Hunters & Gatherers, Geoff Nicholson

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Hunters & Gatherers, Geoff Nicholson, Overlook Press, 1994 (c1991), ISBN 0-87951-559-7, $21.95, 215pp.

This is a comedy novel about collectors, with an oh-so-perfect title. It begins with a long list of things that collect, in all manifestations of the word, then proceeds to introduce us to a weird cross-section of British society. There is the car wash man with a craving for knowledge who decides to collect the entire contents of “The Books of Power,” a strange encyclopedia set, into his memory. His boss, the prototypical used car salesman, with the pitch perfected, and a collection of knickers from his one-night stands (funny, how knickers is so much more tame than the American version “panties,” no?). The wealthy auto collector and his wife who collects sexual experiences. And, finally, the narrator, who is writing a book on collectors, and so finds himself ironically in the position of collecting collectors.

The plot is an intricate construction that links all of the above together. I found it almost exactly opposite of a mystery novel, in that you have to unravel the events to get to the point, whereas Nicholson works to weave his characters together to show you the mystery. The book has echoes a couple of other works that I had read in the past, but these are not conscious on Nicholson’s part, I believe, but simply the baggage I brought with me. It is similar to Stephen Fry’s The Hippopotamus, which should not be that surprising, as Fry’s novel was also a British comedy about writers. It had some of the feel of A.S. Byatt’s Possession, in that Nicholson continued to explore the theme of collecting much farther than I thought possible, and possession is an aspect of collecting.

It is a short book–only about 200 pages in the American edition–and Nicholson’s prose style is breezy and vibrant, easily sped through. The only thing I could find to complain with was the strange narrative shifts early on when I had trouble placing the narrator in the sections told in what I had thought was third person, but later ended up being first person anecdotal. I’ve got Nicholson’s earlier novel, The Food Chain, and I’m looking forward to spending three hours with it sometime soon.

[Finished July 1998]

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