|WEIDENFELD & NICOLSON|
guardian.co.uk Wed 22 August 2012
I have to admit that after the chaotic voting in the early stages of the Not The Booker, I turned to this first book with a certain amount of trepidation. Matters weren't helped by the title - The Notable Brain of Maximilian Ponder - which has more than a hint of the wacky about it. I was also nervous about the premise.
Briefly: aged 21, the titular Max locks himself off from the world in order to record all his memories to date. This takes him far longer than 21 years, partly because cataloguing them is horrendously complicated, and also because he has to spend a good part of each day recording the things that have just happened to him. Even though he lives inside with the curtains drawn, and only really communicates with his friend Adam Last (who brings him food, a large amount of stationary and helps with his financial arrangements), life goes on almost as fast as he can write.
Now that I've finished the book and (let's get the important bit out of the way early on) loved it, I find it hard to fully recall my earlier objections to that premise. They'd probably be less hazy had I written them down Ponder-style, but then I'd have spent so much time writing about the book, I wouldn't have been able to read it, and would have been ... You get the idea. In fact, that was part of my objection. If I may be Ponderous: I think I thought that this idea was rather too easy to get. JW Ironmonger is hardly the first person to realise that it would be a Sisyphean task for an individual to record all of his experiences.
My initial scepticism wasn't helped by rather too much modish authorial throat-clearing: "That should be how the story begins." "Open it up and flip through the flyleaves to page one. Welcome to the writing of Max Ponder. Dive on in." "So why do I feel the need to start unravelling Max's story here."
I also worried that the book might too often slip over into cliche. Lots of the action takes place in the 1970s, where hair is predictably long, men wear the obligatory donkey jackets and young people attend parties where girls keep "taking tabs of acid" for no real narrative reason beyond that this is what you would expect of them.
But soon such problems subsided - or at least, I stopped noticing them. I was too busy enjoying the rest of the book to finick over minor details. This change of heart came partly thanks to the lulling pleasure of good writing. Max's collected memories, and Last's own recollections, provide ample opportunity for Ironmonger to display some fine descriptive talents. The following, which arrives after an evocative overview of how very British ex-pats tried to make their life in 1960s Kenya possibly loses something out of context, but should give an impression of Ironmonger's undemonstrative, but highly effective word pictures:
But it wasn't Surrey. It was Africa. So the carefully laid out estates, and lanes with proper British names such as 'Westfield Drive' and 'Convent Gardens' and 'Glendower Road' all sweltered under the blazing equatorial sun, grew red from the hot dust of the dry season or wallowed in the swirling mud of the monsoon. Lizards scuttled along walls and under eaves. Predatory mosquitoes buzzed invisibly in the dark. huge, unfamiliar flowers bloomed from luxuriant tongues of green.
Ironmonger is also very good with set pieces. A nightmarish glimpse of the leprosy problem in the Mwanza region of Tanzania, an even more upsetting depiction of the aftermath of a Ugandan massacre and a vivid, lunging account of a horrific (and regretfully avoidable) fencing injury all give colour and weight to the idea of Max's memory bank.
There are equally successful moments of comedy and affection. Ironmonger makes a virtue of the absurdity of Max and his endeavour, while always treating him sympathetically. There's inherent humour in Max's ignorance of modern terms like "iPod or yuppie, or DVD or GM-food or hanging-chad", which Adam Last has to scrupulously avoid using, so as not to send Max scurrying back to his desk, feverishly trying to incorporate the new information into his journals. Last also tells us that after Max's girlfriend stops calling on him early on in the project: "Max never asked about her for the next twenty-eight years, and I never volunteered anything. That, if you like, is the true measure of his obsession."
Yet while Max is shown to be daft, he is never made a figure of fun. Last is always sympathetic, and the premise I feared would seem stale, developed into an original and touching exploration of Max and Adam's friendship, of the ravages of time and of dealing with death.
I don't want to say too much about the latter since to do so would be to spoil a few intriguing surprises. Suffice to say that Max's strange task starts to make psychological sense (even if it remains enjoyably preposterous) and that the book becomes deeply moving as a result. By the end I was entirely sold. I'm delighted to have read it. It's made me feel good about the Not The Booker All over again. I'll be happy if the next one, AJ Kirby's Paint This Town Red, is even half as good ...