Before I even started this book I could see it was going to be different from anything else I’ve read lately, or reviewed on the blog. So, strap yourselves in, readers, this one is going to take you on a wild ride!
For starters, I believe this is the first novel I’ve reviewed that has a dildo on the front cover. It’s a subtle (ish) artistic interpretation of the device, but it is there. Author, Zanesh Catkin, has also eschewed the usual author self-promotion we’re accustomed to seeing in cover design by obscuring his face in a comic photograph, alongside a bogus bio. He will not be getting the old “How much of the main character is really you?” question at his next book launch or festival appearance! I found it very refreshing to approach this novel ‘cold’, if you like, without knowing anything about the author’s back-story, agendas or genre history.
And so it was with an open mind that I descended into the African kingdom of Panga, where our journalist hero Francis is embarking on the adventure of a lifetime. As a foreigner (or a spazokaildehappama in the local language – meaning ‘fortunately not one of my relatives’), Francis attracts suspicion and scrutiny wherever he goes. Border crossings, for foreign journalists, are especially tedious. Getting caught with a suitcase full of vibrators is unlikely to make your immigration interrogation any easier. Francis is arrested, even though he is adamant the suitcase in question is not his, and is thrown into an unlikely partnership with an African pilgrim named Easter – himself on a quest to find his grandfather’s lost treasure.
Meanwhile, in the village of Preta, people are hard at work in a sex toy factory. This is, of course, a highly comic setting with plenty of shock value which invites us to chuckle at how such places create devices for different cultural markets: which country, for example, believes it is the ‘biggest’? The sheer range of products the toy-buying market has to choose from is amusing in itself! And yet … have you ever given it any thought? Somewhere out there, children are enslaved in factories to mass produce sex toys that retail all around the world. The factory boss here jokes that it costs him $6 to make a particular item which sells for $80 in New York. Meanwhile, his staff sleep on small blankets beside their workstations, eating rations dealt out according to their productivity, so that the wealthy head honchos can keep themselves in Rolexes. Panga may be fictional, but the scenario is very real. In this way, Catkin’s novel is both hilarious and horrific – a fantastic, boy’s own travel tale and an insightful indictment of global capitalism.
As the adventure dances in and out of magic realism and social satire, Francis and Easter take on Panga’s military rascals, corrupt corporations and dubious deities in an attempt to split grandpa’s loot and free the children from slavery. Francis’ journey comes complete with a map of Panga, a glossary of local terms and cultural notes (or does it?) as it playfully drags the fantasy and travel narrative genres into the heart of darkness. Cultural and political parody is plentiful here, whilst the characters encountered on the journey run the gamut from sublime to ridiculous. There are also plenty of intertextual nods to the work of other authors (bibliography included) and feminist, postmodern and postcolonial theory, if you happen to be looking for a little ‘Edward Said baloney’. I particularly liked the Vagina Dentata toy model. Unless, of course, those things really exist and it wasn’t a joke. I’m choosing to believe it was a joke.
Pangamonium is a novel at once literary and low-brow. It will hold special appeal for anyone with an Arts degree as well as anyone who likes a good conspiracy theory. More generally, though, it offers a comical and thought-provoking romp for any reader in the market for some fresh, edgy, original fiction.
Pangamonium is published by MidnightSun Publishing, and I thank them kindly for my copy.