All the words above will probably have to be applied to Automatic Living somewhere in this review (with the possible exception of 'knavish verbosity', which is, perhaps, a bit excessive). This is that kind of book.
Paul Outhwaite has written a book that defies easy description or categorisation - but not only is it linguistic Teflon, it's also surprisingly good. Why 'surprisingly"? Well, read on...
Daniel Manion is a schoolteacher in England, 2020. It's a horrible place. If you know anything about or have anything to do with socialism, anti-capitalism demos, protests against GM crops, Reclaim The Streets, the Liverpool Dockers or any of a hundred other brave and intelligent groups (and if you don't then look at my Links page!) then you'll recognise Paul Outhwaite's UK 2020 and hear them all saying 'I told you so.'
Ongoing drudgery, the progressively demeaning effects of the mass media and the drugs he's taking to try and cope are all slowly but inevitably reducing Daniel to the disturbingly familiar state of 'automatic living' - existing to consume (in the economic sense) rather than living to enjoy. Meanwhile, the alien Inuthan's experiments in raising human consciousness are drawing to a close, with the final result still in the balance. Human experiments in brainwashing are proving remarkably conclusive, however, and asylum inmates are being 'rehabilitated' by the score. Daniel is clinging onto his sanity through a bright schoolgirl pupil of his and by helping plan the revolution against those responsible for this grave new world. And the Second Coming is quietly underway.
Paul Outhwaite has produced a challenging and exciting novel in Automatic Living. I had my doubts to begin with - the style will not be to everyone's taste - it's quite demanding; sentences are often structured more for effect than traditional meaning, but don't be put off by such things, this is an engaging and challenging book. It's a long time since I read anything that threw off quite so many ideas on quite so many barely connected tangents.
OK, to be absolutely honest the opening paragraphs read rather naively - I had, initially, low expectations for Automatic Living, and was worried it might be a struggle to finish this fairly hefty book. Somehow, however, I found myself drawn into the madness and misery, rooting for Daniel's idealism and hope against the overwhelming forces of stupidity and greed that seem to be prevailing everywhere. Automatic Living is a denial of the doctrine that human existence has no meaning beyond provoking bleep at cash registers, and it engages against any conscious judgement. I'm still not sure if Paul Outhwaite has a quite remarkable talent or was very very lucky to achieve this effect. Hopefully it's the former.
The kaleidoscopic story boils along at an unstoppable pace: aliens that resemble Vonnegut's better comic creations, mad scientists, mad nobodies, thuggish police, the welcoming bosom of Daniel's friends - you never know what's going to happen next, even (perhaps especially) in the retold second half of the book.
Not all of Automatic Living at first glance seems to combine into a coherent whole very easily, but rather like a high-speed trip through Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory it all somehow makes a demented sense if you just go with it and come out the other end. You may not win the factory, but you may realise that you don't need to.
The satire in Automatic Living was rather underused: deserving targets are duly noted and Outhwaite has at them frequently throughout - burger franchises, multinationals, media moguls, the tabloids, idiot television programmes, rigidly imposed educational curricula, etc, but these sections too often come across as overly preachy. I would rather have seen more of the eventual revolution and how these problems would then be dealt with than of the demoralising and frankly depressing hand-wringing which too often dogs these sections.
Would a little bit more positive action have been so very amiss?
Oh, and Martin Millar, that's who else this books reminds me of.
Although Outhwaite doesn't employ Millar's brilliant monotone style of writing, and is too fired up with passion to write a book that addresses his concerns other than head-on, Automatic Living appears to be on the same level as the people it writes about - it isn't ironically distanced, commenting safely from a middle-class distance; Automatic Living seems as though it is there, with the people it is writing about - that, I think, is how it never becomes tired or boring or, worse, patronising.
Don't be surprised if, when you put your copy of Automatic Living on your bookshelves between Julian Barnes and Martin Amis, you wake up the next day to find the Barnes and Amis mysteriously shredded and soiled on the floor. That'd be Outhwaite's creation simply doing its job!
It might not be everybody's cup of tea (and to be sure, it isn't really sf), but Automatic Living IS dysfunctional, eclectic, bloody hilarious, fuzzy, dedicated, Vonnegutian, dense, extraordinary, reminiscent of the great Bill Hicks, fried, disturbing and, yes, why the hell not? - knavishly verbose!
Automatic Living is available from:
PO Box 83
It costs £8.50 (£7.00 unwaged - and both prices include p&p) payable to D.M. PRODUCTIONS
Or go to the website at http://www.freeyellow.com/members8/dmproductions/index.html
(but watch out - for an avowedly revolutionary site
there are an awful lot of annoying pop-up ads!)