It’s always exciting when a debut novel from an unknown author lands on your desk. There’s an added frisson of excitement when the publisher’s unknown, too. You can’t help but hope that these pages might introduce a new talent, or be the first rumblings of a literary giant. Failing that, they could at least unveil an intriguing new voice freshly arrived on the scene, a brief glimpse inside an imagination that the world has yet to hear from.
Of course, most debut novels fail to live up to these high expectations, especially when their editors are just starting out themselves. All of which makes Steve Dupont’s Therein Lies The Problem a pleasant surprise. Not because it’s destined to cause much of a stir on the literary scene, or because it’s likely to herald the arrival of a new master wordsmith – but quite simply because it makes for an interesting and enjoyable read.
The premise is deceptively simple: a group of friends meet regularly to discuss the idea of a modern utopia, a hi-tech pyramid that would be both self-sustaining and remarkably satisfying to inhabit. Thanks to a bizarre set of circumstances – a vast, unexpected inheritance, and an even less expected nuclear disaster – they suddenly find themselves in a position to make this dream a reality, and with the wildly eccentric Lester Ginn at the helm The Pyramid sets sail.
So far the plot sounds like a collaboration between George Orwell and Roald Dahl, but the large cast of curious characters gives the novel a tone that’s more in keeping with Kurt Vonnegut or Philip K Dick. They sometimes tread a fine line between caricature and outright fantasy, but once you buy into the slightly strange world that Dupont has crafted he takes you on a rollercoaster ride quite unlike anything else in modern fiction, populated by holographic butlers, knife-wielding apes and more than a few corrupt politicians.
That’s not to say that this is a perfect novel, and it often comes perilously close to derailing altogether. The erratic timelines sometimes confuse more than they illuminate, and Lester Ginn’s faux-English accent occasionally hits a false note that shatters the illusion (for future reference, I’ve never know a single Englishman to say that someone’s done a ‘smash-up job’, no matter how eccentric).
Dupont’s quirky vision and overactive imagination just about keep this train on the rails, however, even if it leaves us feeling rather queasy and sickened at the end. It’s certainly no groundbreaking masterpiece, but if you’re looking for an amusing and intelligent take on the utopian genre then it might surprise you with its effervescent wit. Just don’t expect believable dialogue or tight plotting – therein lies the problem after all.