December 2003
© 2003 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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Incompetence by Rob Grant
Gollancz (UK) HCVR: ISBN 0575074191 PubDate: 12/01/03
Review by John Berlyne

304 pgs. List price £
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In a near future European Union, bureaucracy reigns supreme Ė actually, that could be said of the European Union today, but Rob Grantís new novel extrapolates this premise to the extreme. In his United States of Europe, political correctness runs amuck. It is illegal to prohibit somebody employment on the grounds of race, religion, sex, or competence. Consequently the most unsuitable people qualify for all sorts of jobs Ė airline pilots with vertigo, blind nightclub bouncers and eighty year old male lap dancers in bunny outfits.

Against this backdrop, Grantís protagonist, Harry Salt (though he goes by any number of names and identities) works for some sort of covert investigative organization. Salt finds himself on the trail of one Johnny Appleseed, a serial killer with an overactive imagination and an eccentric modus operandi, and itís not at all clear what Appleseedís motives might be. What is clear though, is that he wants Harry Salt involved in the case up to his eyeballs and so Incompetence follows Harryís exploits as he acts upon the clues laid down (deliberately) before him. As a plot, it isnít at all sophisticated, but it is clear from the off that this novel is much more a platform for Grantís sharp humor than it is a detective story.

I canít help feeling though, that weíve seen all this before. On the one hand, Grant, the creator of Red Dwarf, is no doubt sharp and funny and often silly, but given the context of the novel, a comic sleuth story, it doesnít even hold a candle to, say, Douglas Adamsí two Dirk Gently novels, or Martin Scottís excellent Thraxas stories.

The reason for this lies in the epigrammatic style of Grantís writing. The relentless, rapid fire one liners do indeed get the novel off the ground, but then the whole book remains very much on a plateau throughout. There are no stylistic highs or lows in Incompetence, and the reader does deserve a little variation along the way. Certainly many of Grantís observations are very funny indeed, but he tends to labor many a moment to the point where the joyful and humorous aspects just disappear under the sheer volume of gags - and itís often the same gag repeated ad nauseam. At one point in Incompetence, there is a whole chapter devoted to a Paris dinner party at which the guests are all poisoned. What begins as an amusing (if mildly distasteful) relaying of events soon develops into a symphonic account so obsessed with vomit that it makes the Mister Creosote scene in Pythonís The Meaning of Life seem like Bambi in comparison.

It may be that Grant wants some sort of reaction to this from his readers, but other than making me feel queasy, the joke simply palls long before the end of the chapter. This is the case with much of this novel. It is labored and self-consciously deliberate in too many places and as we never really get to know who the protagonist is, or what it is that he does, or even what he actually looks like, itís kind of hard to give a toss. Likewise at the climax of the book there is a clumsy diatribe of socio-political anti-Americanism that is not at all a welcome inclusion for the reader. Itís bad bond villain stuff and it just doesnít work here.

So, is Incompetence a novel that lives up to its title? I wonít go that far! To be fair it is damn funny in places and if you like Grantís take on things, youíll doubtless be happy as Larry reading it. But sadly and disappointingly, it just wasn't like that for me.

© 2003 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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