Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Review: Stranger Than Fiction

Title: Stranger Than Fiction
Author: Jim Murdoch
Genre: Fiction/Literary/Humor
Publisher: Fandango Virtual
Price: £6.29
Pages: 188
ISBN: 978-0955063626
Point of Sale: Jim Murdoch.com
Reviewed by: Cheryl Anne Gardner

I reviewed Mr. Murdoch's Truth About Lies a little over a year or so ago and loved it. This is the sequel to that book, and so we begin with the marvellously crotchety Mr. Jonathan Payne, philosophically analysing his want to stay in bed, his desire to not deal with his life, and his utter frustration with his aging body, specifically why the morning urination ritual need be so emasculating. And as always, Mr. Murdoch's scathing sarcasm and dark humour keep me reading. Satire of this sort is always a fun ride.

Jonathan Payne is feeling a sense of loss because the entity of Truth we met in the last book has left him. But he did leave a note, and as it turns out, Payne actually died in his sleep this time around. Except ... well, Jonathan Payne, as it appears, is not really dead but more dead-ish.

You know, I don't think I have chuckled this hard at a book since Hitchhiker’s Guide. Note: tribute to Adams begins on page nineteen. Murdoch has that same slyness with his words, and Truth is even more of a shady character in this one, full of piss, vinegar, and double and triple entendres. I choked on my tea when I read that the Third World War was called "The Nuclear Misunderstanding." Take that and the multiple iterations of our "world" and by page thirty you have a perpetual smile on your face. As for the plot, I'll let Truth sum it up:

“Well, it’s like this: we’ve been told this time that we’ve got to get the macroverse right like I told you. Big G’s fed up having to set off big bangs every few billion years. They’re not cheap for starters. So, before we do this one, we’ve got to try and suss out where we went wrong the last four times. Which means we’ve got to go through every one that’s ever existed with a nit comb to make sure why they screwed up and to try and stop it happening again.”

In any event, Jonathan must return home, and the reminiscences come fast and furious: the beach, the fairgrounds, his mother, his sexual fantasies...

Having to deal with one’s own idiosyncratic perception of one’s childhood, I imagine, would be a truly uncomfortable experience, especially if you were Jonathan Payne, and the successful reconciliation of one's feelings on the matter would seem highly unlikely. In Jonathan's case, very unlikely. Having your mother and some dubious cosmic entity who calls himself Truth discuss the story of your life so flippantly --including the specifics on how you had become such a wanker -- and in third person as if you weren't sitting right next to them is bound to make anyone a bit itchy. Families ... what can be said of them other than: Best Intentions. The how and why families fall apart is really irrelevant. It just happens more often than not, and the pretence is always the same. But dealing with his mother is the least of Jonathan's problems, aside from the fact that being with him is like trying to outstare a goldfish:

One, he had died some seven billion years ago; two, he may or may not have been resurrected, he was animate and cognisant but he was having his doubts whether Cogito ergo sum applied to this particular afterlife; three, he was in a town generated by his own memories, in which, he was able to interact with people from his past; four, life the universe and everything had just ground to a halt for the fourth time and all of this that he was going through was, in some inexplicable way, connected with a fifth, and, from all accounts, final crack at the whip.

But on a serious note, I think the text, no matter how campy the writing, really addresses a much larger issue, one rarely spoken of in polite conversation: Regret. In Jonathan’s case, how he felt about his parents and how they felt about him, neither side really knowing the truth due to this inherent human inability to express ourselves with our biological relations, or anyone we really care about in our lives for that matter. I can remember the regret I felt at nineteen when my step-father passed away. Regret over all the things I had been meaning to say, should have said, and didn't because I couldn't compel myself to be assertive enough to ever say what was really on my mind, good or bad. I am sure he felt the same because the last thing he said to me was that he was sorry. For what, he never managed to elaborate upon. Now I just say what comes to mind, because you never know when or if you might miss your chance to say something important to the people in your life. Sure, all this stuff might be shit they don't want to hear, and they might have shit to say that you don't want to hear, but that doesn't make it any less important. Emotions might run hot, but, when has anyone ever said communication was easy, and whoever said our perceptions of other people were accurate. It isn't, and they aren't for the most part. If it was, and they were, we wouldn't have doubts, and lying wouldn't have been invented. And that, my dear readers, really sums up this story. The memory we have of our life, for the most part, is a complete and unadulterated fabrication.

I must pause here to note one niggling editorial issue. Sure there are a few typos and a formatting issue or two -- nothing too terribly dramatic -- but what my skirt kept catching on was that there are some areas in the text where the dialog can be rather confusing. Paragraphs often contain the words of one character and the thoughts of another mixed in so tightly that occasionally it’s difficult to decipher whose head you are in. At times, it's not always clear whose words and thoughts we are experiencing due to the lack of dialog tags. Other than that, the editing was spot on. Now back to the story...

After that poor Jonathan Payne is subjected to a film of his life very reminiscent of the wonderful Albert Brooks movie Defending Your Life, only in Jonathan's case, the audience is loaded with psychiatrists, from Breuer to Jung to Freud and beyond. The film, as embarrassing as it is, doesn't take very long, and soon Jonathan is off to meet his maker, who, as I would have expected, sounds like Jackie Mason. I think Eddie Izzard did a fine interpretation, if I remember correctly. But Jonathan doesn't meet God; he actually meets his maker, who has this to ask of him:

“Whatever. According to your file which I have in front of me, of all the humans who have ever lived, you have made the least use of almost every faculty, every nuance I designed. Apart from one. I mean the thing was built to last but hey. All in all, though, you seemed just about the most dissatisfied with your personal humanity that I just had to have a chat with you before I submit my schematics for mankind’s replacement. So, if you think all men should have forty-four inch chests and genitalia a female gnu would shy away from then speak up.”

I won't spoil the end of the story. If you like campy existentialist literature and love Douglas Adams, then you will no doubt enjoy this book. It definitely made me think about what I could change should I be given the opportunity to converse with my maker. Huge penises would be high on my list too, as well as the talent to use them properly. Aside from that, I would un-invent lying and have humankind's brain wired for only honest communication. But that's just me. Jonathan Payne is a tired crotchety old man who lived in a tired old town and had pretty much a whole lot of tired old ideas about how life should be lived, until now ... Now that he is dead-ish, he has an opportunity to make some changes. He has been confronted with Truth; confused, shocked, and appalled by Reality; and accosted by Destiny. In the end, he is given the opportunity to confront millions of pasts, to justify and defend every decision and non-decision he had or had not made in his life, and he is given a chance to reconcile his own feelings about his own feelings. Maybe if he had finished watching Star Trek in the 60s it would have helped, but he hadn't. Probably the best thing that could happen to Jonathan Payne is that he be turned into a sofa. No doubt it would certainly be better than going to a convention about you in order to be confronted with millions of alternate versions of yourself to sort out, especially when one is nothing more than a character in a novel. But you will have to read the book to find out what happens, and I highly recommend that you do, if you like to think while you laugh and vice versa. It is pure joy to read, even if you don’t “get” all the references.

If truth were a pigeon??? Now that is hilarious and poignant beyond words, but Truth isn't a pigeon, and everyone, even an old curmudgeon deserves a second chance. This is a very imaginative tale: psycho analytics by cosmic proxy and high philosophy disguised in the sardonic, who wouldn’t love a book like this, especially since it ends with a whole lot of kissing and honesty? Yes, that's my kind of book. Bravo Mr. Murdoch. Well played -- again.


This book was reviewed from a PDF provided by the author.


Jim Murdoch said...

I really thought we had all those typos licked. You have no idea how many times this book was proofread. I personally went through it six times, my wife, three and two other people once apiece. They’re buggers, they really are. As for the dialog tags I wish someone else had thought to mention them. Adding in one or two here and there to help a reader reorient himself is nothing.

‘The Nuclear Misunderstanding’ is a Spike Milligan reference; I’m a huge fan. It’s from his play The Bed-Sitting Room which if you don’t know you need to. A work of genius. The whole thing is available at YouTube in 9 x 0 minutes snippets. It’s worth watching to see Arthur Lowe – the father on the subway train – who was my model for Jonathan.

I am, of course, delighted that a) you loved the book and b) after all this time were kind enough to tell people about it. And I’m especially glad that you realise that there’s a lot of serious stuff going on amidst all the clowning. The next project is to get these first two novels out as an eBook, probably in a single volume since it’s really a single story with a several billion year gap in the middle.

Thanks again, Cheryl.

Cheryl Anne Gardner said...

If you need help formatting for Smashwords, I am officially a pro at it. Hell, Mark even thanked me in the new edition of the Smashwords style guide.

And you are so welcome. Humor doesn't necessarily dull the pain, but it makes it much easier to bear. I got that. And Douglas Adams talked about a lot of serious shit in the Guide.

And you don't need to tell me about typos. Been there my friend.

Lastly, when someone writes good shit, the world needs to know. My world is small, but I don't mind screaming.

Elisabeth said...

Great review of a great book, Cheryl. I love your style as much as I enjoy Jim's. I especially appreciate your thoughts on the essential theme of this book - the regret.

I look forward to reading more of your wok, Cheryl. I'll say the same to Jim back at his home blog.


Jim Murdoch said...

@Lis – Yes, I’ve worried a little that Stranger than Fiction was more popular (a thing I never expected) because it was lighter and more fantastical than the first book when really it is the resolution to the first book. There whole point to the first book was that by the time you’ve lived long enough (and presumably become wise enough) you’ve very little, if any, life to do anything with that wisdom. The biting truth to the second book is that sometimes having second chances is not such a good idea either.