This might seem slightly tautologous, but if you like Frankie Boyle’s style of comedy, you will like his novel; and if you don’t, you shan’t. Personally, I find his work more intriguing than enjoyable. There is a certain sincerity in pushing a joke too far, of getting to the point where there is an internal voice that says “that’s not funny anymore”. There is a certain bravery is saying what might be considered unsayable or taboo. Moreover, in his comedy as in his novel, Boyle is an equal opportunities offender. Whether you are Yes or No, right or left wing, “woke” or “gammon”, he is more than willing to have a pop at you. There is a kind of thrawn integrity to his cynicism. But does his trademark style translate into the novelistic?
The narrator is Felix McAveety, who is quite the man for freelance pharmaceuticals. A former employee of the BBC, he is merrily unhappy in a daze of benzos, diazepam, alcohol, hallucinogens, a bit of weed and whatever else he can get. That he is called Felix is a joke about nominative determinism, since Felix is Latin for both happy and lucky – he is, incidentally, a Catholic, so well acquainted I assume with the concept of the felix culpa or “happy/lucky accident”, also called the Fall. Felix is neither happy nor lucky, but he is good-hearted, which, in Boyle’s universe, is always likely to be a mistake.
A friend of his, Marina, with whom he worked in a bar after leaving the Corporation, is found murdered. He is suspected and makes the ingenuous decision to turn detective, despite being out of his box most of the time. He is assisted by his friend Donnie, who is equally druggy, but also hefty and if anything even more brusque and depressive. Felix’s ramshackle investigation brings him into contact with various characters: there is a minor Scottish crime novelist (who is significantly not white), a firebrand activist, a GP called Chong who might be a major player in the drugs trade in Glasgow, secret service personnel, pitiable wannabe screenwriters and of course his ex. The point of this picaresque is not really to solve a crime, but to give a vector for venting about such things as “vegan record shops”, the Large Hadron Collider, Bostrom’s simulation theory and more. Sir Walter Scott described such novels as pearls on a string, they are “and then… and then… and then…” There’s nothing wrong with that, just do not expect elegance or tightly-knitted plotting.
Meantime does have virtues, especially towards the closing pages where we are given a reason for Felix’s personality. It is remarkably moving and injects a note of pathos that overrides the usual sarcasm and snarl; and it would be wrong to reveal what it is. But the reader does have to work for it. The character of Dr Chong gets the standout speech of the novel where he talks about Chinese stereotypes, and how any of his moral failings are merely a clever mirror to Britain’s own narco-imperalism towards China during the Opium Wars – a feature of our history that Scotland ought to have a long, hard think about.
One aspect which is problematic is a kind of bleed in the voice. Does Felix – do any of the characters – have their own voice, or are they ventriloquist’s puppets for a string of Boyle-isms? I think most readers might feel that “that’s just Frankie talking”. Take these examples: “And they want to create their own little Britain, with the pound, and the f***ing Queen. They want to get rid of the English, so they can become the English. Independence isn’t going to be a revolution; it’s going to be a f***ing management buyout”. Or “We all like to think if we were on a plane that started to go down, we’d take the whole thing sipping a cocktail and throwing out some kind of witticism… The facts of life are pretty brutal when you get right down to it. Everyone’s plane is going down, and you can’t really judge the people who are screaming”. Or on working in television: “Maybe alcoholism was our response to the sh*t we were churning out. We got off lightly – it probably drove a significant majority of the viewers into the arms of heroin and methamphetamines”. This might work for an hour of Frankie Boyle’s New World Order programme, but as a novel, where one expects a degree of empathy, it comes across as – well – glib. Castigating the world is easy: loving it is much more difficult.
I confess that I don’t really understand why Frankie Boyle wanted to write a novel. His non-fiction would be far more piercing and precise. For a novel that promotes itself as comedy, I was somewhat wrong-footed that my abiding feeling on finishing it was just one of sadness. Although the ending does introduce an element of elegy, it just seemed it must require an awful lot of effort to maintain such levels of anger. Boyle defends "the right to offend". I retain the right to be disappointed that you wanted to offend.
Meantime, by Frankie Boyle, Baskerville, £14.99. Frankie Boyle is appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 17 and 19 August, www.edbookfest.co.uk