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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



Daren King

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To purchase Manual

Title: Manual
Author: Daren King
Genre: Novel
Written: 2008
Length: 235 pages
Availability: Manual - US
Manual - UK
Manual - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B : striking approach that's reasonably if not entirely successful

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian B 20/6/2008 Lucy Ellmann
Literary Review . 8/2008 Matt Thorne
New Statesman . 24/7/2008 Charles Hill
The Telegraph F 21/6/2008 Duncan Wu

  From the Reviews:
  • "The anti-hero narrator, Michael, bewildered and downtrodden rather than malevolent, says he's small. So are his sentences, which are shaved to the brink of meaning -- experiences, observations and details of personal appearance or decor are jotted down in as flat and perfunctory a tone as possible (...) The story, an exploration of the banal, isn't too interesting, but the writing has its moments." - Lucy Ellmann, The Guardia

  • "There is repetition in the writing and this builds up a terrible momentum. (...) With Manual, King continues to demonstrate the originality that characterised his previous three novels. The idiom he employs is technically high-end. He does an awful lot with not very much. Despite the flatness of the prose, he is playing a game. Writing in this childlike style about people on the edge of society, living in the hinterland between what is real and imagined, he toys with our perception of infantilism. And yet it's not as simple as that." - Charles Hill, New Statesman

  • "The problem is that it's written in the manner of a storybook for very young children -- short sentences, main clauses only, few modifiers. As a result, nothing seems real. (...) There's no insight and therefore nothing much about what it means to have a fetish, or to pander to those who do. There isn't anything here about sex -- not real sex, at any rate. Very little makes sense. Instead, the prose indulges in self-regarding observations peppered with moments of fake portentousness (...) I don't think I missed anything: this book is what it appears to be - a novel lacking characters and plot, consisting of little more than a series of lame episodes with no punchlines. (...) Perhaps the entire thing is a grim exercise in irony masquerading as a novel." - Duncan Wu, The Telegraph

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Manual is narrated by Michael, who works (tepidly, at best) in the fetish industry along with partner Patsy. They're both thirty years old, not particularly successful with their gig-job ("We did not do our job properly", Michael admits) -- the petty theft from their customers they indulge in probably doesn't help --, and both clearly damaged to some extent. At least they're birds of a feather:

     Patsy is like me. She is someone who has experienced a lot of pain for no reason.
       The third in their cohort is Owl -- whereby: "Owl is not a person. Owl is an owl". Whereby Owl isn't actually an owl; it is a stuffed cloth animal. But it is presented and described -- mostly -- as if it were a living creature, and it is treated as such, especially by Patsy, who is attached to it (and relates to it) the way a small child might be to a favorite stuffed toy. The descriptions of Owl straddle the realistic and fantasy versions of the creature -- "Owl gets frightened easily. He needs a cuddle, every now and then, to make him feel safe" --, as both Patsy in her actions and Michael in his descriptions invest the creature with real being ("Owl takes things too seriously. Owl has a tendency to overanalyse") -- including to some good humorous effect (Patsy covering Owl's ears when talk of their fetish-work comes up, as: "Owl does not need to hear this. Owl thinks we work in telecoms").
       A potential new client, Edward, contacts them. He moves in entirely different circles than Michael and Patsy; he is successful, married, in a secure job. He is a commanding figure, in control -- whereas Michael and Patsy are completely at loose ends, not even particularly good at briefly exerting nominal control over their clients who want to be dominated. Indeed, Michael and Patsy are soon basically down and out, their landlord taking more or less anything of value from their apartment and kicking them out. Their lives couldn't be a greater contrast to that of Edward:
     Edward works in finance, futures. What are futures ? Do we have a future, Edward ? Patsy and me ? How long can this go on ?
       Edward wants to engage their services. He has something in mind -- but he strings them along somewhat, for quite a while:
     But there is something I want you to do for me, Edward said. There is something I want you to do for me. But not yet.
       Edward is fifty-three and married to a woman who is considerably older than he is, but he is also seeing a much younger woman, Rebecca. While Rebecca tells people she is eighteen, she is problematically underage, just fifteen -- though that is clearly part of the appeal to Edward: he introduces her to Patsy and Michael as 'Baby Girl': "I call her that. I want you to call her that, too". Edward apparently has a daughter who is Baby Girl's age, who: "Wanders around the house naked"; Edward admits to lusting after her. Baby Girl doesn't exactly allow for healthy transference, but at least it's something .....
       Edward has Michael and Patsy watch over Baby Girl, letting them live in a flat he got for her. Eventually, he asks Michael to pretend to be Baby Girl's boyfriend, to deceive his increasingly suspicious wife, who he is terrified will find out his secret.
       Michael aspires to an Edward-like lifestyle, and badgers Edward to get him a job in finance. Edward can't and won't quite do that -- they're (professional) world's apart, and Edward understands that Michael can never enter his -- but does offer him various odds and ends, including cash and a bespoke suit.
       Eventually, Edward puts into action the plan that he has apparently been readying for a while. Michael and Patsy's role is minimal -- they are little more than by-standers -- but Michael does try to take advantage of the situation Edward puts him in. He is biting the hand that feeds him -- or seeing to it that (a kind of) justice is done. It does not leave him and Patsy better off in any tangible way. But in the end they still have each other (and Owl).
       Manual is written in a flat, dead-pan style, of short sentences, short paragraphs, life -- action -- presented at its most basic, bit by bit, with minimal inflection or reflection. One of the characters declares: "Irony is dead. [...] Sincerity is the new irony", and the tone of Manual is indeed all sincerity (which may, of course, be meant ironically ...). It can be irritating -- but that's also part of the point.
       The actions, and Michael's narration, seem almost hollowed out; as Michael suggests:
Like me, Owl has no value, no meaning.
       The infantilism -- though thirty, Patsy is a child-woman, while Baby Girl, though trying to act adult, is literally a child -- also contributes to the feel of a novel that is in every way regressed, its cadence and most of the language like that of a grade-school reader rather than an adult novel. But that too is, of course, part of the point.
       It is, ultimately, very flat, with limited action -- and limited exploration of and insight into the characters. Yet it subtly does do quite a bit very well, and reflects its (pre-financial crash) world very well. For all the apparent surface numbness of the characters, considerable emotion courses through it -- and Owl is well-utilized as a vehicle for a great deal.
       This is the kind of book it's easy to get annoyed with, from the language to the seeming relative lack of meaningful action, but if you give yourself into it, it does offer some rewards -- though it doesn't do quite enough, one way or another.

- M.A.Orthofer, 3 August 2020

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Manual: Reviews: Daren King: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary British fiction

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About the Author:

       British author Daren King was born in 1972.

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© 2020 the complete review

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