Such was the perceived low standard of the 62 books recently submitted for the 2018 Wodehouse Prize for comic fiction, that the organisers withheld the award, saying that not a single title prompted the ‘unanimous, abundant laughter’ required. Like the lottery it rolls over to next year instead.
Thank goodness then for the return of Francis Plug, sociopathic stalker of literary celebrities and creation of London-based New Zealander Paul Ewen. Plug first appeared as the unhinged narrator of 2014’s How to Be a Public Author, which skewered both the absurdity of the public aspect of a writerly life and the publishing industry at large, and was inhabited by real-life authors, not all of them as charitable as Hilary Mantel who, getting into the spirit of things, generously blurbs: ‘One thinks of Goethe, one thinks of Shelley: one thinks of Plug.’
Ewen has cannily used that book’s word-of-mouth success as the central scenario for its follow-up: this semi-homeless deluded alcoholic is now a scribe of some notoriety and has stumbled into a writer-in-residence role at the University of Greenwich.
Sleeping in the building after hours, Plug sets about writing his great campus novel — it may involve whales, terrorism and power stations — but is frequently waylaid by academic bureaucracy, bad haircuts, getting locked in Waterstones overnight or a lack of toilets in his secret new abode. Urinating on the university carpet, Plug creates ‘an industrial noise, like the sound of thick cardboard being torn’.
From Don Quixote to Alan Partridge, delusion lies at the heart of many lasting comic creations. Francis Plug follows that tradition. Yet amid the slapstick Ewen touches on serious points: the closure of libraries, the pomposity (and bad writing) of internationally acclaimed authors, and a changing world of higher learning where students are now consumers. And his continued fictional encounters with real writers on the promotional circuit — Pullman, Chabon, Franzen, Lessing — offer some wonderful laughs. Plug is a Wetherspoons Wodehouse, a dole-queue Defoe, a pissed-up Pepys.
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