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There Is Nothing Like A Biscuit

By Paul Ewen.

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Daren King, Manual, Faber, 2008

I read somewhere recently that around 28 new novels are published in the UK every day. That’s over 10,000 newly published novels every year (compared with 50,000 in the US, but that’s another story). Imagine if these novels were stacked, vertically, on a road. The result, I’m quite sure, would be a veritable skyscraper of books, possibly rivaling the tallest buildings in the land. I mention this because Daren King’s latest book, Manual, is partly set in the financial district of London, where there are many tall buildings. And also because Manual is, itself, a new novel, and has recently been added to this towering list of recent titles.

The majority of these 10,000+ novels are likely to be somewhat less than groundbreaking; I think it’s fair to say that. A crueler man may suggest that, for the most part, they will be rhubarb. In the same way that little boys are made of slugs and snails and puppy dog tails, the average outcrop of novels is generally made of reading fodder, rehashes of other commercially successful books, and recognisable examples of genre fiction that are readily digested by an easily pleased audience. Manual, Daren King’s latest book is thankfully an exception. For those familiar with King’s work, this won’t come as a surprise.

Manual was first mentioned to me earlier on this year by people who hadn’t actually read it. They mentioned it because it was a new book by Daren King and this was news in itself. Often news such as this carries all the trappings of hype; the publicity machine cranking up in some well-lit room, telling us we should be excited about this thing or that without giving us a chance to decide for ourselves. But if that were the case here, I’d like to think it was a more innocent hype, the kind generated by readers, not PR types. People, I suspect, get excited about a forthcoming Daren King book because they rightly imagine it will not resemble any other offering on the new novel pile. King, I would argue, has that one thing which every second book jacket blurb would have us believe they offer: an original voice.

Manual follows the life of Patsy and Michael and their owl called Owl (his “wool dark as moss”, knitted over a period of two days “by an old lady in a charity shop”). For the first twenty odd pages we follow their work in the sex fetish industry, jumping from one business engagement to the next, finding out what their work consists of and what services they “do not offer”. There is some wonderfully funny stuff here:

“I bend the client over the table, tie him to the tabletop. Here, by the glass door.

We sit on the patio and read The Times.”

The novel then moves in focus to concentrate on one full time client, Edward, a senior financier in the City. Edward throws money at Michael and Patsy, and throws his well-connected weight around on their behalf also. His fetish is a 15-year old girl young enough to be his granddaughter. Michael, it emerges, has a fetish too. He fantasises about bespoke suits, ironed shirts, and a job in the City.

While it would be easy to give a broad outline of the plot, it is in the small details that King really excels. One of my favourite passages:

“A dog walks past. Then, a man. The dog looks at us. Then, the man looks at us. There is humour here.”

In normal company, Manual is quite a difficult book to fault. It’s original, humorous, contemporary and clever. This also makes it difficult to compare with other contemporary novels, my only sojourn being a brief vision of an Easton-Ellis-inspired world; perhaps it was the suits, the creepy dinner parties and the bespoke trousers. But while E-E’s central characters are essentially shallow and nasty, Michael & Patsy are, like Owl the knitted owl, warm and fuzzy.

Tellingly, it is within the Daren King oeuvre itself that I found the real challengers to Manual. It is difficult, first of all, to read this, his latest book, without thinking of Boxy an Star, his 1999 debut. Michael and Patsy are almost inseparable from the characters of Star and Bole, making it difficult to read Manual without the inevitable comparison between King’s much lauded first book. Boxy an Star blew many cobwebs out of the rather staid British literary scene, while Jim Giraffe, King’s follow up, joyfully clomped off in a completely different direction again. While better in my view than Tom Boler, novel number three, Manual didn’t quite present me with that same feeling of unchartered territory as that of his first two books. An unfair comparison in a way, but one which highlights the literary niche that King maintains, where desperate reviewers such as this one are forced to look at what little reference they have to hand.

But if Manual is to be judged amongst the skyscraper of newly published novels, where would it then sit? Well, at this point in the year, given my limited delving into the colossal stack, I would certainly place it in the upper suites, perhaps with roof access, where a hot tub would be bubbling, a fluffy towel would be carefully folded, and a bespoke silk dressing gown would beckon.

ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Paul Ewen is the author of London Pub Reviews.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, August 11th, 2008.