Books: Anti-PR for Auld Reekie
Sunday 08 August 1999
by Christopher Wallace Flamingo pounds 9.99
It's 1829 and Edinburgh's dead are disappearing at an alarming rate. The professionals can rob a grave and leave it looking undisturbed in under an hour. Among those they supply is Dr Alexander Brodie, a genius inventor and medical showman. Somehow - the details are vague but involve some clockworks and a rat's heart - he has invented a metal cylinder capable of extracting and storing the human soul. In one of the book's several show-stopping scenes, Brodie attempts to demonstrate his invention by extracting the soul of a still-living "volunteer" in front of colleagues at Edinburgh University's medical school. Unfortunately he makes a literal mess of it and is forced to disappear, later resurfacing with his cylinder as Dr Rendini, stage magician and psychic.
In 1999, the cylinder itself turns up in the hands of the mysterious Peter (aka Pablo) Dexter as he waves it aloft during a press conference for his forthcoming art installation and Edinburgh fringe theatre show. When it is mistaken for a vibrator, one more nail is added to the coffin of Dexter's PR agent, Charlie Kidd, whose high powered career is about to collapse.
Rendini and Kidd narrate their own parts of the story concurrently. The rest of it takes the form of transcripts of an interview with a participant in Pablo Dexter's one-off, out-of-control theatre performance, and in the notes of a shadowy law firm intent on limiting the damage that the anarchic, Svengali-like Dexter can inflict on the Establishment, just as they did with Dr Brodie/Rendini (who may or may not be Dexter's direct ancestor, or perhaps even the same character)170 years earlier. Most of the remaining gaps are filled by Christopher Wallace as he weaves these narratives into a rich, complex and disturbing second novel.
is a postmodern novel rooted in the past. The action takes place either covertly - in the dead of night, in underground cemeteries, secret workshops and shadowy, anonymous law firms; or publicly - in the theatre, operating theatre or press conference. Wallace charts the decline into depression that accompanies Charlie's exposure as a charlatan with wicked black humour, and mirrors it with Brodie/Dexter's decline into insanity.
There are weak elements to Wallace's story, but paradoxically he pre- empts criticism by drawing attention to them: using the hoariest of horror fiction's cliches: that of the mad professor, for example. And the fact that, as Wallace's narrative winds to a climax by the open grave of Thomas De Quincey, it all seems faintly preposterous, makes it all the more unnerving when this wicked piece of anti-PR for Edinburgh and its festival turns out to be as good at manipulating emotions as the characters within it.
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