Rupert Dreyfus’ writerly objectives concerning literary political satire, or as he terms it, “transgressive fiction”, may be a little far-reaching; the up and coming British author of independent fiction promises a revolution amongst the publishing world’s indigent literati who are in need of a literary overhaul, a proposal outlined in the closing essay of his debut collection of short stories, The Rebel’s Sketchbook. Indeed, these are lofty goals, but if the author sometimes falls short of that promise with these 13 stories, his execution in style and technique is certainly remarkable for the most part.
Dreyfus writes with the darkly absurd humour of a thirsty and somewhat paranoid Jonathan Swift, bent out of shape over health plans, legal aid, money issues and a host of other meddlesome affairs affecting modern-day youth (pointedly of English extraction). In his tales of bored and jobless layabouts, internet superstars, corrupt politicians and weary observers of socio-economic collapse, Dreyfus manages an equally coy and poisonous dissertation on 20-something British life.
Much of the author’s strengths lie in setting his characters up on a hopeless trajectory that devolves from one situational drama into an irrevocable and comically absurd conclusion – a feat performed with a stinging wit and empathy reserved for the most astringent of writers. Often, Dreyfus’ characters are confronted with preposterous conditions, forced into compromising situations of political persuasion and then left to fend for themselves in the silliest of ways.
In the opening story, “Hatchet Job”, a would-be assassin is hired to pick off a local politician, an assignment he naively accepts so that he may sustain a destructive gaming habit. In “Sentenced”, a star YouTube blogger with a million-plus viewership is duped into participating in a seemingly innocuous online game involving word-puzzles, a front for a sadistic ulterior motive cleverly revealed in the story’s concluding line.
What makes Dreyfus’ stories fun (and funny) is the sense of complete anarchy which uniformly takes over the final third of his stories; an engaging sequence of events is established with careful exactitude before a wildly hysteric stratagem is introduced, usurping any coherent structure instituted in the preliminary set-up. Clearly Dreyfus is having a laugh, and if readers can accept the abandonment of any plausible structure, the freakishly surreal nature of these wacked-out tales can be appreciated through a far more hyperbolic measure of polemic satire.
“Eat Nasty”, a wry look at middle-American culture (a depiction that the author nails with superb fluency) and the Western world’s insatiable money-grubbing hunger, is rendered with a decidedly touchy and unnerving conception of lower-class disparities. The story centers on the repulsive antics of a YouTuber who will shamelessly eat just about anything for an ever-expanding viewership. Dreyfus examines a culture of excess with a jaundiced eye that perceives its almost desperate and restive need to be articulated through a degradation of civility. His characters turn out a most poignant and ironic affirmation of pride and necessity: “My bills ain’t gonna pay themselves,” says one character of her children’s public debacles.
Quality takes a dip only when the designs become a little more complicated than necessary; “Dead Man’s Blunt” has the inventive concept of a narrative focalized from the viewpoint of a spliff. Its story is curiously versed and pushes for a philosophical argument on lifestyle and human welfare, but the message is somewhat diminished by the conclusion’s overstatement.
“Outrage” aims for a grinning sarcasm that falls just short of its mark in a story about a city turned zombie-central, the result of some deeply warped right-wing induced policies; with no true objective distance between the narrative and Dreyfus’ own personal sentiments, the story is somewhat reduced to an ostentatious display of flag-waving politics. But when Dreyfus slices with the sharper side of his double-edged sword, his arguments find a fitting home in his satisfyingly smug and bitter tales of unethical recourse. His chancy way with language, in particular, demonstrates an admirable ability for barbed, facetious dialogue.
How far the author’s collection of stories will travel remains to be seen; his dogged approach to publishing may keep a wider audience at bay (Dreyfus forgoes shopping his material to the larger publishing houses, opting to self-publish). But The Rebel’s Sketchbook does offer some beacon of hope to the legions of would-be independent writers: Dreyfus’ method of working from the arguably divisive point of subjective clarity is a refreshing approach from which others can follow.
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