“Was it funny, peculiar, or funny, ha! ha!?”


Adam Roberts wrote in The Guardian of 12 Nov 2021:

“Funny ha-ha is tricky. For every reader who cackles with laughter at an author writing “this person was making plans to micturate upon one’s pommes frites”, there’s one who will wince. Some will feel the universe joyfully lighten as they read: “There’s a personage at the parsonage.” Or: “I believe it was Roland Barthes who said I love it when a plan comes together.” I can’t pronounce this unfunny, since funny is so largely in the hi-de-hi of the beholder. I cannot, however, report that any laughter issued from my own personal hilarity hole.

Dan Rhodes’s half-dozen comic novels have their fans, and he is upfront in Sour Grapes that a falling-out with his publisher (what he calls his “ongoing scrap with the biz”) prompted a satire on the industry. Some of the barbs here, about publishing’s exploitation of young workers and the inertial classism, hit home. But the actual story, concerning a literary festival in a picturesque English village, feels like something out of the 1950s.

Mrs Bruschini, head of the organising committee, who “made a point of never taking the Guardian”, suggests they invite Anthony Trollope, her favourite author, and is disappointed to hear that he is deceased. Various living writers attend, eccentric and ludicrous, some under their own names, some comically retitled. The organiser, “Florence Peters”, is named after ex-Hay festival director Peter Florence. 

The book opens with a tall, cadaverous author terrifying the vicar’s housekeeper by eating a live slug. This is Wilberforce Selfram, who speaks like this: “One commenced one’s peregrinations from a settlement in the south-east of this fractured isle, a conurbation known commonly as London. Perhaps you have heard of it, perhaps not.” He writes pretentious novels that nobody reads. Can you guess who it is?

There is some comic business with the interactions of the villagers, and rather more with the grotesques from the literary world. Selfram thinks he’s dying, but it’s only haemorrhoids. He addresses a group of primary schoolchildren and it goes surprisingly well. He advises a young Irish writer to title her new novel not Ordinary People but Attacked by a Jellyfish! even though it contains no jellyfish. (Whether Rhodes means to conflate Sally Rooney’s and Diana Evans’s titles is unclear.) Selfram steals phraseology from Scottish writer Morag McLochness, who is outraged: “Fandabidozi is the greatest word ever uttered by human being, living or deid!” If this kind of thing tickles you, Sour Grapes may amuse your bouche. Rhodes could have called his novel Grapes of Scoff.

There’s also Mara, a self-declared “Journalist–Activist-Millennial”, who is white and straight but announces that she is BAME because her great-grandfather was born in Singapore and LGBTQ because she once kissed a girl at a student party. She is greatly incommoded to find the villagers perfectly welcoming. This is characteristic of a Gammonish tendency to sneer at millennials: “impossible to gender, from Bristol of course, and with a worldview that is completely incomprehensible to anybody more than three years older than they are”. All this would matter less if the delivery were smarter. “Furiously, JK Rowling stood up. ‘To the helicopter,’ she bellowed to her entourage. ‘I’ve had news of a ninth birthday party in Corbridge where they are using unlicensed Harry Potter balloons purchased from the Internet. Pins at the ready!’” Not so much sour grapes, this, as weak beer.

Not all the characters are grotesques. Ayanna, who works in HR, genuinely loves books, and gives it to Selfram straight: “Write a book using normal words; you might even enjoy it.” Her burgeoning relationship with local lad Richard is quite tenderly written. Some of the bizarre episodes and moments leverage a smile, if not a guffaw: I liked the scene where Salman Rushdie’s bodyguards accidentally taser Selfram, after which Sir Salman stands over him boasting about his many awards. In the background, the “Brotherhood of Darkness (Publishing Division)” are planning to assassinate various people, including Dan Rhodes himself. There’s quite a nice twist at the end.

But the focus of the book is so overwhelmingly on Selfram it unbalances the whole. The sheer intensity of the animus here is baffling. Will Self, asked how he felt to be the target of Rhodes’s novel, responded not with anger but weariness. “It’s just woefully out of date,” he said. “I’m 60 for fuck’s sake. I don’t really have any connection with the zeitgeist.” He has a point.

In his preface Rhodes recollects slights he has himself endured from the literary world, including from Self – or as he calls him, “a mid-profile restaurant critic, Evening Standard columnist and occasional novelist”. Says Rhodes: “I have Robertson blood and our motto is Garg’n uair dhuis gear: Fierce When Raised. I would be letting my ancestors down if I didn’t get my revenge.” Raising ferocity is one thing. Raising a laugh is another.”

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