Geoff Nicholson's new black comedy is a deliciously clever send-up
of the worlds of academia, psychology, and publishing. The novel's
protagonist is the handsome but utterly directionless Mike Smith.
Smith meets Gregory Collins, a plump would-be novelist, while the
two are undergraduates at Cambridge University. They both attend
one of Dr. John Bentley's infamous "book burning parties," where
attendees are asked to bring one book along and cast it into the
flames --- a kind of "symbolic literary criticism." Collins burns
his own failed first novel. Smith incinerates a book by Dr. John
Bentley, much to the host's chagrin.
After graduation, Smith falls into a life of mind-numbing boredom.
He catalogues rare books (and hates his job), lives in a shabby
apartment and has a girlfriend he doesn't even like. Then one day
his old Cambridge classmate comes into his workplace. Collins is
about to publish his debut novel, The Wax Man, but he has a
problem: he doesn't want his ugly face on the book jacket. He asks
the photogenic Smith for a photograph (of himself) to be put on the
book. Smith sees the request as a kind of joke and readily gives
Collins a photo --- and soon forgets the whole episode.
Needless to say, complications arise. When Collins is asked to do a
bookstore reading, he calls Smith and begs him to "fill in," to
pretend to be Gregory Collins --- because people will expect the
good-looking Gregory Collins of the book jacket, not the real,
quite ugly Gregory Collins. Smith, seeing a chance for adventure in
his deadly dull life, agrees to do the reading. After the reading,
Smith (pretending to be Collins) is offered an unusual job:
writer-in-residence at the Kincaid Clinic, an asylum for the
mentally ill. Offering the job is the gorgeous Doctor Alicia Crowe.
Smitten by Dr. Crowe and fed up with his old life cataloguing
books, Smith accepts. The ground is set for some first-rate farce,
which Nicholson delivers in abundance.
Smith's girlfriend starts dating the real Gregory Collins, while
the "fake" Collins teaches creative writing to a bunch of mental
patients. Anonymously writing thousands of pages, the patients
refuse to sign their work. There are short stories involving sex
and violence, intricate accounts of soccer matches, anagrams, and
long lists of trivial facts. Smith thinks the writing is awful and
he has a hard time keeping his insane students under control. One
is a hippie girl who likes to dance naked. Another is a drunk who
nods off in class. There's a thug named Anders, and a would-be poet
named Byron (he even wears a cape). Meanwhile, Alicia Crowe sneaks
into Smith's room at night and the two have wild sex, with her
talking dirty and demanding that he do the same. These bedroom
scenes between the gutter-mouthed Alicia and Smith, haplessly
trying to play along, are particularly hilarious.
Dr. Kincaid, the head of the clinic, wants Smith to publish an
anthology of the patients' writing. Smith calls the real Gregory
Collins for help, and with the aid of Collins and Smith's
ex-girlfriend (who works in publishing), an anthology called
Disorders is published to rave reviews. Kincaid holds a book
reading for Disorders at the asylum and invites the media
and members of academia, but unfortunately for Smith, one of the
people who shows up is Dr. John Bentley. Bentley knows who the real
Gregory Collins is and threatens to expose Smith. Suffice it to say
that things turn rather messy for the beleaguered Smith.
Nicholson's narrative is seamless, taking the reader along on a
delightfully comical romp. Although the plot may seem absurd (this
is literally a comedy of errors), Nicholson tells us just enough
about the bored-stiff Smith to make the whole farcical thing seem
believable. BEDLAM BURNING is a finely crafted and funny novel that
keeps you guessing, and chuckling, until the very end. If you can
imagine Woody Allen in the lead role of One Flew Over the
Cuckoo's Nest, then you'll have a pretty accurate idea of what
BEDLAM BURNING is all about.
Reviewed by Chuck Leddy on January 21, 2011