Francis Plug: How to Be a Public Author
Galley Beggar Press, 297pp, £11
The role of novelists has changed immeasurably. They once existed to provide truth and insight into human existence, but the actual writing part now appears secondary. Instead, today’s writer is expected to be a plugged-in social networker, a raconteur who can put middle-class posteriors on folding seats at festivals and win entirely arbitrary prizes funded by investment and communications companies. Often they are paid solely in cheap, warm wine and tiny morsels of food.
New independent publisher Galley Beggar Press understands the absurdity of basing a business on personalities and trend-guessing, having achieved unexpected success recently with Eimear McBride’s debut, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, an experimental novel previously rejected by major publishing houses. Perhaps this is what has drawn Galley Beggar to Francis Plug, Paul Ewen’s hilarious account of the lonely lives of authors. It is a novel about those writers who attract fans so ardent that the work is never enough; those who insist on “following Mickey Mouse back to the changing rooms to smell the sweat of the red-faced puppeteer”.
If you have ever spent a summer directing furtive punters to the towering pile of 50 Shades of Grey – not because you work in a bookshop but because you are doing signings of your own – then you’ll know how soul-destroying such promotional obligations can be. So I’ve been told.
With the deliberately dull title of London Pub Reviews, the London-based New Zealander Paul Ewen’s debut novel was a collection of outlandish vignettes by a totally unreliable narrator. In the new book Ewen cranks up his deadpan satirical style through one Francis Plug, and catches a vast array of contemporary Booker prizewinners in his firing line. Plug is a memorable and disturbing comic creation, a perpetually drunk and deluded gardener with zero social skills. He lives alone; he loves whisky. Sometimes he carries with him excrement collected from the Mall (“special delivery from the Queen’s horses”) to use as fertiliser. He is a wonderful host.
Plug’s commitment to his own literary career is perversely admirable: rather than waste his time writing, he trawls book signings and festivals to glean tips from a cast of “real” Booker winners on how to be “a public author” for a book that he is clearly never going to complete. However, he does contemplate inserting a singing squid into his non-fiction text so that it can sit next to Plath and Poe in the fiction section.
Ewen actually went to these events, in character as Plug, and has the signed books to prove it. That he survived this picaresque autograph-hunt through bookshop back rooms, bars and Hay-on-Wye tents without being incarcerated, sectioned or severely beaten was lucky. For Plug is the carrier-bag-toting fan that all writers fear; and his banal, Pooteresque eye for detail and ear for scathing one-liners are memorably poetic.
A S Byatt’s face, we are told, resembles “an illustrated personification of the wind”. Howard Jacobson has “big frizzy hair, as if his head were a cushion and the stuffing has been pulled out of a tear in his scalp”. And V S Naipaul, who “says some really crazy things, and yet is still held up in esteem”, has “lightly oiled hair that resembles a glistening fish pulled from the sea and caught beneath the dazzling sun”. In a particularly fanciful episode, Julian Barnes ends a tedious theatre talk by ascending to the rafters by wires, his elbows pistoning “like chicken wings” before his head falls off, and then “out of his neck protrudes a fountain of confetti, and the crowd erupts in applause”.
Suffice it to say that Plug is a cipher for an utterly surreal critique of the Booker Prize. Novelists certainly have form in satirising the world they reluctantly inhabit. Earlier this year, Edward St Aubyn explored the machinations behind a major literary prize in Lost for Words – but this was a book for those au fait with the circuit. Plug is for the genuine outsiders and he pricks the pompous literary bubble with aplomb.
What Ewen’s subjects will make of these imagined meetings is anyone’s guess. Will Peter Carey, for one, remember the man who turned up at his reading wearing a Camden street bin in homage to Ned Kelly’s armour? As the novel concludes with a near-literal cliffhanger in the belly of the beast – the London Book Fair – Ewen’s dissection of literary life becomes almost too painful to watch. And as a result this might just be a modern comic masterpiece.
Ben Myers’s novel “Beastings” is published by Bluemoose Books (£12.99)