Monday, May 28, 2012

The Perfect Fool

Today I read Stewart Lee's The Perfect Fool, about a decade after it was published. I think I picked up a copy in an Oxford bookshop, at least six years ago, and put it down again, finding it unreadable. But perhaps that's just a false memory, me wanting to make the claim that I found Stewart Lee impenetrable ages before anyone else did.

Now I'm more patient, and mindful of Lee's documented desire to filter out the prospective audience members he doesn't want, I was able to soldier through the rather difficult first fifty pages and into the core of the book, where things happen, rather than the earlier pages, which feel almost sullied by including a prototype of Lee's rant against comedians who pretend to remember the things we pretend we haven't forgotten. It's not that the first part of the book is badly written, it's just tough to enjoy.

The plot itself is fairly predictable; there's the odd twist here and there, and the last few turns feel more like gasps of exhaustion than a great 'ta-da!' moment but the paranoia-amnesia-fatalism that is spread across the page is something that doesn't really need a strong narrative arc. It's a shame that the American characters are mostly such grotesques, but perhaps Lee was just trying to inhabit the mind of a Balham-living bassplayer as well he could. (I wonder if my teenage bass guitar lessons in Balham give me some deep connection to the story ... Perhaps not.)

It's also a shame that Danny and Sid aren't more clearly delineated; neither seems distinctive for most of the book, to the point that I couldn't tell if Lee was making a point about how indistinguishable they were, or if he'd forgotten which one had a girlfriend... Maybe the irony was travelling several feet above my head.

So I didn't think the plot was incredible, and I didn't like the characters. Does that mean I only read the book because I'm a blind acolyte of Lee, cursed to hoover up whatever he produces and declare it gold? I don't think I'm capable of that much self-awareness. It's an enjoyable read, although it starts to run out of steam near the end, when too much has been piled up for the plot to take; the sort of thing that feels like it was written with one eye on the movie adaptation, or at least the graphic novel.

If it was anyone else, I'd probably think this was a great first novel; because it's Lee, it feels a bit of a let-down. Not only because of all the great work he's done elsewhere, but because this shows great promise. I'm wondering if he was trapped indoors, perpetually besieged by fundamentalist Christians, that there would be better novels that he'd have written after this.

But then no 20 minute routines about pear cider. Isn't life difficult when people don't tell you what to think?


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