From time to time, Titan Books are kind enough to send me advance copies of upcoming novels I express an interest in. When they do, I’ll be reviewing them here on Cultural Conversation.
You may have heard the name David Quantick over the years.
You may indeed have seen him as a talking head on more than a few clip shows providing a comedic or acerbic bent, but in reality he is one of the most quietly esteemed comedy writers in the UK of the last thirty years, from the influential and dark work of Chris Morris such as The Day Today, Brass Eye and Jam, through to a fruitful union with Armando Iannucci on The Thick of It and most recently in the US, Veep, which has seen Emmy Awards coming his way.
The latter two projects are mentioned on the cover of All My Colors, a title itself handily Americanised as this sees Quantick—in his first slice of prose fiction—playing in the American cultural wilderness as he brings to bear a caustic, snappy slice of satirical, melodramatic horror. The story of Todd Milstead feels like what would happen if you threw H.P. Lovecraft, The Twilight Zone, Stephen King and 80’s Richard Briers-starring comedy Ever Decreasing Circles into a blender.
Naturally this is, in no way, a bad thing.
All My Colors is principally though about writing. Quantick uses the creeping horror of his story as a mechanism to explore the blood, sweat and tears (not to mention faeces) involved in the writing process, particularly in this case when it comes to writing the Great American Novel. In 1979 Illinois, Todd is a notoriously average blowhard in a loveless marriage who believes he understands greatness when in reality he is, as Quantick states in his very first line, just an ‘asshole’. He remembers a novel nobody else can, the titular ‘All My Colors’, and then subsequently—as if possessed—proceeds to write what everyone considers a work of seminal genius he naturally passes off as his own.
Quantick’s prose is built mainly around dialogue, which is unsurprising given his background in screenplays and particularly wordplay, but he really manages to capture the feeling of a middle-class Americana at the end of a decade of fading trends and fashions; the gloomy 70’s are giving way to a gaudy 80’s of colour and blockbusters, a world you sense Todd would increasingly feel a dinosaur in. Quantick takes an odious know it all through a strange and all-consuming creative process which utterly upends his life and his psyche and while you’re never exactly meant to like or care about Todd, his journey is incredibly engaging as you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop constantly across the novel.
All My Colors is also often extremely funny in a mordant and sarcastic way, filled with a range of characters who interact with Todd and bring their own neuroses or weird psychoses along with them. My favourite was book store owner Timothy, a raging cauldron of repressed, undervalued hate contained in the figure of a pinched, pleasant bookish man – you almost want Quantick to spin him off for a novel of his own. The author manages to really counterbalance this dark humour with moments of bloody and savage horror which never tip the book too heavily into pulp. There is a lot of metaphor to what is, ultimately, a cautionary tale about the process of artistic creation. In that respect this novel reminded me of the recent Netflix film Velvet Buzzsaw, from Dan Gilroy, which treads similar ground in the art world as opposed to the one of literature here.
All My Colors is very much about the destructive nature of art and writing if it becomes all-consuming at the expense of everything else, especially relationships. In some sense you could read Quantick’s entire novel as being about marriage itself, but in truth All My Colors is balancing a number of metaphorical aspects which brew into a frequently entertaining concoction. It’s a speedy read thanks to prose which draws you in, skilled and funny writing, and a central narrative mystery which only truly unfurls toward the very end and provides a chilling denouement which feels very earned.
David Quantick may be a writer in the business for a long time but All My Colors feels like a warning to anyone looking to ape him. It can be great but if you’re chasing success, be careful just how much you wish for.
All My Colors is available from Titan Books on Tuesday April 16th.