The Prince of Soul and the Lighthouse, by Fredrik Brouneus (Steam Press, Wellington 2012), 302 pp. $30.
Nobody is spared ridicule in Fredrik Brouneus’ comic science-fiction novel The Prince of Soul and the Lighthouse. The narrative pokes light-hearted fun at mental health, American culture, scientists, alchemists, the Chinese government and what might be called the modern religions of celebrity, mass media and technology; Dan Brown (The Da Vinci Code), The Terminator and YouTube are all lined up for a poke alongside Jesus, Mother Theresa and Tibet’s struggle for independence. Brouneus’ humour is irreverent, sardonic and couched in a very Westernised discourse with references to modern popular culture throughout. Even ‘terrorists’ are thrown into the mix; a word rebranded so often of late it has practically become a neutered euphemism.
If you do not particularly care what an ‘SUV’ or an ‘iPod’ is or have never heard of ‘NCEA’ and ‘Nintendo Wii’ then there will be quite a few empty terms in this novel for you to gloss over. At the same time, this is perhaps part of what makes the novel well suited for the consumer-savvy young. It uses their language and engages in their world, though not universally. It is the world of the naively affluent Western teenager that is reflected here, somewhat stereotypically. Not all adults are technologically disadvantaged of course, giving the novel potential for an appreciative older demographic: one that finds fast car chases, zombie shoot-outs, armed hold-ups and blowing stuff up exciting. They might, however, need the advisory discretion warning that it is best suited for very young teenage boys.
Despite using reincarnation as its foundation, the narrative hinges on a predictable boy-saves-world plot and stock characters: the lovelorn, angst-ridden teenage boy protagonist George Larson, the annoying little sister, the doting but embarrassing parents, the attractive and intelligent girl as object of desire, the wily, young at heart grandfather and a Tibetan monk with bad English. The puppet-like characters give the story a unique Punch and Judy style gross humour. Although funny, it falls short of subversive, which would have added another more humanistic dimension by giving it a moral point. A little subversive humour can deepen understanding and quicken the mind, but The Prince of Soul and the Lighthouse does not go that far. It appears to reflect contemporary Western culture more than commenting on it by having nothing substantial to say: all conjecture, no knowledge. This book then belongs to the genre of Speculative Fiction; free enough to ‘throw it all to the wind’ but lacking the awareness of post-structuralism, of meta-commentary. The risk taken by this genre is that if the reader does know something, it is very difficult to deliberately suppress this and accede to author-driven facile interpretation, consequently setting up this particular style of nudge-nudge humour to be annoying.
Young adults (absolutely the target audience, one decides by the end) may find the novel stimulating to amusing, depending on their life experience and outlook and how they relate to the protagonist. George Larson is like an older version of Sue Townsend’s character Adrian Mole from her popular teenage series The Secret Diaries of Adrian Mole. He would have to be one of the most unworldly eighteen-year-olds on the planet. This could act as a disincentive to the more ‘street-wise’ teenage reader weary of seeing their generation continuously represented as naïve and unsophisticated. Taken in the slapstick spirit of Punch and Judy however, it works.
There is plenty of protagonist/antagonist action throughout, as George’s mission to acquire The Lighthouse (the novel’s plot device) is dogged by those who desire it for more sinister ends. To stay ahead of the game George relies on nature portents, such as spelling insects and symbol-forming sheep. The monk punctuates his dreams with silly antics to get messages through to his conscious mind and the personification of body parts (George’s heart, brain, mouth and other organs converse) combine to form the fun and enlivening aspects of this novel. The Chinese Programme for Divine Relations however, in which the world religions are hijacked by politics, surveilled and censured by harvesting ‘clicks’ on the internet is reminiscent of George Orwell’s ministries in Nineteen Eighty-Four. The ‘Big Brother’ concept is familiar territory ,and perhaps a little shabby and worn these days.
Written in journalistic style, the text is predominantly dialogue (as if Brouneus has recorded a series of overheard conversations), and the landmarks (including The Lighthouse – the portal of rebirth in the story) are concrete rather than abstract, limiting the imaginative appeal of the story. However, it is precisely the relentless turn-taking of conversation that gives the novel its racy, comic strip effect; there is no time to ponder meanings or hang off words. The feel is more that of an amusement park attraction: get on, get off, next? It is quirky, colourful, and speckled with confetti-style humour. Leave your inquiring mind behind because too deep a look misses the point. It is light-hearted and fun. Brouneus himself admits this. ‘It’s all fiction. There are no secret divine revelations, subdivisions of CIA or reincarnation gems collecting dust up in someone’s attic,’ he says. ‘Sorry, folks’ and ‘At least to my knowledge’ (reviewer’s italics) he teases in a footnote, speculatively. He is undoubtedly right.
MIA WATKINS is a Dunedin-based writer most recently published in Landfalland The International Literary Quarterly. She is currently attending Teachers College and caring for her daughter.
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