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Novel about novels is side-splittingly hilarious

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How I Became a Famous Novelist by Steve Hely book cover image

Review—How I Became a Famous Novelist by Steve Hely

Too late, I decided to start jotting down my favourite lines from Steve Hely’s How I Became a Famous Novelist. I was already nearly finished reading the book, but here are a few:

“She was clearly worried about getting every detail right. That’s a stupid and time-consuming way to write.” (p. 221)

“Supertramp would come in from the main bar on the jukebox, and somebody would mention they had this tape in junior high, and I’d liven up a little, thinking maybe we could hang out and talk about Supertramp. But within two redirections everybody would be talking about Alice Munro.” (p. 225)

“It was hurting my face to look interested.” (p. 226)

That’s a sampling from just a few pages. The book rarely lets up; it’s pretty much funny from start to finish.

A former writer for The Late Show with David Letterman and current writer at The Office, Hely has written an inspired satire of the book industry. No one in the literary world, from writers to readers to critics (“Book reviewers are the most despicable, loathsome order of swine that ever rooted about the earth”) is safe from Hely’s eagle eye as his protagonist, Pete Tarslaw, plots vengeance against his university girlfriend Polly Pawson. His big idea: to get on the bestseller list so he can show up at her wedding as a famous author. (Fortunately, Polly announces her wedding more than a year in advance, more than enough time for a budding author to crack the code of the New York Times bestellers list and come up with one of his own!)

The result of Tarslaw’s labour is The Tornado Ashes Club, his version of the kind of cheesily sentimental fake literary novel that sometimes squeezes onto the list between the usual techno-thrillers, conspiracy potboilers and women detective novels. But Hely doesn’t just skewer the Tom Clancys and Dan Browns of the world; he also satirizes precious creative-writing-workshop types (Prairiegrass Review is the name of the university short fiction journal mentioned). The satire is almost always surgical in its precision and wickedly funny, even if Tarslaw often comes across as your typical under-achieving slovenly male (I was reminded of Fry on Futurama but with a little more on the ball.) Also, Hely comes up with the best fake book titles since P.G. Wodehouse: Mindstretch, Sageknights of Darkhorn, The Balthazar Tablet and Nick Boyle’s Shock Blade: Lynchpin strike the perfect balance between absurd and something you would see someone (not YOU, of course) actually reading on a plane.

However, I did have one small problem with How I Became a Famous Novelist. Without giving too much away, the end left me a little confused; it seems to take a lot of the sting out of what had come before. Still, the questionable decision to mute the satire when perhaps it should have been turned up is a minor glitch in a novel that starts funny and just gets funnier.

Oh, and did I mention there are some Vancouver and B.C. jokes as well?

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