Situationist bank robberies and 'edited highlights' of western philosophy provide some great light entertainment about weighty matters
I am not an ideal beach reader. Bed, bus, bath, yes; but I like the sea almost too much to be able to concentrate on anything else in its vicinity. I tend to sit next to books on beaches, gawping at the horizon.
In my twenties, my projected holiday reading would consist of several short, dense books that I'd failed to read the rest of the year. Most ridiculously, I took Wittgenstein's Tractatus on return trips to several European beauty spots, on the grounds that a) it didn't take up much room in the suitcase and b) I wouldn't finish it by the Tuesday and find myself at a loose end. (Both these surmises were correct.) Even now, there's an abridged copy of Anatomy of Melancholy interleaved with Horrid Henrys and Just Williams in my children's kitchen-table pile of breakfast reading that I am certain to take to France in a fortnight's time.
So I'm going to pick something for a beach bar on a balmy evening that combines philosophical investigations with a larky tale of bank robbers on the run, studded with blackly comic apercus about booze, death, laziness and loneliness – all the great holiday subjects. I once lent The Thought Gang to a friend who by accident went on holiday by himself to a couples resort. He didn't speak to anyone for a week and ended up devouring it several times: probably ideal reading conditions.
The novel is made up of the rambling thoughts of philosophy professor Eddie Coffin: a disorganised middle-aged lush who has stumbled through an academic career at Cambridge and now finds himself, after defrauding a philanthropic foundation with imaginary research, friendless and penniless in southern France. He hooks up with a crazy petty criminal called Hubert – one-legged, one-armed, part-deaf – and they launch themselves on a spree of philosophical bank robberies, inventing the getaway lunch on the side (this involves sitting in a nice restaurant while the police cars roar past). The robberies are situationist street theatre, performed in different styles: Marxist, Stoic, positivist ("yes, I'm positive I want to rob this bank"), Neo-Platonic ("You'll have to pay close attention if you want to tell the difference between this and a Platonic job. Ask the Prof if you have any questions.")
Along the way, Eddie treats us to anecdotes from his disreputable past (the time he was kidnapped by an editor and handcuffed to a radiator in a last-ditch attempt to get him to write his great book, his accidental involvement in the Afghanistan war, his efforts to deal with the Worst Undergraduate Ever) and gives Hubert "Eddie's edited highlights" of western philosophy. After all, both they and the reader are, hopefully, in much the same situation as those who started "the biz": "Sunshine, a glass of wine, a bit of time."
So we get the 15 top ideas, including Seneca's "maximum maxim" ("'This is what Zeno said, but what about you?'… It's not the enlightenment that counts, but the taking part"), as well as the bottom 10 (alchemy, supersophistry, plain wrongness). There are digressions on Montaigne, Kant and Nietzsche, an extremely eerie appearance from beyond the grave by foul-mouthed ancient Greek poet Hipponax, an exhausting amount of wordplay and an unaccountable fondness for words beginning with the letter Z.
The whole is eminently quotable and criminally enjoyable, like a better-read, more bad-tempered Douglas Adams. As Eddie says: "You don't want to let the cosmos catch you backing off in any way." Good advice, wherever you are.
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