reviewed by Zeke Teflon
Twenty years ago, I was leafing through Publishers Weekly and checked on the trade paperback bestsellers. PW lists the top 20, and of those 20, four were “Chicken Soup for the Soul” titles, including Chicken Soup for the Golfer’s Soul. When I saw that, I put the magazine down and growled, “Just shoot me now!”
At about the same time, while brooding on the sales of my books (good by small press standards, but that’s not even sufficient to maintain one in genteel poverty) I noticed in another issue of PW that many of the trade paperback and hardback bestsellers were New Age (rhymes with “sewage,” as noted by Penn & Teller) titles, and that the number one book was something called The Secret.
At that point, I said to myself, “Self, how hard can it be to write one of these things?” So, I scoured thrift stores and bought The Secret, The Celestine Prophecy, Mutant Messenger from Down Under, and a couple more similar, and now mercifully forgotten, titles–doing my best to hide my shame at the checkout counter.
Then I started to read. Within a few pages, I was muttering, “What kind of person could write this crap?” Within a few more, I was muttering, “What kind of person could read this crap?!” It was the old Prosperity Gospel junk heap, repackaged in New Age you-create your-own-reality garb: if you want something badly enough, it will “manifest,” become real–an absurd premise that begs the question, “If everyone ‘creates their own reality,’ then in the 1940s did six million Jews, including small children and infants, choose to be exterminated by the Nazis?”
In the end, I couldn’t do it. I abandoned the project. At the time, I rationalized that abandonment on the grounds that my contempt for the readers of New Age pap would seep through my writing. In reality, it was because I became almost physically ill at the thought of reading any more New Age narcissism, and I became even more distressed at the thought of writing any of it.
Which brings us, finally, to The Murdstone Trilogy. When I read the description of the book on the dust jacket, I was hooked. It reads:
Philip Murdstone is in trouble. Flat broke. His star has waned. No one wants his novels about sensitive teenage boys. So his ruthless agent, Minerva Cinch, convinces him that his only hope is to write a sword-and-sorcery blockbuster. High Fantasy, specifically, or, to be more precise, Phantasy with a p-h. Unfortunately, Philip–allergic to the faintest trace of anything Tolkien–is utterly unsuited to the task.
In Philip’s darkest, whiskey-fueled hour, a dwarfish stranger comes to his rescue. But the deal Philip makes with Pocket Wellfair turns out to have Faustian consequences.
So, to a great extent I identified with The Murdstone Trilogy‘s protagonist; I even shared his extreme distaste for fantasy (sorry, Phantasy). Then I began to read, and wasn’t disappointed. In The Murdstone Trilogy, author Mal Peet–a successful writer of children’s and YA fiction–created a new genre: fantasy-satire. Portions of the book, especially in its first half, are extremely funny. The narrative, spiced with whimsical names, such as that of Murdstone’s “local” (pub), “The Gelder’s Rest,” hits the ground running. Minerva’s prescription for writing a fantasy novel, a few pages into the Trilogy, is a scream. It’s quite lengthy, so I can’t quote it in full, but here are few excerpts:
The world–Realm is the proper term–of High Fantasy is sort of medieval. Well, preindustrial anyway. Something like Devon, I imagine. Vaguely socialist in an idyllic, farmerish–is that a word?–sort of a way. But the Realm has fallen under the power of a Dark Lord. . . .
Anyway, the Dark Lord is served by minions. That’s a word you must use.
The young hero lives in a remote village in the farthest Shire–that’s another must, Shire, OK–of the Realm. He thinks he’s an orphan, but he’s a prince, of course.
And so on, for six wonderful pages. Peet also indulges in a fair amount of low comedy, as in the following passage describing Philip’s undertaking of research for his fantasy-writing project:
So tomorrow — yes, tomorrow — why not? — he would visit the [library] and carry off whatever Phantastickal, Magickal, and Phantasmagorickal crap they had in stock and work his way through every last page. Although, given the choice, he would rather endure an operation for hemorrhoids.
As if the thought had conjured it, an appalling spasm forked through Philip’s innards. Even as he doubled up and fell to his knees on the hearth rug, he knew its cause. The farmhouse scrumpy had made alchemical contact with the Mexican Platter and, perhaps catalyzed by the rhubarb and chocolate torts with Pernod cream followed by brandy, had triggered a seismic eruption. Just behind his navel, something huge and grotesque hatched from its egg. A brutal fist hammered at the door of his bowels.
With the help of the “greme,” Pocket Wellfair, Philip soon produces a blockbuster fantasy novel, Dark Entropy. In the wake of its success, Philip’s agent Minerva manages to get Philip a million pound advance (on royalties) for the still-unwritten second book in the trilogy, at which point Philip’s troubles really begin.
This all occurs early on. Rather than describe any more of the plot, I’ll just mention that Peet’s writing is near flawless. The reader’s (mine anyway) suspension of disbelief is total. And that’s largely why I found The Murdstone Trilogy‘s conclusion unsatisfying–it works, yes, but it’s unsatisfying.
Upon finishing the book last night, I thought about why that might be. Had Peet provided clues along the way? Yes? Had he provided foreshadowing? Yes.
This morning, I woke up and went “Ahh! That’s it!” Peet hadn’t played fair with the reader. So as not to spoil the book, I’ll mention only that one scene late in the book involving Philip’s neighbors, especially the vicar and his sexton, is inconsistent with the conclusion. That’s a pity, because Peet could have omitted, or even slightly altered, that scene, and have avoided the inconsistency.
But this is a relatively minor problem. Overall, The Murdstone Trilogy is one of the most amusing books I’ve read in ages.
Mal Peet died last year of cancer at age 67. The Murdstone Trilogy is his only adult novel. His death was a tragedy for Peet, his friends and family, and for readers. I’d have loved to have read more.
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–Zeke Teflon is the author of the science fiction novel Free Radicals: A Novel of Utopia and Dystopia. He’s currently working on the sequel.