Julian Gough, Jude: Level 1

My most recent Left of Cool piece gushes rather embarrassingly about Julian Gough’s Jude: Level 1. A couple of things:

I was in Jaisalmer for a few days last year and rode a camel for the first time in many years. One thing I learnt on this eventful ride (it involved a thunderstorm, the village of the children of the damned, and some very dubious gin) was that to ride a camel is basically to perform a series of pelvic thrusts. I am not sure how much research Mr Gough did for this book, but the sex scene atop a camel strikes me as almost plausible.
The stealing of Will Self’s pig is in itself a brilliant act, but I wonder if I should not have mentioned it here. Gough’s book is good enough to stand on its own and the author should not have to stand in the shadow of his own felonious awesomeness forever. Still, here’s a link to a video of it.
Edited version below.
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“If I had urinated immediately after breakfast, the Mob would never have burnt down the Orphanage.” Julian Gough’s Jude: Level 1 manages an opening line that is bound to become a part of literary history. With luck it will lead at least some people to read this excellent book.

Julian Gough is an Irish novelist as well as the singer and lyricist for the group Toasted Heretic. Activities for which he has been famous in recent years include an attack on fellow Irish writers for failing to engage with modern Ireland (2010) and rather magnificently (and Wodehouseishly) stealing Will Self’s pig (2008). The pig in question was a Gloucester Old Spot, the prize awarded every year to the winner of the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse prize for comic writing. Jude: Level 1 had appeared on the shortlist that year, and had lost out to Self’s The Butt.

The plot is simple enough. At the age of eighteen Jude unwittingly causes the destruction of the orphanage (located in Tipperary, Ireland) where he grew up. In the process a valuable letter that might contain the secret of his parentage is destroyed. Jude travels first to Galway, then Dublin, spreading chaos and destruction in his wake.

Jude: Level 1 is a picaresque novel, with a title character who feels rather like a Don Quixote. Jude is a hapless innocent who falls unknowingly into adventure wherever he goes. In the course of his travels across Ireland he blows up a building, leads a group of anarchists to bloody revolution, is mistaken for Stephen Hawking, has plastic surgery to make himself look like Leonardo DiCaprio and (in unusual circumstances) obtains a second penis in place of his nose. He also falls in love, and spends a large part of the novel trying to locate the love of his life; a quest that leads him from fast food restaurants into the depths of Ann Summers and finally across the sea.

Humour can be difficult to sustain and Jude: Level 1 occasionally grates. The journey to Galway at the end of the first section and the long (long) pursuit of Angela across Dublin in the third can get particularly tedious, particularly if one attempts to read the whole thing at one go. But it’s hard to imagine why any reader would: there is so much to savour.

An extended joke about Apple products allows also for a Biblical gag that is terrible and wonderful at the same time. One scene, in which Jude loses his virginity on a galloping camel while leading a revolutionary army, would itself be a good enough reason to read this book even if the rest of it were terrible.

It isn’t all just silliness, however. Jude: Level 1 is a satire, and quite a serious one. It takes for its target a number of the features of Celtic Tiger era Ireland; its economy, its relationship with Europe, its relationship with England and with its own past, the role of the church, and so on. This may perhaps make the books a little less accessible than they would otherwise be – to a reader completely unfamiliar with the country’s history and politics things like the Charlie Haughey cameo and the references to Eamon de Valera might be meaningless. Yet humour throws up strange similarities across countries. I defy any Indian reader to read the account of a Fianna Fáil political rally at the beginning of the book and not find it both familiar and hilarious.

The promised sequel (to be set in England) still has not appeared, though I am trusting that it eventually will. But sequel or not, Jude: Level 1 is a ridiculous, brilliant piece of writing. Had I read it in 2008, I too would have been tempted to steal Will Self’s pig.

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