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Dependence Day - Robert Newman

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Author: Robert Newman / Genre: Fiction

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      15.08.2007 11:55
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      First published by Century, Random House (1994).

      Robert Newman’s first novel is firmly entrenched in the writer and comedian’s bohemian days of the early 1990s, before the haircut that led to the more satirical political leanings of his more recent works. Newman is most remembered as the former double-act partner of David Baddiel in the successful BBC series ‘The Mary Whitehouse Experience’ and ‘Newman and Baddiel in Pieces,’ even though this primarily consisted of two very different stand-up comedians doing their very different material in turn, rather than a truly collaborative effort. Following his rebellious nature as the king of ‘the new rock-and-roll’ that comedy was being optimistically billed as at the time, Newman seemingly opted to pack it all in just as he hit the height of his fame, performing at the sold-out Wembley Arena and perhaps feeling that this constituted selling out to his own principles. Newman slipped off the public radar and got around to writing this book, a demi-autobiographical, experimental affair that can clearly be traced to the frustrated, world-weary romantic of his on-stage persona, even if none of the characters points to a dog turd on the pavement and exclaims: “you see that dog turd? That’s you, that is.”

      I always find first novel attempts by comedians interesting, as they usually try to blend the well-crafted monologues of stand-up with a down-to-earth plot that is more often than not based directly on their own lives (Baddiel’s own ‘Time for Bed’ is the perfect example), before developing a finer and more readable style in later publications that somehow prove less entertaining for me. It’s the amateurish nature of ‘Dependence Day’ that I find most endearing, not content to be a simple piece of linear prose and incorporating frivolous literary diversity in a way that reminds me of the portfolios I produced for my University’s creative writing course. It was this empathy that allowed me to see past the often crude or out-of-place experiments going on in Newman’s book, towards the bigger picture he obviously had in mind, but that doesn’t quite work on the printed page. There are several stories at work, connected in some small manner but mostly standing alone (much like Newman and Baddiel’s act), with the whole work being rather grandiosely separated not only into chapters of anarchically varied lengths, but into two ‘books.’ The lives of a small cast of characters are followed over a similar period of time, all connected in some manner to a drug-motivated murder in a Manchester pub and a plot to transport heroin overseas in the stomachs of swallows.

      Kevin’s attempts to deal with heartbreak after his athletic girlfriend leaves him, sometimes suicidal and always desperate, are related in the format of an extended first-person letter to Kenny Rogers, in response to his song ‘If You Happen to See the Most Beautiful Girl in the World.’ This technique, which becomes forgotten for most of Kevin’s narrative, is only a smaller framing narrative within the larger notion that the characters are all returning home on a boat, as a clear literary homage to Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ (which is even explicitly referenced with the sidelined storyteller Marlowe, whose account we never hear). Kevin’s story is the more ridiculous of the main plots, but still within the bounds of credibility as it’s clear that his actions are those of an extremely unbalanced individual; one whose occasional eloquent outbursts on the futility or mesmerising brilliance of life are written in the same manner as Newman’s more enthusiastic television monologues on the same subjects, and with the same show-off Latin quotations. Less riveting is the more primary story of Karen, a woman living on the run who is eventually persuaded to testify against Buzz, whose murderous actions she witnessed and whose life outside incarceration is threatening to hers. Despite the potentially Hollywood nature of such a plot, it’s all very deliberately played as mundane and ‘real-life’ as possible, part of Newman’s overall plan to prove that real life isn’t like the movies, with exciting and convenient endings that tie all of the loose threads together. As expected, the slightly short novel ends without making too much of a fuss, and this stubborn refusal to provide a shocking, climactic, filmic, conclusive ending, while being commendably true to life, is also unavoidably a disappointing anticlimax.

      Shifting between several different stories can often be an irritating feature of books like this, and it’s true that at points towards the end I was hoping that certain chapters would finish so I could learn more about the more interesting characters. By far the most entertaining narrative is a brief and entirely unconnected story offered as the book’s ‘prelude,’ which details a crazy tale of the speaker’s friend having a chance encounter with a friendly and approachable David Bowie, followed by another chance encounter, and another, until it becomes clear that Bowie is stalking him and attempting to work his way into all aspects of his life. As a short story this sets the book up to be far more ludicrous and hilarious that it ultimately is, making me laugh once every few chapters, which is good enough for a book that doesn’t restrict itself to comedy, but also making me bored as it approaches an unimpressive finale. The success of the opening short perhaps indicates that this novel would have worked better if presented as a selection of short stories, featuring the same characters and events but presented from a wider range of perspectives, and avoiding the back-and-forth switching of narrative. Such a direction would also serve to make the more glaring diversions from the prose format – namely the mock screenplay format of Buzz’s trial and the author’s consciously stylised descriptions of the surrounding events – less intrusive and disrupting. But of course, this could just be the part of me talking that thinks Rob was in my creative writing class and offering his weekly contributions up for criticism.

      I did enjoy Robert Newman’s first novel, but it’s clearly an unstable attempt to translate an educated comedian’s creative vision to the page, blending literary trickery with the humdrumity of life in a manner that doesn’t really mix. The subject matter of pubs, drugs, love and sex will be familiar to fans of his early work, and certainly appeals more than his recent performances and novels that follow a stricter political agenda, although I haven’t seen any of this work so can’t comment on how funny it is. I’m new to Newman, my experiences being almost entirely thanks to YouTube, so I was glad when I saw a scruffy first edition of this book in one of those boxes outside an independent bookshop for a mere £1. It’s certainly worth trying out for that price, but many will doubtless fail to appreciate the cute amateurishness as much as I, a fellow novice with a degree to prove it. The author throws up a number of excellent and concise observations on life throughout the 170 pages, but these are far apart and, sadly, easily forgotten, unlike the detailed descriptions of Kevin’s (and presumably the author’s) favourite sexual practices that may be ingrained for some time to come.

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    • Product Details

      A part-autobiographical tale of paranoia, loneliness and sexual obsession, by one of the Newman and Baddiel comedy act. A drug-related murder in a Manchester pub transforms the lives of all the characters, including the angst-ridden hero and his girlfriend, a Romanian highjumper.