Incompetence will be released in December 2003. However, G&T managed to get hold of an uncorrected proof copy, on which this preview is based. Hooray! But, don’t blame us if anything mention on this page changes for the final published version. You have been warned.
Well, you’ve got to hand it to the man. After three false starts (the dreadful Dark Ages, the shabby Strangerers and the confusing Colony), Rob has finally found his form and proved that there is life post-Dwarf and post-Doug.
Set in the ‘far-too-near’ future, Incompetence tells the tale of one Harry Salt, a detective who works for a mysterious organisation, who is trying to solve the murder of his colleague, Klingferm. However, as well as having to deal with the diversions set by the murderer, known as Johnny Appleseed, Harry also has to cope with the sheer stupidity and worthlessness of the United States of Europe’s workforce, who are now protected from being fired for on the grounds of absolutely anything, including incompetence.
To me, this synopsis looked as if it would lead to a lot of pointless Political Correctness-bashing, something which has been stretched to the point of dullness by a plethora of unoriginal comedians. Fortunately, this is not the case. Rob simply uses the incompetence theme to create very amusing situations and dialogue, and leaves his own opinions out of it. This is a refreshing stance, and it bears the hallmark of a writer with stunning originality and the ability to come up with a huge amount of ideas, based on one central theme. Highlights include the telephonist who keeps forwarding calls to herself, the waitress with Tourette’s Syndrome, the police officer with Non-Specific Stupidity and the hundred-year-old male lapdancer.
Incompetence is a very funny book. As well as the excellent characters that Harry comes across, the man himself is quick-witted and wise-cracking, which makes for some memorable exchanges. The narrative is first-person, which has never been used in a novel by Rob before. While this is aesthetically different from the old Grant Naylor style of prose, all the trademarks are there: the extended similies, the structure of a short phrase followed by a longer, explanatory sentence and the mixture of real and imagined cultural references. As well as being a naturally funny formula, it adds an air of familiarity to the novel, which certainly helps to engage the reader. Also evident is Rob’s slightly sick sense of humour – although Incompetence is gleefully free of tortue, the descriptions of violence and murder are equally as vivid as they are in Backwards and Colony.
As well as the comedy, the plot is absolutely superb. Just as Red Dwarf always took the sci-fi element seriously, Rob doesn’t shy away from telling a good detective story, which is full of twists and turns, and is never predictable. Without wanting to give too much away, the final few chapters contain two massive plot twists, which totally turn previous events upside down. The combination of humourous dialogue and a gripping plot makes Incompetence very hard to put down.
The book is not without its faults, of course. It would have been nice to learn more about Salt – we know very little about his life prior to the story and nothing at all about exactly who he works for. Then again, the air of mystery and espionage does add to the book’s appeal. Perhaps more details could have been revealed at the end of the book? Also, quite a large sub-plot is that somebody is out to kill Salt, and he is regularly placed in dangerous situations. However, given that the narrative is first-person and past tense, it’s fairly obvious that he survives to tell the tale.
Despite this, it is my firm opinion that Rob is back on form. His ability to create such delightfully off-the-wall ideas is mind-blowing, and the novel has a consistency in quality which hasn’t been seen since Backwards. It’s only a shame that there are still months to go before its release..