It takes a brave writer to invite comparisons with Proust in their debut novel, but that is exactly what JW Ironmonger has done with The Notable Brain of Maximilian Ponder. Like Proust, Ironmonger is concerned with memory. His central character, now deceased, lived as a recluse for thirty years whilst attempting to catalogue every memory in his brain, as part of a philosophical experiment which has become an obsession. His only contact with the outside world comes through childhood friend Adam Last, employed to maintain the family estates while facilitating Ponder’s work.
The novel begins with Ponder lying dead on a table in his family home, The Pile. We are told that the table was made around 1900 by French craftsman Nicolas Rastin. This is the sort of detail Ponder likes. In accordance with his final wishes, Adam is preparing to saw his friend’s head off, and is anticipating some difficult questions when the police arrive. He will need to convince suspicious constables that of course Ponder was the sort of person who would have requested that his own head be removed from his torso, post-mortem. The key to his friend’s personality must be located within the volumes of The Catalogue (or its many appendices), which line the walls of his study – but how can Adam find the relevant details amid the oceans of extraneous material?
In order to put together a convincing case, Adam revisits key incidents from the pair’s past, in order to provide a psychological explanation for his friend’s eccentricity. However, the sheer volume of memories Ponder has documented makes the task almost impossible. The issue of subjectivity also becomes a problem. Throughout the text, extracts from Ponder’s collected thoughts and memoirs are interspersed with Adam’s own, more emotional, recollections. This highlights the fallibility of memory, as Adam’s accounts of key incidents they shared provide extra detail which may have been hidden from, or missed by, Ponder.
With much of the action located in the past, Ironmonger has plenty of opportunity to tell tales of growing up in Colonial Africa, contrasting whimsical moments such as the 8 year old Ponder swallowing a shilling piece in order to trick Adam and get his own way with images of leprosy, squalor and brutality. His gently satirical portrayals of Ponder’s relatives come straight out of Wodehouse, and Ponder’s father (referred to throughout as The Captain) is particularly affectionately drawn.
Ironmonger himself grew up in East Africa, lending credibility to these childhood scenes, and giving him license to explore an almost forgotten form of Englishness, characterised by the discipline of public schools and an innate (yet seemingly benevolent) sense of superiority and duty. This loyalty and dedication is crucial to the character of Adam, who subordinates much of his life to assisting with his friend’s eccentric scheme.
These ruminations on old-fashioned national character form the subtext of the novel. The gradual decline of the Ponder family, with their international business empire and record of proud military service, acts as an analogy for the end of Empire. That the family’s final scion, Maximilian, voluntarily removes himself from the world, handing management of his business interests to Adam and closing the blinds against the world outside, heightens this effect. It also allows for humorous moments as Adam tries to hide key events such as the Moon landings and the fall of the Soviet Union from Ponder to avoid corrupting his precious memory.
Ironmonger is strong on black comedy. Particularly memorable is a moment when Adam assists an ailing Captain in burying the family dog. Unfortunately, rigor mortis has set in, and Adam, down from university for the weekend, finds himself standing in a grave breaking the faithful pet’s legs with a shovel as the Captain looks away. This sets into motion a bizarre and unfortunate chain of events which will colour the rest of Ponder’s life.
Where the novel falls down slightly is in the author’s willingness to challenge his readers. The book gestures towards the philosophical implications of a man attempting to transcribe the entire contents of his brain, it hints at the end of empire, it takes in incidents of the blackest comedy and touches on the effects of shutting oneself off from the world, but without ever really confronting these issues. That’s not to say it isn’t an enjoyable read – it is. It just could have been so much more. You get the sense of an author who doesn’t want to risk taking you too far outside of your comfort zone, which feels like a missed opportunity, when his premise is so promising.
Any Cop?: The Notable Brain of Maximilian Ponder features an original idea, some entertaining tales, well-executed comedy set-pieces and excellent characterisation. It’s just a shame that despite all this, the tone leaves it feeling like slightly less than the sum of its parts.