A review of Uncle Rupert by James Cumes

As a commentary, or a kind of Ayn Rand styled tract designed to support a political thesis, it will likely appeal to anyone with similar political leanings. The writing is clear, the metaphors original, and the narration at times charmingly colloquial, however, as a piece of literature, it simply doesn’t work.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Uncle Rupert:
The Man Who Threw Money Over Back Fences
By James Cumes
Magellan Books
ISBN: 0 – 9751609 – 3 – 1
Price: $24.95 USD, trade paper, 296pages (plus end material)

As creative writers, that old chestnut, ‘show, don’t tell,’ is so ubiquitous that it is often easy to ignore it. It is perhaps too obvious, too pedestrian, too dull to follow such as oft cited edict. After all, modern authors want to innovate, to break the rules, to ‘make it new.’ But it is a salutary reminder that these chestnuts are repeated so often for two simple reasons. The first is that they are difficult to follow, to a certain extent, counter-intuitive, and the second is that they are critical to the quality of the finished book. If you don’t believe me, it might be worth reading James Cumes’ Uncle Rupert. Though Cumes is an experienced, and well educated author, his latest novel is almost all ‘tell.’ The impact of this is that there is almost no connection between the main character, Uncle Rupert, and the reader. Instead, the reader is told all about Rupert’s shining qualities, and more, about how we should perceive him, view his ethics, and perhaps even act ourself. It is pure didacticism, but never once do we actually experience anything of Rupert first hand. We are never shown. Uncle Rupert is the story of a nephew’s perception of his philanthropist uncle, a man who disappeared from his life as a child, but who returns one day briefly to tell his story. It is ostensibly told in the narrative voice of the nephew, although fairly early on, the nephew’s voice disappears and the voice we hear is Rupert’s own. Ultimately though, this isn’t really a story as such, though there is a minor plot which involves Rupert’s departure from his job as bank clerk, his discovery of Socialism, his rise to President of the UN, his plane crash and disappearance into silent capitalist financier of socially responsible programs, and his brief reappearance at his nephew’s doorstep. Rupert is presented almost more as a concept or idea than as an actual person, and the book is peppered with phrases lifted directly from Cumes’ own political program VOW, which calls for committees of non-governmental people from all walks of life dedicated to bringing about social change and good works through large scale fundraising.

Cumes’ writing is actually very capable, his vocabulary broad and his ability to write obvious, but the reader rarely is allowed to get involved in this creation. This is the major underlying fault of the novel, and undermines everything it attempts to do, from the narrative structure, to the characterisation, and the theme. Everything is spelled out as clearly as possible in a dry expeditionary way:

Rupert wanted to et out of the bank and away to freedom and safety as fast as he could. He had too, though neither he nor anyone else had at that stage identified it, a psychological compulsion to act with what others would see as precipitate haste when he knew the right moment had come. His planning might have been weak, his data fragmentary; but his instincts were sure. He knew what they were, he knew what he had to do and he went ahead and did it. (37)

While well written, the sardonic narrative voice continues like this unabated throughout the book, never allowing any of the characters the opportunity to demonstrate their stated qualities, or for the reader to make his or her own judgements, although we may well do so regardless of what the narrator tells us. It is partly because of the narrative intrusion and over-explaining, and partly because of the little we are shown rather than told which makes Rupert an unlikeable character, which I’m sure was not intentional on the author’s part. He avoids attachment, refuses to take part in family life other than mysteriously and insultingly (I would be insulted if he were my uncle) throwing money over the fence, and disappears without letting his distraught mother know he is safe. Even his brief attachments with women are characterised by a kind of distanced and generalised philanthropy which allows for no personal engagement in any of the “good works” he takes on.

The scenes in the African desert where Rupert wanders after his plane crash are the most interesting in the book, and Cumes is adept at conveying the heat and scenic wilderness of the African bush:

The track in front, straight and gently undulating, dissolved into a wobbling liquid hirizon; behind, it cut around a knobby hill with patches of scrub like a badly shaved face. The landscape was modestly open savannah, with the odd wattle and casuarina…(190)

This would have been the ideal place for Rupert to experience doubt, to grow as an individual, and for the reader to begin to empathise with him. Instead, we again get the narrator’s intellectual distance: “The reality insisted on the imperative of acting in practical, common sense ways. There’d be no deliverance from a dream; or, rather, to rely on it could mean that any sort of deliverance would never come. (191)”

Minor characters are actually quite enjoyable, since there is no need for the reader to empathise with them, and we can simply enjoy the lighthearted Dickensian farce of bankers Mr Harfglass and Mr Collopy, or the larger than life socialist Godfrey. They aren’t enough to carry the plot though, or make up for the shortcomings of Rupert or his equally shadowy nephew, whose hero worship of the missing coin thrower is unlikely, and who disappears himself as a character after chapter one, only reappearing at the end in an obvious deus ex machina. This is clearly a book written to demonstrate its theme. As a commentary, or a kind of Ayn Rand styled tract designed to support a political thesis, it will likely appeal to anyone with similar political leanings. The writing is clear, the metaphors original, and the narration at times charmingly colloquial, however, as a piece of literature, it simply doesn’t work. The question-marked “the end?” and the final chapter “Partners Against Poverty” which presents “An Uncle Rupert Vision of a Partnership between Finance and Project Capitalism” further erodes the fiction, making it clear that this book was more about the notions behind it than the story itself. Which is a pity, since Cumes is a capable storyteller, able to produce something more than fictional parable.

For more information visit: http://www.magellanbooks.com/jamescumes.htm