Miki Lentin reviews ‘Beyond Kidding’ by Lynda Clark
I’ve read little sci-fi, and if I’d picked up Lynda Clark’s debut novel Beyond Kidding in a bookshop and scanned the blurb, I may well have put it back on the shelf. But when I was sent Beyond Kidding to review there was something about it that intrigued me. Maybe it was that we both used to work at the British Library and I’d heard of ‘The Memory Archivist’ project that she won a British Library Labs Artistic Award for. Maybe it was that Clark’s writing is compared to Kurt Vonnegut and Douglas Coupland. Maybe I was just interested, what with such a crazy premise, to see if she could pull off.
The story is clever and original. The main protagonist, Rob, works in a porn shop full of weirdo customers and flavoured condoms, that is run by his close friend Bummer. One day, irritated by protests organised by a group of pensioners and local do-gooders, who object to having a porn shop in their town, and his dead-end job, Rob decides to make a change in his life and applies for an office job. He gets an interview and while being questioned, he tries to impress his future colleagues by making up that he has a son, Brodie. Rob makes such a good impression that he gets the job, but when he is quizzed further about his son by his new colleagues (doesn’t he need picking up from school?) he lies, saying that Brodie has recently been kidnapped. Soon after, Rob’s fellow-workers start a campaign to help him find his son, but when the police call saying that they’ve found Brodie, Rob has no option but to take home someone who looks very similar to a picture of Brodie that Rob has photoshopped.
As I read Beyond Kidding, I realised that this was not your everyday premise, and it wasn’t sci-fi, or did it even matter? To me Beyond Kidding was much more of a story about Rob, someone in his thirties, even though I don’t think we find out how old he is, who seems lost, helpless, slightly aloof and is just a bit useless. Throughout the book, Clark paints characters that despite being seemingly dull on the surface, are much more complicated. He’s certainly not “unlikeable”, as one reviewer said in an online review, he just doesn’t have much going for him. His best friend Bummer is equally dysfunctional, apathetic and blames others for every bad turn he takes.
And yet, there was something about Rob that I found very absorbing. Throughout I got the distinct impression that he wanted to escape from something, that he wanted some excitement in his relatively boring life doing a corporate office job, living in a one-bedroom apartment in a non-descript suburb somewhere, and being single. So to me, this became a story about how someone wants to take risks because he sees others around him with what he wants. And like any good liar, once he starts taking risks, he doesn’t seem to be able to stop, and continues without quite realising or understanding the enormity of what he is doing.
Beyond Kidding opens with Rob attempting to explain the story of what happened with Brodie to his colleague Jules. Used throughout the book, this concept works well. After each episode, Jules and Rob comment on it, as if they can’t quite believe themselves what Rob has done and wonder what he should have done differently. They give off the impression that they are an audience watching a film and discussing it in the pub afterwards. But it’s also cleverly used as a way of explaining from Jules’ perspective why she thinks Rob did what he did.
This idea works really well alongside another device that Clark uses; italicising Rob’s internal thoughts, so we can read what he is really thinking. Quick-witted and acerbic, these thoughts show us some of Rob’s frustrations, with the porn shop he used to work in, his boring office job and his feckless friends. Together these commentary devices help to create a confusing situation, while also painting Rob as a rounded, interesting character who perhaps is much more aware of what he is doing than we are led to believe.
Things get a bit out of control when Brodie is taken in by Rob. At that stage, the dialogue starts to zip a bit more. Often hilarious and packed with plenty of filth and bad language, which is a bit over-used sometimes, it adds a certain craziness to the situation Rob finds himself in. All of a sudden Rob is living with Brodie, a child that isn’t his, and he has to explain to everyone, from his family to his work colleagues, why this child has appeared, and where he’d been all this time. I won’t spoil the ending but suffice to say that Clark manages to satisfactorily bind things together in the last few chapters.
Reading Beyond Kidding, there were times when I thought that the story could have moved on a bit quicker. Some of the scenes are a bit long, and together with the use of the conversations with Jules and Rob’s internal monologues, certain sections tended to linger longer than was necessary. We also don’t get to hear about Brodie until page seventy of the book and, by then, I wanted to move on from the squalid porn shop and Rob and Bummer’s interactions with their customers.
Saying that, I’m pleased that I chose to review this book. It opened my eyes to something completely different during lockdown, and often made me laugh out loud. Lynda Clark has managed to pull off a strange but in a way heart-warming story about Rob, who shows us how he can rise above being seemingly hopeless, boring and useless, to someone who can lovingly look after a child.
Beyond Kidding, by Lynda Clark, is published by Fairlight Books and is available to buy here.
Miki Lentin recently completed his first novel while doing an MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck, University of London. Originally from Dublin, he lives in London with his wife and two daughters. Having previously run his own café and built a house with his wife, Miki currently freelances as a consultant in the creative sector. Miki took up writing while travelling the world with his family a few years ago, and this year was a finalist in the 2020 Irish Writer’s Centre Novel Fair. As well as writing his first book, he writes short stories and book reviews for MIR Online, and dreams of one day running a café again. @mikilentin