Monday 13 July 2009
The Couch Surfer: 'Celebrity endorsements rarely convince me of a book's quality'
Tim Walker: I had to get my hands on the thing. If everyone else is after it, it must be worth reading, right?
As I was exiting a central London Tube station last week, my eyes were drawn to a large black poster containing a single word in a bold white typeface: "Tomas".
I'd seen the ad before, plastered all over the underground. Tomas, it turned out, is the just-published debut novel by James Palumbo, formidable-sounding scion of the Palumbo property dynasty, founder of Ministry of Sound, and 406th (equal) richest person in Britain.
Stellar one-line tributes clogged the neighbouring posters. Pete Tong described Tomas as "American Psycho comes to Europe"; Niall Ferguson called it "Grotesque yet gripping"; Noel Fielding claimed "The noises I made whilst reading [it] frightened people on the train." Stephen Fry was unequivocal: "Amazing... the most energetic and surreal and extraordinary novel I have read for a very long time."
Celebrity endorsements rarely convince me of a book's quality. Surely Palumbo just has influential friends who can persuade their influential friends to provide favourable quotes? "American Psycho comes to Europe" sounds more like a bad horror sequel than a Booker nominee. And does Noel Fielding really need to make noises to frighten people on trains?
Still, I was close to Charing Cross Road, London's most literary thoroughfare, and intrigued enough to seek the book out. I'll peruse the blurb and be done with it, I thought. In Foyles bookshop, however, no joy: the first handful of copies had arrived that day and swiftly been sold. I crossed the street to Borders, where one copy remained in stock, or so said the computer. But in the fiction section I discovered two other blokes sifting in vain through Pamuk and Palahniuk. The elusive Palumbo was nowhere to be found.
The story was the same at Blackwell's. By now I had to get my hands on the thing. If everyone else is after it, it must be worth a read, right?
Back in the office the next day, I popped out at lunchtime to the local Waterstone's. The assistant knew the book without consulting a computer, so I wasn't the first to enquire about it. They'd ordered another 26 copies, she said, after the first small batch sold out. The manager hadn't anticipated its popularity.
And how could they? Despite the posters and endorsements, I can't find a single mainstream press review of the book. Many of the glowing notices on Amazon were written before publication, so could be planted by family and friends.
There was one brief, lukewarm write-up in a London freesheet. A couple of newspapers ran pieces by or about Palumbo, but touched only tangentially on the book itself. One of this newspaper's literary editors told me they'd skimmed the thing and didn't feel compelled to cover it. Has Palumbo himself been out buying up copies to imitate demand?
The book, in case you're wondering (I know I was), is a fantasy satire of the celebrity high-life, replete with plenty of sex and violence. Set in Cannes, it involves a TV channel called Shit TV, and a man called Tomas, famous for pooing in public places, who becomes a killer.
I finally resorted to calling the PR man responsible for the Tomas hype and threw myself on his mercy. Apparently the publishers have already been forced to produce a second run of the book. As I write, I'm waiting for a complimentary copy to land on my desk. And yet – because it's the hype machine that has manipulated my obsession – I find myself almost hoping to hate it.
George Lamb recently made a BBC documentary about legal highs, the drugs taken (mostly) by teens who want to get wasted without breaking the law. Before taking a breath from a bong filled with salvia, George said: "It would seem slightly absurd to make a film about legal highs without having tried one."
This participatory approach seems to be a pre-requisite for a celebrity-hosted documentary, but why exactly did George need to try the drugs? I've seen plenty of great documentaries that don't require their presenters to partake in the activities they're reporting. Would Chris Moyles carry a kitchen knife in his belt if he were making a film on violent crime? For the programme-makers, it seemed, five minutes of George getting stoned wasn't just another bit of the investigation, but the reason for making the programme in the first place.
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