So far nearly all the Goodreads reviews of my novel have emphasized how funny it is – which is gratifying, because it is a comedy, and humour is so hard to pull off. However, the best comedy usually takes as its theme issues of real importance, and it’s even more gratifying when readers understand the underlying argument as well. Evelyn Waugh in Vile Bodies was not merely ribbing the Beautiful Young Things of the 1920s, he was also showing how shallow and futile their lives were, and for me this tendency culminates in A Handful of Dust, which begins as a hilarious satire on the upper classes and the social climbers trying to enter that class, but ends up with real tragedy – the death of a small boy which is made all the more shocking because when his mother hears about his death, she is relieved, because her son shared the name of her lover, and her initial grief was for the latter. This novel of Waugh’s was something of a model for Our Parent Who Art in Heaven, which aspires to be a tragicomedy, so I was delighted by the latest review, from Paul Kennedy, who points out:
‘This thoughful and funny novel is more than a poke at woke. It is a moving indictment of our disappearing individual and collective humanity.You will either hate it and laugh your head off despite yourself or love it, not only for its side splitting humour but also for Powell’s, unbounding compassionate insight into our human condition. A five star read.’
What he’s getting it is that many of the woke characters of the novel, particularly the Creative Writing faculty Frida Shamburger and her sidekick, Rocky Rathaus, are no longer thinking for themselves, or even feeling compassion; they hound the hero, Huw, simply because he will not kowtow to the ideology, and even when they discover that their harassment has had severe health consequences for him, they persist in their attempts to destroy him. And of course this reflects the reality of cancel culture. Once a person has been branded as reactionary, or toxic, or whatever, he (it’s nearly always he) may be destroyed pitilessly. Of course not all the faculty are evil. Melvyn Shamburger, Frida’s hapless husband, has twinges of conscience, because he secretly admires and even likes Huw, but he dare not contradict his overbearing wife, or risk leaving the comfort and the safety of the tribe himself, so he becomes complicit in Frida’s schemes. Other characters, like the aspiring sex therapist who calls herself Jezebel, and her sister Delilah, aka Petronella Pikestaff, the female empowerment guru, cynically exploit the hysteria that is sweeping the so-called intelligentsia. Others still, like the Revd. Crystal Nutt, or poor Miranda, the mentally-ill but beloved wife of Huw, are not bright enough to avoid the brainwashing. The only major characters who manage to maintain their integrity wholly are Huw, and an Iranian doctor named Nasreen, who provides a stark counterpoint to the troubled Western women, by being entirely confident in herself and quite unresentful of men.
Really, on top of the ‘pokes at woke’ – a terrific phrase – and the ridicule poured on the very unintellectual faculty, the novel is about responsibility and freedom. Are we willing to take responsibility for own thoughts, actions, and lives, or do we just want to blame others and live in a state of perpetual outrage over the fate of victims? A victim has no agency. It’s easy to whine and insult and worse. And as long as the self-appointed intellectual elites abdicate responsibility for their thinking, and just go along with the rigid creed of the woke, they not only lose their freedom of thought and speech, and action – they also actively deprive others of those freedoms.
So grateful though I am for Mr Kennedy’s predictions that you will ‘laugh your head off’ over the ‘side-splitting humour’, I am even more grateful for the perspicuity he shows about the real aims of the novel. I hope Our Parent Who Art in Heaven is closer to Evelyn Waugh than to PG Wodehouse, much as I enjoy the latter. This is a novel about the zeitgeist – and a very dangerous one it is, too.