Thursday, 31 March 2011

In Praise of Mr Gum - Andrew Strong

For years I’ve wanted to write Finnegans Wake for children. A book that bordered on linguistic chaos, but which, deep down, played on some elemental need to savour the primitive music of words. Logic, plot, characters could all take a hike into the mountains. I wanted to write a surreal masterpiece.
I never did it, I never will do it. There’s no point now, anyway. Andy Stanton has beaten me to it.
Stanton’s books are almost without plot, and the characterisation is a little eccentric. But there is a texture of rich, playful, fizzing language. A few weeks ago I read the first Mr Gum book to a bunch of nine and ten year olds. They laughed so much I had to stop at the end of each sentence to let the noise die down. They pleaded with me to read the second book, but after that one I suggested they go out and buy the others themselves. Most of them did just that.
‘You’re a Bad Man Mr Gum’ has a plot device that makes me tremble with envy. Mr Gum is a very lazy and hence, messy man. His house is a tip, but his garden is immaculate. When a neighbour’s dog gets in Mr Gum’s garden, and wrecks it, Mr Gum seeks revenge. Of course, if it occurs to a child to question why Mr Gum’s garden is pristine, when his house is a tip, Stanton is one step ahead: Mr Gum must keep the garden tidy, or a fairy appears and smashes the old grouch in the face with a frying pan. Of course!
But when this plot device is no longer necessary, we hear nothing more of the fairy with the frying pan. And no one cares. Stanton is not in the business of tying up loose threads. He abandons his threads, leaves a heap of them in the corner for you to sweep up.
The Mr Gum books are anarchic, but buzzing with humour and word play. The language is gorgeous. For an example of this, consider the setting of the Mr Gum stories: the town of Lamonic Bibber. This would not be out of place in Finnegans Wake. It’s a phrase that suggest laziness, booze, the bubbling of a stream.
The theme of laziness pervades the Gum books. Descriptions tail off, and similes have a late period Blackaddery feel to them. Early on there are a smattering of conventional similes, for example, there's Mr Gum's ancient carpet which 'smelt like a toilet'. But later, when the effort of coming up with consistently accurate comparisons seems to bore him, Stanton describes a character ‘giggling like a tortoise’. The absurdity of it, and the sense that all this simile stuff is too much like hard work, makes it deliciously funny.
Stanton turns slouching into an art form. Like Miles Davis or Picasso, he works hard at making things look very easy. The Gum books remind me of Geoff Dyer’s wonderful non-biography of D H Lawrence, ‘Out of Sheer Rage’ – a book about not getting around to writing a biography of D H Lawrence.
A parent of one of the boys who was particularly taken by the Gum series told me his son had read all eight books, one after the other, and was now having withdrawal symptoms. Could I suggest something else? I grabbed a piece of paper and scribbled down Finnegans Wake.
I didn't really.


Jan Markley said...

Sounds like a hilarious series of books! Kids love to laugh!

Elen C said...

I think I know what I'll be buying when I visit our new Foyles this afternoon!

michelle lovric said...

And have you ever seen Andy Stanton do an event? If not ... he is actually a five star stand-up comedian who happens to write books. He's also physically charged - rolls around the stage, leaps into the audience, screams. The children are delirious.

I love Geoff Dyer's Out of Sheer Rage too. He's also written one called Geoff in Venice ... a very clever satire on the art Biennale in Venice.

Kristal Sheets said...

The best explanation of the appeal of Stanton and the Mr. Gum series I've ever read. Bravo!