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Book Review: The Toyminator Robert Rankin

It's always been said that the hardest form or genre of writing to create is comedy. Suspense, thrillers, horror, sci-fi, fantasy, romance, and just your everyday novels are all a walk in the park compared to trying to write something that will make people laugh from beginning to end. What increases the difficulty is that you also have to create an interesting story to go along with the comedy, or else things get very boring very fast.

The ones who are able to accomplish this best are usually the satirists because they have a point in mind beyond making you laugh. If the writer's sole intent is to be funny or even if being funny shares equal billing with plot, characterization, and all those other things that serious novelists consider important, the result is that the things that make a novel a novel (plot, characterization, and all those other things that serious novelists consider important) suffers accordingly.

So its very serious business when an author sets out to write a funny novel. He or she, as the case maybe depending on the gender of the novelist, has to decide how they are going to make it funny. Are the characters going to be funny people doing funny things in a funny world? Or is the novelist going to "play it straight" (which has nothing to do with sexual orientation, and doesn't preclude having gay characters) where things are funny because of what happens to those involved and not because of whom they are.

This is one of the things that I would think that makes comedy so hard to write, all the pre-planning that must be involved. Everything you write has to contribute to the "funnyness" of the final result as well as make the story click along. The last thing you want is someone laughing at your story because it's fallen ass over teakettle off of its plot line with all the aplomb of someone falling off their six inch stiletto heels. (Hence the story line clicking along bit – think about it)

Don't think for a moment that those asshole reviewers aren't all waiting out there for you to do just that – they'll sharpen their pens and fill them with that special spite ink they save for just such an occasion and slap you about with so much backhanded praise you'll be bruised for joy and wish they'd have had the honesty to say they thought it sucked as a novel, not said stuff like quite a lot of really funny bits tied together with a flimsy excuse of a plot so that even more funny bits could be written.

If some effete long haired critic said something like that about a book I wrote I'd want to track him down (a woman is naturally effete so she wouldn't be described as long haired and effete in quite that derogatory a manner) and snap his pencil neck and then gouge his beady little eyes our with the sharp bits left over from snapping his neck. Perhaps a little over the top, but worth it in a sort of statement making, boy that really pissed me off, kind of way that will prevent you from becoming a real danger to society.

So what does all this have to do with the price of eggs and Robert Rankin's latest book The Toyminator. Surprisingly enough quite a bit for both, but you'll have to read the latter to understand the former – suffice to say that chickens coming home to roost is something to keep in mind when reading the book. (I'm less certain about "all your eggs in one basket" or "Do chickens have lips?" but what's good for the goose is good for the gander and it doesn't do to preclude anything, but I won't be cowed into giving more of the plot away then necessary for the review)

Mr. Rankin's premise of a land where toys, Toy City, (formally Toy Town Land but with population explosions, and the birth of industry Toy City just naturally evolved) walk, talk and go about their daily business just as humans do in a world very similar to ours except with the one obvious difference, the toys are alive. They are still toys in that some need to be wound up with a key periodically or they run down, or they have expressions painted on their tin faces permanently, (which is actually kind of sick when you think about it, so don't) or they are known by what their function is.

For example it’s the twelve wind-up-cymbal-playing monkeys who are the first victims of the mysterious series of murders that begin to plague Toy City, where not only are the corpses dead (obviously) but they are hollow. As if their very essences have been sucked out of them by, by, well if the police knew the answer to that question they probably would have solved the case already and wouldn't have needed to enlist the help of Eddie Bear and his buddy Jack.

Eddie and Jack (Jack is actually a meathead – human – used to go with a girl named Jill but it ended badly and he's had little to do with the humans who live in Toy City anymore) have recently re opened their old detective agency as a means to keep body and soul together. Which makes it very ironic that their first case turns out to be along those very lines – find out whose stealing the souls of all the toys in Toy City before they all turn into dust.

Together they face challenges (you try drinking a beer without opposable thumbs) deal with moral issues (is it gross for Jack to be thinking of going all the way with his dolly girl friend) and face the terrible dilemma of whether or not to shoot themselves as they see them fleeing the scene of a crime. Aside from the hell that plays on pronouns it does offer a solution to what has been happening to the murder victims: they are being replaced by doubles.

Of course knowing what's going on is only the first step, finding out who, why, where, and how will take up the rest of the book and a good number of the pages that you'll find yourself reading. Those pages will include a trip into the world of men for Eddie and Jack, a very bizarre car chase through the streets of Los Angeles, and an equally bizarre bombing raid on Toy City.

The problem lies in the pages you might find yourself not wanting to read. Sometimes the joke, the premise of the toys being alive and the ensuing circumstances, begins to wear a little thin, and the plot isn't quite sufficient to sustain the humour. Some of the sub-plots and jokes are a little thin – the poking fun of cop movie clichés in the scenes with the human police in Los Angeles, and the injection of other movie clichés in other scenes becomes tiring.

What's disappointing about those and some of the other less inspired moments is that they seem such a let down from what Mr. Rankin has been able to establish. He has an obviously brilliant sense of irony and a vivid imagination, that when his attacks on clichés become clichéd themselves the drop off in quality is a lot further than it would be for a lesser writer.

He appears to have fallen into the trap of obtaining the laugh becoming more important than the story, and when that happens the quality of both the humour and the novel depreciate. The Toyminator has all the potential for being a classic piece of humour and satire, but Mr. Rankin too often is tempted by the lure of the easy laugh and occasionally becomes exactly what he is making fun of.

There are a number of quite hysterical moments in the book, but the further you go into the book the more it begins to sound like an excuse for a series of one liners. Like I said at the onset of this review, comedy is exceptionally difficult to write and while I believe Mr. Rankin shows that he is capable of doing it successfully in places and that only increases the disappointment when he fails to deliver.

The Toyminator is a funny book, that could have been even funnier if Mr. Rankin hadn't opted for the easy laugh with such frequency. I hope he brings back his cast of characters for another go round, but lets them dictate more of the story. Then he could have a work of real comic genius on his hands.

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