Christopher Robin Milne, embattled star of the Winnie the Pooh books, was known to have been highly ambivalent about his life having been exploited in his father’s books. In Mr Toppit, the debut of Charles Elton–an author who has worked with the Milne estate in a literary agent capacity–a similar situation is examined, but in the present context of mass media, the paparazzi, and the public’s insatiable appetite for celebrity.
Luke Hayman is the nearly eponymous hero of The Hayseed Chronicles, a series of children’s books that have attained modest success for its small-time English publisher. However, upon the abrupt death of Luke’s father, the author of the series, a series of odd events sees the books’ reach grow dramatically to what seems like quasi-Harry Potter popularity. Mr Toppit examines the media flurry that follows and the effect that it has on the quiet, quintessentially English Hayman family and those who have slowly insinuated themselves into the family’s lives. There’s Luke, an introvert who longs to be out of the public eye; Luke’s sister Rachel, who leaps on to the publicity bandwagon despite being very noticeably absent from the books themselves; Arthur Hayman’s widow, Martha, a vaguely crazed woman who withdraws, somewhat playfully, into eccentricity; and of course Laurie Clows, the American who by chance becomes a part of the Hayseed collective and who is largely responsible for the books becoming the bizarre juggernaut they do.
Mr Toppit is an unsettling book, but it’s an unsettled one as well. The book opens with a suggestion of magic realism, perhaps, or at least of something a little dark and moody, if occasionally beset by whimsy. Perhaps this is due to the English setting of the book: the dreary, fairytale-esque vibe full of rambling buildings, people in threadbare suits and woods that threaten in the periphery with all sorts of possibilities. But when Arthur’s death sees the mass media and the shadow of celebrity seep in, the tone of the book becomes something very distant from its original promises. We travel from the damp English country-side, the perfect setting for what seems almost to be an old-fashioned comedy of manners into the glare of California, and the book’s mood shifts quite dramatically. Gone are the awkward family silences and the pensive ponderings to be replaced by sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, and the incessant search for money.
I’m afraid that with this shift my investment in Mr Toppit gradually dwindled: though I appreciated Elton’s examination of this strange garish world and the disconnect with it his characters felt, the mood of the book gradually falls away into something more akin to a chick lit novel than the quiet and gloomy fairytale-inspired story that seems to be promised at the book’s outset. However, amidst the sprawl of what does follow there is a good deal of food for thought: the effect on Rachel from her utter exclusion from the books, for one (Luke wonders just how hard it would have been to have added “and Rachel” into the narrative), and the burning desire of Laurie to be accepted, the impetus behind which she scarcely understand herself, but which we learn has to do with her own Mr Toppit lurking quietly in the background. And, of course, there’s Luke himself, watching a bigger, better version of his life rendered in a series of books, and eventually in a film as well–there are so many Lukes that Luke finds himself a lone voice crying that he is the original, the Luke who has had his life and identity stolen and exploited.
There are moments of Mr Toppit that I adored: the snippets from the books, which seem to have an eerie Oz-meets-Faust quality, and which make one wonder why on earth an author would subject even a fictitious version of their son to such things; the desperate has-been illustrator Lila, who is determined to reclaim her foothold in the family and its subsequent successes; and the occasional moments of beauty that occur between Luke and Rachel. But unfortunately as a whole I felt that the novel lacked the cohesion I expected, perhaps in part because I felt that what I was promised at the outset didn’t quite eventuate.
Still, it’s worth picking up for that cover alone.
Rating: (not bad)
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