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Tommy's Tale
Alan Cumming
London: Michael Joseph / Penguin, 2003.
£9.99, 284 pages, ISBN 0-7181-4489-9.

Georges-Claude Guilbert
Université de Rouen

 

Tommy's Tale is the debut novel of the actor Alan Cumming. I am always full of misgivings when I start reading books written by actors (autobiographies or novels), but I keep on reading them, not only because I love actors and have researched actors' writings, but because I have had quite a few pleasant surprises. Peter Ustinov is a distinguished writer, David Niven did not do badly, and Dirk Bogarde was excellent, to name but three. With Cumming I was favorably disposed, as I had admired his script (with Jennifer Jason Leigh) for The Anniversary Party (Alan Cumming & Jennifer Jason Leigh, 2001). Of course, good scriptwriters do not necessarily make good novelists, and vice versa, but I knew he had at least a good ear for dialogue. Cumming is a Scottish Thespian, originally a theater fanatic, who took home many an award for his stage work, notably in the musical Cabaret, and whose talent is more and more appreciated on both sides of the Atlantic; but I expect most people know him for his portrayals of Fegan Floop in Spy Kids 1, 2, and 3, and for his role as the blue-skinned mutant Kurt Wagner (AKA Nightcrawler) in the underrated X2 (Bryan Singer, 2003). The very camp Fegan Floop is the best thing in the otherwise not-so-inspiring-in-spite-of-Rodriguez Spy Kids children's movies. I have known Cumming to do drag and write magazine articles too.

Tommy's Tale was first published in the US in 2002. In some ways it reminded me of Rupert Everett's novels. Another good British actor, the multi-talented Rupert Everett wrote two extremely camp novels: Hello Darling Are You Working (1992) and The Hairdressers of Saint-Tropez (1995). But if Tommy's Tale is equally camp and equally funny, if not more so, I believe it is better-written. The bisexual narrator, Tommy, has reached his thirtieth year turning point. He will be thirty in a few weeks. He is a photographer's assistant who shares an apartment with other bohemian types in London (Islington), goes out a lot and does a lot of drugs and has a lot of sex. The most comic passages are those when he spares the reader none of the most intimate and often hugely embarrassing details of his daily life, many of which having to do with body parts and awkward "dealings" with other people. There is a new boyfriend, an old girlfriend, and some one-night-stands. And partying Tommy suddenly has a problem: he wants to have a child. Besides, he has a tendency to get into all sorts of scrapes. Maturity is certainly an issue, to put it mildly. "I am a little boy! He cried. I am a little boy! What's wrong with that?" (2)

I, more than most people, know that we don't always do things that are right for us. (In fact, I am practically the poster boy for not always doing things that are right for me.) (168)

Turning thirty is such a huge step. It's like saying, Okay, I am an adult now, really, for real. Even if I act immaturely or buy Britney Spears dolls for myself, I am a thirty-year-old adult and I have accepted who I am and I am happy with that and so you should be too. (187)

Cumming has no taboos whatever, and uses any amount of "vulgar" slang he deems necessary either in the dialogue or the narration; but it never feels forced or excessive as it does in some trendy novelists' work. Often the language is mid-Atlantic, and it makes you wonder if Cumming is simply catering to his American readers, or showing how all the time he has spent in Hollywood has left its mark, or if he is merely another example of the way American English increasingly permeates British English, mostly through movies and television shows. I recently overheard an English teenager speak to her English friend and noted that her three short sentences each contained the word "like" two to three times, notably in the phrase "and I'm like" standing for "so I said to him." Not so long ago such Americanisms were very rarely heard in good old Albion.

There are quite a few metafictional passages in the book, all done in a very amusing non-intellectualized manner, often between parentheses. Tommy is constantly commenting upon his narrative and / or comparing his life / narrative to a TV show, a film, or a novel—and obviously Cumming knows exactly what he is doing, seizing the opportunity to comment on popular culture.

"What planet were you on last night? Jackie Collins?" (23)

Right, I'm going to tell you faster now: She opened my flies and started to, you know… whilst I took out some charlie I had in my pocket and proceeded to cut up a line on the top of the cistern. Yes, I know, I'm getting a blow job whilst doing coke in a disabled toilet. (But at least she was a signer for the deaf. Okay, not funny.) (41)

[A]ll of this made the notion of two weeks of easy work in the party city of the world [New York] seem to transform my life from Ken Loach-style urban decay to The Wizard of Oz! (103)

(Again I was plunging into the realm of daytime soaps. Jesus, any minute now a very suntanned woman wearing shoulder pads and a lot of gold jewelry and huge sunglasses is going to come out of the cupboard and say, 'Thomas, I know you thought I'd been burned alive in that hideous accident at our ski cabin in Aspen, but I escaped and made a new life for myself in Liechtenstein with my Puerto Rican lover, Raul. Yes, I'm your mother.') (157-158)

Besides, the narrative is interrupted at intervals by fables, or as Tommy views them, short "fairly tales" (pun no doubt intended), that usually function rather well as unpretentious mises en abyme. Page 219 Tommy goes to New York for work, and then the pace of the novel accelerates tremendously. I will not spoil the ending for the reader, but I believe it cannot hurt the book's sales if I conclude with my main feeling when I finished it: utter joy.

 


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