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.
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.