23 February, 2007

The Samplist, by Francis Ellen. Book review

Edition reviewed: Ronak, 2004, ISBN 0-9548031-0-8

The Samplist is a witty black comedy set in a contemporary Glasgow music college. Alex Stone is an ex-programmer whose middling piano skills were just sufficient to get him a college place, but whose real passion lies in creating music by sampling single notes and sculpting them in software to produce a complete performance. Alex believes this technique is capable of producing music that will equal any performer in the world. But the slimy vice-principal is out to get him, his last ally on the college staff has just been sacked, and to make matters worse his beautiful girlfriend has sent one of his computer-generated tapes to a London music producer, who now wants to meet this hitherto-unknown piano virtuoso and hear him play live . . .

The Samplist reminded me of Tom Sharpe’s Porterhouse Blue, though The Samplist is a good deal sunnier. The writing is lively, the chaotic energy of the college and its city is well captured, and the plot takes some neat twists and turns. The characters are as eccentric a collection of misfits as you could ever have the (mis)fortune to encounter. Meet Skuggs, the gigantic tuba player in a parka who leaves his tuba on the bus so often that it’s the subject of a drivers’ sweepstake and whose appetite for beer and dubious food is, ahem, bottomless (if you like fart jokes, you will love Skuggs). Elliott, the virtuoso guitarist with a talent as big as his ego and a diminishing grasp on reality. Laura, Alex’s beautiful Spanish girlfriend, who plays the violin like an angel but only in highly unconventional circumstances. And that’s just the students. One lecturer is an alcoholic who falls asleep in his own tutorials, another is a butch lesbian, the college principal is a bearded cross-dresser and the vice-principal is a perverted sleazeball. Even the minor characters are convincingly drawn individuals.

The novel is narrated in third person from multiple viewpoints, giving the reader the opportunity to meet and understand this eclectic variety of people without getting stuck in one person’s head. Since practically everyone is slightly mad (just like real life in that respect), the use of multiple viewpoints makes maximum comic use of the characters’ foibles without them becoming tedious, as would likely be the case if the whole story were recounted from a single perspective. A little of Elliott, for example, goes a long way.

The petty political backbiting of academia is superbly realised, and should strike a chord with anyone who has ever observed members of a senior common room playing out their deadly rivalries. Along the way, there are numerous interesting discussions on music, sampling and software, with parallels drawn between the strange abstract worlds of programming, music and chess. None of which I have any knowledge of whatsoever, but I now feel I have at least a tenuous grasp of how they might feel to people who do understand them. The book comes with a CD of music performed by the characters in the novel, created using the same sampling techniques that Alex uses in the story. You can also download the music from the associated website. I suspect that there are a lot of subtleties in the music plot that went straight over my head, and that someone who understands the area may see entire layers of meaning that passed me by. But the novel works for the race to outwit the vice-principal before he can close down their lab, and for the delightful absurdity of tone, character and plot.

With the lads’-mag attitude to women displayed by many of the characters and its frequent use of expletives, not to mention Skuggs’ lamentable digestive system and Elliott’s psychotic rudeness, The Samplist is not a novel for the easily offended. I also don’t get what the gorgeous Laura sees in Alex, unless it’s simply that love is blind (or love is relative, since Alex is without doubt the least ineligible male in the book). But then I could never figure out why all those girls wanted to marry Bertie Wooster, either. Laura seems happy with her choice, and Alex, quite rightly, can’t believe his luck. The sleazy vice-principal deserves a worse fate than he gets, though giving him his just deserts would no doubt have spoiled the happy ending.

Amusing comedy with a fine sense of the absurd and an exotic variety of vivid characters.


Constance Brewer said...

Hey, this sounds like my kind of book. Snarky with a side of weird! Thanks for the review. I might have to search this one out. :)

(Word verification: tzydjjkd. Apparently vowels are precious commodities on Blogger....)

Carla said...

Constance - it was a fun read. I think it's available from Amazon, but if you can't get hold of it on your side of the Pond, email me and maybe I can lend you my copy.

Bernita said...

A nice review.Thank you.
I'm struck by NITS (nothing intelligent to say) this morning.

Constance Brewer said...

I'll go hunting it over here and let you know. I do have access to a really good bookstore in another state, that can usually get me what I want. I think the owner is originally from England. :)

You guys tend to have all the good ancient history books over there. I'm jealous.

Carla said...

Bernita - thank you (and some of us have that syndrome many mornings...)

Constance - good luck, and let me know if you need help. I daresay you have plenty of books that we don't get, but we are pretty lucky over here :-)

Constance Brewer said...

Maybe we need to arrange an exchange sometime. :)