It is wise to greet novels by comedians with trepidation. It should go without saying the qualities needed for performing comedy are not necessarily the same ones needed of a novelist, but say it I must, because it doesn’t seem to stop most of the jokers trying. The results aren’t always awful, but the general record is patchy at best.
The most successful either go in for an entirely different frame of reference and content from their comedy (Sean Hughes’ It’s What He Would’ve Wanted is a pretty good example of this), or else effectively give up any pretensions to being a novel whatsoever and just accept that they are an extended offshoot of the artist’s routine (such as Harry Hill’s enjoyably demented Flight From Deathrow.)
All too often they aim between these two goals and end up in mediocre no-man’s land. One stray example is Adrian Edmondson’s The Gobbler, a particularly drab effort I read some time back. The bewilderingly massive-selling output of Ben Elton is another. Don’t get me started. Read Gary Marshall’s old review of Blast From The Past on Spike – ‘hear hear’ is all I’ll add.
It shouldn’t surprise that Alexei Sayle’s forays into fiction have been very different from the general offerings of the Praetorian “alternative” old-guard of 80s comedy from which he sprang. The hectoring Scouse of this intellectual yob was always different. It’s a cliché, but a cliché with much truth that the 80s comic elite were essentially Oxbridge Footlights liberals, and in essence establishment to their cheeky white teeth. Sayle was a very different animal, more acerbic and acidic. His working-class Jewish Communist background made him simultaneously more intellectual and more down to earth – he never seemed at home with the others. Even when he was on The Young Ones, his bits seemed tacked on, as indeed they were, scripted by him, featuring him.
As befits a more vicious style, he always seemed to have the best killer one-liners to my mind too. Favourites included
“I used to help write a listings paper called What’s On In Stoke Newington. It was a big piece of paper with ‘FUCK ALL’ written on it”
“There’s only one thing worse than British films -and that’s germ warfare”
“Anyone who uses the word ‘workshop’ who isn’t connected with light engineering is a wanker”
and my all time fave:
“They laughed at Arthur Askey – and history has proven them wrong.”
Sayle has been a full time writer rather than comedian for over five years now. This is his second novel in that time, after two books of short stories. It’s time for him to be judged on his merits in that field.
The book centres on Harriet, an overweight, underconfident, nervous and dissatisfied clothing repair specialist; her thinner and haughtier control-freak sister Helen, and Helen’s space-headed husband Toby, all of whom dwell around the latte swilling dinner party set of North London. As Helen and Toby live their successful existence acting as representatives for the charity Warbird -which rescues rare birds from areas of genocidal conflict – Harriet hangs around them like an over-sized spare-part, dispirited and despondent. During one of her numerous and fruitless visits to the gym Harriet meets a strange young fitness instructor, who comes to induct her into a strange and secret martial art, which results in dramatic transformative effects upon her life.
To reveal much more of the plot would be to spoil the surprises as they appear. What is safe to say is that as the events of the novel unfold, a picture of modern day suburban London is lividly and vividly painted, its transitional intransigence captured in spiky vignettes. The inner-life of the frustrated characters at the centre of this atomised zone are fleshed out with a sense of detail sharpened against the absurd yet with a sparse melancholy at their centre.
Taken from his previous life writing absurdist sketches, but redirected rather than just rehashed, is the setting of the mundane and the exotic side by side, philosophical quandaries tailing off into black-humoured social observations.
Sayle has said his literary hero is Evelyn Waugh, and there’s certainly a strong streak of the mentor’s misanthropy here. A plague-on-both-houses mentality ladles out scorn to both the professional bores at its centre and the lumpen-English and desperate immigrants that surround them. The bile-filled persona of old is intact, and blasting its spray over the whole sorry scene of the metropolis.
Amongst the perceived rubbish aspects of modern life that get it in the neck are town planners, dinner-parties, method actors, pseudo-spiritualists, sanctimonious and ineffectual charities, “gastro-pubs”, wannabe gangsters, misguided community carnivals…But a guilty joy from the book is when the narrator is having a vicious go at targets that you really think don’t deserve it.
In a droll stab at the middle-class Left’s attachment to all things Latin American, Sayle manages a terrific conceit with the twisted character of Helen. She fixates on a famous Hispanic puppeteer who is persecuted by a Pinochet style dictatorship in her childhood (his puppets themselves facing the firing squad in an act of ritual humiliation), and thereafter this figure becomes her “conscience”throughout her life, a representative of all that is good and righteous in the world who benignly guides her forward. What should be an admirable quirk becomes her most insufferable characteristic, as the wise, humane revolutionary she conjures up merely parrots her own self-justification. The actual, aging article himself turns up in her life, a jaded, lecherous, cynical, parody of her expectations, destroying her self-image. A typically nice and nasty touch.
There is light and shade amidst the black barbs to bring the scenes to life, and for all the vitriol there is adept characterisation at work too. Exaggerated in some respects they may be, but the characters never sink into caricatures. Sayle is not one of the great prose stylists, but he is skilful in describing his characters’ inner-lives, in unearthing the defining absences that make up the essence of a psyche. The very sparseness of style here brings out the blank desperation well.
The descriptions of Harriet’s pathetic desire not to offend, the strange mental tics of Toby, and the desperate social-grandstanding of Helen are shown to perfection. Sayle is good at grasping out the littler and grimier things that eventually make up what we are. As one example, the sinister gym teacher ponders on how the false expectations of others have distorted his sense of self:
It was kind of stupid that Harriet thought anybody at Muscle Bitch, least of all him, held any qualifications, unless you thought looking nice in a tight polo shirt counted as a qualification. ……The bright clear blue of his eyes, the sharp, straight line of his nose, the firm cut of his mouth, made him look really, really, really intelligent. Patrick thought, turning his head from side to side in the pitiless light of the shaving mirror, that if he didn’t know the ordinariness of his own mind he’d ask himself for advice on all sorts of difficult and baffling matters.
Snide digs abound, but the author is not just digging up dirt, but getting his fingernails under real people’s lives, and showing the soiled underneath. Some things never change: Sayle tangentially knocks from one topic to the next, questions go unanswered. But a story is told here and told very well, amusing constantly, and leaving a cold feeling of truth behind.
Alexei Sayle has passed the test and managed that rare transition from decent comedian to proper, good, novelist, as opposed to a passable one. Don’t say it too loud though. We don’t want to encourage more of them.