The Works of Melmont by Snoo Wilson

Megalomania never felt so good
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The Independent Culture

Sometimes, questions about a novel's function in the crucial Ballardian sense (shock?) or that of its role in the development of a moral aesthetic (flocks? smocks?) have to fight it out for second place behind an awe-struck "What the hell was that?" The Works of Melmont demands just such an interrogative pecking order.

It begins with a body being retrieved from the ocean. Its "epic circumference" is such that the Spanish "thick-fingered fishers of men" who belay together two hoists to complete the operation, dub their "oversize catch of the day" "El Gordo!" after the "unimaginably vast Spanish state lottery". The body is that of Ernest Melmont, a monstrous tycoon of Eastern European/Jewish descent who fell from the deck of his yacht, Zenocrate, as his business empire collapsed around him. Looming large over the narrative are both Robert Maxwell and Trollope's Augustus Melmotte - a "big, rich scoundrel" and "bloated swindler" who throws himself under a train when his debt becomes too much to bear. Which is about as far as anyone can go in placing Wilson's book into any kind of recognisable context.

At the point of his death, Melmont "converted financial black holes into physical ones, transforming himself into a dark, omnivorous sucking Force, a living gravitational field" and in this form proceeded to swallow the universe. A new equation - "e<M" - came into being where "e" stands for everyone and is always less than M, the value of which is naturally, "Melmont". And from that moment on, every direction "east, south, north or west ... will always be toward the Dark Tower of Castle Melmont, for all the World has become El Gordo's firmamental fane."

What follows is the story of Melmont's rise and fall and rise - the plutonium and politics, the litigation and the food, the buggings and Jew-baiting, the corruption, parties and kids. Perhaps the most accurate description is of a Trollope-inspired science-fantasy satire, with liberal po-mo splashings of mythology, info-history and gleeful anachronism.

Given the book's scope it is unsurprising that what follows is sometimes an uneven ride. Structurally, it is picaresque but also strangely uncoordinated. In this and in his overwhelming desire to run naked along the thin line that separates flamboyant phrase-making from lack of precision, Wilson appears to have assimilated Trollope's dislike of second drafts.

However The Works of Melmont is exhilarating. It is a blast, a genre-defying tale told with gusto and panache and a refreshing lack of the street-smarts. It is very funny and not a little bonkers. It doesn't shock and it doesn't really add anything to our understanding of right or wrong but hell, it's nice to be confounded.