Friday, August 1, 2008

Sure, I Know the Queen, August 2008

By Jodie

This will be the month, I decided, the month when I write a full analysis of the complexities of ‘Daniel Deronda’ for my column at Estella’s Revenge. In the back of my mind I was also thinking I would give up biscuits (again) and start going for walks during my lunch hour. Then I read one of Gideon Defoe’s tiny books about ham loving pirates, googled the author and spent an hour at work laughing (very quietly) at his Livejournal, while eating custard creams. I’d forgotten how funny British writers could be and how sly they were with their humour, waiting until you had a mouth full of crumbs to deliver their funniest lines. Deronda, who might be encouraged to tell a bawdy joke if someone spiked his drink, was never going to be able to compete.

Many random facts seem to make up Gideon Defoe’s identity, the best ones being that he wrote his first book ‘The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists’, to impress a girl and that he once served Tom Baker a pint. His pirate series is an example of the cleverly crafted British humour that comes off as completely effortless ad-lib. On the surface it seems like a book thrown together on the way to a pub but Defoe’s swift comic timing and eye for detail quickly become obvious. He knows the importance of choosing exactly the right word and putting it in the perfect place to bring off a joke. The Pirate Captain does not just have a beard but a ‘luxurious beard’ and all the pirates have silly, yet descriptive titles like ‘the pirate in green’ and ‘the pirate with an accordion’. These deadpan touches are the cause of the biggest laughs.

In ‘ The Pirates! In an Adventure with Whalers’, the second book in the series, the pirate’s boat is falling to pieces. Off they go to CutThroat Liz, the deadliest ship builder of all, where their captain’s boastfulness about treasure enables them to take a fabulous boat, ‘The Lovely Emma’, on credit. Unfortunately they can’t afford it and Liz is known to dismember customers who don’t pay promptly. The pirates must try to raise some money before the sand in Cut Throat Liz’s hourglass runs out or face decapitation, so they try very hard to do so in many, doomed ways.

Defoe’s books are full of the boyish, lolloping humour that the best British comic writing contains. There are friendly pirates who are inept at their chosen career, which really should be enough to impress any girl. Just in case it isn’t Defoe makes sure there are lots of jokes about gay goings on among the pirates, disguises, improbable plans and problems bought on by the Pirate Captain’s Pugwash like boasting. Defoe’s pirate boat sounds like it would be a fun place even when something is going horribly wrong, with activities like cloud spotting and albatross romancing on offer. The books also contain real facts about pirates in the footnotes; the kind of facts you might use at a party if someone else was being very dull. Did you know that fair weather cumulus clouds have a lifetime of just 5-40 minutes or that the protein created by barnacles is stronger than the epoxy resin used on the space shuttle? The inclusion of these footnotes shows Defoe’s genuine enthusiasm for his subject. Extra touches added, it seems just for fun, at the end of the books are unexpected and well thought out, for example ‘ The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists’ has comprehension questions such as:

‘Which do you think is most important to the Pirate Captain –ham or his luxurious beard? If you had to choose which one was more important to you, which one do you think you would pick?’

and ‘ The Pirates! In an Adventure with Whalers’ has an exhaustive list of fictitious ‘Pirates in Adventures with…’ titles, which you will want to read to the end. Defoe is certainly making strides in comic pirate fiction unlike any you will have seen before. It is possible I think this because I haven’t read any other examples of comic pirate fiction, if you have then please let me know about them.

Gideon Defoe’s writing style has a lot in common with Douglas Adam’s style in his ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ series. Both write in a light tone that implies they just made up silly stories for a laugh. Both include carefully timed ludicrous details and characters that are not very heroic. Both writers have engaged seriously with how best to impress girls. In the first book Adam’s hero Arthur Dent wakes up to find that his house is in the way of an intergalactic road and it about to be bulldozed, along with the rest of Earth. That’s not the only surprise he gets that day: his best friend is an alien who has been trapped on Earth and the girl he once tried to chat up at a party has been flying around the universe. Dent unwillingly sets out on an adventure to discover the mythical planet of Magrathea, mostly the reader suspects to impress Trillian, the only other survivor of Earth’s destruction.

Adam’s series is full of cleverly ridiculous detail like aliens who use their poetry as torture and a planet building industry. Dent, the sulkiest hero of all time, has a line in deadpan dialogue

‘ ‘And what’s happened to the Earth?’
‘ Ah. It’s been demolished.’
‘ Has it?’ said Arthur levelly.
‘ Yes it just boiled away into space.’
‘ Look,’ said Arthur, ‘I’m a bit upset about that.’ ‘

He makes a fantastic straight man to the wonders of the universe. The books also have a sharp edge to them that make parts of them unsettling. Marvin, the depressed robot, is only a small hint at the darker aspects readers will find in this series. The main characters reminiscing about Earth also adds an element of sadness to the books, making these funny books multi-layered. The full ‘trilogy’, made up of five volumes, can be hard to find but is worth the effort.

Adam’s series may be disturbing at times but Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books can be quite horrific. I don’t think I will ever be able to read ‘Hogfather’ again. Many of the other books in the collection such as ‘Pyramids’, ‘Small Gods’ and ‘Witches Abroad’ are also satisfyingly scary, but not too scary. By including common fears, such as madness and loss of control, then creating some classically evil villains Pratchett can easily terrify. He also writes the funniest books in the UK. His cast of thousands of Ankh-Morporkians all throw their bodily humour, sharp wit and misunderstandings into the books, making a fast talking confusion that will have your wallet from you while you’re laughing. Gender confused dwarves, talking dogs and a very tiny Death of Rats, who communicates via squeaks like a demonic Sooty are all integral to Pratchett’s humour.
By setting familiar institutions like the post office and insurance companies in Ankh-Morpork Pratchett seems to be using an exercise my primary school teachers used often. Imagine that aliens came to Earth, aliens who don’t know what a spoon or a cup is, now explain to them how you make a cup of tea. Pratchett shows that what may seem sensible procedures, established beyond debate, are actually methods full of holes that can easily be identified and exploited by people who do not believe those in power are always in control. His satire is one of the main ingredients in his most recent books but he stops his scathing indications from being preachy by constructing his judgements out of harsh wit, such as lines like ‘Steal five dollars and you were a petty thief. Steal thousands of dollars and you were either a government or a hero.’ and filling his characters with laughable humanity.

He is one of the few writers who manages to put all the fun and meat of his adult books into a friendly format for younger audiences, producing slight but magnificent fantasy books like ‘The Carpet People’ and ‘Johnny and the Bomb’ that avoid being twee or charming. I would encourage adults looking for a good time to read the ‘The Bromeliad’ trilogy, about nomes forced to relocate and try to make it in the human world as well as Pratchett’s adult books. In fact read everything he’s ever written right now, especially ‘Good Omens’, his collaboration with Neil Gaiman about an Apocalypse. When I was younger and still felt I had time for re-reading I obsessively revisited ‘Good Omens’ and ‘Witches Abroad’ and now I have a whole bookshelf exclusively for Pratchett. He’s just that good.

The British sense of humour may seem strange at first. More swearing than you’re used to, oblique references to some knights that refuse to speak properly and lots of jocularity about sexual preferences. But if you turn away from British comic writing because it all seems a bit odd you’ll miss out on the pirate adventures, the space travel, the really big turtles…You may never know the true meaning of life. Grab a book and start having fun, Deronda can wait a while longer.


stu said...

Have you been reading the contents of my bookshelves?

Jodie said...

If only, I'm sure you've got lots more great recommendations.