‘The Order of the Phoenix Park’ by ‘Twenty Major’ is the worst book I have ever finished. Admittedly, I made it just 50 pages into ‘The Da Vinci Code’, which this satirises, and about the same into the first Ross O’Carroll Kelly book, which this apes. Between them, those books sold approximately 40,100,000 copies, worldwide. Twenty Major knows what he’s doing.
Twenty Major is a blogger. This means that he spends an inordinate amount of time on his computer, surfing the interweb, and writing on his blog. A blog is like a public diary, and the internet has become a place where a great many of these bloggers like to share their thoughts on politics, the media, popular culture, and their toilet habits. Many, particularly those interested in the latter, do so under cover of a pseudonym.
Blogging, as a genre, is forgiving of bad writing: its defining characteristic is spontaneity, not elegance. Twenty Major’s blog, www.twentymajor.net, blends observations on current affairs with scenes set in his South Circular Road local, where he recounts conversations between a regular cast of ne’er-do-wells, amongst them Jimmy the Bollix, Stinking Pete, and Dirty Dave.
The short posts on his blog are a relatively painless way to digest his observations on the Irish social fabric, which are tediously overwritten, but sometimes, momentarily, funny and incisive.
But rather than simply a collection of his internet writings, this book is a novel based on the characters in his blog. Its premise is something like this:
A record shop owner is murdered. As he lies dying, he scrawls a cryptic message on his chest, in his own blood. Twenty Major, a friend of the victim, investigates. He gradually uncovers a dastardly plot by to take over the country by brainwashing everyone into liking David Gray and Damien Rice songs.
The credibility of the plot, obviously, is not the point. Twenty’s principal target – the insidious ubiquity of a certain type of singer-songwriter – is worthy of satire. Other targets include Bono, Irish Rail, predictive text, Roma, Muslims, taxi drivers, concert ticket booking services, John Banville, Spanish students and, of course, Blackrock boys.
Twenty has much in common with the Ross O’Carroll Kelly character: a finger on the pulse of changing Irish society; a satirical intent; a distinctive idiom; and a cultivated taste for moronic behaviour. Where they digress, though, is in the object of their satire. Paul Howard’s success lay in identifying a universally recognised stereotype, Ross, and satirising him, and Irish society through him. Twenty’s character is more obscure, and his satire of those outside his own milieu is more aggressive, but less focussed.
He relishes in causing offence, and it is very obvious that those he most hopes to offend are those who take offence on behalf of others. Attack him for his gratuitous offensiveness, and you simply prove to Twenty and his ilk that you don’t get it.
So, we have lengthy discussions of sadistic violence and repeated, graphic references to clerical child sexual abuse. Good satire can broach such subject matter, but this is not good satire. The prose is resolutely clunky and self-indulgent, the thought and structure sloppy.
As well as profanity, vulgarity and violence, Twenty’s style is characterised by his distinctive use of puns (“I remember wanting the ground to swallow me up and eat me whole (not eat me hole)” and similes which are as strained as a recycled teabag.
Much of the writing is simply lazy. Discussing how boring an upcoming folk concert will be, Twenty says it will be “worse than that time Banal Billy came over one Sunday”. Banal Billy is not a character in the novel, and yet Twenty explains, at length, who he is and how, when Billy visited him one day, Twenty “realised that I’d been asleep for three hours and had fallen asleep while he was talking to me. That’s how f***ing dull he was”. This takes half a page; that’s how dull it is.
The book concludes with an ‘Acknowledgements’ section. The last line (directed at the readers of his blog) is, “Thank you all, you magnificent c***s.”
That, really, is all you need to know: either it includes you, or it doesn’t. It is, though, likely to include the twenty-something male sitting across from you on the bus home, who will be chuckling over Twenty’s violent nihilism, toilet truths and use of the word “c**t”. He and his mates are going to make this a bestseller.
Published in the Irish Times.