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Bill Dare's first novel considers itself to be above the simple romantic comedy, and approaches the tediously popular genre from a self-consciously, slightly-different angle. Bearing in mind this desperation to avoid the clichés, it can't be argued that the plot still proceeds along the basic line of boy meets girl / boy falls desperately in love with girl, who is uninterested and/or afraid of spoiling the friendship / boy and girl begin relationship, ahh, and throws the customary potential threat of an potential impossibly charismatic and handsome male rival, balanced out by the safely asexual, funny, clinically depressed mate. The main difference is made clear right at the onset: although James is now living in apparent bliss with the girl of his dreams, he intentionally contrives an encounter between his beloved Victoria and his charming friend, seemingly for the noble and selfless reason that she would be much happier with Stefan than she would stuck with an unsuccessful dreamer such as himself. What a man.
However much this is based on the author's own character or experiences, the most effective aspect of this book is James' convincing exploration of his own psychology, as he writes this lengthy account of his past and present with Victoria in order to come to terms with his feelings, and to overcome the fears and lies he may have been telling himself. There's a little license granted for absurdity, mainly in the form of James' career decision to strike it rich as a game show designer with his slightly mad co-writer Gerard, but even this is grounded firmly in realism, clearly thanks to the author's experience with television production. Bill Dare has had a long and impressive career as a BBC producer and programme creator, responsible for respected comedy series including 'The Mary Whitehouse Experience' and 'Dead Ringers,' as well as producing Lee and Herring's controversial Sunday lunchtime show 'This Morning With Richard Not Judy' which just happens to be my favourite programme of all time, and this is the side of the novel I found the most entertaining and insightful, even if some of the game show analogies that creep into the text and dialogue become a little forced.
I always wanted to be a penniless, struggling writer when I grew up, so it's always interesting to read about people living the dream, and the story manages to be both inspiring and tragic as James and Gerard forsake the dully reliable option of proper employment in favour of making a quick million by selling their irresistibly simple gameshow idea to TV executives. Just as soon as they come up with one during their increasingly desperate brainstorming sessions that isn't implausibly reckless ('Shark Survivor'), stupid ('Climb Christopher Biggins') or conceptually impossible ('Whose Lung is it Anyway?') The relationship between these two works as both light comic relief from the more serious relationship anxiety, but is successfully turned on its head as the book approaches its conclusion.
James' book is written in the first person from his own perspective, apparently at a point towards the end of the narrative: the final chapters are evidently written at a slightly later date, which the (fictional) author uses as an excuse for going back on some of the promises he made at the start, and the whole account shifts between two time frames: the more substantial 'half' chronicling the events that have unfolded in the past few weeks as James and Victoria's relationship is put through its paces, and sections set at various points in their past, jumping forwards from their first encounter at University to key events in the strong friendship they developed over the next decade, before they finally got it together. Clearly deciding not to begin each 'past' section with an irritating date or other sign that the narrative has once again shifted to past events, Dare makes the slightly odd choice of typing these sections in italics - italicising entire chapters just to make them stand out from the 'present.' As well as being a little irritating on the eyes, this also seems a slightly amateurish way out of properly addressing the change of focus, which would otherwise be a little confusing and could have easily been remedied with some exposition in the chapter's opening sentence than through a gimmick of fonts, something that also comes into play through jarring use of his word processor's 'bold' and 'underline' options at other points. In terms of the actual balancing of events, the past is gradually brought very nicely up to speed with the present (or rather the start of the book, which is now itself in the past), and there's a very nice parallel of events between the two eras, the last fifty or so pages being the most dramatic and impressive, even if the very, very end left me feeling a little disappointed and slightly cheated.
The characters are all excellent, proving the writer's talent for creating notable and believable individuals (or at the very least, successfully stealing them from real life and translating them to the page), and although I found it difficult to agree or even relate to some of the apparently universal truths about blokes - probably because I'm not exactly the target audience of books like this, which are more for the Nick Hornby crowd - there were enough familiar events, thoughts and arguments to make this a successfully amusing and painful read. James is a good choice of main character partly because of his significant flaws, by which I don't mean the 'flawed' characters of Hollywood romance who have money, their dream job in the media, loads of friends, and get to sleep with Charlize Theron, but are maybe a bit miserable with envy because the fellow millionaires living next door have just bought a new yacht. James repeatedly explains and demonstrates his own dullness and lack of success, particularly with reference to the idolised Stefan, and he even expresses guilt at not making Stefan the central character in what would have been a far more interesting book. James seems unable to relax with the concept of writing a novel, particularly towards the beginning, and this ends up getting a little irritating; I couldn't say whether this was genuine anxiety on the part of the true author or just a character trait, but it was particularly annoying to be told what I was presumably thinking.
'Natural Selection' is a fairly average romantic comedy, but holds true to its slightly-different approach just enough to make it appealing to people who would normally be quite literally unable to stomach the genre, and would have to vomit before they reached the half-way point. It isn't soppy or idealistic, and feels very grounded in the real world, only stretching credibility a little when the author strives for something slightly more literary in his use of repeated metaphors of game shows and biology (particularly animal mating practices compared to that of humans), but the book is all the better for it; all the same, poncy English graduates such as myself will perhaps find his use of weather to parallel emotional moods a little too simplistic and obvious (and then there's the issue of inconsistent punctuation regarding full stops either inside or outside of brackets, but that would be too pedantic a point.).
Following on from this novel, Bill Dare most recently wrote the hour-long play 'Touch' for this year's Edinburgh festival, another romantic comedy of sorts that was also slightly-different, and quite enjoyable. It's actually to the writer's credit that his works fail to be tear-jerkers, having a greater basis in the exploration of particular human feelings, moods and aspects of character, and it's guaranteed that any future works that benefit from these earlier experiences will be a even better. He may never be as famous as his older, space-adventuring brother Dan,* but Bill Dare has played vital roles in bringing fairly mediocre, slightly-innovative comedy to the BBC, and is now extending his repertoire into further areas of entertainment. At least until he comes up with that elusive game show premise and can move abroad, leaving behind those hard days of desperately publicising his own Fringe show to queues. I found it quite cute, and it obviously worked.
* An excellent joke from me. Actually, his dad was Peter Jones who voiced The Book in Douglas Adams' legendary radio series 'The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.'