Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Monday, 3 March 2008

What kind of superhero are you?

I bought my daughter a copy of Andrew Kaufman's All My Friends Are Superheroes for Xmas. I bought it on impulse, mainly because it had a cool cover and was short. And it was written by Andrew Kaufman. The name rang a bell but I wasn't sure why. And it felt nice in my hand. The shortness seemed to go down well. My daughter also took note of the name. She's very busy at the moment and the thing about short books is that they still count. No one asks: "Hey dude how many books have you read but remember you can only count full novels?" I have taken full advantage of this in my life and read a lot of short books. The thing is, I never feel short-changed when I read a novella; I feel like I've been let off the hook in fact, as if some nice person has taken a really long book, filtered out all the waffle and pomp and said, "Here, this is the stuff you really should read." It's always surprised me that I've never written one.

Ever bought someone a present and wished you never given it away? This was one of them so when I spotted it in the Co-op for two quid it was a no-brainer.

I could call this book delightful, charming, witty, unique, poignant, precious even, but that wouldn't tell you a damn thing about it. So that renders that sentence a bit pointless I suppose. It is also cynical, satirical, disillusioned and just plain sad at times, too, but only when it's getting too precious to bear. I don’t suppose that helps much either.

The novella's protagonist is Tom who's normal. He's the only one who is. No one else in the book is. They're all superheroes, but none you'll be familiar with, no X-Men, no Justice League of America and certainly no Alpha Flight. Instead we are introduced to the likes of The Amphibian (whom Tom rescued whilst cleaning a swimming pool) who becomes his best friend and is the primary reason Tom gets to know so many Canadian superheroes like The Ear, Mistress Cleanasyougo ("the most powerful superhero of all"), The Spooner and The Frog-Kisser to name just a few of the 249 superheroes who live in the Greater Toronto Area along with Tom and his wife, The Perfectionist, 'Perf' as he affectionately calls her.

The powers each of these have been landed with have their own uses but nothing is ever straightforward:


Shake the Inverse's hand and the exact opposite of your life will flash before your eyes. This can be so overwhelming that the Inverse will not shake your hand unless you ask him to, and sometimes not even then.

A case in point is Businessman. When the Inverse shook Businessman's hand Businessman saw himself as having a work and going to life. The experience was so intense that Businessman retired the next day.

It's exactly that sort of responsibility that the Inverse seeks to avoid and it's why he has never shaken his own hand.


He knocks on doors and stands there. You'd be surprised how few doors get answered.

There is no spandex anywhere in sight in this book. In that respect, and that respect only, it has more in common with Heroes than your common-or-garden comic books. Many of the superheroes' abilities really personify different character traits like having an unlimited ability to procrastinate or being extremely literal.

Although we get to find out a fair amount about all these various characters, the book concentrates on Tom's relationships with his wife (The Perfectionist), his best friend (The Amphibian) and his wife's ex-boyfriend (Hypno) with whom she had had the best sex in her life but only after he had first hypnotised her:

'I hypnotised you. But you can't hypnotise anyone into doing anything they don't already want to do. I merely give permission,' Hypno said. He tapped his spoon on the rim of his coffee mug and hypnotised her into believing that sex with him would be the best of her life.

The plot is simple enough: at their wedding reception Hypno hypnotises The Perfectionist so that she cannot see Tom. After six months of waiting for Tom to reappear she decides to move to Vancouver, make it perfect and start a new life for herself. The book opens with her and an-invisible-to-her Tom waiting for her plane; she does though wonder why no one sits in the apparently empty seat beside her. He has bought a ticket too and has given himself until she arrives in Vancouver to make her see him.

Bottom line? Once you dig your way through the ton of metaphor you'll find a simple love story buried underneath and deep down we all love a good love story. There are things in this life that conspire against us. It sometimes feels that we are resisting supernatural forces and yet we, ordinary mortals, stand firm. The real question is: can we win out?

There is also a nice touch of magical realism to the book too, even if you ignore the fact that most of its characters have superpowers: an Anxiety Monster you can escape by having a bath, a doctor who can open up your chest like a car bonnet to check your heart and a door-to-door salesman selling love:

"What kind of love are we interested in today?" he asked.
"What kind do you have?"
"Well," he said. He stood up. "I've got the love you want, the love you think you want, the love you think you want but don't when you finally get it…"
"That must be very popular."
"It is."

You can read a lengthy excerpt from the novel on Telegram Books' website:

This book has been around since 2003 but Telegram's reprinting only dates from 2006. Like Naïve.Super, that I reviewed a wee while ago, this is one of those books that might easily slip by unnoticed and you'll kick yourself if you miss it. That might be your superpower, the ability to read a super book review like this and still not want to buy the book.

Andrew Kaufman is a writer, film-maker and radio producer. You can read his very short story 'Office Work' on McSweeney's website. He has completed a Director's Residency at the Canadian Film Centre and his film Aberistiwith was screened at festivals across Europe and Canada. He is also a revolving cast member of the Perpetual Motion Roadshow, and now works as a producer for CBC Radio in Toronto.

I have no idea if he's related to the late actor Andrew Kaufman, the photographer Andrew Kaufman, the artist Andrew Kaufman, the neurosurgeon Andrew Kaufman or the Tolstoy expert Andrew Kaufman but I'm sure they're all really nice people.

All My Friends Are Superheroes is his first novel.

I know who I was thinking about! Charlie Kaufman the film-maker. That's who I was thinking about when I bought the book. I loved Being John Malcovich.


Anna said...

Sold - you are a seductive reviewer.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thank you for the compliment, Anna. It's not hard to let your enthusiasm shine through when you genuinely appreciate something.

BTW, since we're both Philip Glass fans you will likely appreciate the track at by Carly Comando – you'd swear it was by Glass.

Catherine @ Sharp Words said...

That sounds like a book I definitely need to keep an eye out for (and I second Anna).

Writing Nag said...

Ok Jim, I added it to my must read list. Thanks.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thank you both, Catherine and Writing Nag, can't get enough of them kind words.

Anonymous said...

What superpower would you most like to possess, Jim? At the moment I think I'd go for the ability to mark accurately and fairly lengthy essays without having to read them first.

Jim Murdoch said...

Superpower, Dick? I'd be happy to wake up in the morning and not hurt.

Anonymous said...

Another witty appraisal, and it sounds like my kind of book, now where's my nearest co-op;-D

Jim Murdoch said...

Thank you for that, Reward Rebel, there was a time Co-Ops were everywhere but not so much these days. It was always where we got school uniforms when I was wee. It kind of pleases me there's one near where I live now, makes me nostalgic.

Anonymous said...

I wonder might you also have had Andy Kaufman in your head? He of REM songs, Jim Carrey movie, TAXI and surreal stand-up material fame?

But who am I to suggest what you might have been thinking, eh? :)

Dosn't Andrew look quite a bit like Jim Muir aka Vic Reeves?

Anonymous said...

Moir, dammit, Moir

Jim Murdoch said...

If I'm being honest, Ken, Andy Kaufman was my very first thought but being aware that he's been dead a while I quickly dismissed that.

As for Andrew Kaufman looking like Vic Reeves? Poor sod, he does, doesn't he?

Unknown said...

Excellent review! I read the book myself, and just reading your review reminded me of how much I truly loved this novella.

I just added you to my must read list as well.

Jim Murdoch said...

Glad you liked the review, Ricquetta and delighted you've decided to stick with me too. I have to say this was a lovely book the kind that I wish I could just sit down and write. I have no doubt he sweated blood over it like we all do but he makes it look so easy.

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