Sunday 27 December 2009

Mister Gum, by Rhys Hughes

Mister Gum is a creative writing tutor who illustrates the rules of good writing – beginning of course with “Show, don’t tell” – with a series of extended anecdotes that may or may not be from his own life. Eventually he loses his position, but his adventures in sex and language continue, including a spell working at the inflatable headquarters of Scrofula Yard with Detective Ynch Short.

This is a book drenched in gentlemanly emissions from start to finish, and if it isn’t the filthiest thing I’ve ever read (that would have to be Les onze mille verges by Apollinaire, which I expect to be arrested for reading any day now) it’s in the top ten, somewhere near Miller’s Under the Roofs of Paris. But for all the semen being flung around in these pages, it’s really very genteel and polite. This isn’t Rhys Hughes does porn, or Rhys Hughes sets out to shock; it’s the same Rhys Hughes, just with oceans of semen, talking hymens and characters like Fellatio Nelson, a pirate with a prehensile penis, and, erm, Lynne Truss, punctuation fanatic.

This is the third book by Rhys Hughes I’ve read in as many months, following The Smell of Telescopes (Eibonvale) and The Postmodern Mariner (Screaming Dreams). Mister Gum comes to us from Dog Horn Publishing, publishers of Polluto magazine. This multiplicity of publishers suggests that Hughes is something of a wanderer (either that or no single publisher can cope with his prodigious output). And so it goes with his stories (after three books I’m now an expert!), many of which feature journeys of one kind or another. His stories are like extended “a man walks into the bar” jokes; their conclusions share the unforeseeable inevitability of a punchline.

What I like so much about Hughes’ work is (egocentrically enough) exactly what I like in the novels I’ve written myself. It’s the freedom he gives himself, to follow his nose, to be deliberately silly, to extend jokes as far as he fancies. The difference of course is that mine are rubbish, lazily written nonsense, whereas his stories are carefully-constructed, detailed nonsense! He’s sometimes accused of being self-indulgent, but there are more than enough books out there that indulge their readers. How great to have a writer working for himself, to create more of the kind of art that he appreciates.

And anyway, as Frank Black sang about the Three Stooges, “Some nonsense, it is so serious.” Here, in a very, very silly book, I think Hughes is making very serious points about the near-total irrelevance of externally-imposed rules when it comes to creating art; they’re useful when it comes to selling it; and working within self-imposed rules can create interesting results (viz. the Oulipo work he admires); but if you want to write a story that is all tell and no show then don’t let a silly rule stop you.

I can’t imagine trying to edit or translate his work. Translating it, how to adapt the puns to another language, how to even spot them all? Editing it, how to know what’s a mistake, when almost any apparent mistake could be another joke? (Well, you would just ask on the proofs, but I’m coming over all rhetorical.) Reviewers face similar difficulties. For example, my pre-release version contains several mentions of prostrate glands. Should those be prostate glands, or is it another joke? Maybe they are prostrate, as a result of all their hard work! If it was a mistake, I hereby claim my no-prize! But if it was a joke, I’ve shown myself to be a complete dullard!

Anyway, to sum up: fantastically filthy, fantastically entertaining! But I think Lynne Truss will be on the phone to her lawyers…

Mister Gum, by Rhys Hughes, Dog Horn Publishing, pb, 108pp

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