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Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination
Helen Fielding
Basingstoke & Oxford: Picador, 2003.
£12.99, 344 pages, ISBN 0-330-43273-7.

Kevin Hunt
University of Nottingham

Olivia Joules—that’s "J. O. U. L. E. S. (a)s in the unit of kinetic energy" [p. 4]—is quite a departure for Fielding from the ubiquitous Bridget Jones. Rather than recording her personal traumas and closely observed human frailties in a diary, Joules is an extrovert beauty journalist who pinballs around the world in search of "a proper news story" [p. 3]. However, an overactive imagination has so far prevented her profile from rising above Elan magazine and the style section of The Sunday Times. Her last attempt, after alleging there was a locust cloud in the Sudan, saw her return with "two grasshoppers in a polythene bag" [p. 1] and a story about "animals starving in the zoo" [p. 1]—or, as it turned out, an article chronicling the health of one "quite porky" [p. 1] warthog.

So, when a new assignment takes her to Miami South Beach for a "face-cream launch" [p. 2], it is no surprise that Joules encounters Pierre Ferramo, an arab with a dubious French accent, and immediately starts thinking "Osama Bin Ferramo" [p. 21]. A James Bond parody then quickly develops after a terrorist bomb destroys the OceansApart, a luxury liner moored in the harbour, and Joules decides to follow her instincts and investigate. The multi-lingual Olivia, fluent in French, passable in Spanish and German, and aware of the "rudiments of Arabic" [p. 43], follows the trail to Los Angeles, Honduras, London, Cairo, the Sudan, and back again, in a well-paced ramble through the tropes of the international spy genre, but with a post-feminist twist.

In a story seemingly influenced both by Lara Croft and Austin Powers, of all the gadgetry Joules employs it is her bra that contains the "absolute essentials" [p. 288]: the "dagger and tranquilizer syringe" act as underwiring, the "flower in the centre" hides a "tiny circular saw" and in a booster pad she conceals a "digital micro-camera, a blusher-ball gas diffuser, a waterproof lighter and the lipsalve, which was actually a flash" [p. 288]. The wry language Fielding uses to describe her heroine is therefore played off against the caricatured aspects of her leading lady and is in keeping with the farcical quality of the plot.

Continuing the comic-book theme, a handful of black and white pictures (like Lichtenstein prints without the Benday dots) are spaced fairly evenly throughout the book. However, these images, accompanied by captions lifted from the text ("She formed her fingers into a gun shape and whispered 'Kpow! Kpow!'" [p. 236]), seem unnecessary and childish. To my mind, they indicate either a slightly patronizing fear that the audience needs further proof that this is a parody, by having the pulp fiction content presented in a more explicitly visual manner, or, perhaps, suggests a cynical attempt to broaden the appeal of the book to a younger readership—publishers and authors alike must be understandably keen to tap into the lucrative crossover market exposed by the success of the Harry Potter series.

Focussing on the former of these two inferences, a certain amount of concern over the content of the novel is not without justification. While it is clear from the start that Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination is a parody (pictures or no pictures), it selects al-Qaeda, a genuine terrorist organisation, as the bad guys. As a result, there is an inevitable political commentary related to real world events that sits awkwardly with the light-hearted tone of the novel. On occasion, these comments even take on a preaching quality that seems both misplaced and insincere. We are told, for instance, that "Olivia did not agree with weapons of destruction, mass, individual or otherwise" [p. 164], that "(m)ost of the wars in the world are caused by people who think they have God on their side" [p. 260] and that every time the American President says "civilised world,” he converts another five thousand to the anti-arrogance jihad [p.316].

While creating a fictionalised terrorist group would merely have acted as a metaphor for the obvious, Fielding’s decision to cast "a senior al-Qaeda strategist" [p. 278] as a "Jane Bond" [p. 222] villain, whose special psychopathic trait involves sucking pieces off female victims [p. 278], seems provocative in a glib sort of way rather than genuinely humorous. This is coupled with descriptive language that often employs stereotyping or racial slurs. Arabs are frequently described as "swathy" [p. 11], "languid" [p. 21] and "oily" [p. 43], and there is an inherent us and them mentality evinced by references to "the Arab mind" [p. 194]. Even Professor Absalom Widgett, "a British scholar of Islam" [p. 133] and the equivalent figure to Q in James Bond, seems to use The Arabian Nights as his key source of information, citing Ferramo’s "Bedouin desert-nomad mentality" [p. 253] as central to his perception of women.

These reductive aspects are, to a certain extent, shielded by the overall conception of the novel as a parody. By this I mean that the target of the humour could be said to be the spy genre itself, with its sexist, pompous and xenophobic overtones, rather than the caricatures created to carry the story along. However, if this is the case then surely any positive attributes displayed by Joules, as a pro-active heroine, and any politicised comments about the terrorist threat, have to be taken as tongue-in-cheek along with her inherent racism (her description of Arabs is in keeping with the tone of the third person narration). The alternative is to suggest that it is justifiable to hide behind parody in order to employ stereotypes, while also claiming other aspects of the same format constitute a valid medium for expressing political opinion.

However, even without this complication, it is hard to tell whether Olivia is intended to be an intelligent and strong-willed woman, capable of producing top quality pieces for The Sunday Times, or whether her ambition is in fact part of the joke—her overactive imagination making her a “cry wolf” character who can never be believed anyway. Despite all of her drive and desire, which has taken her from being the orphan "Rachel Pixley… a drop out from Worksop Comprehensive" [p. 12] through a name change to become Olivia Joules ("the attractiveness of the word 'Joules' was the only thing she remembered from physics lessons" [p. 14]), she still ends up being rescued, and bedded, by Scott Rich "of the CIA, formerly of the Special Boat Service and one of the brightest stars of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology" [p. 242].

Olivia Joules and the Overactive Imagination is a flawed comic novel. It has pace and humour, but the jokes are often hit and miss. The best of them are observational and capable of transcending the broader context of the novel—like the airline lady who knows Olivia is in a rush but who nevertheless starts typing information as though composing a "contemplative poem, pausing to stare at the screen as if searching for exactly the right word or phrase" [p. 280]. The political aspects of the story do not always fit in with its mode of presentation and events related to al-Qaeda and other terrorist acts (some of which have occurred since publication in 2003) give certain jokes a very dark edge—notably a suggestion that "the only response to a disembodied-head sighting was a sticky cake and a cup of tea" [p. 181]. This is highlighted by the fact that, post 9/11, even the Hollywood-style plots being parodied no longer seem quite so far fetched. Consequently, in order to get the best out of this story it really has to be read in the flippant, no-brainer spirit with which it was undoubtedly written.



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