April 2005

Clayton Moore

fiction

Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction by Sue Townsend

With certain exceptions, I’m not a huge fan of diary-style novels. While there are a couple of very unusual exceptions, they end up either being profoundly difficult to follow or vaguely disappointing in the manner of cheap Chinese food. Bridget Jones’ Diary has been done to death. The Nanny Diaries, in a similar fashion, seems to have sparked a tidal wave of copycat novels about nannies, preschools and hypersensitive children. While I think Youth in Revolt, the semi-cult novel by C.D. Payne, is a work of genius, even its sequel dilutes the strength of its primary character with this feeling that continuing the tale of Nick Twisp was more of a struggle than a joy.

Filtering through diary novels is much like filtering through blogs these days. While distinctive sites that contribute specific information in an uncommon voice are terrific -- present company included -- there are thousands that seem like useless exercises in ego boosting.

Nice, then, to see that while Sue Townsend has continued the neurotic babblings of Adrian Mole, she’s kept up the same voice through the entire series and in doing so, written an original comic vision of Britain at the end of the century. She originally came to fame with The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 and 3/4, a smash success in the early 1980’s that chronicled the Thatcher years through the eyes of its agonized, turbulent, sensitive narrator. In addition with dealing with the usual crises of parents, school, and friends, it set up Adrian’s desperate desire to write great works and his awful pang for the Love of His Live, Pandora Braithwaite.

Two decades later, Townsend has unveiled the Mole's sixth book, which has really breathed new life into the series. While the books have an enormous fan base, particularly in Britain, critics found The Wilderness Years and the Cappuccino Years were somewhat disappointing. Apparently a 12-year-old in the midst of crisis is entertaining; a twenty-something creeping up on thirty is merely sad -- note to self.

That said, I rather like the disastrous situations that face Adrian as he turns thirty-three in the beginnings of his latest chronicle. In fact, the angst-ridden young protagonist of Townsend’s early works has grown up to be exactly what one would have expected. While Mole enjoyed some early success with British television (where, truthfully, any citizen with a pulse can get a show for their fifteen minutes these days), he has pretty well fallen apart as the new century begins.

Trying to find solitary solace in a semi-literary life, Adrian works in an antiquarian bookshop and worries about the downward slide towards “gum disease, wheelchair ramps and death.” He’s engaged to a flaky New Ager named Marigold Flowers. His flat at Rat Wharf and his unruly personal lifestyle have put him truly and deeply in debt. He’s also involved in an ongoing battle with the attack swan that inhabits the canal nearby, writing regularly to the “Keeper of the Swans.” Having lived in London, I can swear that this is probably a real job, too. On top of everything, he’s desolate in his tragic attempts to get Ruth Rendell or similar for his writing group’s Christmas dinner.

One of my favorite aspects of Adrian is that he really is a completely horrible writer. While his diary is a blistering commentary on the state of modern British politics and culture -- see Adrian’s letters to Tony Blair confirming the threat of Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction so that he can a refund on his holiday to Cyprus -- he’s a complete train wreck of a poet, so bad that I can only imagine it must take Townsend hours to create Adrian’s idly composed poems, such as:

Mr. Blair,
You have nice hair.
You blink a lot
To show you care.
Dictators quail
And tyrants wince,
Prime Minister,
You are a prince.

In fact, the good prime minister is primarily responsible for the book’s deepest drama. Townsend has knocked the PM around before in her novel Number Ten and even took a good poke at the royal family in The Queen and I, but she’s reached a pinnacle in pointing her comic vision at the British government here.

Adrian finds himself caught between the aforementioned Pandora, now a member of parliament engaged in bitter protest against her own party’s malevolent maneuverings and promoting her overdue biography, and his own son Glenn, a soldier in the British Army stationed in Iraq. It’s fascinating to watch as Adrian, a longtime Labour supporter and enormous fan of Tony Blair, struggles to help his only child and his language becomes far less lofty and far more honest. When Glenn’s best friend is killed in action, it puts a real dent of truth in Adrian’s comic life.

“I let him shout and swear at me and didn’t try to defend myself because he was correct in everything he said. When I rang to tell Mr. Carlton-Hayes about Robbie, he said, ‘The bastards, they send children to fight their dirty wars.’”

Sue Townsend says this is the last of the Adrian Mole books. A long-term diabetic, Townsend was registered as blind in 2001. While it may not be the most satisfying ending for a lot of fans’ favorite anxious hero, it’s terribly truthful. Townsend may have lost her sight but she’s certainly not lost her vision.

Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction by Sue Townsend
Michael Joseph
ISBN: 0718146905
416 Pages