By Phil Reed VSC

Review by Yahtzee

I don't know if it's the same for everyone else, but there seemed to be an awful lot of people who wanted to be writers at my old school. This came as quite a surprise to me when I found out. I was telling my best friend proudly that I was working on my very first novel (I think I was twelve at the time, ripe for my first crushing disillusionment) when he dismissively nodded and began telling me about his.

At a little reunion at my old middle school, our old teacher asked us what we were planning to do with our lives, and I was all set to wow everyone with my plans to write novels when four other people made the same claim before me.

My feelings on this went from surprise quickly to scorn - look at all these tossers who think their five page scribblings of Space Captain Blake Lazar's adventures in the Hyperion Galaxy mean they can write books! - to bitter anger - how dare these pretenders take away my own glory by undermining my serious plans for a career in writing! - but I never gave them another thought until Phil Reed gave me a copy of his new book to review.

Phil is an old friend of mine from the early days of AGS, but don't assume there's going to be any favouritism at work here, because he's written a book that's SO MUCH BETTER THAN ANYTHING I'VE DONE AND I HATE HIS RANCID GUTS FOR IT ARGH ARGH ARGH.

So went the initial rabid thoughts of the struggling artist, but I have since quietened myself with the knowledge that you could pick any two writers of equal skill, have them read each other's work, and they would both instantly proclaim each other the champion. Unless one of them happens to be Stephen King, because he's a jerk.

I am a writer from the school that believes a person picks up a book to be entertained. If anyone laughs at any time for any reason while reading my text, I'm fulfilled. Phil, on the other hand, sees writing as an opportunity to create art that speaks directly to - if not something as romantic as the soul - then the little metaphorical hamster that drives the gears of the mind and body. I'm not sure if any approach to writing is more valid than the other, but I do know what I like.

Well, by now, if I was Phil, I'd be getting pretty ticked off with my reviewer endlessly diverting the subject to himself, so let's get started on the book.

'God Ran Out Of Faces' is a collection of short stories with few links between them besides similarities in theme. Now, I don't pretend to be a smart man. Well, I do. But I don't pretend to be the specific kind of smart man who wears black poloneck sweaters, attends poetry readings, and discusses the underlying metaphors of Proust while stirring our lives away into triple choc mochalattes. I'm not the kind of person who reads a book and finds references to Nabokov in underlying subtexts or a hidden meaning to the effect that no-one should eat jam on a Tuesday. I read a story and I see only what's on the surface. The people, the events, the circumstances. No doubt other, more literally-minded people would get all sorts of stuff from Phil's book, but I'm afraid I can only review it with my own uncomplicated, surface approach to art. By golly that Phil Reed uses some fancy-pants smarty talk.

Phil Reed is a man who writes about his own life, albeit altered into fiction, with characters derived from himself and the people around him. What is slightly worrying, then, is that most of his protagonists - at least in the earlier stories like 'Sisters' and 'Somebody Else's Monkey' - are awkward, unattractive men with relationship difficulties. Ladies, please bring forth a volunteer to have sex with Phil Reed at the earliest opportunity, for the good of us all.

Saying that most of the stories are about men with women problems may sound like a criticism, but it isn't intended to be. I'm making it sound like the stories are repetitive, but, as weak a defense this may seem, they aren't. Each tale introduces a new situation and a new angle. Characterisation is one of Phil's particular strengths; we can all identify with his protagonists because we've all been in similarly uncomfortable situations, and there are plenty of uncomfortable situations in the book for at least one to coincide with some uncherished memory of your own. From another direction, when Phil sets out to portray a character as a jerk, you can be sure that the intention will come across. Perhaps the reader will be reminded of their own lives here, too, of the jerks of their own acquaintance. Speaking personally, the narrator of 'Somos las Bolas' seemed awfully familiar to me, and the unpleasant antagonist in the same story brought to mind the jerk I mentioned in the first paragraph of this review.

As a writer, as well, I found myself drawn into the story 'Notes for Future Masterpiece', which is told by a writer detailing his unhealthy obsession with a female character he writes about, only to discover in his attempts to break off the 'relationship' that the relationship is more complicated than he thought. The underlying joke here, I suppose, being that both are characters of Phil's, but this irony goes unrealised by the characters. This brings us, then, onto the subject of Phil's sense of humour.

Anyone who has played his two Larry Vales games will know that there is a very keen comedic intellect rattling around in our Phil, and this comes across frequently in 'God...', even though the focus this time around is admitted to be philosophy rather than jokes. Humour appears sometimes unexpectedly in the long, lovingly-written analogies and internal monologues, and the mild banalities exchanged by the characters. I suppose the centrepiece of the book from a comedic point of view are the conjoined works 'A Bee Sees' and 'Call me Doctor'.

The former is a truly dreadful poem, full of infuriating teenage angst, which gave me cause to wonder. "Phil!" I thought to myself. "What's this all coming from? I never knew you were such a Robert-Smith-listener-to." Then I moved onto the next story, an assessment of the poem's author, written by a barely literate bogus psychiatrist, and realised the joke. Doctor Kickles, the aforementioned shyster, is the book's only recurring character (appearing no less than twice), who reminded me very much of Douglas Adams' Dirk Gently, a jerk who means well and somehow retains both the audience's affection and contempt. It is through Kickles that we get some of the book's funniest moments, but he also has his own pitiful private struggles, involving - all together now - relationships with women!

A lot of the stories end with some loose ends untied, leaving the reader to decide further outcome for themselves. Does Curtis Dobbs embarrass himself at the parade demonstration? Does Roger Pater ever get himself a five-foot Equatorial penguin? Perhaps to dwell on such things is to miss the point. Perhaps Phil's intention is to only give us the middle of a story, hacking off the beginning and end so that our focus remains more on the characters than the misfortunes that befall them. Or perhaps there's no intention at all, and we're invited to take whatever we like from God Ran Out Of Faces. So why don't I tell you what I took from it?

I read a book that was lovingly written, frequently hilarious, and which struck a chord here and there, and that's a lot more than what I usually ask for in a book. So if you don't find something you like in it, then you're one of the jerks.

Click here to buy God Ran Out Of Faces

updates - features - essays - reviews - comics - games - novels - about - contact - forum - links


All material not otherwise credited by Ben 'Yahtzee' Croshaw
Copyright 2002-2004 All Rights Reserved so HANDS OFF, PIKEY