For the Joy of Reading: The Brilliant & Forever

This book is brilliant, and will be so forever.   As you would expect, Kevin MacNeil can always be relied upon to produce something that is different and which will have you, the reader, riveted to the page from the very moment of opening the book.   And this book is certainly different.   After all, it is not every day that the central theme of a story is that an alpaca has entered a story into a literary competition.   Nor that a cuspidor will have a significant role in bringing about the denouement.   But the cuspidor does belong to Archie the Alpaca.

The Brilliant & Forever is the name of a literary competition that takes place on an unnamed island where humans and alpacas live an uneasy sort of peace, and where alpacas are treated by most humans as an inferior species.   But not by all humans.   Macy Starfield and the narrator have formed a special bond with Archie the Alpaca, forged in their love of storytelling.   And all three have entered the Brilliant & Forever competition.   For some strange reason, alpacas are allowed to enter the competition, but they are not allowed to vote.  That strange reason is the plot, because if alpacas were allowed to vote in the competition, then the outcome would be different.   But that, possibly the only weakness in the story, is a side issue.

This is a book about people (and alpacas) achieving their potential.   It is a book about the obstacles that the powerful put in the way of others to prevent them becoming powerful.   And here, the alpacas can represent any group of the disempowered that you care to think about – blacks, women, the working class, linguistic minorities, people with mobility or similar problems, or people with mental health problems.  MacNeil does not tell you who the alpacas represent, just that they are amongst the dispossessed. And the crux of the tale is that, despite the prize’s pretensions to democracy, the decisions are taken by the whitehousers (that is, the wealthy and the powerful) and that everyone else is involved only as a contributor, or through the bloodlust of seeing an entrant humiliated.

Much of the book is taken up by the readings, given by the various competitors, to the audience.   This is very much like any event that you have ever attended at a Book Festival or a public reading.   Someone (an author) gets up and is then on the line, waiting for a response from the audience.   That audience either warms to the author or it does not, and, in the worst cases, it turns on them with the ravenous fury of a pride of lions.

MacNeil writes these stories by the contributors very differently, allowing the different characters to shine through.  Stella for instance, a model famous for being famous, lets us into her insecurities which developed from her islander (that is, the Brilliant & Forever island) past.   She may present herself as an airhead, but she understands that her kind of fame is ephemeral and therefore always under threat.   Seth Macnamara, on the other hand, is consumed with arrogance, because he thinks he has the right to murder other people for whatever minor annoyance they have caused him.   And the compere, Dalston Moomintroll, is there to revel in the limelight, feeling somewhat superior to the performers as he orchestrates the event to its climax.

The Brilliant & Forever is about that worse case scenario – that pride of lions, that Lord of the Flies moment, that moment Euripides described 2,500 years ago in The Bacchae.   And, if I say any more, I will give the plot away completely.

So, I would urge you to head for this unnamed island, and learn what we expect of our authors nowadays.   It is not pretty, but it is a lesson worth learning.

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