My new book was going very well, until I hit page 174 last night. The book’s meant to be funny, and I did laugh out loud a few times (when I was invigilating at a final, for example). I can see the satire in the book, but in certain passages you can’t really make out what or who is being satirized, for what, and whether it contributes to a critical perspective in a helpful way. It sort of feels like watching a stand-up show, where the comedian picks on people from the audience, to make fun of their appearance – in the book, a policewoman is called a “lesbian” out of spite, an overweight man’s body is described as “bear-like wobble” and a woman is made fun of for laughing too often: “she gave every impression of coming out into the open about her desire to howl till she pissed herself” (79).
So, back to page 174… One of the characters, David, works for an international copywriting agency. This passage is about what his company does:
“In the past two years, a new development had occurred. Dymphna returned from a trip to China, and had discovered that Chinese teenagers in Beijing liked to carry around books in English. As a fashion statement, not for reading: they could rarely read any English. Dymphna wondered whether they really cared what the contents of the books were, and, indeed, a teenager with bronze chrysanthemum-like hair, an English cricket sweater and tartan bondage trousers had got into trouble for carrying round a copy of Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler, probably left in a hotel room by some politically motivated tourist. If the youth could be assured that the books they were holding had absolutely no political content, and looked, moreover, rather more like the Chinese idea of an English book than an English book itself did, Dymphna observed there was money to be made” (174-75).
So the company gets the manuscripts written by freelancers, who are “happy to be in print on paper, if only for the benefit of people who could not understand three consecutive words in English” (176) and David’s job is to write the titles and the blurbs, because packaging is the crucial bit here. “The Chinese market in English books respond[s] best to particular titles” (175) so he chooses titles like Nightingale Lovely World Dreaming, Yes, For Ever, Yes and Moon Antelope, I love You and Rainbow Kiss the Lucky Bird. One of these pages in the novel also contains an excerpt from one of the books, where the protagonist is called Moron Pranxfucker.
The choice of words in the book titles reminded me of those Morning Glory stationery items with saccharine slogans. OK, it is bad taste that is being satirized, and probably the worldwide appeal of Anglophone cultural products, but I don’t really understand the grammar mistake – surely it doesn’t take David much effort to come up with grammatically correct titles?
It is somewhat depressing to think that Philip Hensher teaches at a university, and all universities in the UK have considerable numbers of international students from China. An earlier section of the book introduces the existence of a butcher as a good sign in an English town, indicating that the residents won’t do with supermarket meat. The absence of Chinese take-aways and kebab shops is also a good sign – another indicator of refinement. In another passage on CCTV cameras, one character is talking about the benefits of surveillance over a hypothetical burglar, who is described not just as “a youth” but as “a black youth” (79). Once I read in a review by Philip Hensher that “Professor Edward Said has taught us all to be rather snooty about French paintings of harems” and I am sorry to say that I’ll be rather snooty about his work.