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The members of Ramsey’s safari have gained a story they’ll tell for the rest of their lives. It will prompt some of them, years from now, to search for each other on Google and Facebook, unable to resist the wish-fulfillment fantasy these portals offer: What ever happened to…? In a few cases, they’ll meet again to reminisce and marvel at one another’s physical transformations, which will seem to melt away with the minutes.

I have a tendency to avoid literary award nominees (and goodness, I feel sorry for anyone mentioned in Christopher Priest’s rant about the Arthur C. Clarke award!) but this Pulitzer-winner was recommended to me by no less august a figure than Joseph Reich himself. So I figured I’d give it a lash.

If you’re curious what sold me on the book, it was the mention of Egan having written a chapter as a powerpoint presentation. Turns out I’ve already reviewed a book by the author – The Keep – which I enjoyed, so I felt comfortable cracking the spine on this book.

A Visit From The Goon Squad dips into the lives of a series of interrelated characters over a non-linear sequence of time. As such we only briefly get to ‘meet’ these people, but their associations with one another bring them to life. The one constant throughout the book is music. These characters are aspiring punks, record company employees, PR gurus, failed rockstars.

The chapter by chapter hops, skips and jumps through time (Nathalie Sarraute how’re ya!) capture beautifully that sense we have of our lives passing by. Even in the moment itself, the very same moment that in years later becomes a totemic symbol for what came after – or the road not taken – it can feel as if that intangible sense of now is already slipping away.

What also works quite well is how the enthusiasm of youth versus the bitterness of weary experience is captured in Egan’s Venn diagram of lives. That same enthusiasm and disappointment lends itself to a certain pretentious turn of phrase and what I love is how pretension is touched on without the book itself being pretentious.

Yes, even the Power Point presentation chapter.

So thankfully this book did not feel like trudging through Don DeLillo‘s Underworld again. The focus on music is a clever away of providing a linking structure that neatly avoid portentousness, affording even a lightness of touch.

Unfortunately the very concluding chapter of the book lost me. I think it was because for the duration of the book there was this brilliant drawing of parallels between the different time periods linked only by music – characters aging and then suddenly whiplashed back into youth on the page – there was this sense of commonality. This was then oddly subverted by the last section of the book nominally set in what is presumably ‘now’. Here Egan suddenly introduces the idea of language itself changing. Of course the notion of text speak somehow replacing the English language is not a new idea. From those deathless office emails with the subject line ‘Cna Yuo Raed Tihs?’ all the way back to post-Enlightenment era French campaign to preserve the sanctity of the French language itself from mongrel lexical mutations, there’s been this repeated concern that language itself is somehow becoming less.

Which is of course nonsense. I wonder if what was intended was that the textspeak, like the Power Point presentation, becoming meaningful and full of emotion shows that this constancy will remain even as these characters live and die. Their experiences, so flush with significance for them personally, are but passing moments in time. The book’s title is tellingly referenced by the recurring phrase ‘Time is a goon’, cleverly summing up the intangible sense of harshness about mortality. Music is the perfect metaphor for that sense of passing. This is a brilliantly written book and Egan is to be praised for not indulging in po-faced musings on mortality. Sadness and joy ebbs and flows from page to page.

A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

“There was an incident,” he said. “A series of incidents, I guess. A dead guy, another dead guy. Some drugs. It’s kind of a long story. Now we can see things. Sometimes. I have a dead cat that follows me around, wondering why I never feed it. Oh, and I had one hamburger that started mooing when I ate it.” He glanced at me. “You remember that?”

I grunted, said nothing.

It wasn’t mooing, John. It was screaming.

John Dies At The End was originally a story serialised on a website. Then it was published as a book. Now it’s about to be released as a movie, directed by Don Coscarelli who made Phantasm and is therefore a very cool person in my book. Here have a look at the trailer. My high concept for the story is William Burroughs rewrites Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. It made me laugh, a lot. More impressive though is that it also managed to disturb me with the implied horrors bubbling along beneath the comic banter between our hero David Wong and his friend John.

As David is telling the story of his adventures – actually during the course of an interview with a reporter named Arnie – we learn that his name has been changed to make him harder to find, presumably by the obsessive fans who follow his adventures online given his growing reputation as a combater of supernatural threats. See one night David and his friend John – also not his real name – were at a concert in the town of Undisclosed (many of the details in the story are redacted for legal reasons) when they encountered a strange fellow pretending to be Jamaican and supplying folks with a drug called Soy sauce. It was a hallucinogen, those who took it experienced visions, heightened senses – as well as death. Overnight almost every person who met the fake Jamaican had died mysteriously, except for John.

The two friends quickly realized that Soy sauce is not just a drug. Following their exposure – David accidentally manages to inject himself – they become aware of strange creatures massing on the borders of this dimension. The end of the world is coming and its only hope is two confused video-store clerks who don’t really understand what is going on.

Much like House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, John Dies At The End cleverly embraces the capacity of the internet to spread stories. Through the course of the book we learn that David and John are becoming more famous, a neat parallel for the growing interest in the book itself online.  This is also the source of the story’s greatest strength. By rooting itself in the commonplace weirdness of the internet – every possible combination of aliens, demons, magic and superscience is just a google search way – the book apes an almost convincing plausibility. The seeming personal testimony of Wong, the pseudonym of Cracked.com contributor Jason Pargin, is also a nice gimmick.

However, the story also has a number of poignant moments surrounding death and our awareness of our mortality. It pop-nihilism, stripping away the ponderousness of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu-beasties but retaining the crushing awareness of our cosmic insignificance, is surprisingly compelling. There is a lot of laughter to be found in these pages, but also a creeping sense of dread.

Finally it must be said the ending for this book, a book which is relentless in its foreshadowing of endings, is simply perfect. I cannot wait to see the movie.

John Dies At The End by David Wong

Lint’s first novel was published by Dean Rodence’s Never Never company in New York. The relationship between Rodence and Lint was one of complete mistrust, rage and bloody violence. When submitting work in person, Lint insisted on appearing dressed as some kind of majorette. ‘He was a large man and clearly wasn’t happy at having to do this,’ explains Fleece. ‘He blamed Rodence, was resentful. I still don’t know where he got the idea he had to dress that way when handing his stuff in.’

Some months ago I reviewed a book by Steve Aylett titled Only An Alligator which I reported left my brain melted, as I was reduced to moaning softly on the carpet.

Obviously I had to come back for more.

Lint is the biography of a eccentric science fiction author named Jeff Lint, detailing his career writing for pulp magazines such as ‘Startling, Astounding, Baffling, Useless and Terrible to his abortive animated show Catty and the Major and finally his retreat into reclusiveness, interrupted by the occasional obsessive fan. Steve Aylett describes the circumstances surrounding the conception of novels such as One Less Bastard, The Stupid Conversation and I Blame Ferns, as well as his controversial comic book The Caterer.

Aylett also discusses Lint’s series of failed marriages, including one union which collapsed when a presumed facial scar belonging to the author was revealed to be a sleep-crease and then there’s his fractious rivalry with fellow author Cameo Herzog, who goes out of his way to destroy the career of the bemused Lint. Success came tantalisingly close for the writer. His forays into entertainment produced scripts that eventually became Patton and Funny Girl - although the final screenplays were entirely different (George C. Scott is revealed to have been quite fond of Lint’s original piece Kiss Me, Mister Patton) He had less success with Star Trek, deciding to emphasise the essential boredom of Gene Roddenberry‘s future utopia with an episode titled The Encroaching Threat. While the teleplay was never filmed, Aylett shares with readers some highlights of the script including:

For the duration of ‘The Encroaching Threat’ the new character Chekov is said to be ‘flirting with McCoy’ and Sulu is repeatedly seen ‘lurking’ near a doorway while ‘sinister theramin music’ plays.

As it happens this book has been made into a film, a documentary in fact on the life of the mysterious Lint, with the likes of Stewart Lee, Jeff Vandermeer and Alan Moore appearing to discuss the legacy of the author. Here‘s one of the teaser trailers released.

This is possibly the funniest book I have read in….it’s the funniest book I have read! Jeff Lint is part Philip K. Dick, part L. Ron Hubbard, with a couple of other parodies thrown in to the mix as well. Aylett’s insistence on the writer’s genius, investing great meaning into his every utterance such as this line from his autobiography The Man Who Gave Birth To His Arse: ‘What I wrote then was a surrender to the bathysphere part of the human mind. Despite platitude universes beyond the door, I dealt in squalls of unimaginable intensity. I was in the fully-fledged moment. Happy and volatile, I roared through the labyrinth of bad gems,’ - making for a very amusing, neat satire of academic overanalysis. 

One final story. While I was enjoying Lint on the train home from work one evening this young woman across the aisle started loudly conversing with a friend on the phone. I very quickly knew more than I cared to know about her social life, her education and opinions on said friend’s intelligence – so I, in turn, began to read from Lint, loudly and clearly, declaiming Aylett’s absurdist wonderland to the carriage at large.

I still maintain that my obnoxious performance was the more entertaining of the two.

Read Lint. It’s good.

Lint by Steve Aylett

‘What’s it like?’ I asked.

‘How do you mean?’

‘Being fictional.’

‘Ah!’ replied Snell slowly. ‘Yes – fictional.’

I realized too late that I had gone too far – it was how I imagined a dog would feel if you brought up the question of distemper in polite conversation.

I have a curious relationship with the writing of Jasper Fforde. So far I have read three of his Thursday Next books and all three of them on planes. Why these books about books, a universe of books navigable by humans, a wonderful mixture of Doctor Who, John Kendrick Bangs‘s A House-Boat on the River Styxx and Douglas Adams – why choose this series in particular to help battle the longeurs and boredom of plane travel?

I have no idea, but it works a treat.

On the run from the monolithic Goliath Corpoation in the real world, Thursday Next has accepted an offer of taking refuge in a terrible novel, all part of the ‘Character Exchange Programme’ requiring only that she fulfil the role of the character she is replacing. The book, Caversham Heights, is an awful crime thriller riddled with clichés and famously unreadable. A perfect hiding place for Thursday, secreted away in the Well of Lost Plots, where fiction itself is alive.

It affords her the chance to recover from the tragedy of losing her husband Landen, wiped from existence by a diabolical fictional loose in the real world, as well as protect her pregnancy (courtesy of aforementioned non-existent partner). She is also studying under her mentor Miss Haversham to become an agent of Jurisfiction, dedicated to maintaining the integrity of book plots. There is also the small matter of two Russian gossips spoiling the plot of Anna Karenina through intrusive footnotes and the strange disappearance of punctuation from Ulysses.

A number of fictional characters are dying in mysterious circumstances. Next is convinced that a murderous conspiracy, somehow relating to the launch of UltraWord™, is responsible. There is also the matter of a mnemomorph, an infection of the mind, eroding her memories of Landen.

The Thursday Next series has a great sense of fun about it, as well as a great sweep of literary references. The footnoterphone takes the ball dropped by Flann O’Brien and Terry Pratchett and runs with it. Fforde is not above parodying the cantina scene from Star Wars, or introducing the cast of Wuthering Heights all taking part in an anger management course. The preening prima donna Heathcliff is a highlight of the novel.

I must confess that for the early half of The Well of Lost Plots Fforde seemed to be overindulging his love of this literary in-jokes and bookworld metaphysics. However, once the actual plot kicks in the meta-critique takes a backseat to the business of advancing the narrative of Next’s adventures. The book is also extremely funny. Below is my favourite exchange of the book, occuring during a deadly trip into an out of print Enid Blyton novel:

‘If you’re exchanging golliwogs for monkeys, you’re in the wrong book,’ he said.

Compulsive reading, with a welcome sense of fun and literary references.

The vampire recovered his equanimity quickly enough. He reared away from Alexia, knocking over a nearby tea trolley. Physical contact broken, his fangs reappeared. Clearly not the sharpest of prongs, he then darted forward from the neck like a serpent, driving in for another chomp.

‘I say!’ said Alexia to the vampire. ‘We have not even been introduced!’

Certain books tell you all you need to know about them very quickly. The above exchange occurs on the second page of Soulless: An Alexia Tarabotti Novel.  Immediately I knew what to expect from this novel. Quite reassuring really.

Alexia Tarabotti suffers from an indelicate social standing. She is both twenty-five years old and unmarried. What is more, to add to her near-outcast status, she is half-Italian and considered far too bookish for a lady hoping to wed in late-nineteenth century London. What is less well known about Alexia though is that she also lacks a soul, a quality which defines her in the files of Queen Victoria’s Bureau of Unnatural Registry as a preternatural, an extremely rare condition that allows her to literally ‘defang’ vampires and werewolves at a touch.

For her though this is simply yet another questionable trait inherited from her deceased father. Her mother, Mrs. Loontwill, has since made a more respectable match and guided two further daughters into society, whose pale skin and chatter contrasting sharply with their half-sister.

Then Alexia is forced to dispatch a vampire attacker at a ball! The indignity of it all. BUR agents and werewolves Lord Maccon and his beta Professor Lyall interview Alexia at the scene. She reveals that she noticed the vampire was unaware of any of the proper social conventions for a member of the undead class to observe, plus his fashion sense was dreadful, indicating that someone is transforming humans outside of the London vampire set, known as hives. Maccon and Alexia exchange barbed comments, both having reached a highly negative opinion of the other. However, over the next few days as our parasol-sporting heroine discovers more about the conspiracy behind her attack, it is Lord Maccon who continues to come to her aid, even rescuing her from a monstrous figure with wax-like skin and an eerie grin. Could the Lord Earl of Woolsey’s feelings for her extend beyond his outward shows of irritation? Has she finally made a suitable match for a husband? And where are all these uncouth vampires coming from?

This book is an absolute delight. Mixing Wodehousian banter and innuendo with the social climbing drama of a Jane Austen novel and then serving up a heady melange that includes many different varieties of supernatural beastie, Gail Carriger has produced a masterful debut. In a sense this book is a natural successor to the mash-up phase of the past few years, which has begun to endure something of a backlash.

Here the paranormal romance features a courtship that raises a hearty chuckle, the monsters of the gothic novel restrained by societal convention to hilarious effect. Lord Maccon is not only an alpha male, he is an alpha werewolf male and Scottish to boot, which leads to no end of mockery by Alexia, herself considered too headstrong and fixed in her ideas by her contemporaries. The banter between them is sustained beautifully, with the rueful Professor Lyall acting as an occasional agent of Cupid.

Of course any work of escapism deserves a worthy central plot and Carriger fashions up a terrific yarn involving religious intolerance of the undead and twisted science. Overall this is a great package, with lots of clever little touches accessorising the main story in a fitting manner.

I am happily converted and am eager to gobble down the rest of the series. Madame Carriger, I doff my hat to you.

The crowds in St. Peter’s Square parted as the Prod Bigot Incompetents rushed the IRA Jesuit.

Father Ryan O’Brian was almost taken by surprise as the howling bluenoses came charging through the crowd, decked in Rangers strips and King Billy tattoos. Not a sight you saw every day in Vatican City.

“Aw, not youse lot again,” he sighed, producing a heat-seeking surface to surface missile launcher and a Stanley knife from under his cassock.

BAM!

Stephanie, early on in my blog-writing career, tried to convince me not to use any swear-words in these reviews. I have a foul mouth sometimes, so it was tough. This book, however, this book almost defeated me. It has more cursing per square inch than a pub showing Monday night football.

The plot, such as it is, is concerned with the millennia long history of conflict between the Church and the State. We meet Jesus and his disciples in a scene reminiscent of Cyrus addressing the gangs in Walter Hill’s The Warriors. The Apostles are in fact a revolutionary brotherhood of peace and love and Jesus has returned to them to rap about eternal life. Of course then Saul shows up and ruins everything, deciding following the massacre to follow the letter of Christ’s teachings if not the spirit and found the monolithic Holy Roman Empire. We then cut to Henry VIII, speaking along with his courtiers in a thick Glasgow accent, breaking from Rome and sparking the present-day conflict.

Father Ryan O’Brian is at the centre of the conflict, a wiley assassin who specialises in playing one side against the other. The Pope presides over a corrupt cabal of deviants who are attempting to undermine the Queen of England. She, in turn, is a foul-mouthed monster, whose three sons are plotting to murder her in order to acquire the throne.  O’Brian is not able playing his cards close to his chest in these colossal conflict, he appears to be unkillable. God literally loves him too much.

Scatology rules the day in this book, building to an appropriately literal apocalypse, but the moment I decided I was actually having fun was when the author inserted an ad for defunct publisher Attack! Books into the book itself! I found an interview with editor Steven Wells outlining the approach behind these hyper-pulp novels. The scene with the unnamed Queen, face smeared in baked beans (….I guess it’s a fetish) laughing herself into hysterics while reading various titles from the imprint such as Tits-Out Teenage Totty, Satan! Satan! Satan! and Ebola 3000, followed by a postal address for any prospective new readers to order their own copies.

Now that’s funny.

Yes the language is rotten to the core. I am sure your average person on the street will be offended by Udo’s descriptions of venal priests, idiot princes and a psychotic Queen. He intersperses chapters with a series of extracts from conspiracy theories regarding the death of the Princess of Wales, the ties between the Royal Family and Nazism and in turn Hitler taking inspiration from the structure of the Jesuit order. The overt message of the book is that these two institutions cannot be trusted, built as they are on a history of conquest and war.

Oh and Jesus was a socialist.

‘Granny Weatherwax is going to hear about this, and you’ll wish you’d never been born…or un-born or reborn or whatever you are!’

‘We look forward to meeting her,’ said the Count calmly. ‘But here we are, and I don’t seem to see this famous lady with us. Perhaps you should go and fetch her? You could take your friends. And when you see her, Miss Nitt, you can tell her that there is no reason why witches and vampires should fight.’

Pratchett and vampires? Oh you do know how to make me happy.

I have always liked the Discworld take on vampires, which is essentially that they are pathetic poseurs (which is how you spell ‘posers’, in this instance). However, the Discworld also happens to be a fantasy world where racial pluralism is a reality (take that Tolkien!) so there are vampires who are members of the Black Ribbon society in Ankh-Morpork. Sure they are undead, but do they have to live as monsters? – is their creed and it is a very amusing take on the traditional fiend.

With Carpe Jugulum Pratchett returns to oldschool vampires, with a slight twist. No more talk of temperance. Just systematic murder, organised under the simple principle of their being superior to humans and all the other ‘low’ races of the Discworld.

The story itself is set in the kingdom of Lancre, the setting for most of Pratchett’s Witches novels. Now some folk like Rincewind, others Vimes, but my personal favourite Discworld protagonist has always been Granny Weatherwax, the witch who will brook no nonsense (needless to say I am also a big Nanny Ogg fan). At the start of the story Granny is feeling her age once again, as well as a sense of isolation. She abandons Lancre in a fit of pique, believing that she was snubbed by her fellow witches and Queen Magrat when she does not receive an invitation to the royal baptism. Of course her departure comes at the worst possible juncture. King Verence, the former court fool who was revealed to have royal blood, is once again trying to be modern and extends an invitation to a very important family from the Überwald region.  Except of course they are vampires and by inviting them, Verence has literally just handed them the keys to the kingdom.

Only Agnes Nitt seems to be immune to the glamour of the vampires. The youngest of the Lancre witches, Agnes literally has a thin girl inside her trying to get out – which is to say, she hears this voice in her head making a running commentary on everything that she does wrong. This ‘Perdita’, allows her to resist the influence of the vampires, enough for her to realize what is happening to the rest of the citizens of Lancre. Her only companion is a young priest from the theocratic state of Omnia, last seen in an early Pratchett novel Small Gods (which happens to be one of my favourites). Mightily Oats suffers from profound religious doubt about his vocation, so like Agnes he too is of ‘two minds’, about everything. Together they try to organise the people of Lancre to rise up against the racial supremacist vampires and find Granny Weatherwax before it is too late.

Pratchett is simply too clever by half at times. Yes on initial inspection this book seems like a merging of Small Gods and that *other* book about Lancre falling victim to an invasion Lords and Ladies. It is a brilliant combination of themes though. The crisis of faith suffered by Mightily Oats allows the writer to expound on his humanist beliefs to great effect.

What’s more the book also addresses the limits of tolerance in multicultural society. This is something of a bugbear with me, the notion that ‘multiculturalism has failed‘ continues to gain traction in political circles, which is absurd as the definition of what it means seems to change all the time. Different races living together is nothing new. What has changed is that now there is this expectation that races should be treated with equal respect, under a shared national identity, which is where politicos come grinding to a halt. How can a statesman exploit class and racial divisions in a multicultural society? The very idea.

Pratchett wittily dispenses with all of this in a book about vampires, little blue people with Scots accents and a dwarf highwayman. This is why he is the master.

Wonderful book.

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