Friday, 9 May 2008

West Bashes West

After the hilariously entertaining Talk to The Snail, this was a bit of a disappointment - but I had fun reviewing it. I think the book speaks for itself.

Sardonic mirth

first published in The Star, 09 May 2008

Just how long can an Anglo-Saxon comedy writer spin humour out of cultural clashes? If you are Stephen Clarke, "as long as it pays the bills".

Following the runaway success of A Year in The Merde, Clarke produced the sequel Merde, Actually and Talk to the Snail, a comprehensive and hilarious guide to surviving France. So far, all of his books are based on his own experiences in the country. The next chapter in the comedy of errors that is British expatriate Paul West’s life is Merde (Shit) Happens.

And boy, does shit happen here. Not long after he sets up his English tea room in Paris, West is heavily fined by the local authorities – for having English words in the menu. His attempts to weasel his way out of the penalty fail, placing him in deep financial merde. On top of that, his English-speaking French girlfriend Alexa is hinting that the relationship is going nowhere – the same as West.

So he returns to London and secures a gig with a dodgy outfit to promote England as a premiere tourist destination, which he hopes will help him settle the fine and win Alexa’s admiration. The catch is – OK, make that catches are – he has to tour the United States in a Mini Cooper; organise and emcee the related promotional events at each stop; compete with representatives from other countries (including France); and do all that wearing a kilt (which is typically Scottish, but hey, since when has semantics ever stood in the way of an impetuous British venture?)

West extends Alexa an invitation to come along, and she accepts the deal with typical French grace – so she could make a documentary about the "real" (read: ugly) America. Her contempt for the US and its denizens becomes material for some of the jokes and punchlines.

Further mayhem ensues upon their arrival at the former British colony. Their transport is delayed, nobody knows they were coming and what they were coming for, and their link to London is an attendant from a call centre in India. Halfway through their journey, they are joined by West's linguistically challenged American friend and a Hispanic hottie. The "West Goes West" roadshow continues its downward spiral into oblivion while the merry band salvages what they can from it. Snafus haunt the party like monsters in pursuit, hinting at possible attempts at sabotage.

After writing two books that caricaturise his adopted homeland, Clarke broadens his horizons by sending his hero westward. New victims of his dry, scalpel-edged wit includes Americans, Canadians and Indians (not the red variety). Metaphors abound and punchlines are aplenty, making the book feel more like a comic strip than a novel. In no time the plot becomes less and less tangible as Merde Happens evolves into one long, sardonic diatribe by a Brit about the (exaggerated) strangeness of America – when his French girlfriend isn't snarking about it. After each chapter, I was like, "What... was this book about?" It's not just the plot; the author's brand of humour would be lost on less sophisticated readers. Still, that shouldn't discourage others from giving it a try.

It's hard to imagine that Merde Happens is actually part of a series. The way it is written gives no hint of a previous connection with the other books, which is both a strength and a weakness. You don't feel compelled to collect the whole set, since it's more of the same anyway (unless you are a fan, or immensely curious about how West ended up in France and acquired his tea room). On the flipside, copies would end up crawling (like a snail) – not flying – off the shelves instead. Which might spell financial trouble for a real Englishman living in France.

I wouldn't call the book a must-have but maybe we should help out by buying a copy, if only to stave off the nightmare vision of a kilt-clad Stephen Clarke, touring countries on behalf of Britain in a Mini Cooper because his books aren't selling.

Merde Happens
Stephen Clarke
Transworld Publishers
381 pages
ISBN: 978-0-593-05631-8


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