Sunday 4 October 2009

The Postmodern Mariner, by Rhys Hughes

I went from The Smell of Telescopes, one of Rhys Hughes’ earliest books, to this, one of his most recent. The decade or so that separates them is immediately obvious (or at least it seems to be – perhaps these stories date from the same period and I’m just imagining a difference!): the lines are cleaner, the twists less superfluous, the jokes funnier. There are three distinct sections. (I rather wish The Smell of Telescopes had been divided up in the same way to save me a bit of brainache!)

Part One features seven amazing adventures of Castor Jenkins, the Baron Munchausen of Porthcawl, of which more below. Part Two is “The Lip Service”, a tale of a man who posts himself to his girlfriend and ends up in a far-off magical lost parcels depot. It’s funny, silly and rather sadder than the other stories, being all about the steady disappearance of love from the world.

Part Three is a novella about the Postmodern Mariner in person, “Rommel Cobra’s Swimming Carnival”, in which the Mariner (a blogger) goes in search of adventure with pirates in a gigantic cup of tea – adventure on the high teas, one might say! Astonishingly, in a novella filled to the brim with groan-worthy puns, Hughes neglects to make that one, the most obvious of all. I can only guess it’s a deliberately open goal, left by way of invitation to the reader to join the game!

[In this, as in so many things, I was wrong. The author, reading the original draft of this review on Goodreads, noted that such a pun could be found on page 118, about halfway down. Said Rhys: “I was mildly shocked at the thought that I might have missed a pun! I went mildly pale, began mildly shaking, nearly collapsed with a mild heart attack!”]

Two marvellous opening paragraphs from the Castor Jenkins stories should serve to give a taste of the pleasures of this book. “The Plucked Plant” begins thus: “Castor Jenkins has a bad habit of advocating outlandish ideas and even his mildest beliefs are routinely uncommon. If you ask him about the Primeval Soup he’ll insist it was leek and potato. He denies the existence of the colour purple, the number seven and the note G#.”

And “Interstellar Domestic” opens with: “Nobody outside Porthcawl, and hardly anyone inside it, can remember that Wales once had a space program that enjoyed greater success than the combined efforts of the Americans, Russians and Chinese. … What’s more, it was done on the cheap, without even the need to build a spaceship.”

If you like those extracts, you’ll enjoy this book immensely. The book reviews itself! But I should try to contribute; what I like about these stories is that they are all about extrapolation. I like stories where one thing follows on from another, where premises are built upon, notions are followed through. For example the way the apocalyptic ending of Joe Hill’s Gunpowder follows logically from its small beginnings, or Racine’s protagonists are propelled to their doom, or Superman shaves his beard with his heat vision.

The speciality of the stories in this book is taking a silly (and sometimes not-so-silly) premise and following it through to an apparently logical but ludicrous conclusion – and that’s why I loved them so much. A review of the same author’s The Crystal Cosmos dismissed it briefly: “It begins, beautifully. Alas, from here on out it descends into a nonsensical mess.” Not having read that book of course I can’t argue with the conclusion, but it’s worth noting that not all nonsense is a mess, and nonsense isn’t necessarily something into which a story descends: sometimes it’s something to which a story carefully builds, and that’s certainly the case in this collection.

The book’s one flaw for me is that it groups together three chunks of storytelling that have little in common. Each section is individually quite fantastic, but they don’t quite add up to a pleasing whole. A complete collection of Castor Jenkins stories would have been even better, or a set of three novellas, but as it stands the novella feels like an unnecessary adjunct to the Jenkins stories, or vice versa. Certainly, the unique and very admirable Castor Jenkins stories deserve to be in a book with his name on the cover.

And while we’re talking of covers, a note of praise for Steve Upham’s marvellous giant octopus! Certainly, the design of this book does it proud, as does the quality of its production.

The Postmodern Mariner, by Rhys Hughes, Screaming Dreams, pb, 160pp.

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