by Snoo Wilson

Attempt to secure any lasting sense of location within Snoo (aka James Andrew) Wilson’s latest novel and you’ll end up caught short. The signposts are all there and the road map appears to be an accurate representation of what an aerial view of the picaresque should look like. But crank up the resolution and you’ll quickly find intriguing ambiguity and triple guesses on almost every level.

      Variants on the customary ‘dear reader’ are quickly skewed by the revelation that the narrator is actually transcribing the text on the underbellies of passing fish – more on this oceanic bizarreness shortly. Alternatively, the recognisable ascendance of a rogue, one Earnest Melmont in this instance, is made strange via a trio of pseudo-spectral Nazi heralds – the Norn – who hunt for misappropriated flesh-bound Mein Kampfs. Meanwhile, back in rural Oxbridge, the resident veterinary surgeon reveals a superstitious pagan connection with his local megaliths, the Rollwrong stones. Herriot he ain’t…

      Such consistent oddity could persuade the reader to believe that this is an esoteric fabrication in the style of Snoo’s earlier Moonshine, or perhaps a cosmic assault on the senses à la Robert Rankin or Douglas Adams in Dirk Gently mode. And yet, despite the narrator’s wonderful unreliability, his bizarre analysis of the life, times and death of Melmont is his alone. He posits that, at the point of our antihero’s demise, the Maxwellian figure merely bootstrapped himself up a couple of dimensions and proceeded to eat the world and, milliseconds later, the rest of the universe. However, among these pontifications on the fate of humanity as it digests in the copious guts of our new godhead, a more prosaic tale emerges.

      Melmont enters centre stage, he inveigles his way up various greasy poles and eventually falls to his doom off the back of a Mediterranean gin palace, which obviously goes some way to explain the narrator’s fish scribbling antics – he begins his tale, bobbing next to the corpse of the undearly departed. In between these personal milestones, Melmont dabbles in cold war espionage, trades nuclear secrets and subsequently weapons-grade plutonium to, among other, the Israelis – there’s even a timely reference to an anti-nuke whistle-blower called Mordecai ‘Vananu’. All this before muscling his way into a media empire and influencing national opinion against the backdrop of the avarice ’80s. A real exercise of success through excess.

      For all these larger than life plays on the world stage, though, an idea of what Melmont is really about remains elusive. He shows humanity and occasional warmth but, even with these attempts to make the monstrous more poignant through empathy, he remains aloof and comically blusterous.

      Supporting characters continually cower in his presence, leaving the reader to think, ‘why?’ He finds himself sickened by his betrayal of his Jewish ancestry through the sale of the Mein Kampfs to the leather clad Norn. Then, a nanosecond later, he’s back to his impervious self. The reader registers the sale of these atrocities, these volumes “bound with flayed concentration camp victims” and yet still manages to come away cold. Even the recognition that he’s directly responsible for the death of at least seven characters during the proceedings, does little to allay the pervading image of a cantankerous circus bear with delusions of megalomania. In truth, the cheeky nudge/wink style of affection engendered by Defoe’s Moll Flanders is regrettably absent here.

      The message that eventually comes across is that of laughable tragedy rather than pertinent warning. If you’ve got the shameless, blinkered wherewithal and moxie to go all out for what you want, there’s a good chance you’ll get what you’re after. The majority of us simply don’t stick our heads above the parapets. The fact that Melmont, and his self-serving ilk do, is the depressing reality that’s reflected back at us. It’s a sub-text that describes opportunism and luck as the real driving forces behind the current bloated shape of success. In such a climate, all we apathetic plebs can really do is run for cover when the great and good start shitting on us from the doors of their corporate helicopters – which is exactly what happens in chapter 20.

      Thankfully it’s not all cowering in the shadow of entrepreneurs unhinged by greed, as Melmont is finally felled through the wising-up and collective conspiring of those around him. The incredulous thing about this professional assassination is the fact that it takes the subordinate characters so long to finally come to their senses. Proving, if nothing else, that pissing some of the people off all of the time leads to an impromptu appointment with madam guillotine.

      Aside from open rebellion, the real levellers in the book remain dismally bleak. Death – no escaping that grim eventuality, even for Melmont who loses his eldest daughter to a road accident – and the reality that we’re all at the mercy of luck. A lady she ain’t…

      Away from the larger themes and concerns, The Works of Melmont remains a “rippin’ good yarn”, but for all the contemplations kicked up by the examination of another’s life, it’s not a book that’ll linger beyond the final page. The life described isn’t that appealing or even that easy to swallow, irrespective of the suspension of disbelief the magickal realist setting conjures up.

      Tellingly, it’s the narrator’s pop physics equation which he uses to quantify Melmont’s universal consumption, that proves unsolvable in the end. And, although we’d really like the outcome to confirm e‹M (where e=everyone and M=Melmont) what we eventually turn up is M‹our expectations borne from an enchanting narrator inscribing turbot in the opening pages.