by Mark Watson

It would be very easy to be envious of Mark Watson's success. He's got a first in English from Cambridge, directed the prestigious Footlights, has established himself as a stand-up, is working on a BBC sitcom and has had one novel published and is working on the second.

Oh, and he's just 23.

Possibly even more frustratingly, he's proving rather good at almost everything he tackles; winning the Open Mic comedy competition in 2002 and being part of the Footlights team nominated for the Perrier in 2001. His first novel, Bullet Points, is no exception.

Thankfully, this young polymath has skilfully negotiated the twin traps of the comedian-turned-novelist, who can be tempted to either produce a gag-a-page effort that sacrifices plot and character for a wearingly relentless chuckle-fest, or overcompensate by producing a wordy, worthy, unnecessarily literary work to try to prove they are more than just a jester.

For while there are plenty of dark, understated jokes in Bullet Points, Watson instead tells it straight, even if he does manage to invent a literary device of his own in the process.

Rather than going down the 'write what you know' route, his first book revolves around a middle-aged psychiatrist, Peter Kristal, who comes up with a short-cut way of problem solving by summarising everyone's life as a series of bullet points. It's a technique that makes him something of a celebrity shrink, and he becomes involved in a number of high-profile cases in the Seventies and Eighties.

His life is told as though his own, unreliable, memoirs, and structured as a series of short stories covering each of his patients ­ the singer trying to discourage a stalker, the actress with stage fright or the athletes trying to win a psychological advantage.

As the years unfold, we learn more about his own character, driven by the feeling he's forever in the shadow of a more high-profile friend, is struggling to find the love of his life and feels increasingly rootless as he moves from his native England to make his professional name in the States.

They are quite broad strokes, enough to provide a rough picture with some depth, but not a detailed character study that will ultimately unveil some great truth. Perhaps it's kept that way deliberately, to give the twists in the tale more of an element of surprise while still remaining credible.

Either way, Bullet Points is never less than readable. In setting a tight, compelling pace, Watson has created a cracking read that's intelligent enough to nourish the grey cells, without putting them under undue strain.

Borrowing the bullet point method from Kristal, and indeed the novel itself, which uses the unconventional device effectively and sparingly:

  • Breezy, entertaining debut with a kick
  • Comic background adds a nice touch of appropriate humour
  • Episodic structure useful to keep story moving
  • Interesting characters and fascinating subject matter
  • Assured, mature and original entry to the world of fiction
  • Novel No 2 anticipated already.

 

Steve Bennett
March 15, 2004


Bullet Points is published by Chatto And Windus as £12.99. Click here to buy from Amazon at £9.09.

Published: 22 Sep 2006

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