Sunday, 4 January 2009

Screwrape Lettuce - Jack Trevor Story

Story moved from social realism delivered with wry humour (notably his Albert Argyle) novels, to more surreal settings that had a paranoid edge to them. Screwrape Lettuce is one of the latter. Here, attempts by Russian scientists to create a food stuff for rabbits to make them more sexually active (sounds crazy, but no dafter than the cloning of animals that have been reproducing themselves successfully for millions of years), end in disaster. The lettuce, which causes priapism in male mammals, is smuggled onto the black market and reaches England where it starts to create havoc, not least within the special police unit formed to track it down and eradicate it.

This is a very funny book, like his earlier work, and it is still sharply witty. But the humorous edge is not quite as smooth as in earlier books. Here, there is a jagged edge, an angry undertone. It never gets in the way of the story telling, but seethes beneath the surface, transforming the work into a diamond hardness.

In one sense it is easy to see why this angry undertone exists. The targets are worthy of anger. Violence against women, genetic manipulation, cruelty to animals, and a brutal attitude to sex that is seen as the norm by many men. And the British Police. Story had his own, good reasons for disliking the police and they do not escape lightly. Given this, it is a wonder that Story manages to create successfully such a farcical tale.

All the trademarks of Story’s work are here. The acute character observation, flawless story telling, wonderful description, and a sense of the absurd. And also a characteristic lifting away of the social conventions to show the often foetid underbelly of life. All done with an apparent ease and economy of language that tells you this is a real master at work.