Book review: 54

54 by Wu Ming.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars.

Last year I read Q, the medieval pastiche created by Luther Blissett, a guy who did exist but also – for authorial purposes – didn’t.

They’re a photogenic lot. Or are they?

This year, I moved a bit forward in time and read 54, set in 1954. It’s another creation by parts of Q‘s creative steering committee, except this time around they’re known as Wu Ming. Basically they’re a bunch of anonymous Bologna-based scribes who create playful pieces, which is just as well because their nom-de-plume is the Chinese phrase for anonymous.

How handy is that?

This book was written during a heavy period. The manuscript was begun during 1999’s NATO bombings of Belgrade, and completed on the eve of the war in Afghanistan, ten days after September 11. It is a novel that contains a lot of reflection on the role of partisans and figureheads in the forging of a country’s history, and is set in contested areas – Trieste, Yugoslavia and Italy, mostly. There’s organised crime, and the drug trade. There’s powerful men bringing their wills to bear on their underlings, on women, and on people with mental illnesses.

There’s also a sentient television called the McGuffin Electric.

See, while this book is pretty dark in many places, it’s also absurd in equal balance. For something that was created by committee, there’s a very measured approach, and the narrative is tightly controlled. The tone is tongue-in-cheek without being irritatingly so, and the author(s) always temper seriousness with humour. I mean, where else will you find discussion of revolution followed by an anecdote about Rasputin’s dick?

The novel is hung around factual events, and ropes in real people to populate its world. Cary Grant appears, pondering his To Catch A Thief return to film. Charles “Lucky” Luciano is there too, fixing horse races and organising the international drug trade. Joe McCarthy, Frances Farmer (or her ghost), Alfred Hitchcock and political players large and small (hello, Tito!) rub up against fictional characters in the three-way narrative.

(Well, four-way, if you include the TV.)

But even as their life stories are bent to Wu Ming’s requirements, the strangest parts of their biographies (Grant’s LSD use for example) are preserved. The events of the world are often strange enough, and require no finessing.

I stole my sister’s boyfriend. It was all whirlwind, heat and flash. In a week we killed my parents and hit the road.

The story, while largely about the Cold War and the failure of revolution and the world’s inability to control the power of the USA, also zooms into individual concerns. Interpersonal relationships – fathers and sons, brothers, lovers, bosses and workers – are considered, and this consideration seems to fit naturally with the narrative. I didn’t get much of a sense of shoehorning here, which is something I found problematic during my read of Q.

This may well be the last novel I read this year, and if that’s the case I’m pretty happy. It’s a mad mix of spies, dance-hall kings, crims and Hollywood royalty, and it’s something that convinces utterly while it tickles.

(If you like the sound of this novel, you should probably zip over to the collective’s download section and nab a PDF copy.)

My Goodreads profile is here.

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