The Impartial Recorder was a long time coming, time enough for Ian Sansom to reach his late 30s, become a father of three and write the well-received The Truth About Babies, a nonfiction account of the joys and horrors of the first year of infant life. In the preface to his debut novel, he writes that the book contains “no themes that I’m aware of, and any obscurities are unintentional”; but only a sucker would take that at face value, and suckers are soon likely to find themselves completely defeated by Sansom’s relentless and sometimes waspish irony.
The Impartial Recorder is set in present-day Northern Ireland, in a place that is only ever referred to as “our town,” somewhere both foreign and recognizable, and one strangely unscarred by the usual self-lacerating Irish concerns with politics and nationality. To a large extent it might be any provincial backwater in Britain, and no doubt in many other parts of the world too, a town trying to embrace modernity (often synonymous with American culture) yet also terrified by it. This is a town where men who carry wallets are thought effeminate and where “fresh herbs other than parsley are just a rumor.”
The cast runs into the hundreds. There are no heroes, and scarcely any lead characters. Among the throng are Sammy the plumber, who many think is a good listener but is really only a bad talker; Bob Savory, the savior of the sandwich; Davey Quinn, the seventh son of a seventh son, a distinction that brings him no advantage whatsoever; and my personal favorite, Lorraine Gilbey, who “had always had a difficult relationship with her own body, but now she abandoned herself fully to bulimia and the music of female artistes.” It’s that e in artistes that really nails it.
There are also walk-on parts for the likes of Wee Willie Gibson, the “laughing dwarf”; Barry McSweeney, a 280-pound window cleaner who has a second career as a Meatloaf impersonator; and a mongrel called Rusty, who wins a competition for “The Dog With the Kindliest Expression.”
This being Ireland, of however invented a sort, religion is inevitably on people’s minds, but it doesn’t seem to be a thing worth worrying about, much less fighting over. The unnamed narrator, for example, isn’t inclined to believe that God is dead, “Maybe someone just needs to text Him, to remind Him we’re all still here. WTFRU?” One character thinks God is like Alzheimer’s disease, “a kind of weakness which people were either prone to or not.” Meanwhile, the local clergyman tries to draw crowds with sermons such as “Jesus: Bling Bling, or BaDaBaDaBooom?” and “Does God Ever Say ‘Oops.’?”
Sansom is great at describing the hopeless aspirations of doomed ventures: the derelict joke shop called Joyland, the old Brown and Yellow Cake shop which now sells baguettes and ready-to-bake garlic bread, the home-decorating store called N’Hance, and a spa that runs courses with titles like “Emotional Intelligence for Couples (Gays and Lesbians Welcome).”
There isn’t much of an overarching plot, but plenty of things happen even in the most nondescript of towns: death, illness, loneliness, failure, public and private corruption. Sansom is no sentimentalist, but he’s not afraid of sentiment. A section about Mr. Donelly, who finds consolation, after the death of his wife, when he realizes he can now reduce the wattage of the light bulbs in the house, is simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking.
If you wanted to be ungenerous, you might complain that the authorial viewpoint is sometimes so distant you feel you’re looking at events through the wrong end of a telescope. But in general the novel is rich and inventive and inclines you toward generosity. Some may also be irritated by the novel’s postmodern trappings: footnotes, an index, a soup recipe, a knitting pattern, archaic chapter titles such as “The Dump,” describing an auspicious occasion — a party in a pub — “which demonstrates the wholesomeness of life amid the usual waste and humiliation.” Again, I’m persuaded to be forgiving, but I think we’ve very nearly had enough of the footnoted novel.
All any artist wants, Sansom writes in the preface, is for someone to say, “That’s nice, dear.” I suspect this is absolutely true, but we can do better than that. The Impartial Recorder is a humane, big-hearted and sometimes devastatingly funny book, not to be underestimated.
THE IMPARTIAL RECORDER | By IAN SANSOM | 4th Estate | 353 pages | $25 hardcover
Geoff Nicholson’s latest novel, The Hollywood Dodo, will be published in June by Simon & Schuster.
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