THE PLOT of Robert Rankin's latest fantasy is simple enough: Cornelius, the gangly youth and illegitimate son of guru's guru Hugo Rune, needs to re-invent the ocarina in order to play the notes necessary to enter the Forbidden Zones and snatch enough booty to pay off his debts and then some. By the time he arrives there, however, Prince Charles has fallen in love with an ex-policewoman, and the Queen has been kidnapped during a live television transmission (which includes a concert, direct from Brentford, by a group called Gandhi's Hairdryer); a police inspector named Hovis has had several life-and-death struggles with large green thingies summoned up by an evil king; and a number of people, including a randy midget named Tuppe, indulge in a form of sexual deviation which is not described in detail but is referred to only as 'taking tea with the parson'. Oh, and a good deal of gratuitous abuse is heaped upon anyone named Colin.
In short, this is the sequel to The Book of Ultimate Truths, in which Cornelius and Tuppe went in search of the missing pages of the masterwork by Hugo Rune (the man who taught the Dalai Lama to play darts). Since all the necessary information from the previous work is contained in the introduction to this one, no previous experience is necessary. Indeed you can read them in the wrong order and scarcely notice it.
The Forbidden Zones, which form the focus of the epic adventures of Cornelius and Tuppe (short, it is finally revealed, for Tupperware), are the bits of the earth most people do not know about. These are uncharted areas within the creases when you try to fold a rectangular map of the world on to a globe. 'There exists, right here, in our very midst, a race of evil beings that secretly manipulate mankind. They plunder its wealth, screw up its progress and nick its Biros. In short, they control the world as we know it.'
Everything from lost art treasures and jewellery to supermarket trolleys and yellow-handled screwdrivers is to be found in the Forbidden Zones, together with the answer to all of life's mysteries, including how Santa Claus gets round all those houses in such a short time on Christmas Eve. Perhaps the answer may even be found to such remarkable coincidences as why the paperback of The Book of Ultimate Truths is published on the very same day as the hardback Raiders of the Lost Car Park.
Robert Rankin, whose previous works include Armageddon: the Musical and The Sprouts of Wrath, is the natural home for Douglas Adams fans since their hero gave up hitch- hiking. His level of manic invention is equal to that of Adams; he never lets a good idea escape, even if there is no need for it in the plot. Indeed, he rarely lets bad ideas escape either, if they are funny. Or, come to think of it, if they are not funny at all. Indeed, Rankin has an enviable range of techniques for extracting humour from pure corn.
In The Book of Ultimate Truths, any sufficiently bad joke was liable to have a footnote attached to it, saying simply 'humour'. In the new work, he obtains a similar effect by repeating the worst jokes, often with a self-conscious apology on the second telling.
With the sinister taxi organisation, Black Order London's Legion Of Cab Knights, included apparently solely on acronymic grounds, and a wondrous device that produces miniaturised simulacra of real life on a table-top - filling a tiny plot hiatus and being broken in the heat of the action, anyway - it all adds up to a splendidly entertaining book. Ludicrous, inconsequential and great fun, it will be eagerly lapped up by Rankin cult members, and an unexpected treat for anyone sampling him for the first time. (Note to the Literary Editor: please add one of those sentences with words like whirligig, tour de force, coruscating, cornucopia or unforgettable, and see if we can get quoted on the front of the paperback.)
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