BOOK REVIEW: Sheeple’ by Simon Carr

Sheeple'Sheeple’ by Simon Carr
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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This is an absurdist sci-fi hero’s journey, featuring an everyman, Jim, who discovers that not only is the world not at all what it appears to be, he is far from what he believes himself to be. The world is as the conspiracy kooks see it, Jim is Satan’s spawn, and it will fall to him and his mildly villainous cohort to save the world from another — also semi-evil — faction.

Absurdist stories can get away with all sorts of deus ex machina happenings and logical inconsistencies that would never fly in other genres. This book capitalizes on this fact to some degree. However, one can only really get away with those problematic story elements if the book is: 1.) a laugh-riot of hilarity – such that the reader doesn’t notice or care about those “defects,” or 2.) carefully composed be clear in the face of the bizarreness that is part and parcel of the genre. This book is fully neither. Don’t get me wrong; it’s an amusing story with some genuinely humorous events and turns of phrase. However, it also has more fun with plays on the word “Uranus” than anyone other than an eight-year-old boy has a right to have. While it has its moments, some of the humor feels forced, and so the overall effect isn’t likely to remind readers of the work of Douglas Adams.

If you’re looking for a carefree read that will give you a chuckle here and there, give this book a look. But I can’t say that I got drawn into it to the point that I was desensitized to its spasticity.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien

The Third PolicemanThe Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Full-disclosure: I’m a huge fan of stories involving mind-bending, surrealist worlds, of which this is a masterful example. I also find dry, absurdist humor of the Monty Python variety to be hilarious, and this book has loads of it. In short, for me this book was a match made in heaven.

The opening of the story is normal enough. There are two characters who seem to be inseparable friends, but – in fact – they are inseparable because they conspired to murder an old man in order to steal his money. One man, the protagonist, fears that the other man (who knows where the loot was stashed) will make off with the money, leaving our lead high and dry. After the two have left time for the heat to die down, the partner (who knows where the money is) suggests they go to retrieve and split it. Recognizing that the protagonist doesn’t trust him, the partner suggests that the protagonist go into the old man’s abandoned house to extract the lock-box that they left behind.

The protagonist agrees, and once he enters the old man’s house, we know that he has tumbled down some sort of rabbit-hole. The reader doesn’t learn what the cause of this shift into a dreamlike world is until near the end of the story, but it’s quite obvious that this isn’t the real world. “Dreamlike” is an apt descriptor. While this bizarre world clearly builds on the world as he knows it, it also defies the logic of the world as we know it. Furthermore, as when in a dream, the protagonist doesn’t recognize the strange logic of how this world operates, nor does he truly recognize how strange people’s behavior is.

The strangeness begins with the protagonist’s discovery of the man he killed – apparently living – in the house. The conversation gets off to an odd start when the protagonist discovers that the old man will only answer yes / no questions in the negative, and so he’s been giving false information about half the time. Their meandering conversation shifts onto the titular “policemen,” who – while vaguely authority figures – are involved in all manner of inexplicable activities from making garments that indicate the length of a person’s lifespan to taking measurements of unexplained quantities for unexplained purposes (or – perhaps – no purpose.) The protagonist reasons that since these policemen seem to know so much, they will surely be able to tell him where the lock-box is located.

As I said, the book contains a lot of absurdist humor. Some of this derives from the policemen’s obsession with bicycles. When the protagonist arrives, they just assume he is there about a stolen bicycle (or bicycle parts) and – no matter how he tries to convince them otherwise – they continue to answer his inquiries about other matters in terms of bicycles. (There’s also a bit of an unexplained obsession with pancakes, as when a difficult problem is called an “insoluble pancake.”)

As I say, I love this kind of book, and I thought this is a particularly skillful and amusing example of the genre. I’d highly recommend it for readers who like their fiction trippy. Despite huge doses of surrealism, it’s easy to follow what is going on in the story, and to distinguish what is real and what is imaginary.

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BOOK REVIEW: Sorry I Ruined Your Orgy by Bradley Sands

Sorry I Ruined Your OrgySorry I Ruined Your Orgy by Bradley Sands

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Contrary to the title, this isn’t an etiquette primer on how to make amends for a poor performance at a friend’s sexual soiree. It’s a collection of absurdist flash fiction that takes its name from a its introductory story in which a man shows up to an orgy wearing a bear costume and proceeds to behave badly.

Most of these stories are under a page long and few are longer than three pages. The stories don’t make sense, and are not intended to. (If they do make sense, the author has failed.) Instead, they are designed to subvert expectations to the maximum extent possible. Subverted expectations being the foundation of humor, there will be chuckles. However, it’s not just humor. It’s about defying one’s ability to judge what’s around the next corner by resisting any temptation to observe socio-cultural conventions about what could possibly and properly come next. Like spoken word acts, these stories are meant to invoke a response in the reader by surprises of language—often jarring surprises—more than by way of meaning.

If you are the type who doesn’t take words too seriously and take to absurdity like it’s a Zen koan, you might enjoy this brief work for the tickling it gives one’s mind. If you’re the type who takes words very seriously and are prone to get bent out of shape by “inappropriate” or loose word use, you will hate it and should avoid the trauma of reading it.

I’ll elaborate on my last statement. Irreverence, impiety, and a proclivity for the shocking are a few of the characteristics that go hand-in-hand with subverting expectations and conventions. Because of this, there’s a fair amount of profanity and jarring concepts included in the mix. I’ll offer one example of such a jarring concept that’s included in the book: “rape camp.” If you’re prone to be offended by the loose use of the word “rape,” then probably the only more reprehensible phrase than “rape camp” would be “rape fiesta” (though, to be fair, in the book a rape camp is more like a concentration camp than a summer camp.)

As a litmus test of how you’ll respond to this work, imagine opening a Hallmark card and reading the following sentence as contained in this book, “Sorry your grandma died! She molested me when I was eight.” If—despite realizing that it’s so wrong—you can’t help but grin, you’ll like this book. If your impulse is to write the author hate mail, you should avoid reading it.

It should be noted that the book is not all rape, molestation, and orgies. The book mostly consists of less prurient attempts to achieve the unexpected and/or shocking.

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BOOK REVIEW: Memoirs Found in a Bathtub by Stanislaw Lem

Memoirs Found in a BathtubMemoirs Found in a Bathtub by Stanisław Lem

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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If you enjoyed Joseph Heller’s Catch 22, which is to say you like gallows humor that scoffs at the folly of thinking of “bureaucratic logic” as anything other than an oxymoron, then Stanislaw Lem’s Memoirs Found in a Bathtub will be right up your alley. The premise is that future archeologists are trying to decipher what happened to humanity from a dearth of remaining documentation. One of the best and most extensive of these records is the memoirs of a bureaucrat telling of his experience in a subterranean complex that reads a lot like a spoof on the Pentagon. The 31st century timeline in which a future generation tries to understand the intervening dark ages is only discussed in the prologue, the remainder is the first person account of this bureaucrat of ill-chosen profession.

The narrator tells us about his final assignment, one that was so secret that his superiors couldn’t even tell him what it was. When he finally does get some written guidance, it’s stolen. Throughout the story, the author is shifting through various departments of this complex trying to figure out what is going on and with little initial success. At first he’s trying to figure out what his mission is, but later he’s just trying to figure out what’s real and meaningful–and if those concepts retain any usefulness. Along the way, odd and spectacular events occur that leave him thinking he’s being framed. He doesn’t know if he’s in a test, in the middle of a conspiracy, or amid a collection of lunatics.

There are sections that read quite like a Monty Python sketch, and the absurdist humor is sometimes like that of Douglas Adams–though more sparing and dark. There’s a scene featuring an officer who tries to talk the narrator into confessing, and I could only picture said officer in my mind as Eric Idle. Among the absurdist elements is the explanation of office operations. We are told that command was unable to deal with accurately and swiftly circulating memos because of the volume, and so they took to a random system in which paperwork was indiscriminately circulated until it happened upon the correct desk. There’s an officer who begins to chew and swallow envelopes to prevent information from falling into the wrong hands. One of the best examples of absurdist humor is a conversation with a cryptologist who suggests that everything is a code and, ignoring messages that seem to be of military value and that are not coded, takes to using a machine to “decipher” random literature into nonsensical messages.

Nothing is as it seems in this book, and the humor derives from the narrator being the only individual who insists on the world making sense. If you’ve ever been in a position where you had to interact regularly with a bureaucracy, you’ll understand the value of laughing at such humor to avoid weeping. Much of the humor comes from the desire to keep things secret while trying to know everything there is. The narrator keeps finding not-so-subtle fly-shaped spy devices on his coffee saucer. There are blatant lies about behavior that takes place right before the narrator’s eyes. When he’s institutionalized, it turns out that the other inmates are not at all who they seem to be either.

If Stanislaw Lem is not an author familiar to you (he’s a Polish writer who died in 2006), this is a good work to cut your teeth on. It’s not one of his most well-known pieces, but it’s humorous and easier to follow than Solaris. Fans of Kurt Vonnegut and Robert Heinlein are also likely to enjoy this book. I recommend it.

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