It always starts the same way...
The fire of life burns within us all. For some, it is like the calm heat of the hearth, steady and consistent but above all safe and nourishing. For others, it is a raging inferno, a blaze of desire that cannot be tempered. As a young man, my mind had within it an all-consuming fire that could only be sated through discovery and learning. I lived for extremes in knowledge and searched for, as Clive Barker described it in the film version of Hellraiser, "a world without limits - pain and pleasure, indivisible." It was on a February night in 2006 that I strode confidently into that abyss and found what I had sought.
While I had been noding for a couple of years by that time, I languished in a form of benign obscurity, sort of like one of those bands with no greater ambition than to be a one hit wonder but who could reliably produce songs that would make it to the top 100 without going any further. Finally, however, I had my first real hit with Roy Orbison in Clingfilm, an exploration of a series of stories dealing with a German man's desire to wrap the American rock star Roy Orbison in clingfilm. Twelve and a half years after I wrote the node, it remains my most-voted-upon writeup and it still has the second highest reputation of anything I've ever written here. I had no anticipation of revisiting the subject because, after all, what more was there to say?
I was always a bit bummed out that Herr Ulrich Haarbürste had not written more than the original seven stories profiled in the original writeup. Recently, however, his literary agent, Mr. Michael Kelly, contacted me and let me know that he had read the writeup many years ago and that he would like to send me the book. "The book!?" I thought. The flame that I thought had been so long ago extinguished was reignited and it was with the anticipation of a medieval monk stepping into a brothel for the first time that I eagerly accepted the offer.
This might be hard to believe, but I like to read. But generally, I'm kind of a slow reader. A 200-page book might take me three or four days to read. However, at just under 200 pages, I finished Ulrich Haarbürste's Novel of Roy Orbison in Clingfilm in essentially one sitting on Thursday. I don't remember the last time I blew through a book this quickly. Now the book itself is probably best described as a compilation of some ROIC short stories in addition to a novella. It thankfully includes the original seven stories as well as some that I had not heard of, including (among others) the powerful anti-war short story All Wrapped on the Western Front and the harrowing South Sea Pirates, the latter of which features a terrifying encounter between Roy, Ulli, and a tribe of Polynesian cannibals. As one might expect -- indeed, as one might demand -- from Herr Haarbürste, each story features Roy Orbison being wrapped in clingfilm. Each story lives up to the high standards set by the original stories. But what of the novel? Does the concept wear out its welcome in the long form?
The answer, thankfully, is not at all! While I admit that I am something of a clingfilm slash fiction novice, I cannot imagine a more fulfilling book for connoisseurs of this literary genre. While you might be concerned that the concept stretches credulity after a while -- how many circumstances are there in which Roy Orbison can realistically be wrapped in clingfilm? -- Herr Haarbürste takes great care to ensure that each circumstance that requires Roy Orbison to don the miracle substance makes sense in the context of the story's internal logic (e.g., they attend a costume party at the home of "the famous bald actor Yul Brynner," but as Roy has forgotten his costume, Ulli volunteers to make him one out of clingfilm). The story takes place some months after the events of the original short stories, and by this time, Ulli and Roy have moved beyond mere acquaintances and have struck up a productive friendship. The issue of the men improbably encountering one another at random in a city as bustling and teeming as Dusseldorf is therefore thankfully avoided.
Also returning to the world of Roy Orbison in Clingfilm is Ulli's pet terrapin Jetta. Jetta, while unable to speak, is frequently the voice of reason and moderation. She offers encouragement to Ulli when he needs it but is practical enough to indicate with a subtle nod when she doubts that an idea of Ulli's will be successful. In addition to Yul Brynner, Jim Morrison of the Doors also appears in the novel, giving the reader another familiar name and face to recognize. This grounds the story's somewhat fantastical events in such a way as not to intimidate casual readers.
The plot is something of a comedy of errors involving Roy's attempts to tactfully avoid a journalist from Rolling Stone while not diminishing his status as a beloved celebrity. It leads into a deeper story involving espionage and torture-by-earwig. We share in Ulli's despair when his friendship with Roy almost goes sour and we share in his excitement when the two are reconciled. Roy and Ulli use their wits to evade their pursuers and come into possession of something that could be an ultimate weapon in the wrong hands.
In addition to not remembering the last time I read a book of comparable length so quickly, I also cannot remember a time I laughed as hard or as long as I did while reading this. I have what could charitably be called a strange sense of humor. Well, maybe "strange" isn't quite the right word. Let's say "non-discriminatory." I find "sophisticated" jokes about obscure topics as funny as some dude shitting his pants. The reason why this book is so funny is because it combines hilarious content with a hilarious writing style. If you've ever read English translations of various German works -- whether fiction or non-fiction -- from, say, the late 18th to early 20th centuries, you're familiar with the overblown verbiage and sometimes difficult to follow trains of thought inherent to basically all of them. This is also true when reading things written in English by people who speak German as a first language. The book is written in this style and it also contains many stereotypically German attitudes and anxieties, which of course increases the humor. I'll give you a few examples below (which may contain minor spoilers, but I'll try my best to avoid them).
"Oh, Mr. Policeman, surely you have heard of Roy Orbison," says the chief villain surprisingly. He leans close to the policeman's ear and lies smoothly, "Why, he is the rock singer who releases wild and seditious songs with titles such as 'Down with Policemen' and 'Undermine the EU' and 'Let's Go Crazy Wild And Ride On Trams Without Paying' and 'Give Me VAT Reform Or Give Me Death.' They are all on his album, 'I Licked the Knees of the Devil's Daughter.' And played at his concert, 'An Evening of Raucous Impoliteness with Roy Orbison'."
"What are your thoughts on the European Bank's interest rates?"
"They did not consult me when establishing the European Bank," says Roy wryly. "They may sort out their own messes now."
A coffee shop is open for business although it is past ten o'clock, careless of the fact that anyone who imbibes their wares at this point is unlikely to obtain a satisfactory night's sleep. Through the window I glimpse such dubious patrons as a circus clown, a disgraced town councillor and those who eke out a precarious living as trick-cyclists or yo-yo performers. Students dog-ear textbooks before my eyes or agitatedly discuss controversial banking theories, so far forgetting themselves as to speak both at once and rudely jab fingers at each other in their mania. From the open doorway comes the sound of shameless boasting and impolite personal remarks.
The air is filled with the squeaking of badly oiled bicycles and the nervous moans of those who do not have adequate pension schemes. The very street-sweepers appear slovenly and badly-disposed toward their work and neglect to brush the tricky corners next to doorsteps.
My palms sweat. I have made a horrendous mistake. I wish to join the French Foreign Legion and attempt to redeem myself beneath the savage suns of Africa. I blush and mumble an apology and compliment her half-heartedly on the subtle nuances of the jest.
There are naturally countless other examples I could quote (for example, passages about the "cavalier use of Umlauts" being indicative of villainy), but this gives you an idea of the tone and style of the book. The book's appendix contains a few German-language ROIC stories and introduction where Herr Haarbürste modestly compares himself to Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov as a non-native writer of English stories. But whereas Conrad lacked the necessary confidence to find his own distinctive voice in the language and Nabokov remained precociously enamored with his own skill up until a disgracefully old age, Haarbürste has a singular style and vision in English that could only be found in one whose emotional understanding of the world was forged in a Germanic crucible. The German-language stories perhaps come from a place of greater intellectual authenticity than the English ones, but the expressions of agony and ecstasy in the English corpus are ultimately more satisfying to this reader.
I sincerely hope that anyone who was introduced to Roy Orbison in Clingfilm through my original writeup on the subject and who still comes to the site will buy the book. Herr Haarbürste is a difficult man to contact, presumably since he is a temperamental artist, but fortunately Michael Kelly is quite personable and approachable. If you'd like to purchase the book, you can PM me and I'll put you in contact with him. If you read only one book about wrapping Roy Orbison in clingfilm, it needs to be this one.