Review: Curioddity by Paul Jenkins

Curioddity by Paul Jenkins is a quirky, fast-paced debut novel that is as peculiar as it is fun to read (Available August 30, 2016).

Wil felt so desperately, desperately tired. …He had been metaphorically shot at, spat on, shut in, and spat out since the moment he'd left for work, and the thought of enduring any more of this particular Monday was more than any man had any obligation to bear. He'd been hired by a man dressed like a cartoon to find a box full of a substance that seemed as likely to exist as a good Canadian table wine; he had visited a museum full of space junk on a street that didn't exist, been yelled at in body language, and, worst of all, he'd ordered a large cup of coffee by describing it as “oversized.” 

…At this point in his day, Wil formally and officially surrendered.

Wil Morgan is a private eye.

Wait—I know what you're thinking. You're probably picturing a fedora, a weathered trench goat, a gun holster under the arm, and a smoky, chiaroscuro office where empty whisky bottles litter the desk. 

Wil, however, is pretty much the complete inverse of the stereotypical gumshoe. He's never touched a gun. Femme fatales aren't coming to him half-clothed and in tears. No one is exchanging bullets or quips with him down dark, dangerous alleys. 

The hero of Curioddity—comic writer Paul Jenkins's first novel—is pretty much the definition of an Average Joe. He trudges to work because stepping lightly takes too much effort. His apartment building is overpopulated with cats and features an ancient landlady who babbles inanities. He has no friends, no lovers, and no dreams for the future. The highlight of his day consists of arguing with the teenaged barista at the corner coffee shop.

Wil wasn't always this blah, grey lump of a person, though.

Being a private investigator, especially one specializing in divorce and insurance fraud, was a far cry from the splendiferous blueprint Wil had originally drawn up for his life. As a child, Wil had planned to follow a unique and spectacular career path, narrowing down his options to one of few possibilities: 1) a hedgehog doctor, 2) developer of the world's first fruit-flavored wallpaper, 3) designer of the personal matter transmitter, or 4) quite possibly all of the above. He'd later settled upon just plain “inventor of stuff.” That was, of course, until he reached the 207th day of his tenth year of existence.

After Mom died, the house was a very quiet place for a very long time. Then one day without warning his father told Wil the shocking truth about Santa, explained the economics of safety, and drilled into Wil that magic was always a trick. Always.

Wil's mother, Melinda, was a scientist who had whole-heartedly believed in magic—right up until the moment an ill-advised experiment with electricity dissolved her at a molecular level. Her son never fully recovered from the loss and is now stuck in an inverse of the life Melinda had always wanted for him.

Until Mr. Dinsdale appears, that is.

One miserable Monday, quite without warning, a peculiar old man comes to our hero with a case. Seems the Box of Levity has gone missing from his Museum of Curiosities, and the strange old man—one Mr. Dinsdale—is convinced that there's no one else for the job but Wilbur Aloysius Morgan.

At first, Wil is skeptical. Mr. Dinsdale seems crazy, his expectations too high. Perspective, however, is a great motivator.

Certainly, he wasn't about to turn down a paying gig given the increasingly unhealthy state of his bank account; his current finances could be likened to a dehydrated hyena crawling through the Kalahari Desert in search of an oasis. 

Just like that, Wil finds his life veering onto a completely new, thrilling, dangerous path—rife with ninja robots, impossible inventions, manic pixie dream girls, evil telemarketers, several men named Robert, voicemails from the future, aliens, Sequiturs, Smartphones with axes to grind, and honest-to-goodness magic.

After spending his entire adult life denying the existence of magic, Wil sees his city and the people around him in a new—far better—light. He realizes just how much he was missing and how sad and pathetic his life has been up to this point.

Wil imagined himself about to be accosted by a band of Romanian brigands armed with torture devices possessing such exotic names as Tongue Twister or Wrench Grinder, or something equally despicable; these imaginary bandits would probably rip off his kneecaps and sell them to a local hospital for profit. But as he rounded the first flight of steps under the withering gaze of the gargoyle, he was immediately struck by the complete absence of pirate-themed accordion music coming from the bottom of the stone stairs. Gone were his imagined rivers of molten lava and Hieronymus Bosh-like scenes of human torture.

…If there were demons here, they looked remarkably like a Chinese fishmonger, a cheerful-looking man who sold all kinds of fresh-cut flowers, and a large and beautiful African lady with perfect skin who sold local honey and facial cream made from imported shea butter.

Jenkins's debut novel is charmingly wacky, featuring characters who would fit in marvelously well with the Baudelaire children of Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events—Wil and Co. would absolutely understand and appreciate the genius/madness of Willy Wonka and his eponymous chocolate factory. 

Mr. Dinsdale, beyond sharing a name with an infamous Monty Python sketch, could be Mr. Magorium's cousin (or even half-brother), and his impossible Museum of Curiosities shares spiritual real estate with both Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium and Night at the Museum

Curioddity is magical realism at its zaniest; you can never predict where the plot will zig next (and even if you try, it'll zag instead). It's a world where nixies make sinks clatter, Leonardo da Vinci created a Perpetual Emotion Machine, TV hucksters brainwash audiences to buy useless gadgets (“For just three low, low payments of $19.99!”) before donning mechanized suits of death and destruction, and hot chocolate can quite literally save the day.

It's also a story about loss, coping mechanisms, the perpetual fight for individualism and honest invention in the face of mass consumerism and greed, and a love letter to the idea of finding wonder in everything around you. 

Amidst the nihilism and anger of the every day—you only have to turn on the TV to see hatred and vitriol spewed in all directions—it's a reassuring and hopeful message. A comforting little oasis to escape to when the real world threatens to beat the whimsy out of you.

Jenkins's prose is as off-kilter and amusing as the plot and wild characters—his turns of phrase can be punny, laugh-out-loud hysterical, and wryly poetic all at once. Once the action kicks in the pace is relentlessly breathless:

He was unprepared to believe a thirty-year-old Ford Pinto could exceed speeds of eighty miles per hour through one-way Friday evening traffic without disintegrating like a broken test aircraft on reentry—certainly not a rusted Ford Pinto driven by a beautiful-yet-deranged young woman he'd just fallen in love with. 

Surely, such a feat could only be accomplished by a New York City cab driver aided by a seventy-mile-per-hour wind and numerous illicit substances.

Curioddity is a fun, fantastical romp that builds up to a vastly enjoyable climax, which unspools like the best slapstick routine. Jenkins's comic pedigree is obvious in several sequences: he writes in such a cinematic way, it's hard not to see the action play out panel-by-panel in your imagination. 

I read the entire thing in only a couple sittings during grey, rainy afternoons—the ideal setting, it turns out, because this madcap story of magic, mayhem, museums, and (evil) marketing transported me so thoroughly, I hardly noticed how colorless the world actually was beyond the window. 

Truly, a sign of a winning fairy tale. Here's hoping Curioddity won't be Wil Morgan, Lucy Price, Mary Gold, and Mr. Dinsdale's only adventure. 

 

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Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. Come find the angie bee at Tumblr.

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