Sunday, May 27, 2007

FreeBooks #7: A Dancing Bear by Mark Osher

Poor Fenton Bland. His life at college is rapidly spiraling out of control. It's bad enough that he's stuck in the class of Professor Ivan Lego, whose theory of socioliterology -- the concept that any writing is wrongfully oppressive because "it owes its very existence to a foundational act of suppression, namely, the suppression of non-language" -- is taking the academic world by storm. It's even worse that he's inadvertently given Pamela, a student activist with whom Fenton shares a deep, dark shame, the idea to strike a blow for the disenfranchised by campaigning for the release of a notorious serial killer. Still worse, Fenton's relationship with his lesbian faux-vegetarian deadbeat housemates is worse than ever (not least because of the dead cat). But worst of all is that the student Maoist group that Fenton joined solely for the purpose of getting close to the beautiful Charmaine is singularly focused on announcing itself by assassinating someone, and Fenton is stuck right in the middle of the plot.

Don't worry if you don't have a good sense of what "Maoists" are. Neither do I. Nor, for that matter, do the members of the Maoist group. And that, in a nutshell, is what makes Mark Osher's delightful A Dancing Bear such a spot-on primer to the college experience. It's all there: the students whose big plans and grand statements are undermined by their own lack of understanding (and ability). The academics whose outré theories are driven by self-promotion rather than genuine relevance. The everyman stuck in the middle, trying to do what is right but restrained by his own passivity. And, of course, the university public bathrooms:

No gent in his right mind had ever employed this door more than twice, in very quick succession: once on his uninformed way in; and once more, about two seconds after that, to effect an appalled and lifelong departure. For behind this door lay the most deplorable block of toilets on campus. Clearly, something had gone badly wrong in there. It was as though at some point the facility had been officially forgotten, had slipped outside the purview of whatever body or agency was meant to stand between such places and anarchy. Maybe during an administrative restructure it had vanished into the grey area between two spheres of responsibility. Maybe every cleaner in the university just assumed some other cleaner was cleaning it. In any case, it was beyond redemption now. The cubicle doors swung crookedly from busted hinges, like wounded soldiers being helped along a trail. The lights buzzed and flickered like dying flies. . . .

And the stench … the stench was the stench of the jungle. No man who smelled it could possibly retain any of those frayed illusions concerning the supremacy, or even the adequacy, of his gender. But the really alarming thing about this reek was this: it kept getting worse. Which could only mean one thing. People kept contributing to it. Somewhere on campus there existed men who were still prepared to use this facility – men who thought it a fit venue in which to bare the most intimate parts of their flesh. Who were they, these men? Chillingly, they had to be out there in the general population, blending in, walking past you every day without your knowing it. Maybe they were your friends, your tutors. The guy with the mysterious grin who ran the bakery. The shuffling first-year with the bad skin and the walkman. Elderly professors who wore sneakers with their slacks and accused your essays of being “prolix,” hardy old campaigners who probably took broadsheet newspapers in there and settled in for the long haul. The insane. The incontinent. Fugitives from justice. The damned.

A Dancing Bear is consistently hilarious, combining effective satire of academic, political and individual pomposity with regular moments of slapstick, laugh-out-loud humor. However, equally impressive is the novel's philosophical heart. For all of its worthwhile silliness, A Dancing Bear also is concerned with deeper questions that confront all collegians, and, for that matter, all thinking people. Can I steer my life where I want it to go? Or am I locked in to a path set by outside forces or simple inertia? What would it take to change my life? A Dancing Bear seamlessly works these weighty themes into its rollicking tale, ultimately proving satisfying on many levels.

All told, A Dancing Bear is a brilliant success and is highly recommended. It is available for free at the official website (which is very amusing in its own right), either as chapter-by-chapter webpages or as a printer-friendly RTF file of the complete novel. The novel is also available as a free downloadable audiobook. As the website notes, "the world is fast running out of excuses not to read this book."


Steph_J said...

I managed to come up with a few good excuses for not reading A Dancing Bear. I don’t usually enjoy dark comedies, and I enjoy stories centered around the college experience even less. I’m also stretched thin on the time I allot myself for book reading, and upon discovering A Dancing Bear was a rather large work, it gave me one more excuse not to read it.

The subject matter of the excerpt that Mr. Kappa offered pretty much reaffirmed my prejudices. When I found myself reading the excerpt twice, I had to admit that something about the writer’s style had attracted my attention. My curiosity engaged, I decided to read the first chapter of the book. Five chapters later, I could no longer deny it, I was hooked. The hours I spent anxiously turning the pages proved to be time well spent. A Dancing Bear is a thoroughly entertaining and amazingly thought-provoking work that kept me on the edge of my seat. And yes, it was funny. I laughed. Okay… I laughed out loud. There! I said it.

My only disappointment in this work is that I can’t purchase a couple books, one to keep on my shelf, and one to pass among friends. Perhaps Mark Osher/David Free would consider making it available through one of the print-on-demand companies (I believe Lulu still offers a free service).

I hope to see more books from this wonderfully talented author.

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to thank Devon for the intelligent and (if you ask me!) wholly accurate review, and also thank Steph J. for her comments. I also want to inform interested parties (particularly Steph J.) that a Lulu printing of "A Dancing Bear" IS now available through Amazon and other online retailers - details are on my website. Thanks again for your interest,