Review: The Mule by David Quantick

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Tres bein, Sehr gut, etc.

Quantick plays to his strengths and delivers a well-balanced and satisfying comedy-mystery full of wit, paranoia and apocalyptic rhythms.

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Jacky the translator is at a bar. A beautiful girl—“a pearl in an ashtray”—approaches him with a book that cannot be translated. Not only that, but it appears to foreshadow a murder…

The Mule‘s publication was crowd-funded through Unbound (like Kickstarter but for books). Its author, David Quantick, is an Emmy Award-winning jack-of-all-trades. He has written for television (The Thick of It, Veep, Brass Eye), radio and several short films, and is also the author of  the comic book That’s Because You’re a Robot and comic e-book Sparks. As well as this, he has also authored a zillion reviews, articles and bits and pieces here and there. Hence his recent guide on How to Write Everything. But he isn’t just a writer’s writer – his whole career has been about being a readers’ writer.

This makes The Mule a superb read. There is no messing around, no wasted passages, no pretension or verbosity. The plot moves smartly, twisting and turning while Quantick expertly twiddles the knobs of his literary Etch-a-Sketch. Sure, there are some unbelievable moments, and sometimes the characters make bizarre decisions to advance the plot, but the story is so well constructed and charming that it all feels like part of the fun. Jacky’s mordant tone exemplifies what Quantick calls translatorese—”the odd dialect of written English in which British and American slang from different decades clash together like verbal armies in the night”. During the occasional ‘not much is happening’ periods, which nevertheless fit into the novel’s pace, there is still much to be enjoyed in the prose, as well as in Jacky’s thoughts.

Before I go any further, I should admit that, in the past, I have been something of a literary snob. Actually, maybe that’s not fair. Let’s just say, I would once have thought of reading The Mule as akin to wasting time messing about on my phone while late for an important event, semi-conscious of Gravity’s Rainbow, Ulysses and Middlemarch lightly frowning at me from the bookshelf, hands on hips, checking their watches, tapping their feet.

Therefore, I was continually struck while reading The Mule by a) how I was enjoying it without any such pangs of guilt and b) how often it reminded me of more ‘literary’ writers—Pynchon, Burgess and Self all come to mind. Yet it was accessible and easy-to-read, as well as artistically satisfying, which makes it pretty much ideal for readers of almost any age, particularly aspiring ‘high-art’ readers who might understandably flinch at the oppressive size and difficulty of some of the proven classics of the last century. All right, The Mule is not a classic, not a life-changing devastating reflection on society, but so what? As Nabokov said, “A work of art has no importance whatever to society. It is only important to the individual, and only the individual reader is important to me.” After reading The Mule, I can only assume Mr Quantick feels the same way.

Besides its stylistic virtues, the comedic element of The Mule is its most accomplished. The quest to translate the untranslatable takes Jacky on a journey to Europe with “the most annoying man in the world”, the fedora-wearing artist-cum-academic Euros Frant, whose self-deluded egocentric manner is the perfect antagonist to Jacky’s sensible cynicism. I hooted with joyful, scandalised recognition at Quantick’s descriptions of Frant when a restrained Jacky asks him through his teeth to confirm that he has understood part of his book correctly, and Frant “[dips]his head and [smiles]as if he were a great chevalier conceding a fine point to a vulgar peasant”. Quantick is making fun of those “literary” types, the people who will read meaning into anything that’s the right level of obscure and write books full of multilingual puns and brooding bores, rejecting as “safe” and “conventional” any book which dares to eschew such contrivance.

Moreover, most of The Mule’s humour comes from Jacky seething at Frant’s arrogance and idiocy and, due to blasted English reserve, being too polite to react outwardly. Instead, we hear his thoughts as he finds “new reserves of patience to run out of” on their peculiar journey together through hotels, flats, bars and private collections. Throughout their journey they run across mysterious spectres, homicidal PAs, detectives Quigley and Chick, the walking dead, a reclusive French authoress called A.J.L. Ferber, and memories of a famous band called Carrie and the Legions, which no-one seems to have heard of. But who are these people? What do they want? What does any of it mean?

Quantick plays to his strengths and delivers a well-balanced and satisfying comedy-mystery whose wit, paranoia and apocalyptic rhythms will jingle in your mind for quite some time after the final page.

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Third-year philosophy student minoring in Russian.

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