Book review: Scepticism Inc. by Bo Fowler (Jonathan Cape pounds 9.99)

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Set early next century, Bo Fowler's reader-friendly first novel is about a stupendously lucrative, worldwide bookmaking operation that specialises in religious bets: "A pounds 3,000 bet made by an Asceticist from Dagenham that denial of sensual gratification is a means of achieving spiritual awareness, a pounds 68 bet from a Hindu that the Vedas contain all true knowledge, and a pounds 48 bet from a former convict that God knows of all man's deeds and thoughts," for instance.

The agnostic bookie, Edgar Malroy, never has to pay up. The punters are demonstrating their faith in the unprovable and do not expect to collect, so Edgar becomes the richest man in the world.

He spends his wealth on famine relief and other good causes. Religions great and small, facing bankruptcy as their members succumb to the betting craze and blow the funds, combine to declare a holy war against Edgar's organisation. Things turn ugly: 84mm-mortar-type ugly.

The narrator is a hi-tech power-driven supermarket trolley with thought and speech chips, a friend of Edgar's.

The idea of an object doing the talking is mildly rather than wildly unusual. Last year we had that Tibor Fischer novel narrated by an earthenware bowl; Douglas Adams long ago gave us garrulous lifts and tea dispensers. Round the Horne, on the old Light Programme, always featured the BBC announcer Douglas Smith in an inanimate role ("This week I play a film studio. I sprawl over many acres, security guards stand at all my exits..."). As far back as the Dark Ages, a well-known Anglo-Saxon poem told the Easter story from the Cross's point of view.

There is still something funny about an articulate supermarket trolley, though. This one becomes the sole surviving example of his kind. The manufacturer of the Infinity Chip, the basic artificial-intelligence widget, has a barmy son who orders every chip to be programmed with belief in God. All the world's appliances therefore become self-righteous homicidal maniacs and have to be destroyed, except our hero, whose chip is doctored back to sanity by Edgar.

As you can see, the novel's satirical approach to religion is a little studenty. Religious fervour is displaced libido, so there's a lot of it about on campus, and at that age the sceptically inclined do rather pride themselves on not being fooled, as if no one had ever pointed out the manifest absurdities of the various doctrines before.

Fowler, whose wise four-wheeled Protagonist refers to all believers as mere "nuts", doesn't seem to have progressed beyond the sophomore level of insight. Or else he has, but he doesn't want the boring socio-biological complexity of real human behaviour to spoil his snappy comic-strip style.

In which case, he could well be right. Style matters. Herge and PGWodehouse have comfortably outlasted Anatole France and Charles Morgan, who might be thought more substantial. Successful cartoonery has an aesthetic value, and Scepticism Inc. does succeed, in its rather silly way.

Hugo Barnacle

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