Whenever I read a novel by a comedian, I start out with a certain scepticism. It's true that comedy demands talents that should in theory be transferable to literature: facility with language, sharp observation, a sense of the rhythm of sentences. On the other hand, practically everybody thinks they've got a novel inside them, and comedians, by virtue of their fame, have the opportunity to get theirs published. In some cases, inside them is where it should have stayed.
Just to relieve any tension Alexei Sayle may be feeling, if he's reading this, Overtaken conquered my scepticism completely. The story goes like this: Kelvin, a thirtysomething property developer from Liverpool, has all his friends wiped out in a car-crash; in response he sets to work with a devious, subtle revenge on the man who killed them. Throw in a circus, some refugees, a few gangsters, a drug addict and a beautiful contortionist, and you have the main ingredients. I won't give away any more of a plot that, though simple, contains plenty of surprises. The main pleasure of reading this book lies in the force and rhythm of the language - for instance, a brilliant, utterly convincing seven-page description of the motorway accident that kills Kelvin's mates. There's a fascination with ugliness and squalor. A page taken at random (116) has the following adjectives: worn, overweight, balding, greasy, grimy, flat, muddy-coloured, grubby, flabby.
And yet this isn't an oppressive read. It has a manic energy and humour that keep the story crackling along. Sayle uses to good effect the stand-up comedian's trick of reeling off a list of items with the funniest, craziest item of all at the end. For instance (in a description of a football crowd): "I was reminded of footage I'd seen of Hindu pilgrims submerging themselves in sacred rivers bobbing with sacred corpses, sacred raw sewage and sacred containers of nuclear waste."
It's not perfect - what is? The characterisation of Kelvin's mates is perfunctory and there are times when Alexei Sayle's comedic voice seems to have swallowed up Kelvin the property developer completely. The dark, disconcerting ending works well, though. But could I just make one suggestion to Mr Sayle? For the second edition - I'm pretty sure there'll be one - cut out the last sentence. Just delete it. It's only 10 words. You won't miss them.
If I'd been given an anonymous copy of Overtaken and asked to guess the author, I'm fairly confident I'd have got it in one. If asked to guess the author of The Pleasure of my Company, I'd have gone through most of the population of the world before pitching on Steve Martin. What Martin has done is to create a distinct, believable and very strange character, Daniel Pecan Cambridge, who bears no resemblance to anyone except Daniel Pecan Cambridge.
Daniel is, to use his own word, insane. To be more precise, he is in the grip of a whole set of obsessive compulsions: he is unable to ascend or descend kerbs, for example. He cannot sleep unless all the lights in his flat are burning a total aggregate of 1,125 watts. Anything that can be counted, he counts. He traces imaginary lines from object to object, creating symmetrical patterns all around him. He composes number squares (his best totals 491,384 in every direction) and can tell you the day of the week of any given date. Any deviation from his routine throws him into panic and confusion.
Yet this distinctly unaverage American wins first prize in a Most Average American essay competition, and, despite his non-existent social skills, sets out to woo three different women. I laughed aloud at the point where Daniel decides to speak without using the letter e, à la Georges Perec, and comes up with sentences like "It's a fabulous night and us folks ought to pop out and look at various stars."
This novel, too, has its imperfections. The ending feels as stuck-on as a Tweenies fridge magnet. If Daniel really were to change as radically as this ending requires, another full-length novel would be needed to chart the process. Yet this fault didn't trouble me too much - by that time, I'd become so fond of Daniel I couldn't begrudge him his happy ending.
Overtaken is a rant, but a sane one; The Pleasure of My Company isn't a rant, but it is insane. These two novels are almost polar opposites, with antithetical strengths and weaknesses. But they are both novels. Proper novels. Real novels. There's no doubt about that.