Thursday, March 08, 2007

the last book I read

The Thought Gang by Tibor Fischer.

Comic writing is difficult for a number of reasons. Probably most difficult is that it's got to look effortless; if the reader can see the writer's little webbed feet thrashing away under the surface of the pond, or gets deafened by the roar of approaching jokes as they lumber down the runway, then the illusion is spoilt. Black comedy is even more difficult as you've got to combine the light comic touch with actual bad and painful things happening to people, without making the latter so real that it puts the reader off or stops him/her from laughing. There are very few people who can do it really well, Kingsley Amis for one, and Tom Sharpe for another (in a broader and coarser sort of way).

Which sounds like I'm building up to slag this off in a big way, but I'm not, not really. It's just that I wasn't totally convinced by it, which sounds silly, as it's a comic novel and not therefore intended to be grittily realistic; maybe it's just that it all seemed to be trying a bit hard.

Very briefly it's the story of Eddie Coffin, a failed philosopher and university academic, who meets up with a one-armed, one-legged, one-eyed ex-jailbird while hanging around in the south of France and goes (with his new mate) on an increasingly high-profile bank-robbing spree while periodically musing on his past life.

There's a running joke about the central character having once been imprisoned by an irate publisher with only the second half of an encyclopaedia for company; consequently he has an unnatural attachment to words beginning with Z - but don't worry, there's a glossary at the back. Whether by way of authorial showing-off or in-character philosophical showing-off there are a lot of other highly scrabblicious* words dotted around the book as well, including a few I was previously unfamiliar with, such as:
  • auscultating - the act of listening, either directly or through a stethoscope or other instrument, to sounds within the body as a method of diagnosis
  • monostich - a poem or epigram consisting of a single metrical line
  • hebetude - dullness of mind; mental lethargy
  • alalia - paralysis of the vocal cords resulting in an inability to speak
All of which is very interesting, and I'm all for improving and expanding my vocabulary, but fundamentally it didn't make it any easier to engage with what was going on, or care enough about the central characters. I read Fischer's earlier book Under The Frog, and I thought that was a lot better, probably because being set against the backdrop of real historical events (the Hungarian uprising of 1956) anchored the story a bit more in the face of the authorial smart-arsery.

I had a similar "so what" reaction to the couple of books (They Came From SW19 and The Wimbledon Poisoner) I read by Nigel Williams, another celebrated modern comic writer. Which just goes to show either how difficult striking the right tone is, or that I'm too nit-pickingly fussy for my own good.

Anyway, if you insist on book reviews having a verdict attached, here it is: I couldn't in all honesty recommend this with any great enthusiasm. If you haven't read all of them already and you want a comic novel (of varying degrees of blackness) try one of these:
  • Lucky Jim or The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis
  • What A Carve Up! by Jonathan Coe
  • Dirty Tricks by Michael Dibdin
  • The World According To Garp by John Irving
  • The Buddha Of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi
  • Changing Places by David Lodge
  • Riotous Assembly by Tom Sharpe
  • Brother Of The More Famous Jack by Barbara Trapido
[* I just made that up. Good, isn't it?]

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