Moulin told him of the fear of the disembodied voice. It terrified humanity in the eighteen seventies and it terrified humanity still. Hearing voices when there was no one there. A characteristic of mystical communion, of insanity. It was the preserve of the spirit world. The switchboard was a Ouija board to a sensitive mind and Chip should be aware.
I used to dream of becoming an astronaut. Then my cousin explained to me that if I did travel to the moon, an asteroid would punch a hole in my head.
That killed that dream dead.
Chip is a one-armed hotel receptionist whose best-friend is a one-legged cab driver. No one knows how Chip lost his arm. He constantly gives different stories behind the tragedy – shark attack among the more lurid examples. All that the people of the small town Chip has landed in know about him is that he is a) English and b) somewhat obsessed with shuttle launches.
As it happens, the town – and Chip’s place of employment E Z Sleep Hotel – is quite near a NASA launch site. The winner of a recent reality tv show, Sally, is on board the latest shuttle, courtesy of a bottled water company. The residents at the E Z Sleep Hotel are alarmed when Chip lets out a loud bellow to celebrate. As it turns out Chip has a very specific reason for having such an interest in space travel. See he has organised a very special party, with eight other guests. Most of them hate Chip with a troubling intensity. They are all, like him wounded, disturbed versions of their former selves. Through Sally’s memories we learn what happened to the group, while Chip in the present-day contends with an increasingly surreal assortment of hotel guests, including the owner of the E Z franchise itself, Mr Moulin, who has a very particular sexual fetish.
Cut-throat reality television contests, dementia, the Bilderberg group and some really foul-tasting mineral water, contribute to one very crazy night filled with mayhem and death. If Chip survives until the morning shift without losing another limb he will be doing well.
The majority of the book is occupied with long rambling conversations. This allows Nick Walker to indulge in blackly comic dialogue. One sex phone-line customer discovers that the ideal sexual fantasy is harder to acquire than he thought possible and Mr Moulin’s increasingly mad phone calls to Chip read like a parody of Hunter S. Thompson. The novel’s satirical targets are also hit hard and often. Reality television in particular is subject to a steady stream of mockery. The contestants rivalling Sally for her seat on the space shuttle are not even given names, in recognition of how the general public think of them – The Model, The Chef, The Radar Operator and The Comedienne. Hounded by a team of intrusive camera-men, the cast are each eliminated and left broken by the process. Sally is not so much the most suitable candidate, as much as she is the last one standing. Pointedly it is revealed that she was referred to by fans of the show as ‘The Black One’.
Unfortunately, despite the occasional chuckle, I found this book’s cynicism suffocating. Constant, needling mockery does not a plot make – the story contorts itself into stranger and stranger shapes. When members of the cast start suffering from more extreme injuries and/or death, it almost makes no impression at all. They have become cyphers, denizens of a bizarre and tortured satirical universe.
Maybe I’m getting too old for this kind of thing.