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A New Universal History of Infamy

Rhys Hughes

Ministry of Whimsy / NightShade Books

US Trade Hardcover First

ISBN 1-892-38983-5

Publication Date: 01-15-2004

181 Pages; $25.00

Date Reviewed: 01-07-04

Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2004



General Fiction, Fantasy

01-02-04, 03-18-05

Introduction to the Review

While most book reviews do not require an introduction, this one most certainly will. There will be those who will accuse me of inventing this book; that is, of reviewing an imaginary book in the style of Stanislaw Lem or Jorge Luis Borges. It is true; I've done this before, and I intend to do so again. However, in this case, I must assure the reader that the book being reviewed is not imaginary. Now this is not to indicate that the reader can (currently) actually purchase this book at the bookstore. I do not believe that it is quite available for sale. However, I am given to believe by people I trust -- though I can't claim to actually know them, other than through email correspondence -- that it will be for sale in the future. In a sense, that makes this review a work of science fiction, since I am extrapolating from the past (email correspondence) into the future (the date of the publication of this book). However, since I have a history of writing imaginary book reviews, this review could also be classified as a work of historical fiction, if you're willing to soak the definition of historical fiction until it becomes pliable enough to stretch-to-fit this composition.

In any event, purchasing this book as soon as it is available is probably a good idea, since once it goes out of print, it does become imaginary to those who were not lucky enough to buy it when it was available. And for many, it will remain entirely imaginary. They will not find it in the grocery store paperback racks, nor will it show up on the shelves of their local superstore. For a significant percentage -- in fact, for the majority of the world's population -- 'A New Universal History of Infamy' will remain fully in the realm of the imagined. As a reviewer then, it is my responsibility to fill their imagination as precisely as possible with a simulacrum of the real thing.


A Description of Reality

While books themselves are not required to describe reality, book reviews are. However, the work submitted for my approval -- and I most certainly approved, to the point where my laughter while reading the work disturbed those around me and caused them to cast irritated or alarmed glances in my direction -- could not be considered entirely real. The finished work will be a hardcover book, while my copy was in the format of a Trade Paperback. I'm hoping that in his Introduction, the esteemed critic John Clute will have more to say than "To Be Added". But I cannot say with certainty that this is the case. That's because 'A New Universal History of Infamy' dispenses fact as fiction and fiction as fact to a degree which makes it hazardous to presume any authorial intent. The words swirl, the worlds swirl, the reader's brain swirl, and if you're not dizzy with delight at Hughes' concoction then you're likely puking your guts out in a back alley with horror and disorientation.

If the latter is your reaction, wipe your chin, pick up the book and begin again. You're enjoying yourself, trust me. Would I lie to you?


Egregious Self-Referentialism

By now, even the most patient readers of reviews are grinding their teeth, hoping the reviewer will just get to the plot summary portion of the review. This would presume that there's a plot to summarize. The sound of those grinding teeth, if carefully sampled using the latest in digital sound recording technology, could be snipped to the point where single tonalities --recognizable musical notes -- could be extracted from the annoying noise. These notes could then be transposed and re-arranged into entire symphonies that would be indistinguishable from symphonies created with skilled musicians being paid union scale. The musicians in question, having learned that their services were pre-empted by the sounds of readers' grinding teeth, might revolt, hunting down the readers one by one and impaling them with viola bows made from catgut. Catgut would cut through human guts, spilling blood in a manner that could at best be called gratuitous. The reviewer could be accused of what Stephen King called "going for the gross-out", an easy path taken by many horror writers who do not wish to strive for the finer emotions of terror. The writer being reviewed however, takes no such easy course. Mr. Hughes is content only with the finest uses of the gross-out, to create humor that forces laughter to be expelled from the reader like a bilious bulge of congealed phlegm. Do not read this work in situations where extraneous laughter might be interpreted as a hostile gesture, unless you like a good fight.


But Wait -- There's More! This Isn't It, However.

Not content to simply make the reader laugh at the invented histories of fictional creations, Mr. Hughes manages to re-write history in such a fashion that he achieves the effects of science fiction without any of the typical tropes. He displays either an encyclopedic knowledge of the last 1,000 years of history -- or a facility for lying which suggests he ought to seek a job in government -- that enables him to create, in the readers' swirling brain, pictures and montages that are positively mind-boggling. Readers of any cant who are amenable to having their minds boggled will find the experience inimitably pleasant.

I do not mean to suggest that readers of cheesy genre fiction will be the only, or even the primary, audience of this work. Hughes has created something utterly unique here, were it not based directly on the work of another author. While I'm not familiar with the particular work being referenced here, I have read the author's name -- Jorge Luis Borges, and even in a previous paragraph, written that name as if I was intimately familiar with his work. Whether or not that is the case is left as an exercise for the reader to determine. In any event, this work -- 'A New Universal History of Infamy' -- has the potential for broad appeal. Hughes' academic satire has the -- to most -- pleasant effect of evoking uncontrolled laughter and a joyous sense of wonder. That "sense of wonder" is entirely based on Hughes' ability to write -- or re-write history, not natter on about aliens, the universe and whatnot.


Final SubHead: More Has Arrived, So Has Hughes

Yes, there's more -- a lot more to Hughes' creation. Suffice it to say that 'A New Universal History of Infamy' includes not only hilarious histories of people no sane reader would hope to have existed, but also a series of parodies, surplus parodies, parodies of parodies and even a parody of itself such as one the reader might wish to write after reading it. Curiously enough, Mike Simanoff's Afterward mirrors John Clute's Introduction -- he merely says "To Be Added". Thus, like a snake devouring its own tail, Hughes work turns back upon itself. Unlike the snake, it does not choke, or fade into urban legend. Instead, the volume I have is to become more real rather than less. It is to find sales -- abundant sales -- in bookstores across the nation. It will be snatched from the grocery racks as if it were a tabloid claiming evidence of alien alterations to our historical record. It is in fact an alien alteration of our historical record. For the record, it's nice to know that the aliens have a sense of humor. It will serve them well in their dealings with humanity.