One evening in the early 20th century three gentlemen meet in their London club. They agree to a wager: “If one season from today, one of us returns to the Suicide Club with an explanation of human love that mankind – from East to West – can accept, they will take the pot.” Fortunes are on the line. It is an opening which recalls Jules Verne’s Around The World in Eighty Days. A great quest and a deadline.
But this is no regular imperial adventure. From the title onwards Hairy London is something stranger. Stephen Palmer’s novel is not set in our past, though it reflects it, and it is not set in an historically plausible alternate or parallel universe. The Suicide Club may be a version of the Royal Geographical Society, but it functions within a surrealist fable in the tradition of Jonathan Swift and Lewis Carroll; for even before our adventurers set about their search for an explanation as to the nature of love, London itself is subsumed by a plague of hair. Naturally this plunges the capital into crisis, and dire need for an explanation and resolution to the phenomena. And the quests to save the city and the enquiries into the nature of love become entangled as London heads into chaos, revolt and civil war.
That Hairy London isn’t a regular sort of tale of daring do might be gathered from the names of our heroes. Sheremy Pantomile, Velvene Orchardtide and Kornukope Wetherbee – though one might argue they are little more peculiar than Phileas Fogg. Sheremy is the Victorian / Edwardian archetype of a hero, a good-natured young man of independent means. He soon meets the beautiful, capable, and unchaperoned Valantina Moondusst, and not only begins to develop feelings, but to realise with surprise and delight that the female of the species is the equal of any male. Velvene, a somewhat irresponsible young chap has been living comfortably in his parents’ home, his lifestyle entirely funded by the bank of mum and dad. The wager coincides with his parents finally having had enough, leaving him no choice but to make his way in the phantasmagorical city. Kornukope is an older chap, fallen into a comfortable domestic life with his wife of twenty years, Eastachia. He only agrees to join the quest if Eastachia can be his companion, that together they might renew the spark of their marriage as they investigate the nature of love.
Stephen Palmer is a British writer. He is not well known in America. If you search for him on Amazon.com you will find that Amazon has a Stephen Palmer page which will tell you that Stephen Palmer is the ‘co-founder of the Center for Social Leadership, a freelance book writer, and the author of “Uncommon Sense: A Common Citizen’s Guide to Rebuilding America.”’ – this is not the Stephen Palmer you are looking for.
Our Stephen Palmer is a lot more interesting. His fiction tends to focus on societies and worlds undergoing radical transformation, often botanical or biochemical in nature. His writing can blur the boundaries between the biochemical, the technological and the computational. See for instance his first two novels, the remarkable Memory Seed and Glass, or his lengthy story ‘Palestinian Sweets’ in the new anthology, La Femme (which I recently reviewed). This blurring can make Palmer’s work is a little difficult to access, plunging the reader directly into a world radically different to ours where everything must be decoded from context. But Hairy London is strange even by Palmer’s standards. Certainly it is another of his tales of a city transformed, but this time the city is already of the most fantastical nature even before the oddest of transformations begins.
What Palmer has done is craft a gonzo homage to the late Victorian / Edwardian British adventure yarn, with an added dash of left-leaning commentary. Think of Dickens, Wells, Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies (complete with that novel’s concern for society’s exploited and an escape sequence through a chimney). But then add dashes of Spike Milligan and The Goons, Monty Python and The Goodies. Indeed, the Goodies might be the perfect template; three London chaps each bring their own approach to a mad quest and various threats facing the city. Or if you are not familiar with The Goodies, imagine Michael Palin and Terry Jones’ Ripping Yarns doing a Steampunk episode with a large helping of early 70s British prog-rock psychedelia, some very peculiar flying machinora, and a chocolate train.
Amid the madness Palmer gives the reader a solid structure to anchor everything, following each of his heroes in turn as they get in and out of sticky situations. Nevertheless, what happens is rather freeform. There is little conventional story development. This is a book in which one suspects anything can happen, and by the end probably will. The tale unfolds through variously inventive and sometimes amusing set-pieces and is essentially episodic, and again to that degree reflects Swift and Carroll, Gulliver’s and Alice’s adventures. The anything can happen sensibility does also lead to a feeling that it doesn’t really matter what does. To which end, depending on taste, at 354 pages Hairy London might outstay its welcome. I do wonder if it would work better were a bit shorter.
And yet within this Ripping Yarns-on-acid lunacy there is a serious exploration of themes of racism and exploitation, a dissection of attitudes which simply took prejudice as the default. There is a boldness echoing the New Wave experimentalism of British SF of the 1960s. Bold to the extent that elements of the depiction of racism may prove controversial, not least some historically accurate language, but in the monstrous character of Gandy, Gandhi distorted through the worst fears of white upper-class early 20th century inhabitants of the British Empire.
All that said, Hairy London is an entertainment rather than a tract, a playful romp through the icons of a century past. Along with ‘Gandy’, Freud, Jung, Marx and others are cop-opted in supporting roles, and the darker depictions of exploitation and prejudice are ultimately counterbalanced by three different understandings of the nature of love.
Stephen Palmer is a writer you should read. His work is unique, original, sometimes challenging, always fresh and sometimes barking. I’m not necessarily going to suggest you should start reading him with Hairy London. It is a novel which may prove an acquired taste. Some readers will love it, some hate it. I suspect the majority won’t quite know what to think, and I admit that I’m somewhere in that group. Not that I suggest you don’t read it. Make up your own mind. Hairy London is a strange, mad, subversive and possibly just a little bit dangerous. You won’t have encountered a vision of London like it.