Snatches, by Martin Rowson

More in anger than in sorrow, cartoonist stitches up history

It takes in pieces that were first drafted when the author was at school (precocious git), a stretch passed off as a student essay, a couple of "scary" stories written to be read aloud at an authors' Hallowe'en party (I heard one in 1987), and written versions of ideas Rowson has already done in cartoon form. And there are full-page illustrations thrown in - scratchy, cramped, wicked, funny and wise, just like the rest of the text.

Ambitiously, the book covers all human history, but only in snapshots, with streaks of alternative history (an Aztec-dominated world, a collapsed US) to show up the absurdity of what actually happened. Characters, or at least names, recur, and the many vignette-like chapters add up to a coherent vision, if not a coherent narrative.

As the title suggests, Snatches reads better if dipped into rather than taken straight through. It slips down deceptively easy, but there is an enormous amount going on and many self-contained chapters are worth savouring. The range of reference - to high and low culture, famous monsters of history and obscurities in the margins - is breathtaking.

Among the gems are a Jamaican-set scene in which Evelyn Waugh and Ian Fleming reveal the secret masters behind their literary careers and briefly take over the manufacture of each other's books; a vicious political cartoon in prose in which Candide encounters the retired demagogues of the late 20th century in Las Vegas; an impressive time-travel story; and a hilarious account of what goes on behind the scenes on the internet. There's a poignant tale of a drunken werewolf and his friend, and a sequel to the last book of Gulliver's Travels, even more cynical than the original.

Some thin grouting separates bricks of genius, and few of the new-minted characters are as vividly appalling as the spectres from history or fiction. But this is a lively, angry, sneaky book. The yoking-in of Voltaire and Swift - not to mention the Buñuel of Simon of the Desert - is apt, in that misanthropy jostles with pity throughout. Our 21st-century smugness comes in for an especial beating, as it is revealed that the present day is a punishment inflicted by ancestors out to settle scores with us for our appalling attitudes.

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