February 2007

Arts & Letters

‘The Museum of Doubt’ by James Meek

By Chris Womersley

This is a hyperactive collection of eight short stories and a novella. There's the wolfish salesman Jack, vomiting a severed deer's head complete with antlers; the Queen of Ukraine, cooking pork in her New York hotel suite; and jailbird Melvin Menimonie, with his pathological hatred of moustaches, adjusting to life on the outside where his wife has taken a lover. Welcome to a world where, as a character in the title story suggests, the more you consider the worth of objects, the less value they possess.

There's no denying the crackle and fizz of the prose, but the overall effect is slightly relentless and suggests an author not wholly in control of his imagination: it's rather like being trapped in a madman's dream, in which outlandish characters yell non-sequiturs at each other. The stories are more engaging when tempered by some characterisation, as in ‘The Very Love There Was', where a couple battle over the learning of a (mythical) language, and the novella, ‘The Club of Men', in which grieving misanthrope Gordon covets his son's girlfriend, relates an adventure from a Bangkok brothel and sets fire to a nightclub managed by a giant woman. Gordon is a hateful figure, but at least he's vaguely recognisable.

The short stories here were first published in 2000 and have no doubt been reprinted to capitalise on the success of Meek's novel The People's Act of Love, which made the long-list for the 2005 Booker. The suspicion that The Museum of Doubt is a rushed effort is not assuaged by a number of misspellings, including, perhaps fatally, the "Sidney Opera House". Too vicious to be pure comedy and too abstract to be dramatic, The Museum of Doubt is the place where Samuel Beckett, Irvine Welsh and William Burroughs assembled to write an episode of Little Britain. Enter at your peril, and be careful whom you make eye contact with.

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