Faber £12.99

How I Escaped My Certain Fate: The Life and Deaths of a Stand-Up Comedian, By Stewart Lee

A verbose, sprawling, self-referential memoir by the David Foster Wallace of alternative stand-up

The benchmark to which all books of comedians' reminiscences now aspire was set in 2007 by Steve Martin's improbably polished and acute Born Standing Up. And Stewart Lee's abundantly barbed account of his return to live performance can hold its own with Martin's superb memoir on even the most high-falutin' plane of literary comparison. Where Martin's slim but riveting volume exudes the waspish poise of Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Lee's bumper DVD extras-style assemblage echoes the revelatory sprawl of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest.

The organisational framework of Lee's book gives little clue to the amount of pleasure it will offer any reader who has ever so much as muddied their boots in the well-ploughed field of contemporary British comedy. Following full transcripts of three stand-up shows, with extensive introductory and footnoted commentary, there is a series of appendices whose self-referential tendencies reach their apogee in an "improvised discussion" between Lee and Johnny Vegas about the former's deliberate misquotation of Russell Brand.

Rather than lapsing into the onanistic free-for-all such unfettered completism might portend, How I Escaped My Certain Fate somehow manages to harness its endlessly digressive internal logic to the service of a single, entirely satisfying narrative arc. As co- librettist of the Olivier Award-winning Jerry Springer: The Opera, Lee had discovered an escape route from his disillusionment with stand-up comedy which suddenly – with a little help from well-orchestrated protests by a right-wing evangelical pressure-group – turned into a terrifying cul-de-sac.

A lion thrown to the Christians, left with no option but to gird his tattered loins for a return to the stand-up fray, Lee not only rediscovers the idealism which had first drawn him to alternative comedy as a mid-1980s teenager, but also uses his many misfortunes as the building blocks for a career-redefining sequence of live shows. If this storyline were any more Hollywood, Russell Crowe would have to star in it (though connoisseurs of Lee's bespoke brand of sardonic insouciance might be more inclined to cast Bill Murray).

Not only does How I Escaped My Certain Fate have a classic three-act structure, it also contains three classic acts. The middle panel of this heretical triptych, 2006's "90s Comedian", in which Lee sets out to confound his fundamentalist persecutors by "making meaningful religious art out of toilet filth", was the most conceptually audacious and fully realised one-man show I have ever seen on a British stage. It looks good on the page, too – like the sort of prose that Gertrude Stein might have written if she'd grown up reading Marvel comics. And Lee's upward creative trajectory gives even his most painful memories an unexpected feel-good undertow: "I could use the invasive probing of my anus in the colonoscopy," he exults in the face of persistent rectal bleeding, "as a way into the second half of the show."

As Lee's routines feel their way towards a perfect fusion of form and content, his acidic commentary cuts through the fatty build-up of showbiz convention with a stringency that the makers of Cillit Bang would be proud of. "Once we stood shoulder to shoulder with society's outsiders," he observes of the allegation that his fellow post-alternative stalwart Alan Davies had bitten a homeless man's ear in an altercation outside the Groucho Club. "Now we view them as a late-night snack." And by subjecting his own endeavours to the same brutally honest critical assessment as the rest of his generational cohort, Stewart Lee has created a book which is at once a notable repository of technical insight, an invaluable insider's guide to three decades of British comedy, and as revealing a portrait of its author's life and opinions as even the most self-consciously confessional of conventional celebrity memoirs.

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tv 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there