I have a confession to make. It is a thoroughly underwhelming confession about something self-evident, but it’s a confession nonetheless: Sometimes, in my reviews on this blog, I exaggerate the negative aspects of books and downplay the positives. If I didn’t, it would kind of undermine the whole point about looking at books cynically. However, if this comes as a shock to you, and you are appalled by my dishonesty, I guess I have taught you a valuable lesson about what a cynical world we live in, and I think there’s a certain poetic balance to that.
Why am I bringing this up? Well, I realise that I have been setting myself up to be the boy who cried wolf. For example Inverting The Pyramid is a perfectly decent read, despite its flaws (I hope I’ve been pretty clear about what those flaws were), and my review of it is not necessarily a completely fair and unbiased description.
So if I’m so critical of books that are quite average, how to react to a book that genuinely is a complete and utter unbridled shitshow from page one to page three-hundred-and-make-it-stop? Needless to say, this is the case for Dream London.
Sometimes, you can tell by the opening line whether a book will be good. For me, opening Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to the words “We were somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold” was a literary experience in itself. Some people feel the same way about opening lines in A Tale of Two Cities (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”) or Anna Karenina (“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”). The first line of Dream London is “CRUNCH CRUNCH CRUNCH. Mmmmm, mmmmm. Crunch crunch crunch”. It only goes downhill from there, somehow.
Here’s the premise: London has been taken over by unknown supernatural forces. The geography and structure of the city changes every day, as do the inhabitants, not to mention the very laws of physics. Our protagonist is James Wedderburn, a disenchanted former military officer who earns his living as a pimp, and who generally exploits whoever happens to be standing within exploiting distance. Can this uncompromising antihero become a hero when the city depends on it?
That sounds pretty intriguing, right? That’s what I thought when I read the back of the book, anyway, and it’s what I have to keep thinking in order to forgive myself for having decided to read it. Because whatever you’re imagining based on the above – it’s not like that. Imagine instead that you tell an ADHD-suffering 13-year-old boy that he has to write 347 pages that fit the above description before you give him his Ritalin back. That’s what the book is like.
Everything about this book is so over the top, from the sexuality of the female characters (Either non-existant or extremely aggressive), through the menagerie of absurd creatures that would have made Salvado Dali stab both of his eyes out due to an overdose of surrealism (Including an orange frog-man who becomes Mr Wedderburn’s sidekick, but whose origins are never truly accounted for), to some unnecessarily obscene events (First and foremost one scene in which Mr Wedderburn gets anally raped by Mandrill monkeys in front of a cheering crowd).
I normally have a high tolerance for the macabre, but I think there should always be a point to it beyond just shock value. Dream London is at its core a Rivers of London on steroids meets 1984 on acid. You’d think that was weird enough, you don’t need to season it with Chuck Palahniuk on laxatives. A 45-year old man (That is the demographic identity of Tony Ballantyne, author of Dream London) should not feel like he has to make graphic references to monkey sperm inside people’s bums so that the other kids will think he’s cool and edgy. Furthermore, on two separate occasions, the odour of human excrement in a crowded city is described as a “sweet” smell, without any elaboration. I don’t even want to know what that’s all about.
To end things on a less disgusting note – the book is also very poorly edited, so the depths of shame to which I condemn this work of awfulness belong not only to Mr Ballantyne, but to the entire terrible publishing team. Their deadly sins are somewhat more innocent though, such as overlooking clear factual mistakes, for example when two characters are studying details of London in a photograph supposedly taken from 22,000 miles away. Maybe it was meant to be a different number. Maybe it was meant to be a different unit. But it was not meant to be what it is, and someone should have fixed that. Similarly, when the author writes nonsensical things like “She managed to look completely naked beneath her clothes”, someone needs to tell the dude that he’s not making sense. But come to think of it, if sense-making was a criteria in the first place, this book would have been stopped dead in its tracks, I would never have picked it up, and right now you would instead be reading my snarky monologue about a perfectly OK book.