Paul Sparks, commonly known even to his nearest and dearest as Sparks, is a waster. An overgrown man-child, he’s a lazy aficionado of videos, junk food and the pub closest to his ‘office’, where his job involves (infrequently) replicating 1970s t-shirts. It’s a sorry state of affairs, but it has always suited Sparks and it’s only when his girlfriend Alison dumps him in exasperation that Sparks realises he could have handled things a bit better. When he stumbles across a very esoteric website, which suggests the possibility of alternate universes, Sparks comes to a decision. He might have lost Alison in this world, but if there really are parallel worlds out there, he’s determined to search through them until he’s found the one, perfect world, in which he can win her back forever.
Unfortunately for Sparks, he’s not the only one searching for the perfect world. As he stumbles in and out of alternate universes, he’s followed posthaste by two skinny and rather gormless operatives of the Society, which has been methodically sifting through parallel worlds since the 18th century, in the search for the One Perfect World created by God. As Sparks flounders onward, between the carrot of Alison and the stick of Jeff and Duncan, the integrity of reality itself begins to creak. For there’s another variable that no one has, as yet, counted upon. In one of the parallel worlds, a man named Joseph Kaye is becoming obsessed with a chance sighting of an insect that doesn’t appear anywhere else in his universe – a common cockroach – and, in his frantic efforts to track it down, risks destroying the very nature of existence. He must be stopped – but how? And by whom?
This is a freewheeling, tongue-in-cheek comedy that feels something like a cross between Good Omens, Tom Holt and Peep Show. Sparks is a lovable loser: a thoroughly underwhelming example of manhood, save in his desire to get his beloved Alison back. Not many women can say their boyfriend has actually passed into another dimension to prove himself to them. And yet somehow it feels like a story ‘for the lads’: something that might be adapted for a comedy series on Dave, which blends sci-fi with the odd Kafka joke and a cuddly but fairly useless hero. Alison, despite being the object of the quest – the Belle Dame Sans Merci, perhaps – doesn’t really come into full relief, beyond being the stereotypical Fed-Up Girlfriend. There wasn’t much sense of what Sparks saw in her (beyond, perhaps, the comfort of having a girlfriend) and even less sense of what she saw in Sparks. If we’re expected to buy into the grand romantic gesture of Sparks’s effort to get her back, it’d have been helpful to get a slightly clearer idea of what was at stake.
I haven’t come across Quantick before, although he’s an established comic, music writer and journalist, and some of that quality comes through in the book. It sometimes feels less like a story than a sequence of comic set-pieces. It jovially romps through parallel versions of London – where everyone’s rude; where redheads are discriminated against; where there are bears – but it lost its way a little with the addition of the Kaye subplot, which distracted attention from Sparks’s purpose (to some extent). Ultimately, there were too many ends left untied and questions unanswered. For example: if the disposition of worlds is random, how do Jeff and Duncan manage to tail Sparks so easily? Are the operatives of the Society immortal or do they have a human lifespan? How do they find out about the Society in order to join it? How many people are popping through these portals all the time? It’s good fun, but perhaps not designed to be thought about too much. Driven by a smart idea, in short, but sputtering somewhat on its way.