When Eugene Ionesco invented the Theatre of the Absurd (a Romanian/French seedling), he could never have envisioned all the memes it would lead to: Surrealism in art, Monty Python in humour, Woody Allen in cinema (“My brother thinks he’s a chicken” “Why don’t you get him to a good psychiatrist?” “I would, but we need the eggs”). A Passport to a Nation of Talking Slugs is only the latest in that tradition. I say memes rather than projects because it’s the moments you remember, quirky images and quotes to make you smile, not the format that binds it.
It’s a short book of short stories and the first story has the best images. Even the name of the prison camp makes an enjoyable sound as it rumbles from the mouth: Kriegsgefangenen-Mannschafts-Stammlager 76. The Germanic system of extending compound words is absurd, although you have to be an outsider to appreciate it. In this story, it’s never explained to the inmate why he’s there or even what the historical or ideological backdrop might be, so that’s dreamlike. There’s a perimeter circle of bleached bones that mark the final resting place of people who’ve tried to escape previously and there’s a man making a ladder to help him escape who goes to hide it in a shed and finds it’s filled with the ladders of those who’ve had the same idea before him. The problem was it wasn’t funny enough and had no resolution. Why was I expecting a punchline? Maybe it was because the prison camp reminded me of Michael Palin’s Ripping Yarns episode "Escape from Stalag Luft 112B" (4th October 1977), which was funny and had a punchline, and the ladder scene and inmates in this version had a hint of Monty Python’s Seduced Milkman Sketch, a milkman who is shown to the cellar by a bored housewife to wait, turns and sees it’s filled with the dozens of snowhead milkmen who’ve been captured through the years before him. The story “Stammlager 76” isn’t a copy of these things – I’m just suggesting that the established pattern is rooted in surreal comedy and I recognised that style and expected a giggle which sadly never came. Would Monty Python’s images work with most of the comedy lines missing?
I thought the story “The Man in the Dark Chocolate Suit” was a one minute idea, another unexplained nemesis, but what’s the point? The story “We of the Future are the Ghosts of the Past” is a brief exercise in dimensional flippage, where you can murder your grandfather and explore the consequences or marry your love in the shared knowledge of it ending in a killing. Running with these ideas is fine but an editor might suggest more development before presenting these stories in a publication.
A Passport to a Nation of Talking Slugs is the final short story in this collection and that’s alright for imagination and originality too but, again, it wasn’t humorous enough. Absurd, yes, but I found it all set up and not enough meme, needed to become as memorable as it could be. The main image at the end is also found in Men in Black, so I was expecting a killer line or something to settle the bill and was disappointed. Communicating animals (non-human) on Earth only really works if you don’t take it seriously, which the author understands, but I think the idea needs to be stretched out as far as the elastic band of absurdity will stretch to and then it needs to be a comment on something we, in our reality, give too much importance to – to puncture a pompous balloon that is asking for it with the pin of shared laughter. The slugs could turn out to be a metaphor for something we do. Guess what? The author doesn’t knock the idea high enough to ping the bell.
In summary, I liked the images coming out of left field but thought the stories could have been pushed further into Theatre of the Absurd fantasy and then resolved with an unexpectedly surreal twist that you could live for a million ordinary lifetimes and never see, which is what people who love this stuff look out for. It’s not fair to comment on something which isn’t in the book or to lay it at someone else’s door when I think a project should have been something else but when I get the impression I’m walking into circus tent format and there’s no clown, or a standup comedy gig and it’s a singer, I come away analysing my expectations. I wanted so much to trip away from this with a great quote, a new image in my head, a moment of wonder, an enigmatic smile from a comic tweak and the feeling of a bell that went ding. I did come away from this with some new images in my head and the book cover is superb, so I'm glad I read this and it was okay.