Saturday, 8 November 2008

Alexei Sayle, Mister Roberts (2008)

Naturally, I'm always interested in stories (or songs) about Robertses, especially if they are science fiction. So I picked up this short novel prepared to be engaged. Then, having read it, I put it down. I thought to myself: 'my, but this book is deeply deeply rubbish.' I'm tempted to leave it at that, reviewwise.

What to make of Alexei Sayle? I have a friend called Malcolm Dixon who works a day-job at the University of Kent and in his spare time writes short fiction. He writes, in point of fact, the best short stories I have read this side of Lorrie Moore. (What's that? You haven't heard of him? That's your loss). Mention Alexei Sayle to Malcolm, in, let's say, a pub, and see him explode. You see, when a celebrity gets a publishing contract, and attendant review coverage and money, it is usually for an obviously ghostwritten piece of glossy flimflam. But Sayle, after garnering tremendous amounts of goodwill amongst left-leaning sorts with his aggressively quasi-situationist stand up comedy, went on to publish his own shite short fiction with literary pretentions. Then he went on to publish his own shite short novels with literary pretentions. Thereafter the blanket review coverage, the gushing endorsements from celebrity chums, the Mark Lawson BBC4 interview in which Sayle revealed that he resented never having shortlisted for the Booker Prize ... all this is liable to rub certain people up the wrong way. Amongst those people would be folk who write superb short fiction that never impinges the public sensorium because they've never been on the gogglebox.

Mister Roberts is mostly set in Spain amongst the expatriates. There's a costume designer called Laurence, and a 13-year-old mixed race boy called Stanley whose mother is a bit of a screw-up, and various other rizla-thin 'characters'. Here's the sfnal bit: an alien crash lands in a human-shaped robot (designed, you see, for exploring the human world unnoticed). The alien dies, but Stanley chances upon and then gets inside the robot. He passes it off as his Mum's new boyfriend 'Mister Roberts' (do you see what he did there?), beats up men who are hassling his mum and shenanigans ensue. It sounds like a YA premise. Stop, strike that. Try again: it sounds like a really weak, second-hand YA premise; but the swearing and violence here suggest that Sayle is pitching it as an adult novel. As a YA novel it would have sucked. As an adult novel it sucks. The difference, then, is one of tense.

It sucks on several levels, but the one that struck me most -- considering that this is a writer narked he's not getting Booker Prize shortlistings -- is just how poorly written the whole thing is. The prose reads throughout like a rough first draft; as if Sayles has not grasped that writing involves first writing down the stuff that tumbles out of your head and then rewriting it to improve it. An example:
For a while, a year or two perhaps, work had been gradually trailing off; the gaps between projects getting longer and longer but this series going to somebody else meant he wouldn't have done anything for well over nine months. [19]
See, that breathless 'I'll have a rough stab at punctuation, comma, comma, semicolon, fuck that, punctuation's too much trouble' style? Not so good. Saying 'a year or two perhaps', like you're not sure? Not good either. (You invented this character and his whole back story: if you don't know, who does?). Let me, as one writing professional to another, pass on another trick of the trade: gush, though bad, is not so bad as gushy cliché. Here's Sayles's alien:

In appearance, like all his comrades, he was small and stocky, about a metre and a half tall, strong muscular arms and legs covered in greenish grey scales with clawed hands and feet, his head longer than ours but with eyes, golden in colour, at the front—the mark of a predator. [22]

I would not be lying were I to say I've read fanfic better conceived and written than that. Indeed, turn it around: I'd be hard pushed to find fanfic worse conceived or more poorly written than that. What might redeem the hastily bodged up prose, uninvolving characters and random plotting would be a touch of the old humour: but the jokes here are weaker than kittens with flu. 'That's the closest thing we have to a philosophy, though, isn't it,' says one character: '"live and let live"?' 'Sometimes,' returns another, 'I wonder whether it isn't more "fuck up and let fuck up".' [92] A prize to anybody posting a weaker gag from a novel in the comments.

Not so much Mister Roberts as Mister Rubbish. Indeed, not so much Mister Rubbish as Rubbish Rubbish.


GeoX said...

He was very funny in The Young Ones, however.

Christopher said...

I have ordered this text and look forward to reading it. You might, it could turn out, be right that it lacks merit. I thought, at first, that English was not your first language. I think now that you could be American; that would confirm my opinion.
If you take on a persons style can I suggest you proof read your own text. Kettles and pots can both be black.