Wednesday, 29 July 2009

'the Price of Success'

Mr Toppit
by Charles Elton

And out of the Darkwood Mr Toppit comes, and he comes not for you, or for me, but for all of us.

There won't be many more books this year so covered in hype as Mr Toppit. After a long gestation period (14 years) the novel was part of a fierce bidding war (eventually won by Penguin and a reported six-figure sum) and its publication preceded by a spoof ad in The Times and a website. All the subterfuge helped to build up the myth behind the novel itself. Even the design for the book itself played on the fact that this novel is built on the legacy of a series of imagined children's books. Peel off the dust jacket and the cover underneath belongs to The Hayseed Chronicles, the picture showing their hero, Luke Hayseed. Written by Arthur Hayman, only ever mildly successful in his career in the British film industry, the books enjoy a similarly unimpressive trajectory until Arthur is run over by a cement truck, his final moments attended by Laurie, a vacationing hospital-radio host who will go on to become the woman to bring the books to a wider audience and begin the chain events which brings the Hayman family first fame and finally destruction.

At the centre of all this is Luke, the real Luke, Hayman, who like his literary forbear, Christopher Robin, has found the appropriation of his name alters the way he is viewed by others, especially once the books become a worldwide sensation.

...it was too much to cope with dashed expectations on the faces of strangers. It wasn't my fault that I'd grown up. I couldn't stay a seven-year-old forever, trapped in the pages of the books. I was still just about recognizable as the boy in Lila's drawings and the comparison was not a favourable one. I came to learn the national characteristics of disappointment: the resentfulness of the English, the downright hostility of the French, who looked as if they might ask for their money back, the touching sadness on the face of the Japanese - such pain that I both was and wasn't the boy in the books. I was Dorian Gray in reverse: my attic was in every bookshop in the world.

By combining elements of Christopher Robin, Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code Elton is able to poke plenty of fun at the publishing world, one he is well versed in with his career as a literary agent, and one which has been well exploited by his own publishers with the website and fake Hayseed malarkey. Underneath all of this though he is attempting to write a book about family in all its dysfunction. As well as Luke's obvious trials his troubled sister Rachel, perhaps because her own name doesn't appear alongside his in the books, identifies far too strongly with them and the sinister figure of Mr Toppit becomes emblematic of her struggles with dependency, whilst the assonant parents, Arthur and Martha, have their own marital strife to contend with. Laurie's own past, constructed from fragments she can recall from the secretive desert of Los Alamos, is as troubled as that of the family she aims to help and as they all become caught up in the maelstrom of attention and notoriety following the trauma of Arthur's death and the success of Hayseed, the threat of further damage is as omnipresent as the enigmatic figure of Mr Toppit.

There are plenty of other sub-plots in a novel which covers two generations of at least two families on both sides of the Atlantic. There are plenty of 'characters' with which Elton has lots of fun taking his pot-shots and if he occasionally wields his plotting with all the subtlety of a . . . well, cement truck, he keeps things tinged with a darkness that keeps your attention. After all that publicity the book has not only been picked as a Richard and Judy Summer Read™ but like another of their picks will be voiced by yours truly in an upcoming audiobook (sorry about the flagrant self publicity but it's my blog and I'll flog if I want to - on that note, a clip of The Great Lover should be posted soon).


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