Unsurprisingly this book reminded me of some of Ben Elton’s early stuff – a stand-up comedian turning some of his observational comedy into a novel. However, here humour doesn’t punctuate global conspiracies and an in-your-face political moral. Rather it’s more of an everyday Hornby context – the demographic of the characters, the pop-culture references (the rave about Karen Carpenter could have come straight from ‘High Fidelity’, likewise the soccer detail), the large space for introspective raves (at times rants), and the climax being more about self-awareness and personal growth than saving the world. Actually Baddiel owes a lot to Hornby – even down to the technique of throwing in a death about two thirds of the way through. Similarly he’s articulate, funny and occasionally insightful. I wish that this could have set the tone for this review, but, like Stephen Fry’s work, there’s just too much offensive static to be able to enjoy the bursts of talented signal.
Where Hornby often shows charm and a refreshing discretion (his camera fades as a couple approaches the bedroom), Baddiel doesn’t even appear vaguely aware of the existence of sensibilities that might baulk at several explicit passages. He talks about anal sex, for example, as blithely as he would about grocery shopping. He might contend that the plain description puts it in a more respectable category than porn – and it’s not written to titillate. But it’s beyond this: he’s not just honestly discussing an adult topic, it’s aggressively daring someone to take offence. There’s even something of a trainspotter’s obsession with detail. I don’t know if it’s mere wowserism to complain that I really don’t want to know: is it inexcusable Victorian prudishness to ever suggest that there is such a thing as inappropriate content? Bad taste? Impropriety? I think I’d be just as entertained, for example, by a few rigorous and comprehensive pages on his toenail picking technique.
So casting aside the workable plot around a contemporary Jewish family, and his clever (though usually acerbic) rants and caricatures (the insufferable hippy-chick is a triumph), given the unfortunate ratio we’re back to addressing the noise instead of the signal.
Much of his indiscretion (alright, crudity) reflects the strange place our contraception society has moved on sex – in some circles it’s become utterly incidental to romance. Thus at one point his protagonist hesitates to offer the intimacy of a kiss to a woman he’s been sleeping with (and at least Baddiel, almost surprisingly, notices the incongruity). It’s a bizarre parallel to the prostitute myth (that they won’t kiss their clients – cf. the execrable ‘Pretty Woman’) – but matches the similar divide between intercourse and relationship. Society dictates that fornication is mandatory: celibacy is now as shameful as fornication used to be. There are rules about frequency: How long was it since you had a shower? Washed your clothes? Did some exercise? Called your mother? Put out the bins? Had sex? Washed your hair? There are moral imperatives about this sort of thing.
Yet while social mores demand that you have regular sex (and dental checkups), they simultaneously caution against relationships – particularly that ancient bogey, the committed (shudder) relationship. The unavoidable logical consequence is that sex happens first, relationship may or may not come later. I don’t have to particularly know who you are to be having sex with you – what’s most important is that I’m having sex – do you have to know somebody well to, say, work out at the gym with them? Sex is first a selfish pursuit. Now intimacy, that’s an entirely different thing. In the search for intimacy, according to this value structure (absolutely the value structure of this book: for example, there’s a sexual partner mentioned early in the book that we never even learn the name of. Why would we? Baddiel’s character probably doesn’t remember), sex will certainly be part of the process. Sex here has taken the place that dating – or even flirting – used to. Maybe in the past a person didn’t really want to go through the process of getting out there at a dance or a club or a youth group, but did so to hopefully meet someone. Maybe they felt a bit uncomfortable going to a movie or out to dinner, but it was a necessary part of the process of working out whether this other person might be a long term prospect. Well, in Baddiel's circle you might still go out to dinner and a show, but know this: you’d better get your gear off well before you have a clear idea whether or not you actually are serious about this person.
Talk about post-Christian novel. And for many post-Christian readers this review would be out of left field: what are these obscure values Baddiel’s supposed to have offended? Likewise, for example, the complete absence of scintilla of conscience the character has about deliberately living on welfare in preference to taking available work: in some circles the reverse social gaff would be to mention that this is childishly inconsiderate.
I think I enjoy Baddiel through the filter of film or TV – and parts of this book are very “Four Weddings and a Funeral/ Wimbledon etc. franchise – especially the cliché filmic end. I first came across him (I’m Australian) watching the hilarious ‘Fantasy Football’ during what must have been, geez, the US or French world cup. We also got a few episodes of Baddiel and Skinner Unplanned, and a Parkinson interview, where they talked about Baddiel’s own interview show (which I thought I’d enjoy more than Parkinson, but it never got out here). On this basis I got ‘Time for Bed’, and while I can see it’s the same guy, I got more than I wanted. Give me Baddiel with some primetime content restrictions. Despite all my carping he’s got a lot to offer: could I trade some honesty for some charm? Could I have the story without the immoral?