Sometimes reviewers are in the unenviable position of the kid pointing at the emperor’s (lack of) clothes. Everyone else likes a book and you don’t. Even if you feel like you should like the book. Sadly, this is the case with Christopher Meades’s The Last Hiccup, which has all the earmarks of a book I’d enjoy, but alas, left me cold.
In the early 1930s Soviet Union, little Vladimir is stricken with a debilitating case of hiccups. Rival doctors put the boy through all kinds of bizarre treatments, to no avail. Are the hiccups physical? Psychological? Due to underlying evil? Finally one doctor kidnaps the child and dumps him in outer Mongolia for a kind of Zen cure, leaving him there for the next 12 years. When Vladimir eventually makes his pilgrimage back to the “real” world, the country is in the throes of the Second World War, making his journey dangerous and difficult. And he still hasn’t been able to stop hiccupping.
The Last Hiccup has been described as “darkly funny, tragic and ultimately heroic” as well as “a loopy epic of Vonnegutian proportions.” This is a bit of a reach: The book doesn’t seem funny or tragic, and none of its potential gets fulfilled; while Meades writes cleverly, the reader can see the gears moving.
It’s also interesting that the book has a very clearly delineated plot (something frequently missing in CanLit), yet one comes away feeling like nothing has actually happened. Though the characters, too, are distinctly drawn, they still seem somehow blank, making it impossible to either like or dislike them.
Presumably, Meades did his research, both on persistent hiccups and also on Russian society of that era, but it doesn’t come across with verisimilitude, so the humour or irony is lost. And where is the “Russian-ness,” that particular quality that gives stories of that empire their punch? One gets the feeling that Meades was trying to write a pastiche of a Great Russian Novel, but it just comes off as a kind of flattened Pilgrim’s Progress. We see Vladimir on his travels and in his interactions with kooky characters, which one assumes are the funny bits, but they just seem like discrete set pieces strung on a narrative chain that never quite links together.
Meades mostly tells the least interesting parts of the story, while we get almost nothing about Vladimir’s Mongolian years, which are dismissed in a short recap. The two doctors also fall out of the narrative: one is conveniently killed off and the other tells his story in a big expository dump.
Vlad himself remains so opaque as to become thoroughly uninteresting by the end, even with the book’s tongue-in-cheek, Sydney Carton finale. There is much opportunity for genuine loopy fun, but Meades doesn’t allow himself the free rein.
This could have been Marx Brothers meets Vonnegut, but instead it reads like a lot of CanLit: carefully done, pretty, a bit buttoned-down, but ultimately kind of forgettable.
Special to The Globe and Mail.