I have written a novel called Rub-A-Dub-Dub. I’m pleased with it, I think. I’m calling it a picaresque, which means that it’s an episodic sort of novel about an unconventionally sympathetic character. This character’s name is Robert Forrester but he’s known to us as “Mister Bob” because that’s what Pavel, his neighbour, calls him in the first sentence of the book and it sticks. “Hoy, Mister Bob!” That’s the opening line. It’s no “Call me Ishmael” but it’s not bad, eh?
Poor, beleaguered Mister Bob works all day and sometimes all night on long-distance passenger trains, going up and down the length of Great Britain. Or “the hunched spine of Great Britain,” as my narrator puts it. Mister Bob absorbs disrespect from the passengers and from his boss as he negotiates the hardships of an uncaring post-Brexit England.
When Tracey, a colleague and our main love interest, tells Mister Bob that he stinks, he receives it as constructive criticism. He decides to improve his life, starting with the eradication of his middle-aged man smell. He takes solace in hot, soapy baths. And, when he does so, he retreats into deep memory and wild imagination.
That’s the scenario. There are many surprises along the way and what is hopefully a startling ending.
The first hundred copies are making their way in the world thanks to a new indie publishing concern in my home city of Glasgow: P&H Books. The feedback so far has been encouraging. A respected reviewer for Outside Left called it “an extraordinary first novel, comic and poignant” which is precisely the sort of praise any new novelist wants to hear. The rock star Fliss Kitson (of the Nightingales) has meanwhile called it “true greatness” and “a murky, pungent, beautiful tale.” Top that. I’m struggling to get coverage in the national newspapers but who needs it after such wonderful endorsements?
Even so, this opportunity to say something at Writing.ie allows me to anticipate any criticism the book might eventually attract. So let’s do that.
One thing they might sling at me is that the book is too rude. Yes, it’s filthy by design. In part this is to counteract and enhance the bathtub chapters: Mister Bob lives in a filthy, grotty, grubby, immoral, fungussy world. But more than that, I’m allied to something called the Dirtbag Left. This label is mostly applied to young American female artists who use vulgarity to communicate a left-wing, anti-capitalist message. They tend to be former high school mean girls. I wasn’t a mean girl, I was a nice boy, but I admire their use of vulgarity because why should cultural criticism be polite, especially when you’re angry and trying to make art at the same time? So I do the same thing in Rub-A-Dub-Dub, which is quite a rude and bawdy novel really. It’s not necessarily radical though: I use time-honoured literary tropes such as grotesque body like Rabelais, scatology and blue humour. I think these things land quite hard when I do them because I have quite a polite voice.
Another objection might be the use of accents for comic effect. Isn’t that a bit low-brow? But the bewildering range of accents in Britain is something to behold and I wanted to acknowledge it. On paper, this technique is called eye dialect. It’s done extremely well in A Confederacy of Dunces, for example. It’s also an economical way to convey a sense of place or changing geographies: Mister Bob travels up and down the UK’s railway lines, from north to south and back again, so the accents and political values of the passengers change as we move. Accents can have comedy value sometimes, without necessarily poking fun of people. In some cases, I got language consultants to tell me if my impressions were bad or offensive or inaccurate. They always were, of course, but they helped me to get them right.
A third objection from my imaginary critic might concern the ending. It’s very abrupt. But life ends abruptly and it’s rarely portrayed that way in novels. Without getting into spoilers, the sequence running up to the end is about Mister Bob’s hope crumbling apart and threatening to fall on his head from a great height, about how it’s possible to try individually to improve our lot in a capitalist environment through commercially-available solutions, but we’re ultimately dependent on gigantic systemic entities–climates really–many of which are threatened by corruption inspired by capitalism. Besides, after so much everyday grotesquery, all in the cack-smeared weeds of life, I’m allowed to write at least one slightly fantastical disaster.
A last objection might be that it’s just not very well written. I disagree. I think it is excellently written. It is well-paced, political, full of surprises, and my grammar is impeccable. It’s quite dark but also light and very, very funny. Well done me.
(c) Robert Wringham
Defeated. Balding. Pungent. Mister Bob is troubled and cuts a pitiable figure in his job on long-distance trains.
His road to salvation starts in a most unlikely place: his bathtub.
Ride the rails with Mister Bob in Rub-A-Dub-Dub, through an underworld of private squalor, public shame and sublime bodily landscapes.
Order your copy online here.