Fragmented Plot, Offbeat Characters, Humor Fill Pages of `The Midden'

THE MIDDEN By Tom Sharpe Overlook 244 pp., $23.95

"It was weird," an insightful character remarks, upon encountering one of the many bizarre players in Tom Sharpe's new satirical comedy, The Midden. And peculiar the novel certainly is--often funny, at times tedious, but always weird.

The Midden is a story about corruption and hypocrisy in various public and private institutions of British society. Throughout the book, Sharpe uses a collection of outrageous and at times excessively absurd characters to criticize various societal groups. From fanatical child abuse therapists to corrupt police, from old and decadent wealthy families to spoiled and exploitative former British colonials, the crackpots are out in force. The description of these characters, including their myriad eccentricities and largely disreputable motives, provides the book with its substance.

As the story moves from one character to another, however, exploring the idiosyncrasies of each, it conveniently ignores, except in passing, those characters that have been previously discussed. The plot, therefore, is fractured, following each character for only the amount of time that he is directly satirically useful, and then abruptly leaving that character behind to present the activities of another.

Early in the novel, for example, the story chronicles the misfortunes that result when Timothy Bright, a clueless member of a historically rich and influential family is persuaded by a violent-tempered drug smuggler that if he doesn't cooperate in an illegal transaction he will be turned into "piggy-chops." Obsessed with this image of flayed pig, Timothy steals money from his invalid aunt and invades his uncle-in-law's home. Soon, as a result of the desire of an unsympathetic cousin to be rid of him, Timothy finds himself speeding down the highway on a motorcycle under the influence of a powerful hallucinogenic drug.

Unfortunately, as the story progresses, the original characters and plot elements are slowly forgotten, making way for the introduction of new characters and situations tailored to present different social critiques.

After presenting Timothy Bright and his family in some detail, the book abruptly shifts its emphasis, focusing on the Chief Constable. The Constable, finding the drugged Timothy passed out on his weekend home bed, hits him over the head with a bedside lamp. He then spends a significant portion of the novel trying to avoid public exposure by disposing of Timothy's almost lifeless body.

But the focus of the story does not even remain with the Constable. Instead, the plot takes another sharp turn, finally describing the events that occur at the bizarre home of Miss Midden and her eccentric relatives, the place where the Constable finally leaves Timothy to be found. Timothy, upon finally emerging from his drug-induced stupor, is rather implausibly and with little comment sent to live with a neighbor, with "piggychops" and his family left hanging. Even the Constable is left with inadequate closure after being largely ignored for the last portion of the novel.

Finally, the story culminates in a crazy scene of destruction, mayhem and death, that introduces more new characters than it uses old ones. The instanity that ensues crosses the line from the meaningfully absurd to the violently and almost tiringly preposterous.

Due to this haphazard approach to plot development, the storyline often hinders the progress of the novel instead of providing it with the structure that the book requires. The reader often wonders when characters, presented in detail early in the novel, will return in significant roles. Many of these characters reappear only briefly in largely inadequate attempts to end their presence in the story. Thus, the reader is left hanging in anticipation of a more satisfying conclusion.

If Sharpe had been able to include all of his characters throughout the story, or at the least to bring them all together in a significant manner at the end of the book, the convoluted plot could have been a highly effective means through which to present the chaos that the novel attempts to express in its final scenes. As the story stands, however, this feeling of lack of conclusion, when compounded over the entire work and never finally resolved, prevents the reader from absorbing the novel as a unified whole.

In addition, the reader continually needs background information about new characters and new situations in order to understand what is happening in the novel. In order to provide this information, Sharpe lapses from time to time into somewhat dry expository sections, which, while maintaining the oddity of the story through the description of strange situations, lack activity and direct character involvement.

Direct and active character description, where it is present, is one of the strongest aspects of The Midden. The thoughts of the characters, both human and animal, during their interactions with one another bring out Sharpe's humor at its best.

The reader leaves The Midden with images of a large, wheezing Rottweiler, subdued after an unfortunate encounter with a falling human body, of a startled sheep sent flying by a hallucinating young man on a motorcycle and of a normally staid judge shocked into submission by a strong-willed woman in "what looked like an old tweed skirt with a stain on it. And a scruffy anorak." These images, often skillfully presented and very funny, make the novel worth reading.

The result of this presence of well-crafted scenes in combination with a lack of effective cohesion between different elements of the story is that The Midden is a novel of moments, a collection of dryly humorous off-the-wall encounters between outrageous characters, embedded within a somewhat unsatisfying plot.