I had a conversation with a friend a few days ago regarding how to judge a book or movie and it came down to a simple practice which I will seek to employ above all others. I think this simple little ditty can replace any four or five star critique or thumbs up or thumbs down which are far too vague to do any good to anyone. I mean, let’s be brutally honest here – five stars? Everyone knows that any critic worth their salt will regularly withhold five stars for such things as The Second Coming or Michael Bay films or Titanic. (Pardon me I just choked on my own vomit.) Then there is the thumbs up and thumbs down junk. Seriously – I would be a terrible critic if I did anything of the sort because there are so many different criteria in film or literature. ‘Was the prose good, visually stunning, poetical etc? Yes? Thumbs up. BUUUUTTTT…. Were the characters stereotypical amalgams of pre packaged cultural junk? Yes? Thumbs down. So it is with this that I usher in the new criteria: ‘Will I remember it next week?’
You might think this can’t possibly work or you might think I have early Alzheimers but the fact of the matter is that I find that we are in such a culturally loaded world these days that my brain will only store so much junk before tossing it out the side windows of my ears. Between endless reboots of films and television shows from the eighties, the general lack of anything original being produced by anyone, ever, and the fact that everything is about as fresh as bread recycled into breadcrumbs and then re-pasted back into a breadish shape by the brainless gnomes of a commerce oriented cultural lego factory – I think fond remembrance is about the best that anyone can expect.
And so I bring you The Gun Seller – by Hugh Laurie. Yes. THAT Hugh Laurie.
I don’t know why but it seems I’ve been circulating amongst his works for a while now – stumbling upon them, actually. Maybe it’s because a few people have said I look like him. I doubt it. That has never motivated me before. It certainly isn’t due to his portrayal of Dr. Gregory House – I don’t watch the show regularly and I have a severe allergic reaction to Englishmen playing Americans and vice versa. (ironic considering the plot deeply involves just that) I find Laurie a very good actor playing an American part but then I just wonder why that’s necessary – you see what I mean? Like Maggie Gyllenhal playing a very good Englishwoman – I don’t understand the need for it. Aren’t there good English actors who could do just as well and couldn’t Dr. House just be English? I don’t get it – but please refer to the opening paragraph for the beginning of this diatribe where I obliquely point out the dismal state of creativity and the fiendish overlords who squirt it out in pre-generated dollops. I will continue this at length somewhere else but right now I’m overdue for a review.
The Gun Seller is a thriller about the strange paths life can take when evil corporate overlords collude with diabolical government agencies and wrap up a former English soldier in their tangled webs. Quite predictably the conclusion is that life can get downright unpleasant, not fun, a real drag. It is this ‘drag’ that we object to whenever we pick up the news, listen to the news, see the news on the street, throw a brick through the newses window or on the off and horrible chance that the News reaches out and calls us just to chat. The news sucks and the news – such as it is a semi accurate reporting of the whole crappiness of human existence – is really best to be faced head on, chin up, shoulders squared, and laughing hysterically.
The news, as far as we are forced to be aware of it, is filled with tales of evil corporations manipulating events and situations to economic advantage. It’s a familiar story that our hero becomes involved with, entirely believable in the ever jaundiced eye of our current awareness. This story, however, rolls along and around like a wonderful rollercoaster, never stalling on boring details best left to nuclear engineers or sonar operators like SOME writers might. Ahem. Ahem. For example:
”You know what a Glaser slug is, Thomas?” He spoke softly, almost dreamily.
“No Rusty” I said, “I don’t know what a Glaser slug is. Sounds like it’s a chance for you to bore me to death instead of shoot me. Off you go.”
What’s wonderful about this book, and believe me – it’s just what the doctor ordered for my current state of literary malaise – is that Americans have suitably supplanted the demonized KGB agent of past spy thrillers. What makes it even better is that everything is so thoroughly witty and tongue in cheek that it’s difficult to take any of the very realistic peril with much seriousness. This is, of course, the best way to take peril as the hero so aptly demonstrates over and over again. Americans ooze their murky moral mess throughout this daring little novel, they creep in all the appropriate corners, bristling with menace, working their cunning evil schemes. Being an American I envy their cunning which I am no longer certain we’re capable of. These days it seems we’re more the thug on patrol. Broke a window- “Yeah? So what? I did it. Whatchu gonna do about it?” Invade a nation for spurious reasons (I used SPURIOUS!!! FTW!!!): “And?, we’ll do it again if we feel like it.” I have to say, as an American, it’s really refreshing to see the demagogic tables turned.
But what makes this even better is the irrepressible humor of it. I could have expected this sort of humor from the weirdo co-creator of Fry and Laurie. I should have expected it, but somehow I just almost didn’t. Well, I sort of did because I bought the book but I have to admit I was a little surprised at just how effective he was at writing it. Laurie manages to thread his hero Thomas Lang through so many misadventures without weakening him one bit, without making him a complete buffoon, and without diminishing his resolve to the extent that this unlucky, hard boiled, accidental super spy comes through the story very heroically and yet still funny. Even at the most dire of times Lang is good for a great quip, clearly demonstrating that the best way to muddle through the evils of an evil world is with a bit of a laugh at the expense of it and yourself.
Not since Douglas Adams have I read such brilliantly topsy turvy descriptions of things and I am very much a description type of person.
“He was uglier than a car park, with a big, hairless skull that dipped and bulged like a balloon full of spanners, and his flattened, fighter’s nose, apparently drawn on his face by someone using their left hand, or perhaps even their left foot, spread out in a meandering, lopsided delta under the rough slab of his forehead.
And God Almighty, what a forehead. Bricks, knives, bottles and reasoned arguments had, in their time, bounced harmlessly off this massive frontal plane, leaving only the feeblest indentations between its deep, widely-spaced pores. They were, I think, the deepest and most widely-spaced pores I have ever seen in human skin, so that I found myself thinking back to the council putting-green in Dalbeattie, at the end of the long, dry, summer of ’76.”
I love description that can make your head spin madly, whether its poetically beautiful as in Fitzgerald or just mad as in Laurie and Adams. Nothing irritates me more, frankly, than a dimwitted writer with nothing to say about the big, wide, scary, beautiful world around them. You might as well knock me unconscious with stinky cheese. The Gun Seller hangs its many hats on these descriptions and I couldn’t be happier trying them on with glee. It’s not the story, which is twisty and turny and very good, but it’s the narrators irrepressible viewpoint on that story that makes this novel so good.
Anyway. I’ll remember this one next week and the next time I see House I will curse the fates because I would much rather Laurie be in front of his typewriter than on my TV. And now I am off to watch episode 5 or 4 of the first season of MI5. Whichever one he guest starred in.