Sour Grapes

Dan Rhodes

Lightning Books, £14.99

Review by Rosemary Goring

Most professions are ripe for ridicule but, with the possible exception of politics, few offer such riches as what Muriel Spark mockingly called “the world of books”. Her elegantly savage dissection, A Far Cry from Kensington, remains as fresh as ever. She would have had no difficulty recognising the grievances behind Sour Grapes, Dan Rhodes’s full-frontal assault on the publishing scene which, if anything, has grown more risible with time. As with Spark, Rhodes’s plot is driven by revenge.

Sour Grapes is his first book in seven years, and thus very welcome. The author of original and diverse works, among them Gold, Timoleon Vieta Come Home, and his parody of Richard Dawkins, When the Professor Got Stuck in the Snow, his fiction combines razorish cynicism, off-beat humour and an unexpectedly tender warmth.

This satirical broadside is not the finest of his novels but it is the most visceral. Rhodes nurses grudges as if they were eggs in an incubator. Recalling a minor slight, he writes in his preamble: “Every day when I was growing up my mother would impress upon me that I had Robertson blood, and that our motto is Garg’n uair dhuis gear: Fierce When Raised. One thing was clear – I would be letting my ancestors down if I didn’t get my revenge.”

Nobody could accuse him of pulling his punches. Where Spark’s weapon of choice was the scalpel, Rhodes’s is a wrecking ball. When the chocolate-box English village, Big Bottoms, holds its first book festival, the world of books makes its way to this quaint and dopey backwater.

The first sight readers catch of an author is a grubby individual picking a slug out of his hair, and chewing it with relish. On a mission to eat only what he can gather from nature, his name is Wilberforce Selfram: “One shall catapult oneself into the cityscape and engage in a spot of the old psychogeography. Perhaps one shall find a decommissioned gasometer that catches one’s eye and proceed to write an essay about it for a leading journal.”

It’s not hard to guess who he is modelled on. His jargon is almost impenetrable, although his favourite phrase is oft repeated: “symptomatic of a broad cultural malaise”. When he literally swallows a thesaurus page by page, Rhodes is merely reinforcing the point. Other recognisable figures also feature in light disguise, but the author reassures readers before the story begins that “none of it really happened”. There is only one caveat, involving a dispute with a Scottish publisher, which he insists "really happened".

Back in the fictional world, as the Big Bottoms festival gathers pace, there are farcical scenes some writers would consider kitchen sink realism. Particularly true is the event with Salman Rushdie, who is of far less interest to the audience than the chairperson, who owns a local garden centre.

The core of the tale revolves around a masonic clique of privileged publishers, intent on maintaining control of their trade. At ritualistic gatherings, The Brotherhood of Darkness (Publishing Division) slay animals and smear themselves in blood. Their greatest fear is having to admit the Great Unwashed into their ranks, to which end they set up schemes intended to appear all-embracing. When challenged, “we deny, we ridicule, and we flag up somebody behind one of our desks who perhaps did not go to boarding school”.

By turns slapstick, juvenile, grotesque and funny, Sour Grapes revels in its silliness. Yet, while cartoonish, it nails many pretensions, not least the literati’s overblown sense of self-importance. On one level, none of it can be taken at face value; on another, it is profoundly serious. This is a ferocious lambasting of the power publishers wield, which authors are almost powerless to question.

As expected of a novelist of such panache and wit, this is an enjoyable romp. Even so, Wilberforce Selfram’s tedious disquisitions test the patience; and there are too many slugs for my liking.