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The setup for Nicholls’ novel is deliberately absurd: After a war between Liechtenstein and Wales, a group of Icelandic researchers have deployed the narrator, Magnus, to Wales to observe culture and society there. The novel is ostensibly a report of his findings, formatted as an abecedary, riffing on towns alphabetically. As a guide to Wales, it’s useless: Magnus writes that Sennybridge is home to the “World Interspecies Kissing Championships” and that the residents of Pen-y-clawdd “want more sheep.” But most entries emphasize Magnus’ own emotional territory anyway: His badly acne-afflicted face, which he discusses in putrescent detail, his contemptuous mother, and his strained relationship with Katrin, a fellow “repulsive freak.” In between are scatalogical jokes, riffs on 1990s alt-rock acts (including a funny, furious rant about PJ Harvey) and multiple interlocutors with Pynchon-ian names (Isadora Pledge, Greg Impasse, Aaron Swanlopp). It doesn’t add up to much of a story, but then “story” isn’t really the point; indeed, another extended rant about the cozy comforts of Ian Rankin mysteries implies that “story” is a kind of antagonist. (As Magnus writes, “Neatness and pith have no place in fiction.”) So Nicholls uses the abecedary format and repeated tropes to create a sustained mood of angry/funny dissatisfaction with the world, romance, and literature as we know it. The novel’s conceit is in league with works by the likes of Gilbert Sorrentino or David Markson, but Nicholls’ brand of absurdism emphasizes comedy, which generally works. Sometimes Wales is the butt of the joke: Of Elan Village, he writes, “If this village was lacking a particular concept, that particular concept would be élan.” But Magnus’ target is usually himself, and the self-deprecating approach somehow makes the project go down easier.

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