No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Tuesday, July 01, 2003

Cowboy Feng's Space Bar and Grille -- Steven Brust

Thirteen years after its first publication, Steven Brust's most science-fictional novel - Cowboy Feng's Space Bar and Grille - has been reissued by Tor US.

With hindsight it's easy to detect Brust's debt to Roger Zelazny: there's a particularly metaphysical twist to some of his metaphors, and a cavalier disregard for modern English that's reminiscent of Zelazny at his most lavish. But the admiration went both ways: Zelazny's praise of Brust ("He's good. He moves fast. He surprises you.") appears on the cover of this and more recent Brust novels.

And he does surprise you. Cowboy Feng's Space Bar and Grille is a murder mystery, a time-travel whodunit and a love story, with plenty of other ingredients to taste - including a memorable elegy to Laphroiag, and an ingenious use for goats.

The novel's credited to 'Steven Brust, PJF', and Tor would have done well to include Brust's own explanation of the acronym. 'PJF' stands for 'Pre-Joycean Fellowship', a tongue-in-cheek agglomeration of (mainly Minnesotan) writers who, in Brust's words, "exist to poke fun at the excesses of modern literature, while simultaneously mining it for everything of value."

Brust (unsurprisingly) is disingenuous. Billy, who sounds from the photofit as though he bears a marked resemblance to Brust himself, is as unreliable a narrator as you could wish to encounter. The 'Intermezzos' between each chapter, which at first appear to be telling separate, disjointed tales, have an unexpected connection to the primary narrative. And I remain mistrustful of any novel in which a major threat to humanity is described solely in terms of current jokes and references to taboo menu items. (Pancakes and flounders, if you must know).

The science-fictional trappings of the novel are more backdrop than setting: the eponymous restaurant executes a time/space leap whenever atomic war occurs in its vicinity, depositing itself and its inhabitants in a safer place. When the novel opens, the restaurant and its 'crew' - cook, handyman etc, plus an Irish folk band who happened to be playing when the first jump occurred - find themselves on New Quebec, their first trip outside the solar system. Working out why they're there, how they're there and what they're meant to be doing there, is next on the agenda: the process drives a fast-moving, emotional rollercoaster of a plot. The action is punctuated by jam sessions as the band submerge their sorrows in music, in a way that will be familiar to any devotee of early-Nineties North American urban fantasy. (Think de Lint, Emma Bull, Pamela Dean et al). If the music leaves you cold, the cooking might get to you: this is not a novel to be read on an empty stomach!

Brust's light, witty prose sits oddly, at times, with the salvation of humanity and the weighty ethical issues underlying the narrative. Yet - in part due to the emotional honesty of the characters - it carries off Brust's narrative sleight-of-hand with considerable flair. A welcome reissue! (Oh, and Deverra's there: page 94).

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