“ Genre: Fiction / Author: Gordon Houghton / ISBN: 1862300348 / Publication Date: 1998 / Publisher: Anchor Books „
I confess that my main interest in this book was not literary. The author Gordon Houghton was one time editor of Zzap!! 64, a magazine about Commodore 64 games which I fondly remember from my youth. In the pages of Zzap magazine, Houghton could always be relied upon for his zany sense of humour and I was interested to see whether he could successfully translate this style into a novel.
The short answer is "no." But wait... come back; it's not all bad news. Let's be honest few of us are as daft now as we were in our youth (thank goodness) and Mr H is no exception. By way of compensation, though, he has developed a deep streak of black humour which laces the pages of this book in a delightful way.
Felix Fly (that really is the character's real name, showing that some of that weird humour still survives!) is a butcher. He is also a self-harmer and carves pictures into his skin of events which have been significant in his life. This particular tale takes place in the aftermath of the titular dinner party as Felix sits in the bath narrating key events from his life into a tape machine, and recounting the events of the dinner party he has just held.
The first and most important thing to say about The Dinner Party is this: it has no narrative structure. If you like nice, straightforward stories where A gives way to B before C comes along then DON'T read this. You will hate every minute of it. By his own confession, Felix's narrative is incredibly unstructured. It rambles around, giving you a bit of the main plot before disappearing off on a wild and seemingly irrelevant tangent. To continue the earlier alphabet-based example: A gives way to G then S puts in an appearance via Z before we eventually return to A to find how to get to B. It's very odd.
Initially, this is disconcerting. The book seems to wander around aimlessly, making you more and more confused. Nothing seems related to anything else; Felix's reminiscences appear to be totally random, disconnected from anything that has gone before or which follows. As you adapt to the style, however, you come to appreciate how clever the writing is. All the seemingly random events have plenty in common - you just can't necessarily see it. The more you read, the more you come to understand both what is happening and the state of Felix's mind.
The book is laced throughout with a delicious streak of black humour. Some of Felix's descriptions of people and events are very amusing in a dark way. Felix has a deeply cynical and deeply disturbed outlook on life and is also a rather dysfunctional individual. This skewed vision gives way to some ripe moments of humour and some wonderfully descriptive passages which have a tremendous underlying sense of fun. The self-deprecating style of both narrator and author gives The Dinner Party a refreshingly distinctive feel.
Having said that the plot can be very confusing and leap around like a landed salmon, it might sound contradictor to also claim that it is not that complex and readers will work out fairly early on where the narrative is going to end up. In this instance, that's not important. It's a bit like doing a jigsaw. You know what the final thing will look like right from the start, because you've seen the picture on the box; the fun comes from putting it all together yourself. The same is true here. The important thing is not how the book ends or whether it keeps you guessing, but how all the different elements are slotted together.
It also helps that Houghton is a very skilled writer. The way he weaves all the different elements of the story together, effortlessly blending past, present and future is a joy to behold. In a rambling book like this, it would have been all too easy to lose the narrative or resort to lazy flashbacks to recall past events. Houghton is far more skilful than this, using the medium of Felix's self-inflicted tattoos (the result of his self-harming) to tell the story of what they signify. Despite the apparent random nature of the plot, there is a coherent narrative running through the book and part of Houghton's skill is that he never loses sight of this; and neither does the reader.
At times the book is actually surprisingly gruesome and it actually made my stomach turn on a few occasions (this, coming from someone who has watched hundreds of horror films over the years, is quite an achievement). The reason for this is that Houghton unflinchingly describes Felix's acts of self-harm. Although never particularly graphic or explicit in the descriptive sense, they are nevertheless utterly convincing (Houghton himself has confessed to being a self-harmer in the past, so knows what he is talking about.). Indeed, it's precisely the calm, dethatched way Felix describes the se incidents that makes them so disturbing.
The book is also unremittingly bleak and virtually every character we encounter is selfish, unpleasant, thoughtless and, at times, cruel (at least when seen through Felix's eyes). If you are feeling a little emotionally fragile then The Dinner Party is not a book you should read until you feel stronger.
The Dinner Party is likely to be one of those books that divides people. If you understand what Houghton is trying to do, you will appreciate the skill with which he weaves his tale, and the underlying black humour. If you like books which follow a standard narrative pattern and tell a nice safe, conventional story, then you are going to hate every moment of it.
If you think this is likely to be your kind of book, there's some good news. Because it's quite old (first published in 1998), it can be picked up dirt cheap. Buying a decent second hand copy off Amazon will cost you just 1p (excluding postage, of course!). Let's be honest, even if you don't enjoy the book, you can't really complain at that price, can you?
The Dinner Party
Anchor Books, 1998
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