Randy penguins and revolutionary crows

Helen Stevenson follows the aftermath of a zoo rebellion in a striking political satire; Animal Planet by Scott Bradfield Picador, pounds 14.99

Animal Planet is such a weird novel that the thought occurs that a whole anarchic web has been embroidered around a single one-liner which Scott Bradfield thought up earlier, and promised himself to work into a novel one day. The joke appears on page 84, and involves a penguin who is trying to stop a pair of eager female hands from ripping off his vest: "Take off your white vest before I tear it off. Jesus, that's not my vest. That's my me!"

It's the novel as charades. You take a wacky one liner, extrapolate a crazy scenario and from there the delirium flows. How about a novel starring a libidinous but touching penguin, sidekick to a revolutionary crow called Charlie? The revolutionary crow could incite an animal revolution. The revolution could start in London zoo, then spread all over the world, then get hijacked by a Wildebeest called Scaramangus (Scary for short), who is dumb but populist, and sells out in the end, so that the animals finish up securing the kind of equality with humans that lets them become sales reps and production managers. The only power they acquire is purchasing power. All of a sudden this isn't just a crazy animal joke. It's a political satire.

Whatever it might look and sound like, Animal Planet is not a novel about animal rights. After the abortive London Zoo break-out the animals are auctioned off to local businessmen and community leaders: "You can't expect the public to keep on paying your bills forever, can you?" Scaramangus is shipped off to become a living corporate logo for an insurance company. Wanda the Gorilla goes to clean for a media couple on the Upper East side. The animals in this book are not really animals, they are a new underclass eager to participate in global society. They talk and wear clothes and drive cars and clean apartments.. This is a long way from Charlie the Crow's original dream of the animals living in a "self-sustaining, self governing, self determining community."

Animal Planet is full of set-pieces of satirical brilliance, strung onto a thread of high quality, hyper-alert writing that never lets up for a moment: "Before civilisation we never had time to realise how much we didn't have. Now we have all the time in the world to worry about what we'll never keep." "History began to blur. It stopped being something that happened and turned into something they couldn't quite remember."

. You could care about some of the characters, who are never muffled under the weight of all they represent, but I can't help feeling there's always something static about satire. However fantastic, it is dealing with problems which have already arisen, and the terms of whose solution are not the subject of invention so much as of the novelist's weary identification. We know what kind of world we have made, and we know the cynic who lays it before us is never going to do much more than tell us how dumb we are to have got into this mess.

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