Book: Ben Elton - "Inconceivable"

So, as I think I mentioned in the first post on here, my second holiday project is to read some books that people recommend. It's a two-part idea. First, and quite obviously, it's because I simply want to get back into the habit of reading books to keep my brain alive a bit while working full time in retail for the holidays. Second, I want to try and broaden my perspective a bit by reading some stuff that I normally wouldn't bother with.

This one definitely satisfies that last part of the plan. I realised about ten pages in that I don't think I've ever read a 'comedy' book before. Might as well say upfront that I'm not exactly sold on the idea, but that doesn't mean the experience wasn't worthwhile. One can't decide to try something new and then complain when it's not something old.

Okay, so let's get to it then. This was recommended by my friend Dan. It's called Inconceivable and it's by Ben Elton, who, according to the bio on the first page, is an all-round comedy kinda guy. I gather he writes book, movies, plays, and does standup as well. He's British, which is of course significant since we're talking about comedy. This is one of seven books that it lists as written by him, but judging by the space that he took up on the shelf at Borders when I was buying this yesterday he's churned out a fair few more since this one. All with matching cover designs. It was published by Black Swan, London, in 1999.

Some 'technical' observations:

It's not divided into chapters. It's structured as a series of self-addressed letters written by a husband and wife. Not only are there no chapters, even the letters are occasionally cut together to interrupt each other. Call me old-fashioned, but it comes across as a bit of a novelty. I can see how it reflects the very 'in the present' comic timing (which I guess is understandable if Elton has a background in standup), but I'm not sure if I like the idea of a novel acting like something it's not. The odd style is especially noticeable where the letters are cut together. You get one viewpoint on a certain event, and then in the space of a few lines you immediately get the contrasting viewpoint from the other character. The contrast is immediate and effective, but perhaps too obvious. Maybe I'm expecting the wrong sort of thing from what is a self-professed comedy. Maybe subtlety and depth aren't what one is supposed to look for in this sort of thing. But I did find myself occasionally in want of something to do with my brain.

According to the back cover, someone called Nicholas Coleridge from the Mail on Sunday thinks that it's "well-written". Now this is undoubtedly presumptuous of me, but I beg to differ. That's not to say that there's anything wrong with the way that it's written. There was nothing that really frustrated me about the style or anything, but "well-written" is not the same as "satisfactory". Just like "satisfactory" is not the same as "bad". I'm not a writer. I don't know anything about English beyond NCEA Level 3, so before I make myself sound like too much of an uneducated ass, I'll just say that for the first 100 pages or so (without chapters, it's hard to determine any specific 'sections' of the book) the writing comes across as a tiny bit clunky. The dialogue is a bit contrived, sometimes deliberately (which is good) and sometimes not (which is bad). Plus the ending spans about 50 pages and really needed to be more like 20.


This is of course the main point of the whole exercise. If we believe the praise plastered all over the back cover (and two whole pages before it starts) then this is going to be a pretty damn funny book. And it is.

It's British. It's varied. The timing is amazing. It capitalises on the obvious opportunities provided by contrasting the male and female viewpoint. But it doesn't limit itself to that: it draws on internal dynamics, relationships, society, the entertainment industry, and a fair bit of politics (which regrettably I don't entirely understand, having never lived through Thatcher's Britain).

It's a bit of a shame that there's not much more than can be said about the best and most important feature of the whole book. But it's very hard to 'describe' comedy. All I can really say is that I was literally laughing out loud at two o'clock this morning. Can't fault it.


This is the only part of this whole post that's going to make any sense at all to someone who hasn't actually read this thing. I don't have a huge amount to say about it, but I do have a few quotations.

First, from Sam, the husband character:

It's always stuck me as a strange thing about instructions in general, the way people feel the need to give them out whatever the circumstances. Perhaps it makes us feel more in control 
There was a coffee machine available. I say coffee but what I mean is hot water with little brown islands floating in it. Worse than useless, really. Strange, I mean we all knew the machine served liquid shit but because it said it served coffee we drank the stuff. If it had said 'Liquid Shit' machine I suppose we would have left it alone. Instructions, you see, we're all caught in the headlights.
(pp 238-239)

And second, from Lucy, the wife character:
Actually I think it's amazing how arrogant we've become about God. He used to be a figure of fear and majesty, the ultimate authority before whom humanity was supposed to prostrate itself in humble repentance for our sins. Now you hear people talk about God as if he was some kind of rather eager stress counsellor or therapist.
(p 255)
Those are the two that really stood out for me and made me stop to think for a while. There are plenty of others. They work in really well with the comedy and help to provide a bit of middle-ground between the funny and more serious parts of the story. Plus I'm a sucker for anything that puts a critical spin on our modern existence.


This is what third form English class would have us call the "themes" of the whole thing. Of course, I don't think there's a huge amount to be gained from looking at a book as a collection of elements like that but, besides the comedy, the human reality has got to be the most significant thing that one takes from this story.

First there's the subject matter itself, which goes without saying. There's no point in traversing the plot here. Suffice to say, if you want to know a bit out the troubles of fertility, working couples, and the complexities of human emotions, then go ahead and read this. I'm not sure it has anything original to add to the body of work on the subject, but for someone like me who doesn't really come across this sort of story very often it was interesting.

Second, and much more interesting to me and my teen-fiction sympathies, is the treatment of human failure. I absolutely love the fact that at no point does Sam attempt to offer any explanation, even to himself, for the truly awful thing that he's doing to Lucy. Being a man myself, I'm not sure whether that is a male phenomenon or a human one; but it's certainly something I can relate to. People seriously fuck shit up all the time. And then they start trying, ex post facto, to explain or justify why they did it. There's a cutting honesty in this story in that Sam doesn't try to do that.

The story as a reflection of itself.

I'm sure theres's a really cool word that means something like "the act of reflection on one's own existence and nature" (but not existentialism, because that doesn't really fit here), but I can't think of it so I'll have to describe what I'm getting about much more crudely.

It's clear from the story that it is essentially talking about itself. Sam's script in the story represents this book in real life. If it wasn't obvious enough from the text on its own, the title (and the not-very-subtle extra attention that it gets in the book, just to make absolutely certain that the reader understood) of the book is the title of Sam's movie. It's all a bit contrived. 

As such, the critical reception of Sam's script inside the story is telling of what Elton wants us to think of his story out here in the real world. If we look at it that way, then it gets a little wanky. Elton essentially spends quite a bit of time going on about how brilliant his own story is.

So, after all that...

I know that's all sounded very critical. That's because, first, I'm just a critical sort of a person, and second, it's a lot easier to fill space with criticism than just saying "yeah, this bit was really good". It doesn't help that the best aspects of this book stand firmly on their own and don't really require much explanation.

It's definitely worth the read. It's a great laugh, an interesting story, and it moves along at a reasonably consistent pace. It's no classic piece of literature, but that's not the point and shouldn't have to be.

Next up I've got Twilight to read. I not really sure what I'm getting myself in for.


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