I would like to please find the person who in the description of this book promised an "uproarious cocktail of comic zingers" and give them my best "Grandma Lydia look" (*)
(*) If you are NOT familiar with the "Grandma Lydia look", which you probably aren't since the chances of you actually having met my grandmother are slim to none, I will explain. This is the look you get from a tiny 5-foot-tall sweetest Eastern European grandmother that makes you stop in your tracks and beg forgiveness for anything you ever did or will ever do. Because she KNOWS you did something wrong, and firmly believes that a stern look alone should suffice to set you on the right path. And you bet your ass it will!
I've been working on that look, too - so someday it can be re-christened as "Grandma Nataliya" look. That's my big aspiration in life. I'm not even joking about it. Seriously.
But wait a second, you say. Are you trying to tell us that Hugh Laurie, THE Hugh Laurie, THE comic genius is NOT FUNNY in this book? Well, not exactly.
This book is funny and smart and all that, but it really straddles the line between that and uncomfortable - because Laurie uses humor and satire and parody extremely well to showcase quite a few things about our world and ourselves that are uncomfortable, unsettling, and in the end, not as much funny as disturbing. His humor in this book is frequently the equivalent of that uncomfortable startled half-giggle that people involuntarily utter to their sheer dismay as they see something rather bad happening. His humor serves as a defense mechanism in this book that should not be funny, but is using humor and parody as a weapon.
"Because what does it mean, to say that things aren't going well? Compared to what? You can say: compared to how things were going a couple of hours ago, or a couple of years ago. But that's not the point. If two cars are speeding towards a brick wall with no brakes, and one car hits the wall moments before the other, you can't spend those moments saying the second car is much better off than the first. Death and disaster are at our shoulders every second of our lives, trying to get at us. Missing, a lot of the time. A lot of miles on the motorway without a front wheel blow-out. A lot of viruses that slither through our bodies without snagging. A lot of pianos that fall a minute after we've passed. Or a month, it makes no difference. So unless we're going to get down on our knees and give thanks every time disaster misses, it makes no sense to moan when it strikes. Us, or anyone else. Because we're not comparing it with anything. And anyway, we're all dead, or never born, and the whole thing really is a dream.There, you see. That's a funny side."
Sidespittingly funny this book is not. And it is not meant to be such. The humor is uses is what we came to associate with 'quintessential Britishness' - dry and deadpan and almost serious. Which is fitting for a book that after a first chapter indeed filled with the promised "zingers" quickly heads down the path of exposing monetary greed and terrorism and secret wars waged for little else but money, and the overarching conspiracies that in the light of many events of our messed-up modern world hit quite close to home.
"The only good thing I've ever noticed about money, the only positive aspect of an otherwise pretty vulgar commodity, is that you can use it to buy things."
Oh, by the way, it was written in 1996, but feels as true as it can be a decade and a half later. Because things have probably only got worse. And all we can do is laugh helplessly about them.
"It is the middle of December now, and we are about to travel to Switzerland - where we plan to ski a little, relax a little, and shoot a Dutch politician a little."
Now, I'm not all that familiar with the spy/thriller/Bond-esque or whatever you call it genre. But even I can easily spot the parodies of those on every page. Thomas Lang, our protagonist, whom I could not imagine as anyone else but Mr. Laurie himself is essentially a good guy with a military past and manners a la Mr. Bond a bit. He gets offered quite a handsome sum of money for the life of a certain American businessman (who, by the way, comes equipped with a lovely daughter with beautiful teeth), honorably refuses it, and the next thing he knows, ends up swept up in the quite substantial international conspiracy, with a first-hand participation in a few terrorist acts to boot. With quite depressing things seen through every humor-laden passage. Where simple stupid greed is what runs everything, really. And that's depressing, yeah.I liked it quite a bit, even though there were a few parts in the middle where I was tempted to put this book down and forget about it. I'm just not that into the genre that Laurie parodies here, after all, and sometimes immersing myself into this story was not that easy.
But ultimately every time something in the way Hugh Laurie writes ended pulling me back into the story. And he rewarded me with the "Fuck this all, this shit is depressing and nothing is ever likely to change" feeling in the end, which I assume could have been the underlying message of this story. The way the world and humanity are irrevocably fucked up. Not the comedic zingers. So don't read this for funny. Read this for the serious, please.
3.5 stars - and I plan to read all the future literature works by Mr. Laurie if this gentleman desires to create more. And I will leave you with this apt (and actually funny!) observation of Mr. Laurie's protagonist on the bird strike of the aircraft:
"This, rather unfairly in my view, made it sound as if it was the bird’s fault; as if the little feathered chap had deliberately tried to head-butt twenty tons of metal travelling in the opposite direction at just under the speed of sound, out of spite."