"It's turned out nice again"
Robert Rankin is a hard author to review. Not for any textual reasons, he's not like a William Gaddis or a Mark Z. Danielewski who keeps things willfully obtuse, no, everything is right there in the open for your perusal should you wish to peruse it. No, Rankin is a hard author to review because of what I call the "Rankin Metaverse". You see, in the tradition of many other authors of weird fiction (and Rankin is weird, to be sure), many of Rankin's books connect to each other in sometimes small, sometimes rather huge ways. The way everyone has knowledge of the phrase "Taking Tea With The Parson" and the odd sexual position it represents. The ubiquity of Lazlo Woodbine, PI and Hugo Rune. The constant fourth-wall asides to both Robert Rankin and his work, which all the main characters (sometimes inexplicably) read. So, much like with Tim Dorsey a few weeks ago, how best to approach something when you're not sure whether or not the person you're recommending it to is in on all the jokes? Especially when someone such as your not-quite-humble reviewer harbors a certain grudge against reviewing single books as single books when they fit into a larger work?
By saying it like this: Necrophenia is not Robert Rankin's most accessible work-- for the non-metaverse entries that would be The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse and for the metaverse works that would beyond a doubt be the twelve-part six-hour radio adaptation of The Brightonomicon, where they had to make it an accessible entry into Rankin's work while preserving the strangeness and some of the characters who make repeat appearances throughout (The ending of the series even caps off with an advertisement for the nine-volume Brentford Trilogy). But despite being not as accessible as the works I've just mentioned, Necrophenia is a damn fine read in and of itself, one that ties itself into the universe nicely while still leaving enough points of entry that newer readers can get right into it and pick up on the absurdity of Robert Rankin's novels. It's also a touching meditation on age and the passage of time, and the only novel I can think of where not having the slightest idea of what's actually going on in the story does nothing to affect the enjoyment of it. It's a strange, at times boldly absurd book with a lot of heart, and well worth the read.
More, as always, below.
Necrophenia is the story of Tyler, rock star, private eye, and psychic detective. Tyler begins the story as a schoolboy in England sometime in the 1940s or 50s (it's unclear when) who wants to start a rock band. He and his friends break into their school music room with the intention of stealing instruments, only to find that the only instruments the school has left are five ukuleles in a safe. Undeterred, he and his friends start the Sumerian Kynges, the greatest rock band the world will ever know. Well, except for Michael and Keithy, who want to call the band The Rolling Stones. But they leave and Tyler isn't really concerned with any of them. At least, not until the Rolling Stones and the music teacher who coached them pre-empt the bill, leaving Tyler and his friends playing to an empty house. But even then, they are offered a contract by a man named Mr. Ishmael, a contract they have to sign in blood, and all of them experience a strange degree of lost time from ten to midnight. But Mr. Ishmael did offer them the chance to become the greatest rock band ever, and they were all into that, so they don't think much of it.
And then things get weird.
It begins when a group of undead transvestites steal the Sumerian Kynges's equipment and van. Or perhaps when an Elvis lookalike erases Tyler's memory. Or when Andy, Tyler's brother who was sent to an asylum for thinking he was a wild animal, decides he's going to open a detective agency and muscle his brother out of the search for the stolen instruments. Soon, Tyler is experiencing long periods of lost time. Lazlo Woodbine, another Private Eye, hijacks Tyler's story, because "he only works in the first person". And a sinister restaurateur may just be planning to turn all of earth into a dead world called a Nectosphere. What follows is a strange, sometimes twisted, sometimes funny story involving private eyes, Elvis, Aleister Crowley, rock and roll, a huge psychedelic jawbreaker, and very possibly a world where one out of every three people in New York City is dead. And at the center of it all, rather confused and trying to find his way out of the mess, is Tyler. Tyler, the cosmic pawn who is destined to (almost) save mankind. If only he manages to figure out what's going on first.
I've always admired Robert Rankin's steadfast resolve in playing just up to the line, and Necrophenia is no exception. While the book's narrative progression is conventional, it's all the stuff around the edges that clues the reader in that something is definitely Going On Here. It's revealed fairly early on that Tyler is kind of an unreliable narrator, as he tends to exaggerate certain events and sometimes outright lies about the past in ways people usually do. Rankin also manages to keep a lot of the story hidden on the edges to keep the reader from guessing too much by grounding us firmly in Tyler's head. This actually manages to excuse a lot of the storytelling that would, in any other case, be a little suspect. The reader doesn't know what is going on because Tyler is inept at figuring it out, and therefore doesn't narrate it well. Plotting of convenience actually has a rational explanation, because Tyler develops a thing called "The Tyler Technique", where things will always be exactly where they are supposed to be, because they're supposed to be there at that time. Even the passage of time has an explanation.
And it's a good one, too, with a fair amount of heart. Tyler, you see, keeps losing time every few years. For a whole decade. It first occurs in small amounts, like the time he doesn't realize it's after midnight, but it keeps going, from the time he wakes up on a train with his friends talking about the occult and the Lady from Croydon well after their Hyde Park gig where they topped the bill to the time he wakes up in a retro-futuristic New York full of jetpacks and teleportation booths. Every time he wakes up, he's older, he looks older, and yet he feels exactly the same. It's an interesting way of approaching the aging of a protagonist, and one that works. As people grow older, to them, they remain the same. They may not like things as much, they may decide for certain reasons to give things up, but they stay almost completely the same. To the person inside the body, they haven't changed. And so it's jarring to find that when you blinked last, suddenly ten years went away, and the only thing that hasn't seemed to change is your money. Rankin handles this through somewhat fantastic means, but it's still handled very well, and it also dovetails nicely with his meditations on memory.
Finally, the dialogue is brilliant. Characters talk in interrupted, sometimes bizarre conversations that reveal things about them without infodumping, a private investigator insists that he narrate in first person (yes, I know, I brought it up earlier, but still) and the villain's "everything's all right" tone of voice is so cheerful you wish someone would just deck him and get it over with, even though you know you have pages and pages to go. Even the descriptions are saturated with language, though part of that has to do with the first-person narration, but Robert Rankin has a way with words, a way that ties language into knots and makes it get up and dance, though hopefully not both at once, or accidents could occur. Necrophenia has the unhinged, gleefully-insane tone that makes you feel like you're in on the joke, even if it's concealing from you exactly how much of the joke you're in on,
But I do have to offer my misgivings about a few things. First,, while Rankin's narrative control is great, the book is more or less a mess of short stories and vignettes connected through a single character. It's a sprawling, messy book, and when someone has so much control over how they tell the story, for it to be this much of a mess is a little disheartening. Also, as I stated previously, the book is not as accessible as some of his others, and although Necrophenia does try, you're better off starting out with one of his other books.
In the end, though, should you wish to attempt Necrophenia, you will find a book with a good heart, a strange sense of humor, some odd narrative quirks, and most of all, a punchline that makes the setup all worth it. Find it in a library, find it at a bookstore, borrow it from a friend, but do at least give it a try. You'll find the destination and the journey are both worth it.
We start Peter Straub Month with, in order:
- Ghost Story
- Floating Dragon
- Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon