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Review of Retromancer by Robert Rankin

18 October 2010 Leave a comment

I’ve only just got round to reading last year’s offering by the world’s greatest teller of tall tales, and, to be honest, it was a bit disappointing. All the basic components of a Robert Rankin novel are there – one gormless hero taking on the forces of evil to save the world, a heady mix of science fiction and the supernatural, and much talking of toot.

This novel is a direct sequel to The Brightonomicon and sees Hugo Rune’s assistant Rizla (whose identity was revealed at the end of this novel’s predecessor) travelling back in time to prevent the Germans winning the war. Along the way Rune and Rizla must solve twelve mysteries, each one related to a tarot card (and each of these has a full page illustration created by Rankin), which see them dealing with ghosts and werewolves, the now-legendary Minstry of Serendipity, the spirit of King Arthur resurrected in a Bletchley Park computer, the technology behind the Philadelphia Experiment, and so on and so forth.

A lot of this book seemed like joining the dots. The characters had an arbitrary series of cases to crack before the inevitable show-down with the villain of the piece, Count Otto Black. The story lacked the usual verve – and even the narrator comments on a lack of the usual running gags (although there is a superabundance of devices powered by the transperambulation of pseudo cosmic antimatter). The fact that the narrator’s true identity is also known took away from force of the books, for me.

On the other hand, there are some interesting developments regarding Rune himself – we learn more about his relationship to Black, and there is a suggestion that he might retire himself.

All in all, this was not an outstanding Rankin book, so I look forward to this year’s effort, The Japanese Devil Fish Girl and Other Unnatural Attractions, with a mixture of trepidation and hope.

The 'Jewish Jane Austen' wins Booker

14 October 2010 1 comment

Howard Jacobson just won the Man Booker Prize with his novel, The Finkler Question. The main talking point of this event is the fact that it’s the first comic novel to win the prize in its 42-year history.

When I think of comedy fiction, three writers come to mind – Robert Rankin, Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams. For me the first two – and I love Robert Rankin, and am on the positive side of indifferent to Terry Pratchett (it’s just been announced that Pratchett is a World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement Award winner) – are fairly self-indulgent reads. People read Rankin and Pratchett because there’s something comforting about the worlds they’ve created and sustained in the five million novels they’ve written between them (five million is an approximate figure). They are full of wordplay, silliness and running gags. Douglas Adams, for me, is a much more serious writer. When I read the Hitchhiker books I get a sense of existential melancholy; that series explores the fundamental pointlessness of human existence. The answer to the question – the question, about life, the universe and things of that nature generally – is 42 – which is about as meaningful as any other answer people have come up with.

Jacobson’s thesis, from what I’ve read and heard in the past day, is that comic novels are not or should not be a minor sub-genre, but the totality of literature – all novels should make you laugh, he says.

Well, I would say that humour is a useful tool in any writer’s kit – any novel can have flashes of humour that arise from the characters or the situations. But comic writers also use a certain voice – an authorial voice that is itself humorous, witty, punning, observational – that doesn’t often sit well with literary quality. Of the three writers I mentioned, I would say Adams achieves it, but Rankin and Pratchett do not.

It would be nice to think that all writing and writers are published simply for their literary merits, but it seems like the reality is that many books are published because they fulfil(publishing companies’ perception of) market demand. Fantasy novels have to be about 8,000 pages long and tell the story of a young hero, or group of young heroes, in excrucating detail from childhood to confrontation with the ultimate evil that killed their parents. And comedy novels, clearly, can’t be serious literature – it would confuse people.

My favourite series of books is Stephen R Donaldson’s Gap series. It’s a gripping, brutal space opera – but it has one joke (if that’s the right word) that stood out for me. Introducing one character, Godsen Frik, the book says something along the lines of, ‘He had the fleshy smile of a pederast who’d just been made the head of a boys reform school.’ Appropriately dark, but in as much as it is funny (opinions may differ), it’s somehow out of keeping with the tone of the rest of the story.

I think, ultimately, that each book should just be good at was it does, whether it’s a comedy, a funny book with serious bits, a serious book with funny bits or a work of unleavened humourlessness.

I’ve never read any Howard Jacobson, although I’ve seen him in the media over the years and he’s always seemed plain-speaking and likeable. I should get a copy of one of his books at some point – maybe even The Finkler Question. You can read more about him and his shiny new 50,000 pound prize on the Independent website or over at the Telegraph – or any other news site (but you’ll have to search for them yourself).

Losing the comedy bug

Ade Edmondson was interviewed by Lee Mack on Radio 4’s Chain Reaction on Friday (the format of the show is that one comedian interviews another and one week’s interviewee becomes the following week’s interviewer). He talked about his retirement from comedy towards the end:

You’ll think, I’m stuck. Do I have to constantly be this funny man? It’s a very big pressure to put on yourself. I equate it to, you know, I really like caviar. If you’re forced to eat caviar every day for 28 years, you’ll probably want something else – and that’s the same with comedy, I think, in the end. You really work at it and it takes up every ounce of your being and you have to think about it, you have to really concentrate all that time and constantly be trying to turn everything you ever hear into a gag. In the end, what are you doing? It’s weird. I just kind of lost the bug for that.

Lee Mack replied:

I know what you mean. A comedian once said to me, the problem with comedy is you can’t watch a sunset without trying to think of a joke about it. And I remember thinking for about the two minutes after that, I bet I could think of a joke about the sunset.

Can we make love now?

Keith Chegwin has been in the news recently for apparently stealing other comedians’ jokes and posting them on his Twitter account. Barry Crier was interviewed about it on the radio (he didn’t approve) and at the end was asked for a joke. His contribution was:

A woman said to her husband, ‘Can we make love now?’

The man said, ‘Why now?’

She said, ‘The egg-timer’s broken.’

Clocks should be like women: they should stand in a corner, silently, and once a year receive a good servicing.

The elder Pip Bin in the wonderful Radio 4 comedy Bleak Expectations, ‘Chapter the Third: A Recovery All Made Miserable’.