Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Food of the Gods

(May 2017)

Before we get into details about this book there are a couple of larger points I should make. The first is that it’s a compendium edition, collecting Khaw’s two previous Rupert Wong novellas (Rupert Wong: Cannibal Chef, [2015] and Rupert Wong and the Ends of the Earth [2017]), which is something I wish I knew before preordering it then also buying those novellas separately in order to get up to speed. This is how those nefarious publishers get you: Make blurbs so spoilery and disruptive of the reading experience that you give up reading them entirely, then use your carefully encouraged ignorance to get you to buy more stuff.

I’m joking (mostly). These certainly wouldn’t be the only books I’ve unwittingly ended up with multiple copies of, and if I am going to have digital and physical duplicates, then they may as well be of something good. Which brings me to the second point I want to make: I enjoyed this (these) book(s) immensely.

I came to these (I read the ebooks before realization about the paperback hit) after a couple of weeks of low-grade but almost continual annoyance. Nothing major, nothing big enough that you’d mention it to a friend and they’d wince, but just a seemingly constant stream of in and of themselves trivial 50/50 calls going the wrong way. I’m not looking for sympathy here, because I’m an adult now, but I want to properly frame for you just how listless and fed up I was feeling, and what an irreverently enjoyable pick me up this was. Right book at the right time and your mileage may vary and all that jazz, but there’s nothing to break you out of the feeling that you’re just going through the motions than something that definitely isn’t.

Rupert is the kind of smart alec antihero it could be only too easy to find annoying or unsympathetic, what with his tendency to go for the easy gag and his criminal past (and not the usual, mild, “I stole a loaf of bread” criminality either). It skates a fine line at times, but his propensity for his mouth to get him in to trouble is generally engaging, instead of being an overly convenient way to shift the plot along, and his past is essential to setting up the book’s milieu. Thanks to his crimes, Rupert, you see, has found himself in hock to not only Yan Luo, lord of the Chinese Hell, but also the Mr Big of a powerful family of flesh-eating ghouls. Fortunately he’s a dab hand with the spice rack, and thus he ends up prepping corpses for the dinner table of one boss, and pushing paper for the other as a functionary of hell. Then a Dragon King turns up with another offer of employment he can’t refuse and things get very interesting (and very messy) indeed.

Underneath all the gore and viscera it’s tempting to read Food of the Gods as a satire on the dubious morality of late-capitalism: multiple jobs, the gig economy, the (figurative and literal) end of lifetime employment. But that’s a conversation for another time. What’s important now is how much fun this all is, how much unconstrained glee Khaw obviously takes in her creations and putting them through the wringer.

In terms of weaknesses, the plotting’s a little choppy at times, and requires a fair bit of knowledge about various eastern and western myths and pantheons to properly unpick, but then that’s what Wikipedia’s for. The endings (note the plural) are a touch unfulfilling as well. Once all the wizz! bang! squelch! is out of the way things slightly but noticeably peter out, though this was perhaps exacerbated by the fact I thought I had another volume to read once I’d got through Ends of the Earth only to find out that no, actually, that’s it. These are minor quibbles both, though, because the journey is absolutely joyous.

There is, above all, a gloriously absurd, splashy yet dry wit running through everything, one that somehow revels in excess without seeming gratuitous, one that constantly goes over the top yet keeps its feet on the ground. Ends of the Earth opens with Rupert competing in an Iron Chef knock-off wherein the mystery ingredient is dead porn star. This is ridiculous enough as it is, but Khaw doubles down on it, then doubles down and down again, and eventually comes full circle, to a point where all the butchery and depravity make complete sense. It seems simple enough when put like that, but I still don’t quite know how she managed it. Rupert’s opponent in the cook off is Swedish, for fuck’s sake. There’s a Swedish chef flailing ineptly with a postmortem hardon, because of course there is. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I guess this is the kind of stuff you either go for or you don’t, but I loved it. You’ll recall I was impressed by Hammers on Bone, and this has sealed the deal. Cassandra Khaw can write, y’all. She’s the cure for what ails ya.

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