Before & After by Matthew Thomas
(HarperCollins Voyager, £5.99, 426 pages, paperback; published 1 February 1999.)
Before & After is the first published effort by Matthew Thomas - a flight simulation graphics designer in his day job. It's a millennium comedy (which isn't yet a recognised genre, but I suspect will be within the next nine months - remember where you heard it first!).
The main problem I had with Before & After was its singular lack of any coherent working storyline. It does have a plot of sorts, but it has this plot the way the UK road system has Spaghetti Junction - promising destinations via alternate routes continually loom up from all directions, signs and road markings point to London Manchester the Lake District Edinburgh etc, but Matthew Thomas effects the literary equivalent of pulling off at the slip roads to all of these places before going right the way around the roundabout and back onto his original route.
And his original route eventually leads him to Milton Keynes.
If we visualise Matthew Thomas on his little driving holiday through this book then he's hunched over the wheel of a cream coloured Skoda doing 50mph in the middle lane of the motorway. He's guffawing to the Monty Python sketches playing on his tape deck pausing only to mutter, "He won't get there any quicker," as people getting there much quicker overtake him.
Matthew Thomas's ability to spin a simile should be admired, if only in its single-minded tenacity.
If it were an animal then Matthew Thomas's simile spinning skill would be a very nasty shark. A very nasty shark with lockjaw. A very nasty shark with lockjaw who hasn't had a chance to bite anything for ages and which has just seen your bottom hanging over the side of an under-inflated airbed.
It is more tenacious than a sun-tanned, medallioned Lothario at a turn of the Millennium party where only one single woman remains and midnight is fast approaching.
It is more tenacious than Well, you see how frustrating this can get.
I like amusing similes; they're often very funny indeed and some of those in Before & After fall into this category. But a whole book of the damned things makes you feel like Mr Jones, chief taster for Cadbury's, who's come home from work after a particularly long day's tasting to find out he's just won a lifetime's free supply of chocolate, AND he's forgotten to get anything in for tea before the shops shut. For the Bank Holiday weekend.
The plot is threadbare like a - no, I'll spare you any more, I think. You get my point.
But the plot is threadbare and it throws off parts the way Matthew Thomas's metaphorical Skoda would in an attempt to break the sound barrier (sorry sorry).
At various points it involves: a still living Nostrodamus, a kickboxing student beauty who drops everything to follow him to Wales, aliens, religious fundamentalists, a scumbag tabloid journalist, the disappearance of the pyramids, a 500 year old telepathic cat, Welsh nationalists, a wizened but wise old crone, the massed hordes of Heaven and Hell, exploding sheep and, of course, Doomsday.
These all appear in about as much detail as I've just used, but faster. This might sound post-modern, but it's closer to being just posterior. Humour over the course of a novel has to be regulated and timed just as it does in, say, stand-up comedy. If I were to simply stand at the mike at your local comedy club and belt out amusing similes for 20 minutes you'd soon stop laughing.
It's a lesson Matthew Thomas badly needs to learn.
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© Stuart Carter 3 April 1999