Reviewed by Nigel Robert Wilson
You won’t understand the title of this book until almost the end when Rowena Baines-Redland, the Chum of Chapelvale, incites our hero, the plumber Keith Huxtable –Best Rates Soonest Dates – with Bunyan’s greatest hit, as Keith struggles in a rising storm to undo roof-ridge ornaments that punctuate an under-world building that had been pitched too large.
Once upon a time in a reality long ago I was hostile to stories that subverted the genre – and I retain an almost violent dislike of Alternative History – but then you read a good one, in my case Norman Spinrad’s `The Iron Dream’, and you find yourself luxuriating in a veritable fountain of refreshing ironic humour. The purpose of this book is to delight and amuse; a task at which it succeeds.
The hero, Keith Huxtable is a Buddy Holly fan! Rave on, it’s a crazy feeling that has also infected his youngest daughter Imogen, affectionately known as Mog. Keith, who also hates golfers – get off the fairway! – seems to be a veritable paragon of civilised behaviour as he treasures his collection of Fifties comics which he has carefully preserved in the attic which his wife, Joanna now covets to become living space so she can control their wayward son, Niall. Keith and Cloudy George Philpotts, a fellow enthusiast, spirit the comics away to Zenith Self Storage pending possible sale. However, Keith hangs onto the unbroken run of Mercury Annuals by hiding them in his white van.
In these cherished books `The Magenta Line’, which also stars the Voyagers Twain being William Broome and Joseph Anstey post-enlightenment cartographers of the realm venturing to the jolly old margins of the universe, brought into existence the Arc of Sixteen Planets which includes the unfinished planet, Razalia and its three looping, umber moons. Sad, incomplete, unsanctioned Razalia whose inhabitants have to do weeks of work in a single afternoon of brightness. Razalia, a late night publisher’s knock-off designed to sex up sagging circulation, had somehow managed to grow up by acquiring shape and substance from somewhere, somehow. Razalia, a planet inhabited by telepaths who dress as monks with faces aflame as candles within the natural darkness that permeates their home. Razalia, a planet where the local squirearchy are so desperate to complete their reality, threatened as it is by a never-ending stream of white that eats up all substance it meets, that they seek contact with their Creator across time and space to rectify this discrepancy. Thus the Tharles of Kidresh, Dreest and Mopatakeh organise a colander, a pole and two stirrups as the means to focus their mental energy across the universe to find their Creator. They are supported by a useful female entity the Razalians call Carolla-who-is-not as she looks like an inhabitant of another planet of the Arc known as Carolles, but is unknown to the natives of that planet. She it seems, whilst clad in not very much, manages to conjure many things including the much appreciated Razalian dish, Mallowberry Splendour.
Michael Wyndham Thomas knows the world is square and that our most common response to it is to think and behave in straight lines. It is left to the writer, and the artist for that matter, to seek out and describe the curves to us all; delineate the flow of the contours, thrill us with the fantastic shapes of nature, present the true beauty of existence whilst colouring in all the spaces in between. Hence the peril of the white! The late Sir Terry Pratchett was a master of the curved edge and the colourful shape so there is a vacancy to be filled for fear of a disordered universe. Perhaps this book and its companion volumes will in their turn help to quell our white.
Sadly, for Razalia its Creator, Paul May is dead whilst his artist, Gregory Frith is senile, in a home, with his mind moving about between its many, now distant creations. Please God, if I am to suffer dementia as did my late mother, let me know it as an artist for the simple fear she was a mathematician who could not calculate what was happening to her! Yet the telepathic Razalians scan all minds across the universe to find traces of their Creator, as Keith and Mog find themselves increasingly alienated at the foolish, obsessive vanities of life in this world. So, as Keith drives his white van home, complete with the hidden Mercury Annuals and a tape of Buddy Holly, he and Mog find their reality merged with that of the Razalian Dreest to find that their Sunday was widdling about in utter darkness.
In no time Keith, Mog and Gregory Firth are standing on Razalia tasked with the elimination of the white. They are escorted to the failing island of Yieldingtrees in a boat driven by a sort of servile octopus, a youthful Galladealan who is a migrant from another local planet anxious to find employment as a barman during a pending festival when the inhabitants of Barask, yet another planet in the Arc, come to Razalia to worship the white. Courageously, Keith, accepting the role as a universal repair-man, enters the rising stream of white that is fast eating up the trees and the ground by way of an eternal extending ladder mounted from the back of his white van. He descends through the white to finally unpick the knots found in comic production where redundant characters retreat in the hope of resurrection. The denouement emphasises the power of imagination, not just multiplied but squared.
In the meantime the disappearance of Keith and Mog is causing consternation among their friends and neighbours, not least because Joanna can’t find the comics so she can sell them to fund the extension upstairs. I adore the new literary conceit that allows mobile telephones to operate as some sort of intergalactic communication system regardless of the fact that often they barely work on Earth.
The story plot is both magnificent and ornamented in the baroque manner with further opportunities sloping off in all directions. The style is rich and volatile that needs to be read, learned an inwardly digested to be fully appreciated. Perhaps the book format will be the best to read but that is for the reader to determine. But eat slowly as it is as filling and as lasting as Mallowberry Splendour. It all ends well, so can expect some more?