Monday, March 30, 2015

Book Note: The Dead Fathers Club

Haig, Matt. The Dead Fathers Club. New York: Penguin, 2006.

I finished reading this a little to late for it to form part of the discussion of modern versions of Hamlet in my Modern Shakespearean Fiction class, but it may make its way into future versions of the course—as an option, I think, rather than as a course text for everyone.

The protagonist, Philip, is eleven years old—which is on the young side for derivative versions of the Danish Prince—and that might lead some readers to think that this is young adult fiction. Partly because of the extent and kind of profanity in the book, I would not classify it as such. The novel also grapples intriguingly with issues and ideas of a more advanced kind—though all in the voice of an eleven-year-old boy.

The voice struck me most profoundly. It's well-crafted, captures the tone of an eleven-year-old boy, and has great interest in itself. Here's the opening of the book—in a chapter called "The First Time I Saw Dad After He Died":
I walked down the hall and pushed the door and went into the smoke and all the voices went quiet like I was the ghost.

Carla the Barmaid was wearing her hoop earrings and her tired eyes. She was pouring a pint and she smiled at me and she was going to say something but the beer spilt over the top.

Uncle Alen who is Dads brother was there wearing his suit that was tight with his neck pouring over like the beer over the glass. His big hands still had the black on them from mending cars at the Garage. They were over Mums hands and Mums head was low like it was sad and Uncle Alans head kept going down and he lifted Mums head up with his eyes. He kept talking to Mum and he looked at me for a second and he saw me but he didnt say anything. He just looked back at Mum and kept pouring his words that made her forget about Dad. (1)
Perhaps it's because I'm currently re-reading The Sound and the Fury, but I was impressed by the creation of a voice that can relate everything it sees but lacks the maturity necessary to comprehend or to interpret it.

I also appreciated how the narrative follows Hamlet's—but only to a certain extent. It doesn't make itself into an obvious Hamlet derivative, but it's filled with moments that call our attention to the play. Here are some of my favorites:

  • In the first chapter, some men are smoking Hamlet brand cigars (2)
  • The boy's angelfish is called "Gertie which is short for GERTRUDE which is a funny name (63)
  • The character called "Dads Ghost" says, about Uncle Alan, "He sits there smiling. That evil villain sits there smiling. Trying to worm his way in like a maggot. Smiling smiling smiling. Look at him Philip. Look at him. Smiling damned villain" (72)
  • In an effort to show how he could bring the pub to profitability, Uncle Alan tells Philip's mom to "Take all those Real Ales." She asks, "What about them?" and we get this line in reply: "Uncle Alan folded his arms still nose whistling and he said Stale flat unprofitable" (77)
  • The Ophelia analogue (whose name is Leah) has an older brother named Dane (84)
  • Number six on a list of "Ways I can kill Uncle Alan" that our protagonist makes is "POISON. You can pour poison into someones ear when they sleep and it kills them. Bu there are no poison shops any more. Weedkiller is poison but I dont know if you can pour it into ears" (126)
  • Philip, who is a bit of a Roman History buff, says, "I know that Romulus was like Uncle Alan because he killed his brother and became the first King of Rome 2800 years ago" (186)
  • In a pub quiz, this question comes up: "Another tricky one. In which play by William Shakespeare do we find the line There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so?" (186)
There are some very intriguing alterations to the plot, but I really can't go into them without causing major spoilers. With an appropriate qualification about the obscenities in mind, The Dead Fathers Club provides an interesting take on Hamlet—one that invites us to return to the play for yet another reading.

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Unless otherwise indicated, quotations from Shakespeare's works are from the following edition:
Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Gen. ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
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The very instant that I saw you did / My heart fly to your service; there resides, / To make me slave to it; and, for your sake, / Am I this patient [b]log-man.

—The Tempest