There’s a type of British comedy that when done well combines all the best attributes of farce, theatre of the absurd, and the British Pantomime tradition. Comedy troupes like Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Beyond The Fringe were great examples of how this translated into sketch comedy for television, stage, and film. In fiction, the best known example of this style was the late Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy series.
While the sketch comedy routines of television and radio didn’t need to worry excessively about plot or even a narrative line, and could routinely go off like small bombs of comic excess with no worries about what would come next, Douglas Adams didn’t have that luxury. Whether in its first incarnation as a BBC radio show, as a television series, or a sequence of novels, his Hitchhiker’s Guide would not have worked without having its various plot lines and sub plots to guide its seemingly unconnected random moments of silliness.
It’s a difficult path to navigate, balancing lunacy with the needs of a full length novel, and there aren’t many writers who seem capable of carrying it off. One need look no further than Tim Scott’s first novel, Outrageous Fortune, published by Random House Canada for proof that merely being funny doesn’t make for a good novel. Like Adams, Tim Scott began his career with the BBC, appearing in the sketch comedy show, And Now In Colour under the name of Tim de Jongh, before continuing on to write and direct successful children’s shows.
Unlike Adams, Scott does not appear to have understood what is necessary to make a good novel. While there is no denying he has a keen sense of the absurd, and even shows some flashes of genuine insight into human nature, his inability to tie together the bits and pieces that he’s written into a coherent shape results in a novel that doesn’t so much finish but peters out in the end.
Set some time in the future, Outrageous Fortune follows the misadventures of Jonny X as a particularly bad day turns into a particularly bad couple of weeks. After coming home from his job as a very successful dream manufacturer he finds that his house has been stolen. Not robbed, but the whole structure had been shrunk down to a hundredth of its size and whisked away to be sold in all probability on the housing black market. Adding insult to injury the thieves had left a business card in place of Jonny’s house emblazoned with the words “Don’t you hate it when this happens’? and a 1-800 number with final seven digits spelling out AARRGHH.
If that isn’t bad enough, Jonny has the dim recollection of having a really nasty argument with his girlfriend the night before, but finds that he can’t quite bring all the details to mind – in fact, he can’t remember a bloody thing about it. Needless to say that doesn’t put him in the most receptive frame of mind when an encyclopedia salesperson descends on him from a helicopter and does her best to convince him that what he needs most of all at this point in his life is a complete set. She’s not even phased when he points out to her that he no longer has a house to keep the books in. All things considered, it’s not surprising that Jonny decides getting a drink takes priority over going into work right at that moment and heads off to his favourite bar.
Now the world has changed quite a bit from the earth you and I are familiar with, especially when it comes to local government and means of transportation. Its in the creation of the new society that Scott shows real imaginative flare, and a highly developed sense of the absurd. While there is still an elected government, they are nothing more than a figure head as all real power now resides in the hands of music companies. Instead of wards or districts as cities are divided up in our time, they are now split into areas defined by musical genres.
Each genre is set up as an independent fiefdom with its own rules and regulations. So those living in Classical music obviously have different values and by-laws to adhere to than those who reside in Punk or Rave. Of course if your tastes change you might find things a little uncomfortable until you’re able to arrange a move. Still the system works out quite well, as it does ensure that like minded people do end up living with each other, and you don’t run into awkward situations of having neighbours blasting their Christmas novelty singles while you’re getting heavily into the latest trance/ambient atmospheric creation.
All ground transportation is now done via motorcycle, and the roads that criss-cross throughout the city are each area’s responsibility to maintain. While they are allowed to set their own bylaws in terms of speed and noise, the overall control of the roadways are controlled by a quasi-military force called the Zone Traffic Police. This force not only enforces traffic violations, they also seem to have taken it upon themselves to adjudicate any other matters they feel like. When Jonny runs afoul of them, it allows Scott to create a Kafkaesque situation of wrongful accusation that starts out promisingly enough, but unfortunately is allowed to continue until absurdity becomes tedium, and you want the story to move along.
This is pretty much where the book falls flat over and over again as far too many times, situations are allowed to drag on far past the point of being humorous. In many ways they are like ill conceived skits in a sketch comedy show where the attempt to turn a joke into a scene falls flat through lack of thinking it through all the way. In fact this is exactly the problem with Outrageous Fortune – it feels like a series of unconnected, somewhat ill conceived skits, that are occasionally funny, but don’t seem to go anywhere in the end. Scott does make an effort to tie all the threads together in the final chapters, and although he provides a probable solution given the world he has created, it feels very anti-climatic.
While Tim Scott shows that he has a keen sense of the absurd, and can be very funny at times, Outrageous Fortune lacks the thorough line required by a novel. Outrageous Fortune offers conclusive proof of that it takes more than a collection of funny bits to make a novel.