The Edge of Reason


Lad lit, the would-be counterpart to the chicklitter inaugurated and epitomized by Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary (1997), appears dead in the water. The low sales may stem from a gender-based marketing oversight (men don’t read about men having dating problems, and women don’t care), but on a fundamental level, the prose has no juice. Take this bit from Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (2000): “7:40 a.m. Maybe will put . . . GAAAAAH!” (How can you not read on?) It’s more exciting than anything in, say, Kyle Smith’s wet-blanket Love Monkey.

In Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination, Fielding sticks with a journalist heroine, but switches to the third person and has a go at an international-intrigue caper, which has at its heart this head-scratcher: Is the seducer-producer Pierre Ferramo none other than Osama bin Laden? The former Rachel Pixley chooses “Joules” for her nom de plume, as it evokes “the unit of kinetic energy.” There are early signs of vintage Fielding fizz; Olivia’s 10th rule for living is “Only buy clothes that make you feel like doing a small dance.” And her take on an editor’s critique is pure Bridget: “Re his punctuation slur: language was a beautiful free-flowing, evolving thing which should not be fettered by artificial rules, regulations and strange markings imposed from without rather than within.”

But as terrorism-stoked anxiety darkens the pages, Olivia muses, “The trouble was, it didn’t seem all that funny.” Fielding hedges on larkiness, and punctuation-wise, this is as fettered as the next book. Where, then, to find kinetic energy in novel form? Perhaps there is hope for lad lit: At 37, Jarleth Prendergast, the narrator of Meredith (he’s a dude) Brosnan’s Mr. Dynamite, is a bit long in the tooth, but his bad-boy roots, marinated in a long and unsuccessful career in the arts and at a copy shop, are spectacularly intact. A manqué squared, he has no luck as experimental filmmaker (the 2 min. 8 sec. Oh God! The Vomit/Shroud of Turin), band manager (the late, unlamented Cum Jerks), adulterer (married, he has affairs that obsess or annoy him but that despite all effort are never consummated), or inheritor (of 33 grand from a distant aunt). Or, finally, as assassin. Olivia can’t decide if her romancer is Osama; Prendy has less doubt that a lawyer he meets by chance is the ex-molesting stepfather of his suicided lost love, Amelia. He becomes obsessed with revenge, and dusts off his .38 (dubbed McSplatter).

A Dubliner 13 years in New York, Prendy has a deadly ear for “shameless fibs and worn out Irish-American clichés!!!” yet nevertheless tries to use his accent to advantage, as when not quite charming the pants off a woman writer known for her leprechaun-detective children’s books or not quite convincing an Indian cabbie to give chase to his quarry (“Look here my friend I’m an Irishman. Mindful of the centuries of suffering inflicted upon both our peoples by British imperialism—”). And recovering Bloomsday revelers will spit Guinness at this feint: “but first I want to tell you about Our First Date: the first time Amelia and Prendy walked out together — it was the 16th of June 1904 no it wasn’t.”

Misanthropy shades into daydream, hallucination, delusions of grandeur. Even as this Jägermeister-downing, Burroughs-reading, song-and-film-quoting underground man appears to get serious, plotting the final stages of his attack, his self-dramatizing nature kicks in. Wouldn’t this be a great film? “Casting Notes: Gary Oldman will play Bartlett O’Plantagenet (the ME character) – Everyone else is a puppet / cel / claymation except the pivotal Amelia-stripper-undercover-cop character played by Lisa Marie – or Heather Graham?? WHY NOT BOTH!!? = my homage to Buñuel!” Jarleth Prendergast and the overactive imagination!

Brosnan’s head-rush style nods to William Gaddis’s JR and A Frolic of His Own, those alpha-omegas of dialogue-exclusive fiction, and our hero’s initials allude to that mirror expat novelist, J.P. Donleavy, born in New York and long resident in Ireland. As Prendergast staggers at the intersection of beaten and beatific, located somewhere on Avenue C or in Long Island City (“12th Ave.?? 11th St.?”), his narration becomes a pathetic yet pleasurable matrix of jokes and half-jokes, blink-and-you’ll-miss allusions (quick: “the click and clacking of the high-heel shoe”?), and only-in-New York verities (commuters will identify with “an endless crawl back up through Manhattan in sardine can rush hr. conditions replete with musical beggars – This little light of mine / I’m gonna let it shine / up your arse.”) He captures people in cinematically direct word clusters: “well-heeled dudes with blinking neon signs strapped to their heads I’M A NEUROSURGEON I MAKE TOO MUCH MONEY,” “tall sardonic 55ish hipster Kurt Vonnegut lookalike.”

Careful not to wear out its welcome, stitched together with ellipses and hyphens (as if there’s no time for a dash), Mr. Dynamite is built for speed—no coincidence that Prendy works at Kwik Copy. As his lunatic grandiosity reaches a crescendo, the indignities of the creative life—the indignities of any life—are all too palpable. He composes his last will and testament, instructing a friend to take his meager oeuvre of film projects, “splice ’em all together – then let the smelly dingo RUN!!!”—as if anyone cares. The beauty part is, we do.