Wednesday, April 19, 2023

A Year in the Merde by Stephen Clarke

I try not to judge a book by what its marketers say about it - we marketers are flighty, unreliable creatures who want to sell rather than to communicate clearly at all times. But I bought this book under false pretenses, and I picked it up to read (almost a decade later) also under false pretenses, so I'm doubly miffed.

Only slightly, though, since the book was pleasant, if not what I thought it would be.

The US edition of A Year in the Merde, Stephen Clarke's first (of now six) books about Paul West, is published as "Travel" and generally shelved there, with non-fiction books about their authors' humorous exploits in foreign lands. The trade dress and quotes, with comparisons to Peter Mayle, tend to imply that it is non-fiction, as do the words "nearly true" in the back-copy blurb.

It is not; it is a novel, and very obviously so. Clarke's hero is almost two decades younger than he is, doing very different work, and his episodic adventures play a bit like the brief for a humorous British TV series about a young Brit in Paris, hitting new thematic and dramatic ideas in each of its nine month-themed chapters.

Now, it's a pleasant, breezy novel, with an amusing voice - it reads to me like a cross between a minor UK sitcom and a men's version of chick-lit. Its hero is the usual light-novel protagonist, no smarter or educated or informed than he has to be in any given scene to make the comedy work, and his background is as thin as an extremely thin thing. He's supposedly been head-hunted to run a major fast-casual chain launch in France after just doing the same thing in the UK - as "head of marketing," which is not the right title, but leave that aside - but never shows the level of competence, intensity, or drive that someone accomplishing that in his late twenties would have.

But the overall plot is not the point. Merde is about "Paul West" living through fictionalized versions of events in Clarke's own life, and/or amusing situations Clarke thinks could be bigger and funnier than real life. Clarke has made a career - this was his first book, and a bestseller - out of explaining and/or making fun of French things for a mostly UK audience, and that's how to see this book: it's a kiss-slap at France, from a British point of view.

West is little more than a pleasant narrative voice here, a stand-in so any male reader (preferably British and mildly laddish) can see himself living in Paris and living through these experiences. Female readers, presumably, would not take as well to the relentless sexism and focus on women's bodies - "West" is always on the make, in his quiet British way, always assessing every last woman he meets primarily by whether he wants to fuck them.

Luckily, although he does fuck several of them, Clarke never describes the sex - or even body parts - in any detail. Instead, he keeps the book frothy and surfacy, with each chapter providing a very sitcom-esque setup, complication, and d√©nouement and the overall book stringing them together under a clear but often ignored larger plot that climaxes, more or less, at the very end in the traditional happy ending for West.

There are a lot of books like this. This is a sold example of the form, and Clarke gets in some good jokes. I'm not expecting to get to the five (!) further novels about Paul West, but I don't mind having read this one.

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