When I'm going anywhere for any length of time, I always make sure I have at least two books with me. One of them can usually best be described as literary fiction: which means that it has appeared on a university syllabus somewhere; or a slice of it has graced the pages of Granta or the New York Review of Books or some similar publication; or the author is foreign, or dead, or has preposterous facial hair. I hate to contemplate a scenario in which I have both the inclination to read Don Quixote or Gravity's Rainbow, but don't have the opportunity.
I'm deluding myself, of course; it's the inclination that's the problem. Which is why I also pack something a wee bit easier, a bit less literary. The cover tends to be in brighter colours than that of the literary tome, and the author's name will be shiny, or embossed, or both. There may even be a positive mention from a mid-market tabloid.
Which is how, on my last trip out of town, I came to be carrying Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled, with which I seemed to have been stuck at the seven-tenths mark for about six weeks; and The Killing Joke, by Anthony Horowitz.
The latter ticks all those non-literary boxes: garish, glossy cover; "sheer enjoyment," squeals the Daily Mail; and the first few pages establish a scenario (unsuccessful, recently-dumped actor in a bad pub in North London) that seems interchangeable with the plots of Nick Hornby, John O'Farrell, David Nicholls and the like. We are in lad lit territory: a saga of urban bourgeois male disappointment and (one presumes) redemption. The plot kicks off when our not-even-anti-hero wonders where a particular (crass, unfunny) joke comes from; indeed, wonders whether jokes do in fact have origins. So we've got a grail myth of sorts, albeit made bathetic and small and insignificant for our small and insignificant world.
And then things go a bit odd for Guy. Jokes, of the most banal and formulaic kind, come to life around him. He slips on a banana skin, and finds a fly in his soup. He is stalked by an Englishman, a Scotsman and an Irishman, and his fate is determined by an individual's ability to change a lightbulb. On the periphery, a bishop discusses an actress, and a chicken, inevitably, crosses the road. It gets to the point that when you encounter, say, a woman suffering from elephantiasis, or someone else buying salami, you're desperately trying to work out what joke they've sprung from, wondering whether you've missed that particular meme.
This is weird stuff, well beyond the comfort zone of Hornby and his ilk. A couple shag in a hall of mirrors, in a scene that could have come from Pynchon or Vonnegut; the experience of being kept on hold by customer services is communicated by a phonetic transcription of Vivaldi ("DEE DEE DEE DEE DEE DEE DEE DEE / DUM DIDDLY DUM DIDDLY DUM DIDDLY DUM DIDDLY") repeated to cover the bulk of 15 pages, raising the spectre of Douglas Coupland.
And then I realise that Guy's travails in the world of jokes bear more than a passing similarity to the experiences that Ryder, Ishiguro's protagonist, has in The Unconsoled. Joke and dreams, after all, come from the deepest recesses of ourselves; dreams from the subconscious, jokes maybe from the collective unconscious (so there's no favouritism in the Freud/Jung wars, Frasier fans). Damn it, Horowitz and Ishiguro have pretty much written the same book: millennial Kafka; unsympathetic heroes leading lives well beyond our experience, but well within our understanding, even if we have to delve a little into areas we don't want to go. The only real difference between the two books is that I finished the Horowitz in a matter of hours, while the Ishiguro still glares balefully from my bedside table.
To paraphrase a legendary comic, albeit one not as funny as Freud, maybe it's the way they tell 'em.