December 17, 2012

Simon Crump: My Elvis Blackout

Posted in Crump Simon at 8:00 am by John Self

I’ve written about Simon Crump here before – even interviewed him – and I was keeping this, his ‘best known’ book, as a reliable treat. That went the way of all good intentions – of all good books, pushed ever further down the priority list by the clamour of later arrivals, which are more exciting and more urgent simply because of their newness. Fortunately, its reissue this month by Galley Beggar Press, as an ebook, has made it new all over again.

Simon Crump: My Elvis Blackout

My Elvis Blackout was initially published in 2000 by Bloomsbury. It was Crump’s first book, and as a launchpad into the literary world it could hardly have been more dramatic. If you don’t know what to expect from a new author, it’s pretty safe that you don’t expect a book where Elvis Presley buries the mutilated body of Barbara Cartland on page two, and executes Chris de Burgh not long after, only to have the “reedy-voiced, ferret-faced little bastard” come back from the dead as a headless zombie. The problem with this book, then, is that its excesses come at the beginning, and that the silly stuff and the stupid stuff is likely to provoke in many readers the urge – never far off in me – to chuck it aside and move on to the next one.

I persisted with it, but nonetheless finished it up – not long after I started it, as it’s less than 25,000 words long – still uncertain. Still mystified, in fact. Was it funny? Was it serious? Was it any good? The only thing I didn’t doubt was that it was interesting. As a debut, it seemed less fully achieved than Neverland (Crump’s fourth book), and less modulated too: fifty shades of black to the later book’s subtle gradations of colour. I put it aside and pondered it. Then I went back to it, and re-read it, more slowly this time, not by design but for the usual reasons (work, children).

Second time around, it seemed absolutely right to me: or more firmly wrong. One enthusiastic Amazon review of My Elvis Blackout says that it is impossible to describe it without making it sound like one of the worst books in the world, but I am going to try. It is a series of very short stories, scenes, sketches and vignettes, most of which feature Elvis Presley, or a version of him. The Elvis here is disturbed, twisted and violent, driven mad by fame and the permeable membrane between real life and the public image. His story is made from sparks of flash fiction; it is a mirrorball made of highly polished razor blades, reflecting different aspects of the King.

The stories are told by Elvis himself and by people who know him, and they are full of sudden jerks and switchbacks, with comedy flipping into terror and then sentimentality in the space of a page or two, and anticipated punchlines turning to dust. One of the early stories has Angie Crumbaker recounting her fling as a high school girl with Elvis in 1959. “I had missed a lot of fun this year by being Elvis’s girl. Yet I certainly didn’t blame him. It wasn’t his fault that he had problems.” But even she can’t foresee the confession Elvis is soon to make to her:

‘For the last couple of months … well, I’ve been stealing wigs from Eveline’s House of Hair and Feminine Beauty, taking them back and shampooing them, I just can’t stop myself, it makes me feel so good.’

As with so many of the tales here, it soon turns to death, reported both flippantly and tenderly. “At that moment,” says Angie, “Elvis looked so handsome that my aching heart began to bleed.” Later, he is heading up the “Memphis mafia,” with echoes for his friends of Joe Pesci in Goodfellas. “Nobody dares laugh, as there’s no telling what Elvis might do.” Thereafter, he kills Chris de Burgh, twice. At times the strangeness seems unexplainable by design; elsewhere, you can see what Crump is up to: extrapolating fancies from slivers of known fact. For example, the story ‘Elvis: Fat, Fucked-Up Fool’ begins: “His greatest fear was of being poor and he dwelled upon it constantly.” True, no doubt, but Crump flings the idea around and turns it into a dark fantasy of underage sex, ice-cream and buried valuables. Jarringly juxtaposed with this is the next piece (‘Ex-Elvis’), a series of single lines laid out centrally on the page like inner sleeve lyrics, and which draw an austere and pitiable picture:

Way back home there’s a funeral.

All the police carry guns.

Something she said worries him.

Somebody stole his crown.

Sometimes he cries in his sleep.

All he has is a radio and a guitar.

There’s a pain in his chest and he throws up all the time.

The more you read it, and re-read it, the clearer it becomes that My Elvis Blackout is at its heart a tragedy: of internal conflict and turmoil, of a man unknowable to anyone including himself, of real life lost to the distorting mirror of fame. Indeed, it ends up seeming like the most eloquent (and violent) expression of the psychopathology of fame since the best of Gordon Burn. I was reminded when reading it of Burn’s observation that “almost everything I’ve written has been about celebrity, and how for most people celebrity is a kind of death.” Indeed, in My Elvis Blackout, Crump seems to merge the twin poles of Burn’s world: the seedy low-key fame of snooker players or Alma Cogan, and the psychopathy of the Wests or Peter Sutcliffe.

Simon Crump: My Elvis Blackout

When Elvis himself speaks in the book, as in the four chapters of ‘An Amazing Talk With Elvis’, he sounds altogether sober and subdued, his reports of life and what brought him here having the tone of a formal witness statement or court report. Here and elsewhere the words read like found material from other sources. Elvis tells of his real history and of how he was remade for public consumption, so that the moral begins to look like Kurt Vonnegut’s in Mother Night: ‘we are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be’. There is a terrible confusion of identity, in the story ‘Loma Linda’, where the distinction is thoroughly blurred between reality and delusion (“He sincerely believed that he was a major rockstar”) – yet whichever is the truth, this particular Elvis is still tortured and unhappy. “He refused to eat anything except potatoes. ‘These are buried in the ground,’ he said, ‘and could not be poisoned by radiation.'”

As the book goes on, the tone becomes more muted, although death is still everywhere. (“Under the tangle of dead hairs on the pillow, a dark stain spread out from where her mouth had been.”) The narratives spread beyond Elvis to those known to him, such as his tailor Bernard Lansky, who gets a fictional life, from the plausible (fleeing Nazi Germany) to the fanciful (tried and hanged for witchcraft: “Elvis was present too and accompanied the hurried procession to the drop. Bernard Lansky almost ran towards it”). The witchcraft theme recurs, with a story (‘Jungle Room’) that springboards from the North Berwick Witch Trials. Here one of Crump’s signature moves appears: puncturing something interesting and disturbing with a joke, a technique which walks a line between uneasiness and laziness. Often enough, though, he pulls it back again just in time, and so the effect overall is of a unified vision rather than a limited range. Dissociation reaches its apex at the end of the book, when Elvis impersonators are conflated with the French royalty at the time of the revolution, persecuted by Marat and executed by guillotine. It is a strong and subtle finish, and reiterates the preoccupations of this book – the oddest I have read all year – and the fragile threshold that James Salter described in Light Years, which sums up one aspect of My Elvis Blackout beautifully:

There are really two kinds of life. There is the one people believe you are living, and there is the other. It is this other which causes the trouble, this other we long to see.

April 9, 2010

Simon Crump: Twilight Time

Posted in Crump Simon at 7:19 am by John Self

After retrospectively loving Simon Crump’s Neverland last year, I bought his other three books and put them aside for a time when I fancied a reliable pleasure – a comfort read, if you like, though comfort doesn’t readily come to mind when thinking of the creeping madness and sick delights which seem to populate his fiction.  Nonetheless, the time was this week, and the book was Twilight Time, Crump’s only ‘novel’ proper: his other three books are a collection of stories, Monkey’s Birthday, and those unclassifiable fancies My Elvis Blackout and Neverland.


Twilight Time
(2004) tells the story of, and is narrated by, Bruce Glasscock, foul-mouthed husband of Linda and co-curator of the Hays House, a building preserved in its 1930s integrity by the English Trust. Bruce is mocked by the local kids (“Eee fuckin’ ‘ell, it’s fuckin’ lovejoy. Sold any clocks today, mester, shagged any old ladies?”) He is prone to adulterous fantasies, and once exposed himself to a friend’s wife (“A bit grey and baggy perhaps, but I reckon I could still cut it with the ladies. Nothing happening in the trousers, nothing much upstairs. Not bad for fifty”), but is fairly uxorious for all that:

I set the tea on the bedside table and same as every morning it steams over the photo of our wedding day. Me handsome in my uniform, Linda trussed up in her mother’s dress, all nipples and organza, thick fog drifting in.

The uniform is an army one, and we get the impression that Bruce has never really adjusted to life outside. (“I’ve seen the world and I didn’t like it.”) He enjoyed the orderliness of the army, just as he did with school before that (“They’d tell you when to speak and when to not, when and where to sit, when to shit and when to pretend to relax”. Even now he resents his job, where he’s second fiddle to his wife, and wishes “I was a binman. The pay’s good, the job keeps you fit, you’re out in the fresh air all morning and down the pub by dinner. You don’t have to think or worry about fuck all”). He spent so long adjusting himself to fit in with school and army colleagues that now “[I] don’t fit in anywhere any more.” His life, to paraphrase Philip Larkin, seems like an enormous no.

All this makes Twilight Time sound like a gloomy read, but it’s not. The dominant tone is of comic absurdity, from the satire on National Trust heritage (passionate debate arises at a meeting to determine how often, if at all, the toilet hinges in the Hays House should be cleaned), to excruciating banter on sexual hang-ups. But the melancholy comes often enough to develop into a recurrent theme, and the moments of greatest candour from Bruce (one review on the back cover calls him ‘dishonest’, which I’d dispute: he’s completely honest, which is one of his main weaknesses) tread a line between awkward and affecting:

The air smells like snow. I remember the first time I kissed her. She cut through me, the drinks cut me in half. I put a ring on her finger and brushed back her hair. I am, I am not a freak. Somehow I lost my connection, somehow I lost my way. Mind like a sewer, memory like a sieve.

And if I hadn’t read and liked Neverland so much, I would have wondered whether the awkwardness was Crump’s or his character’s. Twilight Time lacks Neverland‘s multi-faceted brilliance. However, like Neverland, it seems sometimes inconsequential, daft and annoying, but by the end, the undertow of melancholy built up so forcefully that it caught me unawares and quite swept me away. It made me want to do what reviewers so often claim to do: I wanted to reread the book immediately to see how Bruce had got here almost without my noticing. (The impulse soon passed, but the point remains.) What seemed like a scatological comic tale turned out to be a wrenching character study. When Bruce carries out some premature gardening on the house grounds, his response to Linda’s ‘What are you doing?’ tells us about his attitude to much else besides:

“I’m just trying, I am just trying, Linda, to get it over with.”

December 21, 2009

Twelve from the Shelves: My Books of 2009

Posted in Aira César, Coetzee J.M., Crump Simon, Davis L.J., Fallada Hans, Maupassant Guy de, McKay Susan, Solstad Dag, Uncategorized, Wander Fred, Wilcken Hugo, Williams John tagged at 8:35 am by John Self

It’s that time of year again, and as usual there are several titles I’d like to have included but didn’t have room for.  Nicholson Baker’s Human Smoke thrilled me with its boldly selective account of the approach to the Second World War; Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener provided a keystone for much of my reading that I didn’t realise I’d been missing; Kafka’s Blumfeld, an Elderly Bachelor ditto, but I left it out since it wasn’t so much a book as a story fragment in dandy packaging.  Probably David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide would have made the cut too, if it hadn’t been a late victim of my inability to blog and be a parent at the same time.  The following titles are listed alphabetically by author.

César Aira: An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter
A strange book which, despite its brisk length, I couldn’t quite get to the bottom of. That it nonetheless stuck in my mind for most of the year must be a measure of its force.  It’s about art, life and more.  “We come up against the words, and before we know it, we are already emerging on the other side, grappling with the thought of another mind.”  Resolution #1 for 2010: read more Aira.

Ronald Blythe: Voices of Akenfield
A bit of a cheat, as this is an extract from the full book (Akenfield), published in the Penguin English Journeys series, but thrilled me so much I had to include it.  It is an exceptional recreation of a world proceeding from one age to another, a magical oral history of time and place.  “People believed in religion then,” says Leonard Thompson, a farm worker, “which I think was a good thing because if they hadn’t got religion there would have been a revolution. Nobody would have stuck it.”

J.M. Coetzee: Summertime
One of those books which first makes you realise that you are in the hands of a master, and then forces you to accept, with a willing sigh, that you are going to have to read everything he has written.  “He had decided he was going to block cruel and violent impulses in every arena of his life – including his love life, I might say – and channel them into his writing, which as a consequence was going to become a sort of unending cathartic exercise.”  The best new novel I read this year.

Simon Crump: Neverland
A book which at first seems ridiculous and laughable – and then seems ridiculous and laughable, but also clever and mesmerising.  Neverland is effective and affecting on the modern subject of celebrity, and its timing, published a few months after Michael Jackson’s death, was spookily apt.  “For a while there was gold, lots of it, and there were cartoons and songs and dance and lunar walking and Motown and I want you back. We fixed him though. Then we fucked him. And we took it all.”

L.J. Davis: A Meaningful Life
Here is the perfect example of the art of the reissue.  A fine, miserable comic novel (a sort of funny Richard Yates) which died a death when first (and last) published in 1971, is given new life by NYRB Classics.  Its misanthropy and set pieces make it a sort of comfort read for me: the tale of a man who realises that his life is not going to get any better.  “He’d found his level, and here he was, on it.”

Hans Fallada: Alone in Berlin / Every Man Dies Alone
Another ‘lost classic’, and for once the hype was justified.   Fallada’s forgotten novel about a personal crusade against the Nazis, written in six weeks, was rough around the edges but compelling and real.  “Danger is somewhere else, but I can’t think where. We’ll wake up one day and know it was always there, but we never saw it. And then it’ll be too late.” The only mystery remaining about its publication is why the US and UK publishers gave us different titles; but to balance that we have the prospect of more Fallada reissues to come.  Goody.

Susan McKay: Bear in Mind These Dead
OK, I have to admit that this is probably not a better book than the titles I left off my list (see intro), but it had a particular revelatory quality for me.  In previous years I would have shunned a book about Northern Ireland’s ‘Troubles’ (too close to home), but this tragic, infuriating account of the victims and their loved ones has a power I couldn’t get over.  “I find it terrible hard to live without him. It is like my own right arm is off me.”

Guy de Maupassant: The Horla
Versions of this short story are available in most selections of Maupassant’s work, but this Melville House Art of the Novella edition is the only one you should read.  It takes three distinct but linked forms of the story and creates a new work of art from them.  The material is compelling, the translation by Charlotte Mandell is perfect, and the impact remains – as you can see – for a long time.  “After mankind, the Horla!”

Dag Solstad: Novel 11, Book 18
The best way of pulling the rug from under the reader is to approach the turning point in an entirely deadpan manner.  In fact, make the entire book as flat and uninflected as possible, then they really won’t see what’s coming.  This book stayed with me longer perhaps than any other this year, not for its ‘twist’ but for its solid refusal to pander to the reader.  “He wanted a novel that showed life to be impossible, but without a trace of humour, black or otherwise.”

Fred Wander: The Seventh Well
The second Michael Hofmann translation in my top twelve, showing that my admiration for his choice of material shows no sign of diminishing.   A new translation of a 40-year-old book which brings a fresh eye, and an elegant prose, to the much-written-about subject of the Holocaust.  “He lost his mind when he saw them killing his mother. A heart like a glass bell, a light crack, and it doesn’t ring anymore.”

Hugo Wilcken: Colony
A scandalously overlooked novel from 2007 provided my greatest surprise of the year. A multilayered novel which teases as much as it satisfies, Colony should be a huge hit, but isn’t. The most admirable pleasure in this box of delights is Wilcken’s refusal to try to impress the reader: he creates a complex and memorable work from the most lucid prose.  “Only the past remains obscure. It hasn’t happened and perhaps it never will.”

John Williams: Stoner
A traditional novel in a traditional mode – the story of an ordinary man’s life – Stoner succeeds through the respect it pays to its characters and in particular, the honest and affecting portrayal of its hero (the word is appropriate).  It tells of a man who learns that the love of literature and work can be the match of any other kind of love.  ”It was himself that he was attempting to define as he worked on his study … it was himself that he was slowly shaping, it was himself that he was putting into a kind of order, it was himself that he was making possible.”

Please add your own best – or worst – reads of the year, or a link to your own list, below.  Happy Christmas, and see you again in 2010.

October 19, 2009

Simon Crump Interview

Posted in Crump Simon, Interviews at 8:00 am by John Self

“If I was born with a name like Simon Crump,” said Chris de Burgh, “I would spend the rest of my life trying to get all that anger and resentment out of me by being very rude about other people.”  I recently reviewed Neverland: the Unreal Michael Jackson Story, Crump’s latest book.  Normally I feature interviews only with authors who have become firm favourites; but Neverland has seeped its way into my brain since reading it, and I’ve since bought Crump’s other three books, so here we are.  As one reviewer said of the book which agitated Chris de Burgh, My Elvis Blackout (2000), “it’s almost impossible to describe it without making it sound like one of the worst books in the world.”  So I thought I’d let the author take that risk. Simon Crump is also the author of Monkey’s Birthday (2002) and Twilight Time (2004).

Simon Crump

Simon Crump

You say that you were “living with Michael Jackson for three years”
 while writing Neverland – yet it’s quite a short book.  Can you tell us more about the writing process?  Was material jettisoned along the way?

I read every single thing I could find to read about Michael. I listened to all of his music, I subscribed to his fan forums, and I checked the weather and local news in Los Olivos every day. Everything I did for three years, I wondered how Michael might have done it and how he might be feeling if he did. And then I wrote it all down.

For me, editing is everything. Get the stuff down on the page and then make it less worse. Neverland would have been around 500 pages long (rather than the 200 it is now) if I hadn’t hacked it into shape and taken out the ideas which were getting in the way. Most of the last year has been spent trying to make Neverland not shite, and a lot of material has had to be surgically removed for that to happen.

Getting the order of the stories right took forever too. I ended up making a fifteen feet high wall-chart to do that, and as you narrow a book down, it becomes harder and harder to lose the stuff you’ve sweated over.

There was a line in one story where Michael said, ‘If I do one more back flip I’ll go deaf,’ and I still regret not being able to use that.

You also say that you finished writing Neverland a few hours before
 Jackson died.  Did you resist the temptation to add anything to the
book when you heard, or to alter, or soften, your portrayal of Jackson in any way?

You’ll have to take my word for this, but absolutely nothing in the book was changed. There was no point. To be pretentious, the stories changed themselves to a degree, and immediately became more poignant when they were suddenly about somebody who had just died.

The only significant change was that my publishers added ‘The Unreal Michael Jackson Story’ tagline to the Neverland title and brought the publication date forward by around six months.  As you would under the circumstances.

Have your portrayals of famous people in fictional settings ever
attracted wrath from their fans … or the celebrities themselves?

One of my favourite reviews for My Elvis Blackout was on a German Elvis fansite: ‘We do not know who is this Simon Crump, but he is not welcome in our town.’

Chris De Burgh took exception to being described as a reedy-voiced, ferret-faced little bastard by the Lamar character in My Elvis Blackout, but there was nothing Chris could do about that, because it is a fact.

What really got to him however, was that he was also characterised as being a stigmatic. Which probably isn’t true. Chris posted a long comment about me on his ‘Man On The Line’ website, where he mocked my unfortunate surname and then reminded me in no uncertain terms of his wonderful career, house, wife, children, etc. And my lack of.

I still cry myself to sleep when I remember his cruel words.

Neverland shows a particular interest in how “we love our stars,
but we much prefer them broken”, and in the “the grisly ritual of
historicization” of Jackson’s life and story. Do you think that Neverland in any way contributes to these problems, even as it addresses them?

Neverland is, and always was intended to be, a sympathetic portrayal of a talented, vulnerable boy called Michael who lived in a big house and was slowly losing his marbles. There was no way I was ever going to try to kick somebody when they were already down. You can sidle up to truth through fiction; it’s not a new idea. If you look at Agee’s Let us Now Praise Famous Men, or the shift between Herr’s Dispatches and his script for Full Metal Jacket, the notion that truth can be distilled and ultimately understood through fiction is right there in your face. And sometimes the only way to tell a sad story is to try to make it funny.

Which doesn’t answer your question at all does it?

You seem to be attracted to writing about simultaneously glamorous 
and seedy figures (Elvis, Jackson, and I saw a mention of Cliff
 Richard in another of your books), and in the twee and dark sides of
 England: your novel Twilight Time has a character who lives in an
1930s English Trust house but swears like a trooper.  Your work seems
to occupy a unique spot. Do you feel a part of a British (or any
other) literary tradition?

I’m interested in celebrity, people with talent, people who get what they want and are still unhappy.

I think every writer would hope that their work occupies a ‘unique spot’ of some description, however tiny and unpopular that place might be.

So far as ‘British’, I don’t know… I’d say ‘English’ really… and the self-loathing we do so well.

I always seem to get lined up with Dan Rhodes and Daren King, both of them more successful, more acclaimed and much better-looking writers than myself, and whose work I admire. I don’t really ‘feel a part’ of anything these days to be honest, I just want to keep writing the stuff I want to write and hope that one day, somebody might like it.

You’ve lectured in fine art and exhibited as an artist specialising in photography for over a decade before turning to writing. How did an interest in visual art lead to (if I can put it this way) such perverse prose? Is there any connection between the two?

All I’ve ever wanted to do is to make pictures.

I used to make ‘real’ pictures, very large and elaborate layered photographic collage affairs, measuring around 30 by 30 feet which never really turned out how I wanted. And each time I made one of the damn things it felt like I was trying to organise a bloody wedding.

It got to the point where after trying unsuccessfully to photograph a local Elvis impersonator in the deep end of a swimming pool, nearly drowning us both and ruining a perfectly good Hasselblad camera into the bargain, I decided to go for ‘the big one’, the greatest picture I was ever going to make, the one I’d been talking about making for years.

I bought a dead horse from a firm called Casualty Cattle in Derbyshire and had it brought back to my studio on a trailer. From that point on, things began to go wrong for me. Horses are actually quite a lot bigger than you think.

Anyway, the ‘great work’ never got made, I realised how ridiculous my practice as an artist had become, and looking back on the whole grisly business, I’m amazed that nobody tried to stop me.

I still make pictures now, much bigger pictures so far as I’m concerned and I don’t have deal with any of the crap I used to struggle with when I was an ‘artist’.

For me, writing is all about making pictures and it’s unfettered by anything but your own imagination. With writing you really can do anything you want.  You don’t need any equipment, you don’t need a studio and you don’t even need to get dressed. In my writing, I can control the weather if I want to, how my characters think, how they behave, and what they have to say. And if I get bored with them, I can kill them without having to bag them up and dispose of their bodies. And this time, nobody is going to stop me.

Patrick White’s The Vivisector provides epigraphs for two of your books. What’s your particular interest in White and in this book?

I first read The Vivisector when I was fifteen and now that book is like The Sound of Music for me. I read it every Christmas. It’s a ‘widescreen’ book, awkwardly written in places, but cumulatively relentless in its details and descriptions. I admire White for the same reasons as I do André Gide and particularly Zola. White takes in everything with The Vivisector, a whole life. It’s hard going to read it, but definitely worth the effort. White is also very good on painting. I always think of the artist Sidney Nolan when I read The Vivisector and if you go back a bit and read White’s Riders in the Chariot, the makings of that character are there in Alf Dubbo, the naïve painter who ultimately destroys his work.

Can you recommend an overlooked book for readers of this blog?
 (…apart from The Vivisector)

Researching Oblivion by Scott Murfin (if you can find a copy).

I’m currently re-reading  alternate chapters of Fan Dabi Dozi: The Krankies, Our Amazing True Story (by the Krankies), Gordon Burn’s Happy Like Murderers and Horse-Racing’s Strangest Races by Andrew Ward, which is an excellent way to mess with your mind without resorting to expensive drugs.

September 11, 2009

Simon Crump: Neverland

Posted in Crump Simon at 8:00 am by John Self

Simon Crump’s book Neverland would probably have passed my (and many others’) notice but for two small matters. First, it was shortlisted for the Guardian ‘Not the Booker Prize Prize’ as a result of an enthusiastic voting campaign by Leeds United fans. Second, this book which offers us several fictional presentations of Michael Jackson was published, coincidentally, shortly after Jackson’s sudden death in June of this year. Indeed, Crump says that he finished writing the book a few hours before Jackson died.

Simon Crump: Neverland

I described Neverland simply as a ‘book’ above because it seems to straddle a line between novel and stories. The back cover refers to it as a “collection”, yet it clearly has unity of purpose and, to some extent, character – though the extent of that unity of character is not always clear. There are 72 ‘chapters’, many of which are stand-alone, flash fiction type stories, varying from a few lines to a few pages. Others are parts of longer narratives. One of these describes a very long conversation between Michael Jackson and Uri Geller, where Michael breaks biscuits in two (“his eyes grew a shade darker”) accompanied only by the “muted hum of the Frigidaire” as he fails time and again to get around to asking Uri a question, and mispronounces the word ‘electric’. It’s a series of running jokes, and like most running jokes, all the broken biscuits and muted hums become funnier the first few times, reach a plateau, and then become annoying.

The book is full of gags like this, that are either very silly or don’t quite work. This seems deliberate on Crump’s part. He cripples his jokes, just as Stewart Lee does when he drives a gag into the ground through overlong repetition, which in itself becomes funny, then not funny, then funny again. The fact that the joke is not funny is itself a joke. It might be taken as reflection of the mixture of horror and amusement that anyone watching Michael Jackson’s life over the last couple of decades will have experienced.

The dumb kid had written Par Avian on the envelope instead of Par Avion, so the letter had been delivered by bird and as a result was almost six months late.

The main narrative in the book, broken up through its entire length, is related by Lamar (“250 lbs of fine lookin hombre“), a former assistant to Elvis who falls asleep for 16 years after the King’s death, and wakes in 1993 to take up a post in Michael Jackson’s entourage. (“There’s Disney music coming out of the fiberglass rocks in the rosebeds…”) Here, Michael is still married to Lisa Marie Presley, and Crump passes up no opportunities to make the reader squirm with the grotesquerie of life in Neverland (“I made love to Lisa in my Mickey Mouse pyjamas … One day she’s going to give me a little boy of my own”). Michael is innocent, demanding, deluded.

There are other strong stories, the best of which is ‘Gold’, and where Michael appears as a Klondike prospector. Yet here, as with other stand-alone items, the connection with Michael Jackson seemed tenuous at best, and I couldn’t rid myself of the idea that these stories had been running around in Crump’s mind independent of the Neverland project, and that he simply named a character Michael in each one to corral it into the pen. But then Crump positively encourages such misreading – you can see the glint in his eye from here – by having the Michael in Lamar’s story speak in Wikipedia entries, or to have British pop culture references from Pulp to Cannon and Ball pepper the dialogue.

Yet as Crump wrote the book while Jackson was still alive, the predominant sense is of Michael as a figure of fun. There is no indication that the real Michael Jackson had considerable talent (if long since squandered), or any appeal to people who are not (as a group of fans in the book is described) “spasticated.” Now that he has – temporarily – been rehabilitated, the tone of the book may seem out of touch and out of time; or it may seem like a refreshing antidote to hushed and over-respectful biographies. And anyway, the book is not without its own peculiarly expressed sympathy.

Michael was born with gold in his mouth.

He left his mom without too much trouble. He shimmied out. The midwife held him in her white-gloved grip. She struck his face and a shining nugget plopped onto the soiled sheets of the birthing table. He sang and he danced. He bit off his cord. He slipped on a white glove of his own and signed a few autographs.

‘We love you Michael,’ they all said.

‘I love you more,’ he said back.

They called a priest. After all, a minute-old baby isn’t supposed to act that way.

‘Where is the gold?’ he cried. ‘Where is the gold??’

For a while there was gold, lots of it, and there were cartoons and songs and dance and lunar walking and Motown and I want you back.

We fixed him though. Then we fucked him. And we took it all.

Neverland seems like a work of conceptual art, reflecting what the reader brings to it; though the same point might be made of most books with a flash of originality to them. It is almost impossible to extract quotes from the book without misrepresenting its tone: funny, ridiculous, surreal, mesmerically repetitive. It is likely to madden as many people than it delights, and demands a fair amount of reader goodwill. Yet, as with Michael himself, I felt considerable affection for this mad, brilliant runt of the litter.

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