“I wanted to talk to you first, just the two of us,” I explain.

“Fine, good, now I can chew your ass out in private.”

“That’s what I figured, sir.”

“Close the door and don’t call me sir. I know you hate my guts.” Barry is worth at least fifty or sixty million since the agency was sold to La Groupe S. A, the holding company that owns the holding company owned by M. J-C.

“I don’t hate your guts, Bar,” I say, “I love you,” and at the moment this is basically true. He puts down the last bit of his egg-and-sausage, sucks at the ends of his fingers, and reaches for the smoldering Newport sitting in the battery-operated vacuum-action ashtray that sits next to the Smoke Eater. He takes a long drag on the butt and leans over toward the machine and exhales into it again like it’s some girl or cat he’s trying to get high. I almost expect him to tongue the thing.

“I assume you don’t mind if I smoke,” he says, probably reading from a script he wrote for legal reasons; but sitting here I’ve clearly given up my right to take action. “They don’t even let me smoke outside this building any more, can you believe that? Somebody complained about the secondhand smoke out on the sidewalk. It’s New York Fucking City, it’s Tenth Fucking Avenue.”

“Times change, I guess.”

“Oh shut the fuck up you asshole,” he says to me.

The Deep Whatsis is a very funny novel, but there are some ugly truths here as we see Nye trying to grab that bonus. In order to succeed, he’s supposed to leave every shred of humanity behind, and he does this quite successfully, refusing to “sugar-coat” the firing process or pretty it up as something that it clearly isn’t. In Nye’s world, empathy is seen as weakness while sociopathic tendencies almost guarantee success in the corporate world in which savagery, self-centeredness and self-promotion trump all other human qualities. Nye fires people with gusto, those with new babies, those with disabled relatives, and even one man for wearing pleated Dockers–no one is spared. And while he appears to take glee in his work and his well-honed psychological warfare, he despises himself for what he has become–a cog in the corporate machine, gradually losing his grip on reality. Original, subversive and savagely funny (loved the Wikipedia page) this book, replete with Nye’s various theories of life, offers a dark portrait of the cutthroat nature of the corporate world and the vapidity of our consumerist society in which the void left by a lack of humanity is filled with meaningless objects.

Review copy

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Bleeding London by Geoff Nicholson

After reading several novels  written by Geoff Nicholson for  a Year of Geoff Nicholson (which is extending into a Year and a Bit), I’ve thought a great deal about obsession. The driving force behind Nicholson’s characters is obsession in one form or another, and  I’ve begun to wonder if being an obsessive is necessarily a bad thing. After all if nursing an obsession saves you from going around the bend or blowing your brains out, then what’s the problem?

The three main characters in Nicholson’s brilliantly funny novel Bleeding London are all obsessives, all people on a mission for one reason or another. There’s Mick, a bouncer whose stripper girlfriend, Gabby, a hard-as-nails, “taut redhead,” claims she was gang-raped by six men, “in-bred toffs,”  following a performance for a private stag party in London. Armed with a list of names, Mick travels from Sheffield to London on a mission to hunt down the offenders and deliver painful, humiliating punishments. Sounds fairly straightforward, right?

Bleeding LondonThen there’s Judy who works in a bookshop and is obsessed with having sex in every London location possible. She has a map hanging on her wall marked for each event, and after quizzing each of her lovers, she creates their maps of past sexual adventures for comparison. The men in Judy’s life have a range of responses to her enthusiasm for sexual geography: they find her hobby exciting, erotic, and puzzling. Judy relentlessly pursues her obsession, and yet at the same time feels an emptiness. No wonder she calls late night radio chat shows to discuss her sex life.

Then there’s Stuart who founded a walking tour business called The London Walker. Business was limp at first until Stuart met and married Anita. She’s transformed the business into a phenomenal success, but in the process Stuart has become superfluous. Anita calls Stuart’s tours  “a little recherché,” and he’s eventually moved to a management position while Anita creates London walks designed to appeal to tourists.

At first he continued to lead walks. But Anita had been right. His knowledge of London was detailed and profound, his love of it real, yet as the years went by he had an increasing distaste for the obvious. He genuinely wanted to reveal London to the people who came on the tours but he was bored with its more obvious features. He wanted to show its eccentricities and unknown quarters. Rather than take them to the Tower of London he’d have preferred to take them to the abandoned Severndroog Castle near Oxleas wood. For Stuart it increasingly wasn’t enough to tell a few old anecdotes and point out a few sights and locations. He felt the truth was more profound in the obscure corners than in the grand sweeps. And on a good day he would find these corners, even while ostensibly showing the punters the more orthodox aspects of London. His tours became increasingly abstract, free form, improvised, often turning into a sort of mystery tour. A crowd that had signed up for a canal walk might be treated instead to a tour of sites connected with leprosy. There were a few complaints, some dissatisfied walkers who demanded their money back.

If pressed to tell the truth, Stuart was happy with his small business, but that’s swept aside by Anita’s drive, efficiency, and emphasis on “cash-flow forecasts.”

For a while he conceived of his consultative role as thinking up new and original ideas for tours, but this was not an area where novelty and ingenuity were particularly welcomed. The Henry VIII walk and the Jack the Ripper Walk were always likely to do better business than Stuart’s fancier inventions such as the Thomas Middleton Walk, the Post-Modernist Walk, the Anarchists’ Walk. In fact it was a guide in her first week with the company who came up with the idea of the London Lesbian Walk, which for a while was one of the most popular tours.

Driven to despair and a feeling of uselessness, he falls into an affair that is now over. Depressed and withdrawn, Stuart, decides that he needs a “Big Idea” as a “reason for being.”

Once it had arrived there was an inevitability about it, something undeniable. he was sitting in the coffee bar of the Museum of Transport in Covent Garden thinking how much he disliked buses and tubes when the idea finally struck, and the moment it was there he couldn’t see why it had been so long coming. It felt so completely right. What he had to do was utterly clear. He was going to walk down every street in London.

Armed with a A-Z book of London, Stuart takes off every morning exploring London in a way he’s never explored it before, and we get some of the stranger less-well known episodes of the history of London with an emphasis on sexual tourism.  Naturally, since this is a Geoff Nicholson novel, all three characters, each with a different version of London, collide with tangled connections of sexual obsession. Bleeding London is a very funny book with Mick delivering his creative, humiliating punishments to the men on his hit-list, Judy trying to find meaning in her life by plotting geographical markers of sexual encounters, and poor Stuart who is dazzled and amazed by London even as he realises that it’s a city that is greater than a sum of its parts. Once again Nicholson explores the pathology of obsession in this story of characters whose raison d’être is obsession–characters who finally understand that obsession, a harsh exacting mistress, can never be satisfied. Once down that rabbit hole, you’re a goner.

Geoff Nicholson, by the way, has a blog called The Hollywood Walker.  Which makes perfect sense if you think about it.

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The Errol Flynn Novel by Geoff Nicholson

We both deserved more, something more difficult, more special. How much do you know about sadomasochism?”

Another entry in my Year of Geoff Nicholson, and if you didn’t know already, it’s Geoff’s 60th birthday next month. This read-a-thon is a way for me to say ‘thanks’ to one of my favourite authors who’s given me a lot of laughs over the last few years. Always grateful to authors who make me laugh and if they throw a little obsession and perversion into the mix, well so much the better, right?

the errol flynn novelThis time, I’m writing about The Errol Flynn Novel, a book I first read a few years ago and a book that was rather difficult to track down at the time. I loved it and immediately recommended it to several people who didn’t like it at all. So take that as a warning for what it’s worth. One of the complaints I read about the book is that it isn’t really about Errol Flynn. Actually, while that isn’t strictly true, I can see why this book, in common with other Nicholson novels didn’t get the right audience. Other readers appear to be offended by what is written about Errol Flynn. Well you can’t please all the people, etc., so suffice to know that I thoroughly enjoyed this strange tale.

So what’s it about?

The story concerns a failed actor named Jake who’s all but given up the idea of ever making the big time. This explains why he’s working in a photocopying shop when the story opens. Jake admits that he “wanted excitement, drama, money, love” so this is one of those ‘be-careful-what-you-wish-for’ scenarios. By the novel’s conclusion, Jake has far more excitement than he wants, lots of drama and some strange sexual encounters. Shortly after the novel begins, Sacha, an attractive girl from Jake’s drama school days walks into the shop. She’s making a career out of edgy art films, and Jake is initially not thrilled to see her as his loser life is in stark contrast to her acting career which seems to be a series of good moves. Jake is then rather surprised by Sacha’s offer to introduce Jake to Dan Ryan, an American who’s making a film about the life of Errol Flynn. If something sounds too good to be true, it usually is, and if Jake weren’t so desperate to have that elusive acting career, he’d probably have smelled a rat at this very first meeting:

“Look,” Ryan continued, “this is not going to be an expensive movie. we’re only talking about a few million dollars or so. Okay, that means we won’t be hiring Robert Redford, but it also means we can be free in a way Hollywood never dreamed of. We can be outrageous. We have the freedom to be weird. It’s important that you know what kind of director I am, Jake. I’m not a David Lean. I’m sure as hell no Dickie Attenborough. I’m more Andy Warhol meets David Lynch meets Peter Greenaway. Is that okay by you?”

“That’s fine by me,” I said.

” And look, in the end it may not be a movie about Errol Flynn at all, not the Errol Flynn who actually lived. It may be about ontology and iconography, and sensuality, and fame, and myth, and, of course, death. And you know what it’s going to be called? The Errol Flynn Movie.”

I don’t know about you, but I’d be a bit nervous about that speech–a speech which rather uncannily is a mirror image of the novel itself. Jake certainly is a little uncomfortable with Ryan, but he’s also never been in a film before. Perhaps all directors are nuts. While his concerns are mostly silenced by a large cheque, Jake does have the wit, however, to ask to see the script. There isn’t one. Well, at least not yet, but Ryan’s harried, slightly neurotic wife, Tina is desperately trying to produce one. To Jake’s astonishment, he lands the leading role, and armed with Errol Flynn’s biography, film stills, videos, recording and a gossip mag, he begins to ‘discover’ the man he’s supposed to portray in the film.

Naturally since this is a Geoff Nicholson novel, things go downhill from here. Ryan not only wants to make a film about Errol Flynn’s life, but he seems determined to live parts of it. As the film is made, things spiral increasingly out of control until… well … until they devolve completely.

One of the frequent themes in Nicholson’s novel is obsession, so in The Errol Flynn Novel, we see a multi-layered obsession with Errol Flynn. Director Dan Ryan is so obsessed with the exploits of this iconic star  whose life is wrapped in myth, scandal and rumour, and Ryan wants to make the ultimate film, an ‘interpretation ‘of Flynn’s life, yet where does fact and fiction end? And where are the demarcations of reality and fiction in Ryan’s head? Can Ryan be so gregarious, such a larger than life personality that his actions mask  … insanity?

Throughout the making of the film, Jake of course must act and dress like Errol Flynn, so this involves no small number of costumes and feats of daring (which are very funny if you’re not Jake). Jake has researched his subject, and so the novel is full of Errol Flynn trivia as well as Jake’s inevitable comparisons with his own pathetic life.

No don’t get me wrong. I’m not some sort of sexual inadequate. I have had my fair share of sexual partners, although you could debate whether or not it was a fair share. I am not one of those men who feels he has to make a lot of conquests, and I certainly don’t see why you would want to have sex with someone who didn’t want to have sex with you, and I’m definitely liberal enough to believe that women are entitled to say no and be believed. On the other hand I do wish that rather fewer women had felt free to say no to me over the years than actually have.

Nicholson excels in creating these peculiar situations that spin out-of-control and morph into total whackiness, and in this humorous novel, a film that’s supposed to be a bio-pic of Errol Flynn becomes a formless homage of the very worst aspects of Flynn’s life and a vehicle for Ryan’s obsession. Insane scene after insane scene is shot by a devoted cast while Tina, Ryan’s harried wife attempts to churn out a script. Eventually Jake sniffs that there’s something fishy afoot, but he has no idea just what he’s got himself into….

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Hunters and Gatherers by Geoff Nicholson

As he made love to the girl last night he kept feeling that something was missing. Actually, several things were missing–passion, affection, mutual respect–but he could easily live without those.”

Back to my celebration of the works of Geoff Nicholson with his next novel, Hunters and Gatherers, and it’s with this novel that, IMO, the author really begins to hit his stride. Hunters and Gatherers is seriously good Nicholson, and I loved it.

Hunters and gatherersThe characters in Nicholson’s novels are often obsessives of one sort or another, and in Hunters and Gatherers, we find an author, Steve Geddes after a failed marriage and a move to Sheffield, who’s trying to write a book about collectors. There’s an inherent problem with this: while the book is supposed to be a “serious but good-humoured, off-beat, non-fiction work about people who collect things,” Steve has little respect for his subject. He intends to fill the pages with details of “dubious but entertaining eccentrics who had unlikely, bizarre or exceptionally useless collections.” Rather oddly, Steve thinks he’s the “right person” to be writing this book, but the truth is that he’s fundamentally “baffled” by the idea that anyone would want to collect anything:

At bottom I was somehow opposed to the activity. I thought it was a ‘bad thing’. I thought the collecting instinct was a form of grasping covetousness. People owned collections in order to experience the dubious pleasures of ownership. What were these pleasures? What pleasure came from owning, say, ten Fabergé eggs, as opposed to only owning five? Only the pleasure of partially satisfied greed, and it is in the nature of greed that it can never be wholly satisfied.

Then there were all those collections that somehow missed the point. People collect toys that couldn’t be played with, plates that couldn’t be eaten from, jewellery that couldn’t be worn. That was insane. And then there were collections of things peripheral to the activity that caused them to exist. I could see why people might want to go to the theatre or to football matches. I could see why people might go wild about Elvis Presley’s music, but not why they wanted to collect Elvis memorabilia.

So here we have an author writing a book he doesn’t believe in–or I should say trying to write a book he doesn’t believe in. And here’s yet another problem–Steve has accepted a large advance for the book, but although he’s compiled extensive notes, he’s unable to actually write anything. By trying to write this book, in the process, he’s paradoxically become a collector–the very sort of person he doesn’t understand. Is this why he’s mired in a serious case of writer’s block? As Steve pushes onward with his interviews of various eccentric collectors and their bizarre collections, something very strange begins to happen–various collections are mysteriously destroyed or simply disappear. What madness is afoot?

The novel goes back and forth between third person and Steve’s first person narration, and we meet an impressive cast of characters who are all obsessive collectors in one way or another. There’s Victoria who collects lovers, Victoria’s husband who collects cars, a comedian who collects jokes, “England’s foremost collector of and expert on beer cans,” a girl who collects sounds, and Mike who owns the successful, used “flash” car lot, Killer Kars, who collects women’s knickers. In the wake of meeting Victoria, Mike quietly undergoes a crisis of character.

He would say  that he believes in trying most things once, but he now sees how little he has tried. Of course there are all sorts of things he wouldn’t want to try–all the obvious ones that are painful and disgusting, and no doubt a hundred and one other things that people no doubt do but which he can’t even imagine, the sort of thing they get up to in London.

While Mike reexamines his life, his underachiever friend, employee and mobile home dweller Jim, embarks on the collection of knowledge. This rather peculiar, never-ending and somewhat ephemeral quest is inspired by Jim’s passion for a passing encyclopedia saleswoman.  Jim decides that “knowledge is power,” and driven by his desire to impress the rather strange encyclopedia saleswoman, he decides to groom himself for quiz shows and “become a bit of a celebrity.” Jim’s collection of knowledge is soon like any other–insatiable and unstoppable. He ‘invests’ in the set of encyclopedias. To say the entries in The Books of Power, are eccentric and bizarre is a wild understatement. Here are some samples entries for England:

English food: the sandwich, sirloin and pease pudding, spotted dick and custard, fish and chips, cakes and ale.

The English character: reserved. Except at pantomimes,  football matches, wedding receptions, in pubs and clubs, on picket lines, at New Year’s sales, at the bingo, at the seaside, on coach parties

Some famous English obsessions: Ireland, public schools, contempt for the French.

World War One: trenches, appalling casualties but some damn fine poetry

World War Two: the blitz, sleeping in the Underground, VE Day–dancing in the streets. The GIs, over here and all over everybody

Democracy:  chained themselves to railings, that woman who threw herself under a horse.

Steve’s rejection of collections is re-evaluated when he discovers that his all-time favourite author, the extremely reclusive novelist, Thornton McCain, may have written another book that appears to have vanished. Obsessed with discovering the truth (and the missing book,) Steve tries to locate his hero who seems to be everywhere and nowhere.

There are three things to remember about Geoff Nicholson novels:

  1. They’re funny in a very dark humor sort of way
  2. Nicholson does not create normal characters. In fact a great number of them seem to be pervies
  3. Nicholson novels spin and build and appear to go out of control, but that’s just because you can’t seen the hidden, carefully constructed design behind all the madness.

And finally one last quote:

If you want to come here and fuck my wife that’s one thing, but if you do then you have an obligation to make a decent job of it, otherwise piss off and stop wasting everybody’s time.

I’ll be skipping the next Nicholson novel, The Food Chain. I’m a vegan and I’m sure the author will understand why I’m giving this one a pass.

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Benjamin Franklin: The Naughty Bits

Years ago I came across a peculiar little pamphlet “privately printed” for the Frankliniana Society in 1929 and “strictly limited to 500 copies.”  Written by Benjamin Franklin (whose mug appears on the front of the $100 bill), it’s titled Franklin on Marriage, and someone, rather rudely, stamped “ON SEX” across the front cover. Is that a warning or an enticement? Tut, tut. 

Anyway, in the first piece written in 1745, Franklin, who it turns out, was both a bit of a raver and a humourist writes “Advice to a Young Man on the Choice of a Mistress.” Franklin argues that “marriage is the proper remedy,” for “violent natural inclinations,” but failing that, he advises the young man to get himself an old mistress rather than a young one, and these are his reasons:

1. Because they have more Knowledge of the World, & their Minds are better stor’d with Observations, their Conversation is more improving, & more lastingly agreeable.

2. Because when Women cease to be handsome they study to be good. To maintain their Influence over men, they supply the Diminution of Beauty by an Augmentation of Utility. They learn to do a thousand Services small & great, & are the most tender and useful of Friends when you are sick. Thus they continue amiable. And hence there is hardly such a thing to be found as an old Woman who is not a good Woman.

3. Because there is no Hazard of Children, which irregularly produced may be attended with much Inconvenience.

4. Because through more Experience they are more prudent and discreet in conducting an Intrigue to prevent Suspicion. The Commerce with them is  therefore safer with regard to your Reputation. And with regard to theirs, if the Affair should happen to be known, considerate People might be rather inclined to excuse an old Woman, who would kindly take care of a young man, for  his Manners by her good counsels, & prevent ruining his Health and Fortune among mercenary Prostitutes.

5. Because in every Animal that walks upright, the Deficiency of the fluids that fill the Muscles appears first in the highest Part. The Face first grows lank and wrinkled; then the Neck; then the Breast and Arms; the lower Parts continuing and plump as ever: so that covering all above with a Basket, and regarding only what is below the Girdle, it is impossible of two Women to tell an old one from a young one. And as in the dark all Cats are grey, the Pleasure of Corporal Enjoyment with an old Woman is at least equal, and frequently superior, every Knack being, in practice, capable of Improvement.

6. Because the Sin is less. The debauching of a Virgin may be her Ruin, and make her Life unhappy.

7. Because the Compunction is less. The having made a young Girl miserable may give you frequent bitter Reflection; none of which may attend the making an old Woman happy.

8th and lastly. They are so grateful!!

Another piece in the pamphlet addresses the issue of farting and is signed “FART-HING.”  And  that brings me to the question:  was Franklin a member of the infamous Hellfire Club or was he in attendance, as some claim, as a spy?… The latter sounds a lot like someone I knew who was caught soliciting prostitutes. He had the misfortune to solicit an undercover policewoman by mistake and argued he was innocent as he was merely conducting research about prostitutes for a term paper.  

 

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The Fairy Gunmother by Daniel Pennac

“You know what kiddo? Dragging myself up in Belleville for the last month’s at least taught me one thing: wrinklies can wander the streets at night, stark naked, with diamond studs in their navels and the family silver hanging round their necks and not one smackhead’ll so much as touch them.”

I’d had my sights on the crime novels written by French author Daniel Pennac for some time, so when Emma from Book Around the Corner and I decided to do a virtual book exchange for Xmas, I was happy to see that one of Pennac’s novels made my list. This brings me to The Fairy Gunmother (La Fée Carabine), the second book in La Sage Malassène, a series of novels concerning Benjamin Malassène and his idiosyncratic family.  The first book is The Scapegoat (La Bonheur des Ogres) which introduces the main character, Benjamin.

The title, The Fairy Gunmother may give you a hint of what you’re in for as the writer loves wordplay, and if I had to compare this author to anyone else I’ve read, then that would be Raymond Queneau–specifically Zazie dans le Métro, which I loved incidentally. But back to the plot and more about the wordplay later.

The book begins in Belleville on a cold winter’s night with police Inspector Vanini hanging out on a street corner. There have been a number of old ladies robbed and murdered with their throats slit in Belleville, and with no suspects (other than Arabs in general), Vanini is on the lookout for suspicious persons and old ladies in trouble. As fate would have it, Vanini spies an elderly lady beginning to slip on a sheet of black ice:

Then the old dear’s shawl suddenly spread out, like a bat taking off, and everything came to a standstill. She’d lost her balance. Then she got it back again. The disappointed blond [Vanini] cursed between his teeth. Watching people fall flat on their faces always made him laugh. That was one of the nasty things about this blond head. Though it looked as neat and clean as can be from the outside, with its dense, evenly barbered crewcut. But its owner didn’t like oldsters much. He found them a bit disgusting.

So we know that Vanini isn’t hanging around in Belleville for the love of old ladies. In fact he’s hoping that this particular old lady will slip and fall and give him a good laugh in the process. So why is Vanini in Belleville on a freezing winter’s night? Simple: he’s convinced that Arabs are behind the vicious crimes, and he has very specific ideas about Arabs:

He was Nationally Frontal and made no bones about it. And that’s just why he didn’t want people to say he was NF because he was a racist. No, like he’d once learnt at school. This was not a case of cause and effect. It was a case of consequences. That blond head of his had become Nationally Frontal as a consequence of having objectively thought through the dangers of uncontrolled immigration. And he had quite sensibly made up his mind that all scum should be chucked out of the country as soon as possible. Firstly, with a view to saving the purity of the French livestock, secondly because of unemployment and, finally, to uphold law and order. 

So although Vanini would love to see the old lady slip on the ice, he notices two Arabs standing opposite, and since he’s convinced that Arabs are behind the latest elderly whackings, he decides to go and help the frail old lady and to act as a “deterrent” to the Arabs’ imagined bad intentions. To the astonishment of the bystanders, the old lady pulls out a gun and blows Vanini “to smithereens.” The Arabs, knowing full well that no one will believe their story that a geriatric woman just felled Vanini, run from the scene of the crime.

The Fairy Gunmother then follows the fallout of Vanini’s murder as Chief Superintendent Cercaria swoops into Belleville on a mission to catch the killer. There’s a dramatic division within the department with Cercaria’s mob believing that the Arabs are to blame for everything, but meanwhile Inspector Van Thian argues otherwise. And he should know since he’s living disguised as “wrinklie” granny, the widow Ho in the middle of Belleville.  But since the police are unable to catch the granny-snuffers, Belleville grannies don’t count on the police for help, and instead  they begin arming themselves…

Benjamin, the main character of the series, is employed by Queen Zabo at Vendetta Press. He lives with a sprawling family with so many members it wasn’t easy keeping track of them all–especially since they tend to ‘adopt’ various old men–some of whom have been led into a life of ruin by drug pushers. The story has various threads which cover a number of crimes under investigation (with Benjamin becoming a suspect in all of them), and while the story may seem to swing out of control at times, by the end of the novel, all the loose ends are neatly tied together. Gentrification, racism, and the care of the elderly play no small role, and while there are a lot of laughs, the story’s message is deadly serious. Pennac’s tale is rife with playful humour, and many parts of the novel, bolstered by Pennac’s use of language, are laugh-out-loud funny:

Minus twelve weather can freeze your balls off, but Belleville was still bubbling like a devil’s cauldron. It was as if every copper in Paris was getting in on the act. They were crawling up from the Place Voltaire, parachuting onto Place Gambetta, doing pincer movements from Nation and the Goutte d’Or. With sirens blaring, lights flashing, tyres screeching left, right, and centre. The night was on fire. Belleville was vibrant. But Julius the Dog didn’t give a damn. In the half-light that goes with doggish pleasures, Julius was licking up a sheet of Africa-shaped black ice. It tasted delicious to his dangling tongue. A city is a dog’s favourite dinner.

During this razor-sharp night, it was as though Belleville was settling all its old scores with the Law. Side alleys rang to truncheons. Information highways stretched through Black Marias to the Station. Pushers were having their sleeves pulled, the Arab hunting season was open, big mustachioed pigs were out for a barbecue. Apart from that, the neighbourhood was much the same as usual, that is to say, ever-changing. It’s on its way to being clean, on its way to being smooth and on its way to being expensive. What’s left of the old Belleville housing sticks out like fillings in a grinning set of Hollywood teeth. Belleville’s on its way.

Translator Ian Monk

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Machine Man by Max Barry

As a long-term fan of Max Barry, I’m pimping his new book Machine Man. It’s the story of a lonely scientist, Charles Neumann who loses a leg in an accident. Unhappy with the clumsy, rudimentary capabilities of the prosthetic device, he embarks on a quest for improvement. If you are at all familiar with Max Barry’s novels, then you know to expect dark humour.

Anyway, the full review is here at Mostly Fiction

and SCORE!! for the interview go here

But here’s a quote from the book, one of my favourites that should have you either dashing to your local bookshop or putting the book in your virtual shopping cart.

This is Cassandra Cautery, from the company Better Future talking to Charles Neumann:

“I’m a middle manager,” she said. “Some people think that’s a pejorative, but I don’t. There are people above me who make business decisions and people below me who execute them and those people live in different realities. Very different. And my job is to bring them together. Mesh their realities. Sometimes they’re not completely compatible, and sometimes I don’t even understand how someone can live in the reality they do, but the point is I mesh them. I’m like a translator. Only more hands-on. And that’s what makes the company work. Middle managers, like me, meshing. So let me take a stab at your reality, Charlie. Do you know how much money there is in medical? A lot. And more every year, because you invent a better heart and it doesn’t matter how much it costs, people want it. because you’re selling them life.” She blinked.  “You’re selling them life.” She patted her jacket pockets. “I need a pen. But what’s the problem with medical? The market is limited to sick people. Imagine: you sink thirty million into developing the world’s greatest artery valve and someone goes and cures heart disease. It would be a disaster. not for the … not for the people obviously. I mean for the company. Financially. I mean this is the kind of business risk that makes people upstairs nervous about signing off on major capital investment.”

And here’s Charles meeting physical therapist, Dave:

Then came the physical therapist. The second he bounced in I realized I was back in gym class. He was fit and tan and wore a hospital polo shirt small enough that his biceps strained the seams. Tucked beneath one was a clipboard. The only thing missing was a whistle.

And finally here’s Max on Youtube with a preview of Machine Man:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kEN10axDJtA

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Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse by Victor Gischler

“It’s a hard world to be good in.”

With the title Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse, how could I resist reading this novel by American author, former English professor, Victor Gischler? I read this wild roller-coaster ride of a novel in one sitting and enjoyed every page. Yes, I know, it won’t win the Pulitzer, but who cares?

The glorious front cover includes a quote from author James Rollins: “Part Christopher Moore, part Quentin Tarantino, Victor Gischler is a raving badass genius.” I’d say Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse is Duane Swierczynski on a trip through Mad-Max territory.

As the title suggests, this is a post-apocalypse novel set in the near future. The protagonist is Mortimer Tate, a 38-year-old insurance salesman. Correct that. Former insurance agent. And here’s how civilization ended:

No single thing had doomed Mortimer’s planet. Rather it had been a confluence of disasters. Some dramatic and sudden, others a slow silent decay.

The worldwide flu epidemic had come and gone with fewer deaths than predicted. Humanity emerged from that long winter and smiled nervously at one another. A sigh of relief, a bullet dodged.

That April the big one hit.

So long feared, it finally happened. The earth awoke, humped up its spine along the San Andreas. The destruction from L.A. to San Francisco defied comprehension. The earthquake sent rumbles across the Pacific, tsunamis pounding Asia. F.E.M.A. immediately declared its inadequacy and turned over operations to the military. The death toll numbered in the millions, and nothing–not food nor fuel–made it through West Coast seaports. The shortages were rapidly felt across the Midwest. Supermarkets emptied, and no trucks arrived to supply them.

Wall Street panicked.

Nine days later a Saudi terrorist detonated a nuclear bomb in a large tote bag on the steps of the Capitol building. Both houses of Congress were in session. The president and the vice president and most of the cabinet were obliterated.

The secretary of the interior was found and sworn in. This didn’t sit well with a four-star general who had other ideas. Civil war.

Economic spasms reached the European and Asian markets.

Israel dropped nukes on Cairo, Tehran and targets in Syria.

Pakistan and India went at it.

China and Russia went at it.

The world went at it.

It was pretty much downhill from there.

When the book begins, our hero Mortimer Tate is holed up in a well-stocked cabin on the top of a Tennessee mountain. He retreated to this remote site with a pile of supplies nine years ago as a way of refusing to sign his divorce papers. In the meantime, civilization went to hell in a handbasket, and since the portable batteries for his radio ran out the first year, Mortimer has no way of knowing what is going on in the world beyond his refuge. Mortimer is getting bored and lonely when 3 stragglers from the outside world invade his zone. As a result, Mortimer decides to head back, check out what is going on and find his wife, Anne.

Big mistake.

Mortimer discovers that the situation is worse, and far more dangerous, than he could have imagined. Some people have banded together to form roving tribes of marauders. Other people band together in isolated, bizarre utopian groups. Still others have turned to cannibalism. But there’s a burgeoning form of society in a chain of Joey Armageddon Sassy-A-Go-Go clubs strung out across America. Joey Armageddon’s oases of fun and pleasure are basically economic trade zones. The clubs feature home-made hooch (Freddy’s Piss Yellow, Freddy’s Piss Vinegar Vodka, Major Dundee’s Slow-Motion Gin), its own currency (Armageddon dollars–a piece of metal with a “primitive stamping” of a mushroom cloud on one side), and go-go girls. The club lights and music are powered by chained prisoners who are forced to pedal stationary bicycles that generate power (remember those Roman galley slaves? It’s the same sort of philosophy here). With rare goods to trade for Armageddon dollars, Mortimer becomes a card-carrying, platinum member of Joey Armageddon’s go-go clubs. 

Mortimer hooks up with a man named Bill– a latter-day cowboy, a man who dons a cowboy outfit, complete with a black cowboy hat, an ankle length duster, and a pair of pistols. Bill is one of the few good guys left:

“I don’t know why I did it at first,” admitted Bill. “I always liked westerns, John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart, you know? Think about what a cowboy is, what he represents. The new order rolling across the prairie, right? Even when he was slaughtering buffalo and red indians, he still left civilization in his wake, towns and railroads and all that. I guess maybe I thought we needed cowboys again. Maybe not. Hell, I don’t know. Probably sounds stupid.”

Bill and Mortimer team up together to find Mortimer’s missing wife, Anne, who’s rumoured to be in Chattanooga. Once they leave the semi-safe Armageddon zone with its almost pathetic pretensions of civilization and order, Bill and Mortimer discover just how awful the world has become. It’s non-stop action all the way as the two men pick up stripper Sheila as the third member of the group, and together they travel to Chattanooga to find Anne. There’s no petrol available–although there are rumours that refineries may be working again, so Bill, Mortimer and Sheila find a range of ways (most of them dangerous and unwise) to travel to their chosen destination.  You couldn’t pay me to ride on the Muscle Express.

Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse was bought on a whim, but this won’t be the only novel I read by this author. The novel is firmly rooted in pulp, and in spite of the fact that some of the action does stretch the imagination, this is a very visual tale. As I read, I found myself wondering just what would happen, what would become of ‘civilisation’ if the world ended? After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, we got a glimpse of the potential problems the world would face with the collapse of civilisation: police shooting unarmed black Americans (and then hiding their actions), rumours of rape and murder, allegations of euthanasia of aged patients, animals abandoned, looting, & thousands of people stranded the Superdome. Even the governor made statements about the deputized troops sent to the area who would shoot and kill (with their “Locked and loaded M-16s”). What would happen to the world if a disaster such as Katrina were repeated but on a much broader, more destructive scale and then extended over years?

I read the novel, I decided that Gischler was probably spot on with some of his predictions.

This brings me to one of the complaints I read about the book. Some reviewers found it sexist. Women are bought and sold, kept in bikinis, and they also titillate the male customers of the Joey Armageddon’s Sassy-a-Go-Go chain. But since the novel is set post-Apocalypse, somehow I don’t think PC values would survive through the New World Order. Gischler seems to have a lot of fun imagining just what would survive the Apocalypse, and it is funny to note than humankind quickly resurrects strip joints, slavery and rotgut booze–after all, these are the rudimentary necessities, right? This is a savage, violent world in which people cling to each other to survive but the shared values of most of the loosely-formed groups are based on very practical principles. In Gischler’s world, there’s no time for sensitivity, but still time for humour. But lest readers should think that all the female characters exist as sex objects, here’s Tyler Kane:

A slender figure appeared atop the crates in front of them, looked down on the two passengers in the theater seats. The newcomer’s face wasn’t clear at first, a dark silhouette against the morning sun. Mortimer held up a hand, shaded his eyes to get a look. A woman.

“Don’t puke on my train,” she said.

Mortimer looked down, closed his eyes. It took too much energy to hold his head up. “Your train?”

“I’m Tyler Kane. I’m the train captain.”

She hopped down from the crates, and Mortimer got a better look at her. Athletically thin, hard body like a track star. She wore black leather pants and a matching jacket too light for the cold, a white turtleneck underneath. A nickel-plated revolver sprung from her waistband. Her hair was burgundy red, cut close on the sides and spiked on top. A black patch covered her left eye, and a thin white scar leaked from under the patch and ran straight down to the edge of her angular jawline. Her one eye was bright and blue as an arctic lake. She had the palest skin Mortimer had ever seen on someone still alive.

“You’re paying passengers, so you don’t have to do anything except stay out of the way,” Tyler said. “If we’re attacked, be prepared to repel boarders. If you vomit, stick your head over the side. Any questions?

And guess what? This is in production. Here’s a clip:

Go Go Girls of the Apocalypse

Can’t wait.

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The Ambassador by Bragi Olafsson

The Ambassador from Icelandic author Bragi Olafsson follows on the heels of The Pets. The Pets is an incredibly funny story of a man whose home is invaded by a loony from his past, and the sort of humour prevalent in The Pets is also present in The Ambassador, so it’s no stretch to say that if you like one novel, you will like the other. The protagonist of The Pets is a thirty-something divorced male–whereas the protagonist of The Ambassador is Sturla Jon, a 50-something divorced father of 5.

When the novel begins, Sturla, a poet, has just seen the publication of his latest book of poems, and he’s in a shop buying a rather expensive overcoat. It’s an item he’s coveted for a long time, and now that he’s about to leave for a poetry festival in Lithuania, he’s decided to splurge and buy the coat for his trip. The unlined “Italian-made, English-style” overcoat is a somewhat impractical choice, but Sturla, who had to reorder the coat when they all sold out, is treating himself.

Sturla, who earns a living as a super in his apartment building, has resolved to stop writing poetry; he’s thinking of perhaps turning to fiction instead, and in an art-imitates-life-way of settling old grievances, he has an idea for a short story:

It was, he thought, basically about everything he’d done in his life in the past fifteen minutes: a middle-aged poet goes into a bookstore to see, for the first time, his newly-published book sitting with all the other newly-published books, tightly-wrapped  in glistening cellophane, on display with its price tag facing the literary minded folk and other customers of the bookstore. This book has become a commodity to be bought and sold, the value it acquires becomes destined to be measured not against a price tag stuck on a copy, but against each individual reader’s opinion as to whether it was a worthy item or not.

In Sturla’s opinion, there is an irony to this that results from a deception the poet himself perpetrates; when it comes down to it, his value is only ever evident from the price tag on the book, and every year will bring a new sticker and a lower price until, in the end, when the last copies of the book finally sell at the Icelandic Discount Book Fair, twenty or thirty years later, the price on the sticker will have dropped under 100 kronur, down as low as double-digits. Because of this, and in order to make the distance between the author and his subject matter clear–or else the reader might somehow start imagining he was describing his own experience–Sturla had come up with an idiosyncratic character, a poet, who gets very angry in the bookstore because his newly-published book isn’t on display at the front of the store with the other brand new books.  

The novel’s humour comes from the mild insanity of the slightly off-kilter events. It begins in the shop when the assistant tells Sturla that there’s a discount “with plastic” not with cash (which makes no sense whatsoever), and it continues from there. We see Sturla interacting with his divorced parents–father Jon Magnusson, a librarian/frustrated film maker who’s full of sage advice for his son: “Perhaps you shouldn’t get too close with womenfolk in general; it’s not worth taking the risk of ending up with a sixth little bastard,” and Fanny, Sturla’s alcoholic mother who is developing “new methods” to get booze, can’t stop showing off a topless photograph she had taken decades earlier to anyone who stops by.

Then there’s Sturla’s ex-wife and his 5 children. In adulthood the children have all gone their own ways, and Sturla really doesn’t understand or relate to any of them. One of his sons, in particular, seems to grown increasingly like his stepfather and another is addicted to exercise. And then everyone Sturla meets is an artist of some sort even as they work a variety of day jobs. Sturla finds this incredibly annoying, but there’s a subtlety here as while Sturla tells everyone he’s a poet, he makes his living as a building supervisor–a fact he fails to mention to most people. From the novel’s beginning something doesn’t seem quite right about Sturla and his poetry, and just what the problem is is revealed as the plot develops and Sturla’s ruminations of discontent continue.

Naturally since Sturla is dogged by such strange family relationships, you’d expect that he might find himself surrounded by like-minded people at the Lithuanian poetry festival, but once in Lithuania, things go downhill. He’s stuck in a shitty hotel, spends an evening at the Old Town Erotic Centre, turns to theft and has an encounter with a local prostitute. But in spite of all this, there’s even worse to come….

 This is very low-key, off-kilter humour. If you’ve ever had one of those days when every encounter you have has some sort of bizarre streak to it, and you find yourself wondering if it’s a full moon, then you know what I mean. The book’s title, by the way, could refer to three things:

Sturla’s grandfather was an ambassador

Sturla is an unofficial ambassador for Iceland at a poetry festival held in Lithuania

The name of Sturla’s shitty hotel is The Ambassador.

This should give a hint about the sorts of connections that run through the novel.

And here’s another quote just to give another taste of the book. Here’s Sturla wailing about the navel-gazing egos of poets and the poetry contest to be held during the conference:

And then, as a way of concluding this tragicomic presentation, all kinds of reading groups take over the program. We poor devils will be arranged into groups according to some rigid system one of the festival committee members  has been devoting months to, and I’m assuming that these groups will perform an autopsy on one of the poems.

I wouldn’t be surprised if we end up choosing a messy effort by one of the American house-wife poets, or by the Meierhof Phenomenon, it certainly won’t be a poem by that drunkard Bush or by me, who is from the back of beyond.

And finally, when we’ve all been over-stuffed with the art of words, the organizers will reveal to us who is the idiotic winner of the poetry contest they announced on the first day of the festival.

After this second title by Bragi Olafsson, I am now sold on trying more Icelandic fiction. I’ll have a go at Icelandic crime fiction and I also have 101 Rejkavick to read. Armann Valur, btw, who appeared in The Pets, also has a cameo appearance in The Ambassador.

Review copy from Open Letter Books read on my kindle.

Translated by Lytton Smith

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