Friday, 19 June 2009
Too Good to be True
Gah, I agonised over whether to write this or not. But I was encouraged to by the subject himself, so here goes.
I mentioned the other day that I'd been reading - and enjoying - Bete de Jour; Intimate Adventures of an Ugly Man. I've been following the blog for ages, and this is the most engaging blog-turned-book I've read. He reveals details he only hinted at online, and I was dying to know the truth. The writing, as on the blog, is a delight. He's erudite, ascerbic, funny. He has a turn of phrase to love (for the entertainment) and hate (because you're jealous).
The blog is called Bete de Jour. The blogger uses the name Stan Cattermole, and claims to have a face like a bag of elbows. Having suffered all his life from the label "ugly" - not least at the hands of his parents - on the eve of his 30th birthday he made a decision. He was fat and flat-bound, had never experienced a loving relationship and was determined to put things right. So he started a blog, and to a large extent it worked. It brought him sex, recognition, friends, confidence and a book deal. The book itself is a moving, self-aware, honest account of the whole experience.
But... there's a problem. It's been doing my head in, and here it is: I don't believe Stan Cattermole exists.
At first I was too battered by emotion to think critically, but as soon as I did the doubts appeared. His parents, spectacularly inhuman bastards who never even smile at him, are two of the most two-dimensional characters I've seen in fiction, never mind real life. Of course there are hideous child-abusing monsters who ruin their own children's lives... but they're complex human beings, full of contradiction and confusion. Not these two. They get drunk, throw plates, watch sport and jump from one cliché to the next. And then... well, I won't spoil the book. But it has an everything's-all-right finale which is really hard to believe, on so many levels it's like a giant Scooby Doo sandwich, with layer upon layer of saccharine, cliché and poorly-researched lie.
There are many other less-than-believable aspects of the book. The neat narrative arc of the year he chose to blog. The fact that he moved from book deal to review copy in less than six months. The online sex encounter which, although hilarious and brilliantly written, has been done before, in similar shape, by online comedians. The porn-film rape which reads like an urban myth. The modern classical concert enhanced by a fire alarm, which is an urban myth. The way he lost his virginity.
The details of his family were apparently too raw to be blogged. But he describes how he wished his online readers would tease it out of him, craving their friendship and support. I emailed him after reading that part of the book - telling how, when I read the hints on his blog, I didn't push for more out of respect for his privacy. If only I'd known! I would have been there for him!
But as soon as I started doubting, the whole thing felt wrong. And the author is anonymous, so none of it is verifiable. Yes, he has a real-life friend with a blog of his own, but who's to say either of them exist?
I wasn't sure whether to write this review, because I might be wrong - in which case it could appear downright mean. And because... for a long time I believed in him. I had my doubts when he first published the porn-film encounter on his blog, but I pushed them to the back of my mind because I loved the idea of the tragic man with the massive heart. And the wit, and the intellect, and the great writing ability.
Does it matter? If it's not real, hasn't he just written a great novel? Didn't I enjoy reading it, and isn't that the point? Well, maybe. Sadly as a novelist he's got great writing style, but the plot... is a bag full of elbow-shaped clichés. And as a blog-reader who offered support and advice, I feel daft. Gullible. Cheated.
But for all its flaws, it's a great book and he is - in some senses at least - a brilliant writer. I hope Bete de Jour does well, and I hope this review - if it has any effect at all - will encourage more people to read it. As long as Stan refuses to confirm anything, the whole thing becomes a deliciously post-modern game: Read the blog, read the book, and decide for yourself if it's real.