20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2020), Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Picador, Publisher, satire, Setting, UK

‘Diary of a Somebody’ by Brian Bilston

Fiction – Kindle edition; Picador; 384 pages; 2019. 

If you like wordplay, puns and funny poetry, put Brian Bilston’s Diary of a Somebody on your wishlist. I laughed all the way through it; the perfect antidote to the strange and anxious times we are living through.

The story follows (the fictional) Brian Bilston’s resolution to write a poem every day for an entire year, a way of distracting himself from the pain of a broken marriage, an unsatisfactory relationship with his teenage son and an office job at which he’s failing.

His poems are dotted throughout the narrative, and each one is laugh-out-loud funny.

Duvet,
you are so groovet,
I’d like to stay under you
all of Tuesdet.

And:

Poetry Club
The first rule of Poetry Club
is that we meet each month in the pub.
The second rule of Poetry Club
is that not all poems have to rhyme.

But it’s the constant wordplay that gave me the best giggles. This is a good example of what to expect:

How to Avoid Mixing Your Metaphors It’s not rocket surgery. First, get all your ducks on the same page. After all, you can’t make an omelette without breaking stride. Be sure to watch what you write with a fine-tuned comb. Check and re-check until the cows turn blue. It’s as easy as falling off a piece of cake. Don’t worry about opening up a whole hill of beans: you can always burn that bridge when you come to it, if you follow where I’m coming from. Concentrate! Keep your door closed and your enemies closer. Finally, don’t take the moral high horse: if the metaphor fits, walk a mile in it.

Along with witty one-liners:

She put the phone down on me and I was left alone with the silence. It was a mute point.

Dear Diary

Written in diary format, it charts 45-year-old Brian’s attempt to make sense of his falling-apart world. He’s slightly self-absorbed, lacks self-awareness and is obsessed with custard creams.

There are times when there is simply no substitute for a custard cream. These times are typically from 7am to 10pm, at the following intervals: 00, 15, 30, 45. There is something about their vanilla-custard filling and the baroque carving of the outer sandwich layers which lends itself to the practice of contemplation and study.

His working life is full of management jargon and missed deadlines. And his home life isn’t much better. He doesn’t seem able to commit to anything. He can’t even finish a book despite starting a new one every month for his book club:

 In other news, I began to read Wuthering Heights this evening. I’m on page 12 already. It’s rather moorish.

He attends a regular poetry club but each meeting is somewhat disastrous as he tries to compete with the dastardly Toby Salt, who is a much better poet, attracts the ladies (including someone Brian has his eye on) and has a loyal and ever-increasing Twitter following.

I noted that on Twitter, I have now optimised myself for twenty-three people. Toby Salt has somehow managed 174 followers. I clearly need to deepen my digital footprint and I have made a vow, with the cat as my witness, to share more of my poems with my foolhardy followers as a next tentative digital baby step.

But when Toby mysteriously disappears not long after his first book is published, Brian unwittingly attracts the attention of the police: did he bump off his rival in a pique of jealous rage? The fun of this book is reading it to find out!

Original and inventive

There’s no doubting that Diary of a Somebody is wholly original and inventive. It’s a wonderful blend of satire and black comedy.

The jokes and the constant refrains — helping his neighbour remember when it is bin day, putting up with self-help mumbo-jumbo from his ex-wife’s new man, never finishing a novel, eating too many custard creams and so on — do begin to wear thin after a while.

Perhaps 12 months in the life of Brian Bilston is a bit too much and six months could have been chopped from his diary, but on the whole, this is an enjoyable novel about a man who doesn’t quite realise how funny (if somewhat pathetic) he really is! More, please.

This is my 9th book for #20BooksofSummer / #20BooksOfSouthernHemisphereWinter. I picked up a proof copy of this in early 2019 when I went to a Picador Showcase in London and the author did a reading, which had me in minor hysterics. Unfortunately, I didn’t bring my copy with me when I moved back to Australia but when I saw it on Kindle for 99p earlier this year I couldn’t resist buying it.

Australia, Author, Book review, Elliot Perlman, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, satire, Setting, TBR2020, Vintage Australia

‘Maybe the Horse Will Talk’ by Elliot Perlman

Fiction – paperback; Vintage Australia; 352 pages; 2019.

Elliot Perlman is one of my favourite authors. I have read and much admired his trio of novels — Three Dollars (1998), Seven Types of Ambiguity (2003) and The Street Sweeper (2012) — so was looking forward to his new novel, Maybe the Horse Will Talk, published in Australia at the end of last year. (The title refers to a children’s fable that suggests anything is possible.)

A satire about corporate greed, it’s set in Melbourne’s cut-throat legal world and addresses all kinds of relevant, contemporary issues including misogyny, sexism and sexual harassment in the workplace.

But for all its humour and clever, witty dialogue, the novel has a serious underbelly. It could, in fact, be seen as one of the first (or certainly the first I know about) that explores the #metoo movement, possibly before that became a “thing”.

Struggling to stay afloat

The tale centres on a mature age second-year lawyer and former high school English teacher, Stephen Maserov, who works for a big legal firm — hilariously called Freely Savage Carter Blanche — that specialises in construction law.

Stephen is hanging on by his fingertips. His wife has booted him out of the family home but he returns every night to tuck his two young boys in to bed, and at work he’s at risk of losing his job — a job that he hates but  needs to pay the mortgage.

One day, struck by inspiration, desperation and daring, he finds a solution to his problem: he offers to help a client make a series of sexual harassment claims go away. This sounds morally dubious and completely unethical, but Stephen has a cunning plan that he hopes will provide a win-win situation for both the client and the women making the claims. And along the way it will allow him to make a name for himself at the law firm, thereby saving his job and perhaps even salvaging his marriage.

Satire with a serious edge

The story has a relatively convoluted plot, is peopled by a series of loathsome characters with wonderful names — Mike Crispin “Crispy” Hamilton, for instance — and much of its momentum relies heavily on dialogue to propel things forward. The dialogue is smart and snappy and often laugh out loud funny.

But lest anyone think Stephen — or the author for that matter — is making light of sexual harassment, the story hammers home some salient points about who holds power in the workplace and the ways in which women are sometimes viewed by their male counterparts.

As one female character explains it, in the corporate world men fear “being frozen out, passed over, overworked, under-utilised, humiliated, being fired and ultimately unemployed”. Women fear this too. But women also have to contend with so much more in the workplace. She has…

…her clothes discussed by her male colleagues, her appearance, her body shape, changes in her body shape, her reaction to sexual innuendo, to off-colour jokes about sex, unwanted, unasked-for flirting and her reaction to that, fear of casual bodily contact all the way along the continuum, offers to trade sexual favours for career advancement and the consequences of rejecting them, blackmail and every conceivable permutation of sexual harassment and assault all the way down the line to rape.  There’s no overtime, no salary, no perks of the job that make any of that worthwhile.

The details of one particular sexual harassment case are stomach-churningly gruesome. Perlman doesn’t pull his punches.

But there’s another important point he’s making here, too, because Stephen’s unhappiness is also the unforeseen byproduct of inequality between the sexes. He works around the clock and sees so little of his family that his wife no longer wants to see him at all. His love for his children is superseded by his “need” to put work before family; to do anything else would be seen as a weakness.

Too long?

Admittedly, I didn’t really fall in love with this book. Yes, the plot is a bit far-fetched and it relies too much on coincidence to make work, but that didn’t really bother me. The issues covered appealed to me and I like reading books about office life as so few seem to be written about this topic.

And yet I just couldn’t properly engage with the characters. I struggled to properly immerse myself in the story and I’m not sure why. Perhaps it was overly long and the pace wasn’t fast enough for me.

Whatever the case, Maybe the Horse Will Talk remains a fine satire about important issues. It has some funny comic moments, is deftly plotted and features some sparkling dialogue. It’s a good book, but not a great one.

For other reviews of this novel, please see Lisa’s at ANZLitLovers and Tony’s at Tony’s Reading List. Note, I can’t find a UK publication date for this book, but a Kindle edition seems to be available in the US.

This is my 1st book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR over the next 6 months. Any books in my ownership that were purchased before the end of 2019 are eligible.

 

Author, Bloomsbury, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Magnus Mills, Publisher

‘A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In’ by Magnus Mills

A-Cruel-Bird-Came-to-the-Nest-and-Looked-in

Fiction – hardcover; Bloomsbury; 276 pages; 2011. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

If we ever needed a novel to satirise the current malaise of the British Empire — complete with unhappy public sector workers, crippling debt and politicos looking after their own interests — then who better than to offer it up than Magnus Mills? A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In is Mills’ seventh novel, and it’s typical Mills fare.

If you’ve never read anything by Mills before, you need to prepare yourself in advance. I promise that you will have never encountered anything quite like a Mills novel before.

He writes in a completely stripped back way, using short, simplistic sentences. On face value, these may seem dull and monotonous, but you can never accuse him of being boring. That’s because it’s up to the reader to figure out what’s going on — in many cases, it’s the things that Mills doesn’t say that make his stories so powerful.

Mills’ stories are also peopled entirely by men, there is little or no characterisation (although you will probably recognise people you know — officials and jobsworths primarily), little or no descriptions of people or places, and the plots are superficial.

But as allegories or fables, you can’t get any better. And as far as black comedies go, you’re in for a real treat.

Poking fun at the feudal system

In A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In Mills’ tackles the feudal system, which is not a topic you’d generally associate with humour. Yet in Mills’ hands it becomes the funniest thing since, well, the feudal system.

The story is told through the eyes of an unnamed character, who is Principal Composer to the Imperial Court. Despite never having played a note in his life, he is “supreme leader” of the imperial orchestra. He clearly isn’t up for the job, but it doesn’t matter, because the conductor, a very talented musician, does all the work for which he can take credit.

The Principal Composer sits on an eight-member cabinet presided over by his Exalted Highness, The Majestic Emperor of the Realms, Dominions, Colonies and Commonwealth of Greater Fallowfields.

Absentee king

Unfortunately, His Highness seems to have gone missing, and because he never turns up to the weekly cabinet meeting no decisions about the empire, which is bestridden by ongoing problems, can be made. So the officers-of-state, who are all equal in the hierarchy, muddle along as best they can.

Any form of cooperation between departments is ruled out, so the problems — an unreliable postal system, a lack of money in circulation (it’s all being “reserved for a rainy day” by the Chancellor of the Exchequer) and an imperial telescope that only works if the Astronomer Royal has a sixpence to put in the slot — are never sorted.

A series of idiotic decisions are made. Chief among these is an imperial edict that arrives via post from the absentee emperor. He orders that the sun must set at five o’clock all year round, but the only way to make that happen is to ensure all clocks within Greater Fallowfields are put forward by two minutes every day. This means a great deal of work for one particular cabinet member — who moans and groans about it  — but for several others it’s seen as a wonderful opportunity to enjoy tea — lemon curd and toasted soldiers — in the library to watch the sunset every day.

A crumbling empire

Mills paints a convincing portrait of an empire, a former maritime supremacy, now stuck in its ways, failing to modernise or make decisions with the best interests of its citizens in mind.

Typically, there’s a lot of deadpan humour (when one cabinet member points out that there’s “absolutely no kind of spiritual, theological or pastoral representative”, a colleague responds, “Thank God”) and bitter irony (the cabinet spends much of its time rehearsing a play which is an “example of the feudal system in perfect working order — until someone tampers with it”).

But it all comes to a head when a (literal) threat on the horizon is noted: foreigners are building a trainline to Greater Fallowfields and an immigration boom seems imminent — or does it?

A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In is a seemingly impossible mix of the odd and endearing. It’s playful and fun, but with a serious undercurrent running between the lines. The characters are delightfully eccentric and the way in which the empire is run will, at times, remind you of the terrible bureaucracy and inflexibility of systems here in the UK.

All in all, it is a wonderful, comic read that is bound to appeal to new readers and Mills’ fans alike.

More reviews of Mills’ work

I’ve reviewed all of Mills’ previous novels on the site: The Restraint of Beasts (1998), All Quiet on the Orient Express (1999), Three to See the King (2001), The Scheme for Full Employment (2003), Explorers of the New Century (2005) and The Maintenance of Headway (2009).

 

Andrew Martin, Author, Book review, Faber and Faber, Fiction, literary fiction, London, Publisher, satire, Setting

‘Bilton’ by Andrew Martin

Bilton

Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 245 pages; 1999.

Just as Rupert Murdoch’s print media empire was going into freefall — the phone-hacking revelations, the News of the World closure, the BSkyB takeover bid being scuppered, the arrests of past editors, the public enquiries into News International’s behaviour, resignations of two top MET Police officers (need I go on?) — I was mid-way through Andrew Martin’s Bilton, a novel about journalism.

In some ways the novel suffered by its comparison to events unfolding in London’s “Fleet Street” — and seemed, somehow, the poorer for it, probably because it just seemed so damn tame. And yet this is a book that is often laugh-out-loud funny — preposterously so, I might add.

At the time of publication, in 1999, it must have seemed a little inventive, because surely star-hungry politicians would never manipulate the media in such an uncouth, underhand manner and journalists would never turn themselves into news stories, would they?

Because that’s what happens to Bilton, a miserable but successful “comment and analysis” journalist, who accidentally throws a cup of coffee in the face of the prime minister and becomes headline news.

The prime minister, Lazenby, is well into his second term and is “veering from ambivalent support to definite hostility”. His new policy of Social Dynamics — which is alarmingly similar to present prime minister David Cameron’s Big Society idea — has been exposed as a sham; it pretends to be egalitarian but is actually about making money for a select few.

The incident couldn’t happen at a better time for Bilton, who is sick of his job and feels like he’s been passed over for promotion once too often. Overnight he becomes a hero and is transformed into a media sensation.

The story is told through the eyes of lifestyle journalist Adrian Day, who befriends Bilton before the incident occurs and is present when it happens. He knows the truth — that Bilton was incredibly drunk and “threw” the coffee when he slipped on the floor. It was not a “political act” planned in advance, which is the way that Bilton and the media spin it.

As Bilton’s stardom increases, he begins to lose his integrity. Somewhere along the line you know that the truth will out, and it isn’t going to be pleasant — for anyone.

The novel is billed as the funniest fiction about journalism since Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, and I agree that there are some very funny moments in it. It also shares Waugh’s sense of the ridiculous, when a war breaks out between Britain and Russia that no one quite knows how to cover properly. Indeed, our narrator is called into the office on the day that Russia attempts to fire the first of three nuclear weapons at the heart of London, and is told by his boss that he wants him to edit a new Sunday supplement.

“…and we’ve decided to call it ‘Easy Like a Sunday Morning’, after the Lionel Richie song. Before I go any further, what do you think of the name?”
“Well,” I said, “it’s…”
“The beauty of the whole idea,” Piper ploughed on, “is that ‘Easy Like a Sunday Morning’ will never, and I mean never—” he banged the table ferociously — “mention the war. It’ll be consumer-oriented, lively, funny, irreverent and, above all, irrelevant, and we think you’re just the man to edit it.”

The book pokes fun at the relationship between the press and politicians, and shows how one feeds the other in a weird interdependent but cannibalistic fashion. It cuts very close to the bone. And dare I suggest the following: it should be required reading for anyone naive enough to think that the current News International scandal is the first time that the media and Downing Street have formed “inappropriate” relationships with each other.

Sadly, Bilton appears to be out of print, but you can pick up very cheap second-hand copies from Amazon marketplace and elsewhere.

Author, Book review, Fiction, Ireland, Penguin Ireland, Publisher, Ross O'Carroll-Kelly, satire, Setting

‘The Oh My God Delusion’ by Ross O’Carroll-Kelly

Oh-My-God-Delusion

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Ireland; 432 pages; 2010.

Ross O’Carroll-Kelly, the alter-ego of journalist Paul Howard, is Ireland’s best kept secret.

I first discovered him when I attended DublinSwell earlier in the year. Howard was on the bill in the second half, and during his reading from his novel Mr S. and the Secrets of Andorra’s Box, done in the posh voice of Ross, he had the crowd of 2,000 people roaring with laughter, myself included. The next day I promptly went out and bought his latest book, The Oh My God Delusion, the tenth in a series following Ross O’CK, a stuck-up lad from the south side of Dublin, who’s into women, rugby and scrounging off his parents, not necessarily in that order.

But before I even got to read the book, I discovered his weekly column in the Irish Times, and then promptly bought myself a ticket to his stage play, Between Foxrock and a Hard Place, which I saw at The Gaiety Theatre on my trip to Dublin in April. A fan had been made — and I hadn’t even read the novel yet.

Fast forward to last week, and looking for some light relief in between reading Ulysses and Edward St Aubyn’s Mother’s Milk, I extracted The Oh My God Delusion from the pile and settled down for what amounted to one giant giggling fit. Indeed, there are many sequences in this novel which will make me want to laugh out loud when I recall them at a later date (especially the one where Ross draws a moustache on his four-year-old’s face using a semi-permanent black marker, only to be accused of child abuse by agitated onlookers).

The story is essentially a preposterous one, but it couldn’t be more contemporary if it tried. It’s tongue-in-cheek, but Howard paints a pretty realistic picture of Dublin circa 2009: the property bubble has burst, the banks have gone bust, big name brands are going into receivership, people are losing jobs and no one has any money (read credit) to spend.

Even Ross, with his privileged background, is feeling the effects of the recession. Now that his job at the estate agents Hook, Lyon and Sinker no longer exists (the company went belly up, to be replaced by an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet), he helps his mate repossess people’s flatscreen TVs, jacuzzis and the like when they default on the payments.

Then, when his wife’s upmarket fashion boutique looks to be on the brink of financial ruin, he does something radical. He buys an apartment on a ghost estate as a kind of insurance against losing the family home in any bankruptcy proceedings. He is told that the remaining vacant apartments on the Rosa Parks (yes, that Rosa Parks) Estate will be acquired by UCD (University College Dublin) as student dormitories (Ross looks forward to the parties), only to discover that social services are using it to house people on welfare.

Cue many hilarious — and edgy — moments between Ross and his neighbours, Terry and Larry, who turn out to be from another class entirely: they are gun-toting, drug-pushing Dublin gangsters, and Ross’s 12-year-old son, Ro, has taken a shine to them.

There are loads of subsidiary storylines involving characters grappling with the sudden change in Ireland’s economic climate.

Ross’s mother, for instance, is holding out against pressure to accept a revised pay deal for the cookery programme she hosts on RTE — and the scenes in which she presents her show, which has been “dumbed down” to only include ingredients that the average person can afford, are very funny.

I’m in the sack, roysh, watching the latest episode of her show since it was renamed FO’CK on a Budget and it’s possibly the funniest thing I’ve ever seen. She’s showing the camera, like, an ordinary corn on the cob?

‘Now,’ she’s going, ‘when I want to eat sweetcorn — like most people — it simply has to be Fallon & Byrne, with their wonderful, wonderful vegetable range, all fresh, all organic and all locally produced. However, if you’ve ever been made redundant — or you’ve been shamed by the media into accepting an arbitrary cut in your standard of living — a cheaper alternative is now available…’

The next thing, roysh, she puts down the corn on the cob and picks up what looks very much to me like a tin of sweetcorn, except from the way she’s holding it, it might as well be white dog shit.

‘Now, this is what’s known as processed food — and, if certain people in this very building are to be believed, it’s going to be all in for the next few years. Now, if you’re anything like me, you’ll be staring at this rather odd-looking, ribbed-aluminium can, thinking, “But how do I get the food — and I use that word advisedly — out of there?” Well, don’t panic — you do it using one of these…’

I don’t actually believe it. She’s about to show the nation how to use a focking tin opener.

‘As recently as the 1980s,’ she goes, and you can tell she’s struggling to even say the words, ‘you would have found one of these items in most household kitchen drawers, although they became obsolete with the advent of farmers markets and the drive towards fresh, agrichemical-free produce with fewer food miles…’

Part of the reason why the humour in this book works so well is that Ross, his mother, and pretty much the entire cast of characters in it, have no real sense of what it is like to truly suffer. There’s a real disconnect in their reality with the reality of so many others who are really struggling to make ends meet. Ross, for instance, thinks his world is coming to an end when he is told to hand over a much-beloved prize possession — a rugby medal he won when he was 18 — while all around him his contemporaries are downsizing their homes, buying their groceries on credit or getting married on a very tight budget.

And while I suspect some of the humour — the “in” jokes, the rhyming slang, the play on accents — might not translate across the Irish Sea (or the Atlantic), most everyone will understand the satire on the class divide, between the haves and the have nots, between the snobs and, to use a Ross term, the skangers.

The book is a comedy, but, as the saying goes, there’s many a true word spoken in jest.

IMG01324-20110608-1133

Finally, my edition comes with some terrific black and white illustrations by Alan Clarke, which are just as funny as the text they accompany. I really love the picture above, showing Ross being “romantically attacked” by a Rottweiler while his gangland neighbours piss themselves laughing.

Oh how I’m looking forward to reading the rest in the series!