Tuesday, December 1, 2009
The title of Martin Chatterton's novel, The Brain Finds a Leg, evokes disturbing images, the kind of thing you encounter in nightmares or the fine details of a Hieronymus Bosch painting of the depths of Hell: a brain liberated from its skull hopping about spasmodically on a leg that sprouts from its hypothalamus, the knee flexing as gelatinous gray matter jiggles. (The title doesn't suggest it, but in my my mind the leg is also wearing a high-heeled shoe.)
The Brain Finds a Leg isn't actually anything like that. The Brain isn't an actual brain, but a guy by the name of Brain, Theophilus Brain. And the leg is lifeless, having been severed from the corpse of a murdered surfer. And the story doesn't take place in Hell but in an Australian town called Farrago Bay which includes characters nearly as strange as those imagined by Hieronymus Bosch. If you ask Sheldon McGlone, fatherless, bullied by teachers and fellow students alike, living in Farrago Bay is pretty much like living in Hell.
So, while The Brain Finds a Leg doesn't include a brain bounding about on a high-heel-shod gam, such a thing would probably find a nice home in this story.
Let me start again.
Sheldon McGlone is fatherless because his father, the captain of the whale-watching vessel The Coreal, was "lost at sea" in an unexplained and unlikely accident involving killer humpback whales, although those tormenting Sheldon have suggested that his father's incompetence was the real cause of the mishap. Sheldon's mother has taken to dating Sargeant Snook of the Farrago Bay police force who Sheldon considers a less-than-stellar paternal replacement. At school Sheldon finds himself the preferred spitball target of bully Fergus Feebly and the favorite humiliation target of the evil Mrs. Fleming. To deal with the stress, Sheldon has adopted a sugar binging habit.
Into Sheldon's depressing life walks Theophilus Brain, a new kid so nerdy--oversized head, oversized glasses, oversized intellect, etc.--Sheldon has hopes that some of the pressure will be taken off of him. But The Brain (no he's not Wellesian mouse) shows himself more than capable of standing up to both Feebly and Fleming. What's more, the evening of his sudden appearance in Farrago Bay, The Brain knocks on the McGlone's door and makes Sheldon a proposition: The Brain declares himself to be The World's Greatest Detective and asks Sheldon to play the role of his trusty sidekick, the Watson to The Brain's Holmes. Sheldon's outlook is so gloomy that The Brain's offer actually looks like an attractive option.
The two immediately have a case to solve: the murder of champion surfer and Dent-O toothpaste spokesperson Bif Manly who's body was recently discovered, minus a leg. It's not spoiling anything to announce that The Brain's first clue is the surfer's leg which The Brain finds.
In the meantime, not only the humpback whales are acting strangely. So are the koalas, the lorikeets, an out-of-place crocodile, and one particular classroom teacher. And nothing about The Brain, including hi story of being the victim of his mad scientist parents' experimental mishap, quite adds up either.
The Brain Finds a Leg starts with the absurd. Then each page tries to outdo the last. Chatterton has a Pynchonesque gift for quirky character names (Infinity Override and Carefree O'Toole are my favorites) and for slipping hyperbole into even his most offhand phrases. In short, The Brain Finds a Leg is a lot of fun, what you might get if Daniel Pinkwater channelled both Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Chuck Jones then told a story with an Australian accent while standing in one of those Bosch details.
The Brain Finds a Leg made it's US debut this year and is a Cybils award nominee.
Crossposted at Critique de Mr. Chompchomp