Reviews

Utterly Monkey by Nick Laird

Thomas Scott McKenzie

The unexploded bomb is a perfect metaphor for Utterly Monkey.


Utterly Monkey

Publisher: Harper Perennial
Length: 344
Formats: Paperback
Price: $13.95 []
Author: Nick Laird
US publication date: 2006-01
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Warning: Spoilers ahead.

As a generalization, genre fiction relies heavily on plot intricacies while literary fiction prefers to de-emphasize plot to focus on character development. It is a rare book that can satisfy both sets of demands. Nick Laird, winner of the 2005 Rooney Prize for Irish Literature, set just such an ambitious goal with his novel Utterly Monkey, but unfortunately, failed to meet his mark.

The novel revolves around disenchanted barrister Danny Williams and the conflict that Geordie Wilson, an old friend from home in Northern Ireland, brings into his sterile corporate life. Add in a budding office romance with the lovely Ellen Powell, threats from a Loyalist militia, and tyrannical bosses it's easy to see why some critics have written that Utterly Monkey is the equivalent of combining The Office television series with a Guy Ritchie caper movie, while also adding elements of Nick Hornby's writing and the Kingsley Amis classic 1954 novel Lucky Jim. The problem is that none of these influences is fully pursued and Utterly Monkey becomes a tangle of unresolved plot lines. Rather that positively compare it to the works above, the book more closely resembles a bad jam band, full of aborted solos that go nowhere, tones that aren't explored, and stoned musicians who stagger off-stage unexpectedly.

Early in the novel, Geordie, sick of his small town life steals almost £50,000 from local heavy, Budgie Johnson, a reasonably well-drawn tough guy bearing resemblance to Trainspotting's Begbie. Geordie then scampers to London to hide from Budgie's wrath. Geordie is ultimately confronted about the stolen dosh, not by Budgie, but by militiaman Ian McAleece. Ian manhandles Geordie and roughs up his flat a little. But then, simple as that, Geordie hands over the money. Half the novel revolves around this stolen wad of cash, as Geordie runs for his life and Budgie's family (in a separate plot line) hides. Then the whole story, here, is simply resolved by Geordie's giving the money back. Ian counts the money, shares a cup of tea with Geordie, and leaves with no real consequences beyond a few bumps and bruises.

Meanwhile, back in Northern Ireland, Budgie is never heard from again. Danny and Geordie conspire to rescue Budgie's abused sister Jan. For much of the book, Budgie has gorilla-ed everyone he meets and instead of getting punched out, instead of being revealed as impotent, instead of receiving any sort of humiliating comeuppance, the bully is sent off by a family member and a simple lie. The sister escapes, the thief Geordie never faces any real consequences, the wide-o doesn't get what's coming to him, and everything just whimpers away.

The £50,000 does reappear -- when Ian purchases a truck bomb. As part of his fanatical plan, the militiaman intends to demolish the Bank of England. A full 30 pages is devoted to Danny and Geordie's attempts to derail the nefarious plot, with car chases, sirens, bomb squads, and a climax that appears to be building to a satisfying ending. However, Laird circumvents that sense of resolution with a simple "the bomb didn't go off." Turns out that the timer was faulty and the revolutionary Ian set it for 40 hours rather than 40 minutes. No explosion, no saving the day when the clock reached 0:01, no collective relief. Just another unsatisfying plot ending.

There are interesting elements here that demonstrate how well Laird writes. Particularly memorable is the Albert Rollson character; a man who "wasn't a particularly sick or delicate or querulous man. He was just very bored, and had found that the best way to counter the ennui was to exercise all the pointless opportunities offered by an enormous company". Albert has the pictures in his office changed every six weeks, he attends training courses on using a Dictaphone and seminars on speed reading, he sees the corporate doctor once a month, and demands any number of ergonomically correct office supplies. He goes about his office revolt in this quiet, yet expensive, fashion and because he's in on his own joke, he serves as a humorous satire of all the corporate denizens who truly behave in such demanding ways. Albert will fight and claw for his red Swingline stapler, but unlike Milton in Office Space, he's laughing at the suits while he does it.

Unfortunately, though, for every Albert, there are multiple opportunities that are wasted. But nothing is realized and there's no payoff coming for the reader. It's revealing that this book has been labeled a caper tale, a coming of age story, an urban satire, an example of lad-lit, a corporate skewering, and an exploration of modern relationships because in the end, it attempts to be all of those things and achieves none of them. The unexploded bomb is a perfect metaphor for Utterly Monkey by Nick Laird -- there is a tremendous amount of power hinted at within these pages, but in the end, it fizzles like a bad fuse.


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