Stephen Fry, by his own admission, is a man of many talents — and yet isn’t especially talented at any one given thing. For instance: while he’s a good enough actor, no matter who he’s supposed to be playing, he’s never not Stephen Fry. And the same goes for his writing — the narrator of his novels is never not the Stephen Fry of QI or any of his numerous TV specials. Which means that always present in his prose is the slightly self-conscious pedantry of a comfortably middle-class public school boy who has since gone on to become an acclaimed celebrity. Arugably, that’s a difficult personality type to identify with.
And yet what makes Stephen Fry so compelling and so endearing is his seemingly bottomless thirst for knowledge. So even in his fiction, you can feel him trying to pass on little pieces of information he’s gleaned along the way. At times, it comes across as a bit of an over-stuffed essay from a student eager to share all of the wonderful information that he accumulated during his research. As endearing as all of this may be, it can result in a cluttered narrative and a bloated writing style. Fry is never quite as casual or smooth as he wants to be, and that’s especially true in Revenge, or Star’s Tennis Balls — its UK title which sounds more like a Wodehousian upper-class romp than a tale of bloody vengeance.
Revenge is a modern retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo, set in the 1980s for logistical reasons that become clearer as you read. Since the story is nearly identical to its source, I won’t waste a lot of time with the set up. Needless to say, a mixture of jealousy and ambition cause a couple of people to implicate an innocent, but rich and well-connected, young man in a fairly minor crime. While he’s being questioned, a piece of evidence the boy doesn’t realize he has leads to him being transferred to an insane asylum to shut him up and keep interested parties safe. Again, it’s literally just The Count of Monte Cristo but set in the ’80s. More boater hats, fewer cravats, but ultimately the same story. And that’s one of the book’s main problems.
When you do an updated story, something needs to change. Something other than the setting and the time period. I love The Count of Monte Cristo, so if I wanted to read that story, I’d just read it. Or I’d watch the criminally underrated and certainly insane movie starring Guy Pearce. Fry’s book, for at least the first two thirds, just isn’t different enough from the original. In fact, the ways that Fry uses his updated time period earned a handful of eye-rolls while I was reading because they were clunkingly obvious in their attempt to draw a juxtaposition between 19th Century France and 20th Century England.
And then, rather shockingly, the final third turns into a twisted horror show that doesn’t fit the rest of the book at all. Revenge in the 20th Century, at least according to Fry, is a messy, bloody and revolting affair in which everybody who’s ever wronged you is probably a secret pervert for some reason.
Sadly, Fry’s conclusion is probably better than the entire book as a whole. The statement he makes about the realities of revenge, and the way a life would be irreparably changed by a couple of decades locked away in an insane asylum, are actually worth slogging through the book for.
So while it seems like I’m saying to give this a pass, I think it wound up being an interesting case study of a book and a rather fascinating look at what does and doesn’t work when it comes to modern re-writes. And, again, it has a brilliant ending.
Ultimately, it’s uneven, messy, overwritten and unoriginal and yet it wound up being strangely compelling and left me in a daze for days after I’d finished it. I can’t call Revenge anything worse than mediocre, but even Stephen Fry’s mediocrity is worth a look.