Ellis Sharp: Month of the Drowned Dog
A Postmodern review of a postmodern novel
This will be the tenth Ellis Sharp novel I have read and reviewed, which means he gets promoted to the Statistics page. If you have ever looked at that page you will have seen that authors of whom I have read ten or more books get mentioned at the bottom of the page. I would like to bet that there are not all that many people who have read ten Ellis Sharp novels. His Mum, of course, and his publisher and a few friends. However if you Google him you will see that my page comes third, after the mighty Wikipedia and fairly mighty Instagram. I suspect some of the Ellis Sharps that Google throws up are not our writer. One, indeed, is a Toothpaste Brands Manager and I highly doubt our Ellis is flogging toothpaste though, of course, writing postmodern novels could well be a good escape from all that whiteness and finding ways of reducing the amount of toothpaste in the tube without it showing while charging the same or an even higher price.
Our Ellis uses a pseudonym. Every time I read one of his books I wonder about the real Ellis Sharp. I used to think it might be an anagram. Using an online anagram solver (my significant other and I find it useful for the TLS crossword that we struggle over every week) I got offered only Spear Hills which, I suspect, may not be his real name . Perhaps there is some meaning behind the two words I am missing. I looked in Wikipedia at all the Ellises . There are quite a few authors called Ellis of which the most famous is clearly Brett Easton of that ilk. Would anyone want to name themselves after Bret Easton Ellis? De gustibus non disputandum.
Our Ellis may be a keen rugby fan and have chosen his name from William Webb Ellis, the (alleged) inventor of rugby (the game, not the school). Of course, he might be naming himself after a non-authorial Ellis such as the Welsh harpist Osian Ellis. I have no idea if he is interested in the harp (it does not, AFAIK, make much of an appearance in his work) but who knows that, even as you read this, he maybe playing a fine CD of harp music. Yes, I have one as my daughter used to play the harp.
And Sharp? As a knife? The musical sharp? Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice? Mount Sharp? Becky Sharp? Or some other Sharp person? Sharp is, of course, an anagram pf harps so perhaps there is something in my harp theory.
And, of course I try to imagine what he might do in life because he certainly is not surviving off the royalties from his book sales. Is he a former pop singer who had one minor hit and then the faded into obscurity? Maybe a Council planning officer? Or is he one of those strange people you sometimes see in the street, collar turned up on their macintosh making them look like a spy but clearly not, as their shoe laces are both undone and their trousers are too baggy? Perhaps he is in the public eye in some other category: a Conservative cabinet minister or an Instagram influencer?
There again, I have assumed that Sharp is male and the publisher refers to him as such but perhaps he is female or, as is fashionable nowadays, gender-free. If you read on you will see that I offer some decidedly flimsy evidence for him having XY chromosomes.
I imagine him like one of those non-celebrities who are arrested for a crime worthy enough to appear on the front page of the Daily Mail who try hard to obscure their face by holding a book or folder in front so you cannot make them out or maybe pull a jacket or other garment over their head if they have no book or folder to hand.
But postmodern review though it is, you want to read about the book. Or two books.
We have an unnamed writer, known as the writer (all lower case) who has witten the draft of a novel. This novel is not called Month of the Drowned Dog but called The Professor’s Wife. He is now rereading it with a view to making changes, which he does. Indeed, he frequently tells us that he has deleted passages without telling us much, if anything, about what he has deleted. This becomes really annoying as he stops mid-sentence to say the rest is deleted and even deletes key plot elements. Of course, it is all terribly postmodern. As we shall also see, he tends to have forgotten the existence of some of his minor characters.
The novel is narrated by a publishing assistant, based in London (of course), called Jane Tain. Is there some significance in that name? Firstly it rhymes. Would you give your child a first name that rhymes with their surname? De gustibus… etc. When I see the name Tain I immediately think of the Táin Bó Cúailnge, one of my favourite legends asnd featuring one of my favourite mythical heroes Cú Chulainn. Maybe Ellis is into Irish epics or, perhaps, has Irish blood.
The postmodern bit comes into it because while he is recounting Tain’s Tale (he could have called it that) he is interjecting comments on the writing, on the book, on his reading and his life. That can, of course, be annoying, illuminating or just, well, there.
I will try to give a brief hint of what the plot is about before getting to his postmodern inserts and then my postmodern comments on his postmodernism and on the non-postmodern The Professor’s Wife.
So we start with Ms Tain I don’t think you could say Miss Stain as it would make you think of Misstain and what the hell is a misstain? A stain that wasn’t? A mistaken stain? Anyway, back to Ms Jane. Her father, a widower and geologist, has just died. Specifically, his body was found in a graveyard in Scotland, leaning against a gravestone. Analysis reveals that he had drunk a lot of whiskey and taken some sleeping pills and fallen asleep and died of exposure as the temperature was five degrees below freezing. The inquest (which is not called an inquest in Scotland) concluded that it was death by misadventure. Our postmodern interventionist, aka the writer, tells us tthis is not a crime story even though there is the riddle of an inconclusive and ambiguous death at its heart. We learn, after the inquest that was not an inquest, that Jane had received a postcard from her father with only one word on it Sorry which leads us and her to think it was suicide.
Things get worse for our heroine. She returns to the flat of her boyfriend Alec, to find him in bed with Vanessa Smith. My flimsy evidence, referred to above for Sharp’s maleness, is that she (Jane) comments on the size of Ms Smith’s large breasts, more, I think, a male reaction than a female one. however, this is challenged as the writer states he had forgotten Ms Smith and her big breasts but the fictitious Jane and someone – the not too fictitious Sharp? – had clearly membered her as there she is, big breasts and all.
The writer feels he may have got the idea of a woman discovering her boyfriend in the act from the film Sliding Doors when the Gwyneth Paltrow character catches her boyfriend in flagrante delicto. I would also offer Body Double though it works the other way round, when the male lead catches his girlfriend in flagrante delicto though, as far as I recall, the camera angle limits any unnecessary exposure of bodily parts.
While all this has been going on, the writer has been adding his ten cents. He is critical of his own writing: the language seems dead and is the LitFic style package sold in the bright noisy jostling shopping mall where the tastiest candy is at Updike’s . Mocking Updike? Good for him. But what does he like? He mentions three books and all (more or less) share a common theme. I have not read Peter Handke‘s Nachmittag eines Schriftstellers (The Afternoon of a Writer) but have read the other two: Middlemarch and Jacques Roubaud‘s Le Grand Incendie de Londres (The Great Fire of London). All three involve writing or, more specifically, writers struggling with writing. He (or rather he through the voice of Jane Tain) also comments The novel was dead. It was a defunct art form.
Now it turns out that the death of her father occurred a while after the event with Alec and other details I have omitted. She had visited him in Warblington in Hampshire
where he lived in an old vicarage. His wife, Jane’s mother, had died of cancer and to add to the clichés, Jane had a twin sister who died soon after she was born. The father was burning leaves, a horribly environmentally unsafe procedure, as burning leaves releases masses of harmful benzopyrenes. Surely a man of science would have known that, even if Sharp/the writer/Jane did not. I suspect Sharp is a townie and does not know about such things.
Jane will turn up in Warblington again after her father’s death. It seems that the writer knows Warblington well, though the Wikipeda list of notable residents does not seem to include any Ellis Sharp-like person. The writer claimed he had visited Warblington as a child and had visited it as an adult to look for the grave of Rosemary Tonks who may or may not be buried there, though we know she lived in nearby Bournemouth. I have a couple of her books which I must get round to reading.
As he has previously done with Southend, he gives us the basic tourist guide to Warblington, all part of the self-admitted not brilliant quality of the book he is writing.
In the post-mortem visit we get a hint that There is More Than Meets The Eye, when we are told by Jane if the vicarage contained a Rosebud I would find it. And, of course she does. The plot of The Professor’s Wife now continues down several paths. Jane tries to trace her father’s last journey and find out why he went where he did. She tries to find out more about his early life. We also follow her career as a publicist with Sharp taking great pleasure in mocking commercial writers (zombies, lady novelists in the deprecatory, misogynistic sense) . There is, of course, a fair amount of extramarital sex.
Meanwhile, Sharp/the writer are postmoderning. We learn about his (I will leave you to work out who his refers to). We learn about his musical tastes: Dylan, Eno, Cohen – does that mean he is in his fifties/sixties? He throws in Taylor Swift to show he is down with the kids and Sigur Rós to show he is cool . He also evinces a love of poetry and, towards the end, gets involved with Wordsworth and Dove Cottage. He even admits to having bought Jonathan Bate’s bio of John Clare for £9.99. I have just checked my copy and it seems I bought it for $5.99(in the US, of course where it was probably cheaper as they have even less idea than people in the UK as to who John Clare was.)
I suppose I must mention meteor craters, specifically going back to Wetumopka, (not)mocking Daily Mail readers and the fact that one of the bad guys is called Boris. Not to mention lots of other titbits.
The writer admits his book is not very good. The writer read too many bad commercial novels and seen too much television. It had rotted his prose and his plotting it would have to go, all of it and No, there was nothing to be done with this unpublished text. It would have to be destroyed. Of course it is (more less) here so that was postmodern nonsense.
While there were clichés galore and the writing was, I agree, a bit too obvious, it was not a bad story with a couple of twists which I have not mentioned and, of course, will not mention. But what about the postmodernism, I hear you ask, if you have managed to continue reading this review to the bitter end? I think it is a great idea. If more writers commented on their writing, critiqued it, mentioned some of their influences and, indeed, their off-line interests, threw in a few jokes even where the plot did not call for jokes, told us interesting facts about other subjects, even if entirely irrelevant to the story and generally had fun writing rather than labouring under a veil of seriousness, it could improve the novel no end. Kafka telling jokes? Hamlet talking about his favourite music,Pierre Bezukhov (and, perhaps, Rawdon Crawley and Julien Sorel) chatting with Napoleon about his military strategy? Yes, I am in.
First published in 2023 by Zoilus Press