What was the funniest novel of the 20th century? Christopher Hitchens recently pondered that question in the course of awarding the palm to Lucky Jim. I want to ask a more modest question. What is the funniest novel of the 21st century - this brand-new, post-9/11 century that already shows so many promising signs of being even more fouled-up than the last? To anybody who has read A Dancing Bear, that vast and rowdy tale of love, post-modernity, serial murder and terrorism, the answer won't be in any doubt. Unfortunately almost nobody has read it. To date the book has only been published online. Its author, who variously calls himself Mark Osher, David Free and Kirk Kinbote, and who - if you believe his website - may not even still be alive, is rumored to have pulled out of at least two publication deals at the eleventh hour, after the houses involved sought to make unacceptable cuts to his text. In consequence the book is little known of outside its author's native Australia, and even within Australia it has reached only a tiny circle of readers.
What, then, is the novel about? It opens on an unnamed university campus, where the protagonist - an amiable enough young cipher named Fenton Bland - has just joined a society of student Maoists in order to get near the girl he loves. These Maoists will prove a troublesome bunch. In an effort to demonstrate that communism is not yet dead, they perpetrate, or at least try to perpetrate, an increasingly rococo series of terrorist outrages. Bland, who is at heart a law-abiding fellow with no authentic taste for radical politics ("Like fellatio and death, " we are told, “Maoism had always struck him as one of those things that happened to other people") finds himself in an increasingly urgent quandary: he must either go on pretending to be a terrorist, running the risk that one of the Maoists’ outlandish plots might one day succeed, or he must forever wave goodbye to his slender hopes of making the girl his.
That is the book's spinal storyline, its central moral MacGuffin. Further plots and characters cavort on the book's periphery. There is Pamela Scratch, a former childhood acquaintance of Bland's who has now morphed into an incredibly fiery student activist. Her current project is to lobby for the unconditional release from custody of a patently guilty thrill-killer named Neville Aggot ("Campaigning for the release of a multiple murderer . . . even Bakunin would look at that and say, ‘Jesus that's left-wing!'"). Bland intensely dislikes her but is nonetheless condemned to go on having coffee with her on a bi-monthly basis in perpetuity, because he believes, although his memory is shaky on the point, that he might well have touched her, when they were playing in a sandpit at the age of five, on the pudendum.
Then there is the eminent post-structural theorist Ivan Lego, who, in keeping with his thesis that “every speech act is an act of linguistic genocide, " produces a book consisting wholly of blank pages. The work becomes a bestseller. Osher/Free/Kinbote reproduces a four-page “extract" of Lego's book by leaving four pages of his novel blank. This is but one instance of what is, at least for this reader, one of the novel's central mysteries. Is it an attack on post-modernism, or an exercise in it? Or is it both things at once?
Meanwhile the Maoists’ terror campaign is hotting up. Various kinds of atrocity are contemplated. A junior Maoist proposes the use of a car bomb. “I'm listening, " replies the chief Maoist, “provided you're not referring to my Kombi. " Death lists are drawn up. The Maoists resolve to target the increasingly famous - and increasingly fatuous - Ivan Lego. The option of running him over with a motorbike ridden by a suicide bomber is canvassed, but scrapped as a logistical nightmare. ("Why bother with a bomb at all, if you're already going to be creaming the bloke with a motorbike at top speed? You can't kill the guy twice. And what if the bomb doesn't go off at exactly the right instant? What do we do then? Dismount from the wreckage and just sort of run after him till the thing explodes?")
It soon dawns on the reader that all the book's plots are coming marvelously together. Neville Claude Aggot escapes, and attempts (with merciful lack of success) to go on a rampage of “non-consensual sex and death. " The Maoists decide, for reasons too complicated to go into here, to slay Lego in the style of a serial killer and pin the crime on the still-at-large Aggot. The scene in which Bland and the chief Maoist, packing a meat cleaver and a tomahawk respectively, attempt - with wildly differing levels of enthusiasm - to enter the theorist's home in the dead of night is a tour de force of comic writing.
As indeed is the whole book. This novel, believe me, is not destined to remain obscure for long. It is only a matter of time before everyone will be talking about it. Check it out while it's still a curio, a cult item, a hidden pearl in the great weedy dripping haul of the Internet.
Richard Corvo is a veteran commentator on Australian cultural affairs. His articles have appeared in many of the country's foremost journals, including Malvolio and Arts & Ideas. His comments here refer to the online novel A Dancing Bear, which can be read at http://www.adancingbear.com/