Brenda Monk is Funny

by Katy Brand. I know the writer as a stand up comic, although I've only seen her on the news satire show, Have I Got News For You. She comes across as being very sharp. And funny. All very promising, because this book is set in the world of stand up comedy. The front and back are covered with quotes from well known writers and comedians, about how funny it is.

I picked this up from my local library, part of my unconscious search for variety in my reading this year. I must have thought this would be a good light comic read, but it's actually quite a different kind of book. Brenda Monk is Funny is the story of a comedian's girlfriend who gets fed up with being the material for his humour and decides to become a stand up comic herself. It's often funny, but not so much from the content of any stand up routines. We're sort of expected to take them for granted; which is okay, because we quickly come to understand that the delivery of comedy is all about crafting the performance, and we're not going to get that from the written word. I guess it could have been the kind of comic novel which derives its humour from circumstance - slapstick, essentially. But then, Brenda Monk would have had to be hapless or incompetent, and the point of the book is that she becomes good.

Katy Brand went to Oxford or somewhere like that; anyway, she's well educated and one presumes her writing will be well crafted. However, "one" stumbles over a series of errors and many will start to doubt the presumption. Here's an example: "...each tightly packed with dreams and ambitions and not sufficient space in the world for all them to come true." When I read that, it felt like a physical glitch, my brain hung, waiting for the of to appear between all and them. There are all kinds of typo, such as seem when she meant seen. Or the other way around. I wasn't bookmarking them. It's the persistence of the vanishing of words which bothers the reader. Perhaps only a pedantic type like me, but I glanced at the Amazon entry for this book and in only a handful of readers' comments these errors were brought up. My impression is that the spell checker was turned on, but not any kind of grammar checker (to be fair, I wouldn't use one myself - hey, I heard that!). A pity about Brenda Monk is Funny, the mistakes do begin to draw attention to themselves.

Brenda Monk is flawed. Early on, her weakness is her subordination to the interests of her boyfriend Jonathan's career as a top stand up comedian. He's a jerk of the highest order, and to be honest I couldn't help bloke-like thinking in wondering why she doesn't just leave him. But the inertia she suffers is convincing. Her main flaw is the selfishness she develops later on - she's quite open about not being able to be the devoted girlfriend you would want her to be, for the thoroughly decent Pete. There's a strong not-very-hidden feminist subtext to the story, dealing with the questions one asks about how a woman has to be to succeed, in the face of the pressures to compromise. It's not resolved at the end of the story - it couldn't be I suppose, otherwise we'd have heard about some great solution to these gender issues in real life already. The feminism is nicely integral to the story. I like the way that the author fleshes out lots of the tedious nonsense women have to put up with in the more testosterone heavy parts of the world, without making Brenda too much of a victim. And there are one or two delicious scenes of payback.

I like Katy Brand's writing. Her scene setting is fine, but nothing exceptional - though of course it's interesting when we get to the comedy clubs themselves, because most of us have never seen behind the scenes there. Where she really shines is in her deft character building. There are details in all of them, even the fleetingly-seen ones, which render them as distinct individuals. More than that, something I really appreciate; a willingness to show that people change, or have different sides to them, and it may have nothing to do with you. I mean, with the protagonist. Other lives go on, whether you're there or not. And she avoids a lot of easy clich├ęs, such as having an awkward dad who is part of why she's screwed up or something. What I'm trying to say is, you don't end up feeling that other characters only exist to serve a function in the plot.

A sequel is likely. I think they're crowd funding again, for a book under the working title of Brenda Monk is Famous. I like the sound of that, I'll probably read it. I won't be sorry if there's no further mention of the lamentable Jonathan, but I accept that there'll have to be various odious new characters to interfere with Brenda's prospects. Mainly I'm looking forward to lots of caustic observations about the world of popular tv comedy, and trying to see through the disguises of all the different shows, hosts and panelists. Assuming Katy Brand does actually disguise them.

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