What’s the Story?
The Homunculus wants to destroy the world by creating an army of the dead. This is the story of Tyler, whose whole life has been manipulated by a mysterious figure called Mister Ishmael, starting when Tyler is in school (1950s or 60s) and following him through his life as a rock star, private eye, coma patient, discoverer of the Lost City of Gold, and leader of the attack against the homunculus, whom he nearly stops.
What’s the Problem?
This book isn’t actually all that bad after about 1990, but every page before that is a struggle. Tyler as a kid and a young adult is a bit dull and plain weird, and it’s not until he takes over as middle-age that the plot starts to suggest that it may, contrary to all evidence, exist.
And, yes, some of these childhood threads come back into it at the end, but not many and not any that couldn’t have been rewritten into a later part of the book.
For instance, Tyler spends the first 190-odd pages (of 410) detailing the exploits of his band, after which he becomes a private eye and never has anything to do with them. And they have nothing to do with the homunculus or the rising army of the dead. It really seems to be 190 pages of “Get the character from England to America”.
Yes, this is me saying that something is too weird. Mostly, it’s too random. We spend ages on useless scenes and “talking the toot” (that is, talking shit) with Fangio the Barman rather than getting on with the plot. We move in passing past events that could be their own chapters and spend chapters on details that never come back into the story.
Too Many In-Jokes
I’ve read a couple of other Robert Rankin books, and recognise the characters he keeps referring to in passing. But I have to wonder whether this book would make more sense if I’d read all of his other books. Whether the other stories of those characters (particularly Lazlo Woodbine and Fangio) would make this book less weird and random. Maybe it’s a little thrill by his loyal readers to spot how many of his other books he can reference, but it’s distracting as hell to the rest of us.
But in any case, it’s too inter-connected with other stories that don’t affect it. Or, if they do affect it, they aren’t well enough established for the reader to realise this.
Okay, so here’s a spoiler: Tyler is secretly the brother of the homunculus. I know, right? But the first 150 pages are Tyler and his brother Andy setting up their band. But it’s also fairly clear that Andy isn’t the homunculus, because Tyler never calls him Andy. So… what? Was Andy really his brother or not? Presumably not, but it’s been so long since the start of the book that I’ve forgotten whether Andy was supposed to be younger or older than Tyler. And if Andy never comes back into it (which he doesn’t), why was he such a major character for so long?
And remember Mister Ishmael? Yeah, he spends most of the book subtly manipulating Tyler into position and is killed by the bad guy right before the end, but we never find out who he is, or how he knew so much about it all, or anything. It was like Rankin wanted a mysterious figure but couldn’t be bothered working out the details, so he put one in and hoped no one would notice that he lacked said details. Or Ishmael is covered in another book (but as this is a stand-alone not part of a series, why should he expect the reader to have read it?), worsening the inter-connectedness problem.
What’s the Solution?
To me, this reads like a first draft. Rankin has put all of his thoughts down on the page, and now it’s time to cull the ones that don’t advance the plot. Get rid of all the childhood stuff; explain your characters better; take out the extreme randomness. Streamline. Focus the threads toward the book’s end. Knit sense from the chaos.
But then, this is the man who coined the phrase “Far-Fetched Fiction” to describe his work, so maybe anything that makes it more normal or tries to instill sense on the chaos is undesirable to Rankin.
I really enjoyed pages 203-228, in which the narrative is stolen by Lazlo Woodbine, a detective Tyler encounters. When Lazlo takes on Tyler’s case, Laz informs him that he only works in first-person, at which point he becomes the book’s narrator and we are treated to a delightful exploration of the film noir detective story. For instance, Laz only works four settings: his office where he receives the case, the bar where he talks the toot with the barman and meets the Dame Who Does Him Wrong, the alley where he wakes up after the Dame Does Him Wrong, and the rooftop during the thunderstorm where the bad guy takes that long tumble down to oblivion. Excellent stuff, and fun, and not too random.
For the rest, it’s like Rankin wanted to write something huge and sprawling, covering vast time and distance, but there just isn’t the strong narrative to keep it all together so it unravels into barely-connected nonsense.