Word Monkey by Christopher Fowler

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Word Monkey by Christopher Fowler

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Category: Autobiography
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Pure Christopher Fowler: erudite, funny, sharp, sad, entertaining and educative. One that may only be read all the way through once, but which will earn its place as a reference work, and writers' prompt manual for years to come.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 464 Date: August 2023
Publisher: Doubleday
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0857529626

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It's the first of August in the middle of a cool wet summer in East Anglia. I decided not to swim at the pool in favour of going to my beach hut. The weather closed in, rain arrived, and I decided not to do that either. When I finished reading this book, I realised it was because (a) I wanted to finish reading this book and (b) I did not want to do so anywhere near my shack. No spoiler alerts, the dust jacket tells us who Christopher Fowler 'was' – and his first chapter tells us about his terminal diagnosis. There is something very strange about being made to laugh by a man who repeatedly reminds you that he is dying, and you know he actually is at that point, because he does. He did.

One contradiction, however: the dust jacket tells you that there is nothing of the misery memoir about Word Monkey. Sorry, but there is. Throughout, Fowler maintains his lightness of touch and sense of the absurd, but he (and you) cannot get away from the fact that he received his terminal cancer diagnosis in the Spring of 2020, just as the world was shutting down. The next three years are filled with hospital appointments, treatments, pain, anguish, and trying to write – and he did not shy away from telling us about all of this. He only alludes to his home life, protecting his partner's privacy to the last, but being open and blunt about his views on everything else. After all, why not?

It is part cancer diary, part Covid-years diary, part erudition, part wilful playfulness, part anger, part reflection, but it is entirely Christopher Fowler. It is a startling book. It's written in a very conversational style, and it kept me turning the pages – not in that what happens next urgency, more in the vein, of let me buy you another drink, please don't stop talking delight.

Yes, delight. Fowler is (let's talk in the present tense, because he lives on in the work) …Fowler is a brilliant treasure trove of facts and anecdotes. This book is not a how-to-write instruction manual, although some of the chapters are very much in that vein, it is a what-it-can-be-like-to-be-a-writer case-notes book. He rambles all over the shop talking about literary people and genre writers, and classics and comics, and launch parties, getting words down and failing to do, and the changing nature of the business of writing and of reading.

There is a rule in writing that your books should wear your research lightly. This one doesn't. This one is a last hurrah, and he knew it, so he has crammed in as much of his research as he can hint at, perhaps in the hope that maybe someone will pick up each baton and run with it into their own rabbit warren of wonderful snippets. The ones he couldn't work into the text, he footnotes.

One of the impressions I came away with was that, before and maybe also during those last years, Fowler LOVED researching. He loved arcanity. I can imagine every other conversation with him starting did you know… and you wouldn't have, and you would be strangely pleased that now you do.

He makes the point that 'light' books hide a lot of 'heavy' research.

Another rule for writers is that you must read, and read widely. He talks a lot about books. When I go back to look at all the turned-down-corner pages, I know that it will partly be about adding to my to-be-read list. To be fair, it will also be to look up words. He loved words and USED them – the kind of words we skim over because we get the gist. There is something about the way he uses some of them, scattered lovingly, rather than dumped just to show he can, that makes me want to go back to the dictionary and finally look up precisely what they mean.

He is scathing and loving of the NHS – not telling us anything we don't already know – but finding a way to make us listen. Or at least trying to. There is something Beckettian about his descriptions. Strange, absurd, accurate. I came away knowing with absolute certainty, that should I fall victim to the disease, I will take the surgery and the radiotherapy, but I am not going anywhere near chemo. And I hope the people that love me at that time, will let me choose not to fight. I'm no evangelist. It is just how I felt after listening to this story. I'm actually grateful for the information that has helped me make that decision.

In case all of this feels a bit heavy – it sort of is, and sort of isn't. It's leavened with imagined conversations with an unsympathetic red squirrel and bizarre text messages from Maggie Armitage. Maggie turns up in the Bryant & May books, toned down” for the occasion apparently, because the person she really is would not be believed in fiction. I spent most of the book unsure of whether she was / is real as shown here (I hope so) or just another plot device. His life was filled with interesting and eccentric individuals. It's a life I am grateful not to have lived, but rather wish I had met the man who did.

No-one else has told me that Dickens is meant to be funny, or that it's ok to have read Moby Dick and like cosy crime novels, or asked me to think why Sherlock and Poirot / Marple stories still entertain despite being utterly ludicrous, or reminded me with such good humour that 'artistic' effects might be because the stage sets weren't designed for the film format being used, or that Shakespeare wanted bums on seats and would probably be bemused by the depth of analysis we apply to his pot-boilers hundreds of years later.

Most of all, he reminds me that writing should be fun. All of it: from the idea, through the research, to putting the words down, shifting the words around, and handing it in. I don't think he was that much interested in the bit after that, except that it paid the bills – but that's never a reason to get into writing, because mostly it doesn't.

I've only read a few of his novels. I don't think I'll have time to read the rest, because there are all these other books, he's suggested I might like, and all these odd facts I want to follow up on. This is not one that I will want to read cover-to-cover again, but it has earned its place on my shelf as a reference work…a prompt-full work.

Thank you, Christopher. Wherever you have gone, may there be books…and people like Maggie.

If you're not familiar with Fowler's work, we can recommend the Bryant & May series as being bonkers, but not entirely unbelievable. Witty crime novels that catch the absurd, but stick to all the traditional rules of detective fiction. Enjoy.

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