A pretty extraordinary book. ‘Mark Osher’ is the purported author of this online novel, although it’s a persona David Free used to gain publicity until finally gaining enough notice to be published in his own name. Free has talent, and it’s an added bonus for Australians like myself to perhaps better recognise some of the local characters. I was quite arrested by the opening passage – an extended description of an infatuated gaze – and also relished the initial satire of the absurdly post-modern professor Lego. I looked forward to a clever, amusing and charming book. However, it turned out there was really nothing but venom underneath all this ability: actually, eventually even the venom was gone, leaving just a childishly superior general contempt. A Dancing Bear’s basic technique is to exaggerate, and, man, can he run with an idea. At times this can be inspired, but more often than not it’s indulgent. Indulgent can be good, but it’s also a risk: it leaves the author highly exposed. In some cases this is a joy: Dave Barry gets away with occasionally surreal rants by keeping to a column’s length and by not hating everyone. More likely, like Keillor, it’s hit and miss and could use some hard-headed editing. I have little doubt that Free could improvise imaginatively on all manner of topics, but what grows to overwhelm the book is empty ugliness (cf. Heller’s ultimately pointless, humourless, definitely charmless ‘Something Happened’ – although, to be fair, indulgence did produce the fantastic Catch 22). Free’s world appears to be populated exclusively by grotesques, and the more he writes, the more appalling they become. Who is there to like in this book? Browning, I suppose, maintains an impressive integrity and is given some wonderfully trenchant lines, but I can’t think of another character who isn’t, at best, pathetic. Charmaine, I suppose, is unusual in not being actively repugnant, but along with Fenton we can never fathom why she is so attached to patently vile Gus. Sometimes honest self-analysis in a narrator, revealing normally understandably hidden defects, can be powerful (eg. some parts of Hornby’s High Fidelity), however in Fenton’s case it becomes repetitive and at some point incomprehensible.
I suppose this is a style, and some readers would relish the constant stream of superlatively damning character portraits. I can enjoy it to a point, but this was too much for me. Finger-pointing is almost inevitably hypocritical, and makes Free as self-deceptively arrogant as, well, pretty much all the major characters of A Dancing Bear: Lego, Gus, Fenton’s flat mates, Pamela Scratch etc. There is something of the blind cynicism of Cormier’s novels, much as Free leaves him behind for wit.
I would love to read something by the same author a few years on, hopefully his impressive stream-of-consciousness style revealing something more mature and positive than, “everybody’s so stupid.” Perhaps he already was beyond this, but he only vamps well on ugly caricatures – perhaps much as I tend to only write a diary when depressed. Anyone using it to perform the sort of psychoanalysis I’ve just done based on Free’s writing would be way out of line. However they would be justified in making judgements on the persona behind the diary. Maybe Free is fine, but this Mark Osher guy needs to grow up a bit.
PS: btw, abcdabba