Monday, July 20, 2015

"Death and Mr Pickwick"

Stephen Jarvis was born in Essex, England. After dropping out of graduate studies at Oxford University, he quickly tired of his office job and began doing unusual things every weekend and writing about them for The Daily Telegraph. These activities included learning the flying trapeze, walking on red-hot coals, getting hypnotized to revisit past lives, and entering the British Snuff-Taking Championship.

Jarvis applied the Page 69 Test to Death and Mr. Pickwick, his first novel, and reported the following:
I can say, quite definitively, that Page 69 is not typical of my novel Death and Mr Pickwick, and I don’t even have to look at the page to know that. The reason is that there is no typical page in the novel. That was deliberate.

You see, Death and Mr Pickwick tells the story of the creation and subsequent history of Charles Dickens’s first novel, The Pickwick Papers, and one of the reasons why Pickwick itself succeeded was that it took readers on a long, rolling journey, in which they were never quite sure where they would go next. I wanted my novel to parallel Pickwick, so one moment we go down into a basement to encounter a mad clown in a straitjacket, the next moment we are in a debtors’ prison to see a man who has spent thirty-two despairing years within its walls. Oh, and then we witness the bloody slaughter of an elephant.

Nor is the timescale confined to the nineteenth century, when Pickwick was created – one section is set in ancient Celtic Britain, another is set on the day that John Lennon was assassinated in 1980. There is a narrator who is a citizen of the twenty-first century.

Or take characters. There is a huge and diverse cast, as was the case with The Pickwick Papers. The main character is Dickens’s first illustrator, Robert Seymour, who shot himself shortly after starting work on the Pickwick project – and, because Seymour dies, there is a large chunk of the book where the main character does not even appear.

You might ask: “How can such a rambling novel possibly work?” All I can say is that it worked for The Pickwick Papers. Indeed, ‘worked’ doesn’t begin to convey that novel’s success. The Pickwick Papers was, quite simply, the greatest literary phenomenon in history. For almost a century, Pickwick was the most famous novel in the world, with probably only The Bible having a greater circulation. In my view, The Pickwick Papers also has the greatest backstory of any work of literature. A story of colossal success, conspiracy, and suicidal genius.

And page 69? Actually, It tells of a famous actress who caused a stampede to get into the theatre – nearly crushing a painter to death - and of a deluded beggarwoman who claimed to be the actress’s abandoned sister. Typically untypical.
Visit Stephen Jarvis's website.

--Marshal Zeringue