Nobody's Fool

Like a diary elephant: Latest entry in Adrian Mole series takes on the Iraq War

July 21 Diaries are what we keep before we get famous. (Not sure if true, but sounds good.) Have just scrapped a sententious paragraph invoking Pepys, as have not actually read much Pepys, though have visited online Pepys site. I think I merely wanted to give props to my Pepys. And also to make that joke.

Bought The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Age 13 ¾, based on cover image of a hilariously glowering kid, also $1.50 price tag. Third reason now occurs to me: I bought Diary of a Nobody (G. & W. Grossmith, 1892; $2!) at this same used bookstore a few years back—Charles Pooter's droll account of life in his new house, full of obscure grudges and escaliers positively dripping with esprit. Confesses early that "I don't often make jokes," but then does.

Problem with the second Bridget Jones novel: B. now something of a celebrity— TV reporter?—hence harder to relate. And so: Diaries are what we keep before we get famous.

Townsend: Probably has nice teeth
photo: Jane Bown
Townsend: Probably has nice teeth

July 23 Stopped by different bookstore, shelled out $17 for six titles (Zulkifar Ghose!). Spouse thrilled. Not. Explained to her that acquisition of obscure novels is key to my development as man of letters.

July 24 Molar crumbled as I bit into a cookie. Left desperate message at midnight at dentist's office, must have sounded like insane person—kept bringing up the cookie angle. Reminded of Nabokov: "My tongue feels like someone coming home and finding his furniture gone." Perhaps have scurvy. Perhaps all teeth need to be replaced.

Happily, Mole book is salve—consistently funny, but even at its wildest there's a firm grounding in reality. Adrian's folks fight, drink, smoke, have affairs; their finances are wobbly. His basic good nature and delusions of literary grandeur make the grim domestic circumstance more acute. ("My mother started going on about what a wonderful son I was. . . . It's a pity she never says anything like that when she is sober.") Author Sue Townsend puts the lint in journal intime. Want to not read so fast to make it last; ecstatic that there are sequels. Townsend is comic genius. I wonder how her teeth are.

July 25 Two co-workers spot book on desk, rave about childhood fondness for it. Not entirely uplifting feeling that I am in mid thirties and am reading young-adult novels purchased for $1.50.

Labor Day Brought The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole (1986) on plane trip. Adrian submits poems (" Norway! Land of difficult spelling") to the BBC; voice breaks. Want more! Nobody's epigraph: "Why should I not publish my diary? I have often seen reminiscences of people I have never even heard of. . . . My only regret is that I did not commence it when I was a youth." Townsend takes this tantalizing conceit to heart. Mole books form literary equivalent to those Seven Up movies (not that I've seen them).

Sept. 3 Outside window, flags at half- mast—for the flood? For the war?

Oct. 15 New Mole book out in Dec.—Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction (!). Am up to speed—just finished The Lost Years (1994)and The Cappuccino Years (1999). (With WMD, total Mole page count will exceed 1,500.) Satire is broader here; Adrian's no longer the would-be genius, instead comically pathetic: still writing bad poetry, fixated on schoolboy crush Pandora Braithwaite, now an MP. (Watches aghast as their parents effectively wife-swap.) Therapy doesn't help—he winds up stalking his therapist. What's endearing in an adolescent (e.g., thirst for fame) seems grotesque in an adult. Cappuccino sends up celebrity culture: Adrian becomes a TV chef, specializing in nasty "Traditional English" fare, despite not really knowing how to cook. After reading Bridget Jones's newspaper diary, he tries to contact her for advice; later records bodily failures in a wicked parody of Bridgettian summing-up ("Bowels—sluggish").

Nov. 28 Thinking about WMD—the strongest and saddest Mole book since the original—but am distracted by plaintive sounds of bird family making home under window. Avian flu threat? (Have devised coat hanger "claw" but it will not quite reach them.) Flags at half-mast again.

Nov. 29 WMD opens with a fawning letter (9/29/02) to Tony Blair. Adrian's canceled his Cyprus vacation (upon hearing the PM's warning about threat to C. from Saddam). All Adrian needs is proof of the WMDs, so he can get his deposit back from the agency. As the Iraq war looms, he goes through his cringe-makingly funny paces—working on his book (Celebrity and Madness), falling into a disastrous relationship with a manipulative shut-in and a seemingly more disastrous one with her Nigella look-alike sister.

Townsend skewers repurposed real estate (Adrian's condo, which he can't afford, is in a former battery factory), considers the fate of independent bookstores (Adrian works in one) and the banality of book clubs. Naturally, it's compulsively readable; more important, think Townsend has solved problem of what to do when your fictional creation is famous. Sprinkling boldface names is easy yuks (Adrian asks David Beckham for insights). But she uses the weight of her 23-year-old literary project to create an expert entertainment that's also a cogent, furious foreign-policy critique. Hypnotized by credit card offers, Adrian sinks hundreds of thousands of pounds into debt—the final calculation is both absurd and chilling, a potent metaphor for the cost of the war effort. His faith in Blair sours as it becomes clear that his infantryman son, Glenn, faces real danger. "Happy people don't keep a diary," Adrian concludes. Can I be forgiven for wishing him just a little more misfortune?

 
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