Review of The Lost Diaries of Adrian Mole, 1999-2001 by Sue Townsend
The Lost Diaries of Adrian Mole, 1999-2001
by Sue Townsend
I did it again. I walked smack into the middle of a series. And I have only myself to blame. Had I been more careful in examining this book, I would have noticed it's part of a series—I would also have noted its epistolary format, another feature that ordinarily gives me pause. However, I did not notice these things, and even once I did, I read this book anyway. Now I have to write this review—me, a neophyte to the Adrian Mole saga, a doubter of epistolary works! This can only end in tears.
Adrian Mole, at this point in his life, is the single father of two boys (by different mothers), living in housing, and struggling to make a career for himself as a writer. We're supposed to identify with Adrian on some level, I guess, and find humour in his insane experiences with crazy relatives, random elderly people, and the head of comedy at the BBC. So you'll have to forgive me, fans of Adrian Mole, when I say that I think Adrian is an idiot.
I don't really want to identify with someone as deluded and irresponsible as Adrian. Sure, the people in his life use him quite a bit and seldom show him much respect. I sympathize. I don't empathize, however, because on top of all those hardships, Adrian creates more in a ceaseless fashion that is a neurosis all to itself. He's paranoid, obsessive, and bland. There's very little to like about Adrian. Usually, when faced with a main character like this, I take it as a sign that the story is one of gradual redemption as the character shoulders responsibility after responsibility. I didn't expect Adrian to become a world-renowned humanitarian or even to find love (in fact, I was sure the probability of the latter was zero). Yet Townsend manages to restrain Adrian from any sort of character development; in fact, I think he might actually un-develop, if such a thing is possible.
The back of my edition has quotations from various publications. The Evening Standard suggests that rather than (or perhaps in addition to) identifying with Adrian, he's a useful creation because "no matter what your troubles may be, Adrian Mole is sure to make you feel better." I get that; part of the appeal of comedy is finding humour in the tribulations of other people. My point, however, is that there is little humour to be found in Adrian's situation. Most of it is of his own invention, and thus unavoidable. It would have been better if Adrian were less of an idiot, a more redeeming man faced with the burden of overbearing, maritally-confused parents and step-parents while trying to raise two kids. As it is, I feel better knowing I'm no longer reading about Adrian Mole!
According to The Times, "Adrian Mole really is a brilliant comic creation . . . every sentence is witty and well thought out. . . ." That is pure-grade blurb hyperbole. The majority of sentences in this book are dull or, at best, mildly amusing. I did appreciate Townsend's intentional, subtle use of grammatical errors to create a more authentic epistolary experience.
As an aside, I'd also like to give a shout-out to the New Statesman. Apparently their regular blurb-writer was out sick, because someone in the office decided it was appropriate to string-together several adjectives: "poignant, hilarious, heart-rending, devastating" and call it a blurb (I kid you not; that is the entire quotation).
The Lost Diaries of Adrian Mole is a perfect example of someone trying to create an exception to the rule and failing miserably. It contains the sort of random plot developments and incredible acts that, if done well, make a humourous novel awesome by definition. By the same token, however, it's very difficult to do it well. There's no middle ground, and if it doesn't work, it plunges the book into mediocrity. I always think of Dougls Coupland when considering this phenomenon. Coupland's books are rife with insane plot developments (my favourites are usually in jPod, which Coupland then leveraged into a hilarious TV series for the CBC). He does it so well that his books, at least in my opinion, are exactly what The Lost Diaries of Adrian Mole attempts to be. Yet Coupland does occasionally slip up, and when he does, it markedly detracts from the quality of his book. Poor humour is worse than no humour.
My comparison to Coupland will continue as I examine the next gimmick that Townsend employs: like Coupland, she writes herself into the book! Like Coupland, this fictional Townsend is a caricature, portrayed as a hack and a jerk. Unlike Coupland, who plays a large and direct role in JPod, Townsend doesn't actually appear in person; she's just mentioned by several characters, including Adrian himself. Unfortunately, this reduced role feels like the rest of the book's gimmicks do: throw-aways without which the book would have been better.
Epistolary novels, in general, are harder for me to appreciate than the more conventional contemporary novel format. Even Coupland's The Gum Thief didn't persuade me to join the dark side. Now, like any story, the success of an epistolary work depends more on its writer than the fact that it's written as a series of letters. Douglas Coupland executed his novel well, which earned it a respectable 3 of 5 stars. Sue Townsend, on the other hand, has written a series of one-off joke snippets with reusable characters and combined them to create a novel-length work. And that's my main objection to contemporary epistolary novels; it's just so easy to be lazy with the actual letters or diary entries themselves. Since any epistolary work will naturally feel somewhat jumbled after it has been assembled, owing to the discrete nature of each entry, it's harder to detect this overall lesser quality than it is in a novel with a more unified narrative.
Are there funny parts in The Lost Diaries of Adrian Mole? Certainly, but they are few and far between, and once used, Townsend tends to parade them around time and again until they have long overstayed their welcome. That's true of the book itself as well.