On the day I sit down to write a review of Dan Rhodes’ latest novel, When the Professor Got Stuck in the Snow, Pope John Paul II is canonised. In other words, Pope John Paul II – who, you may or may not remember, died in 2005 – has been made a saint. Why has he been made a saint? Because he allegedly cured a nun who may or may not have had Parkinson’s (and his cure was affected by the nuns praying, not by John Paul actually laying on hands or anything) and he may or may not have cured a little boy who had cancer. There are those who say enough time hasn’t passed for these things to be determined as miracles and those that say the nun may not have had Parkinson’s and those who say ‘Really? You’re making him a saint?!?’, but I raise it here to illustrate that religions do some strange things. Some of those strange things – forbidding the use of contraception in Aids-torn Africa, for instance – are dangerous. Questioning religion, then – at least in this reviewer’s opinion – is not necessarily a bad thing (although questioning certain religions, as we know, can get you in trouble). So tread lightly. There are those that suggest religion’s opposite, atheism, is a kind of religion too and if that’s the case then of course we can challenge that and engage in furious discussion. That’s all right. In a way that’s what When the Professor Got Stuck in the Snow is doing. In a way.
Professor Richard Dawkins is travelling to a speaking engagement in the company of his amanuensis, Smee (Smee isn’t Smee’s real name, it is the name Dawkins has given him – and Smee is neither a first nor a second name, it’s his whole name – Smee – Rhodes’ homage to Captain Hook’s right hand man). Unfortunately however, the weather takes a turn for the worse and they are forced to shelter in a small village in the home of a vicar and his wife. Dawkins, we quickly learn, is somewhat intolerant (and intolerable) of anyone who believes in God and engages in frequent, insulting rants with mostly everyone. Some people take it, roll their eyes, live and let live etc and some people get furious. Stranded in the village, however, he comes to be caught up in several minor happenings (such as the birth of kittens) that possibly, subtly alter his worldview. Smee, our narrator, also comes to be enamoured of a young woman – the first woman he has been enamoured with since a fairly recent troubled break-up (a break-up, we should add, that seemed to transform Smee into something of a troll – an online troll, that is, not Shrek – and there is a brief discursion into this world that this reader felt could have been made more of). But never mind that: here is Dawkins again, being insulting. Here is Dawkins again, watching Deal or No Deal. Here is Dawkins again being insulting. Here is Dawkins again being insulting.
Now, we know (or do if we’ve read other reviews of this book) that Rhodes self-published When the Professor Got Stuck in the Snow because, apparently, publishers were afraid to publish it (the real Richard Dawkins is somewhat litigious). We also know that Rhodes was inspired to write by the weird and upsetting news that Scarlett Johansson is suing a French novelist for including a character who may or may not be her in one of his novels (for some reason, I’d expect more from Scarlett after her turn in Under the Skin). We also further know that Rhodes is skint despite being one of our most respected novelists and that he expects to make more money from self-publishing the book than he would from just travelling his more usual Canongate route. So. Things: we like Dan Rhodes. We feel he should make enough money to continue doing what he does. We count certain of his books among our very favourites. We like his take on the world. We think he’s funny and we think he’s clever. We wish him well. But we don’t really like When the Professor Got Stuck in the Snow.
Why don’t we like it? Well, part of the reason is we don’t really see what point Rhodes is making here. The Guardian think the point of the book is that:
“you shouldn’t believe all you read on the internet. And that in an age where the sum of man’s knowledge is available in an instant via a fibre-optic line, we are perhaps more ignorant than ever we were, and just as likely to be duped as in Shakespeare’s day.”
I’m not sure if this is the message. I’m also not sure if a book should have a message but there are a lot of conversations in When the Professor Got Stuck in the Snow that debate religion and atheism so I sense that there is something in there we should be picking up on. Attempting to parse a message is distracting, though, and there were frequent occasions when I wasn’t paying attention because I was trying to work out if something was what Rhodes ‘meant’ or if he was just joking. More important than this, though, is the fact that – by the time Dawkins is travelling to his speaking engagement – I was just a bit bored. That’s important isn’t it? You shouldn’t be bored reading a book. Even if the author is setting out to do something like make the reader feel bored or exasperated. I should also say, without giving the end away, which is important, that once again Rhodes has – as he did with Timoleon Vieta and Gold – written an end that changes the way you view the book. But this time, coming hard on the heels of so much ‘just alrightness’, you end up feeling like Rhodes should spend as much time working on the set-up of the joke as he does on the punchline.
Any Cop?: One to file alongside The Little White Car.