Matt Beaumont is a brave man. It’s a decade since his debut novel, e, left me convulsed in laughter on a long train journey, and it remains, for my money, one of the funniest books of the past decade (put it in the company of something like William Sutcliffe’s immensely sarcastic and quite joyous Are You Experienced? for sheer comedy value). At first, it seemed that it was a book all about its gimmick, in that it was written entirely as chronological e-mails, through which Beaumont relayed the story of the world’s most incompetent advertising agency, Miller Shanks, and some of the rich characters who worked there. But it didn’t take long for something far more substantive to shine through, with outstanding characters and many blisteringly funny moments within its covers.
Nine years later, and Beaumont has built a career for himself as one of Britain’s brightest novelists, and it’s thus a real gamble for him to return to the book that put him on the map. Hence, e2 (that’d be e squared if I could find the right button on my keyboard. Sorry).
The book notes that not only have the characters of the original moved on, but so has the technology they use. Thus, Beaumont relays his story not just through e-mails now, but also blog posts, eBay auction listings, text messages and instant messenger conversations. It puts more narrative tools at his disposal, although it does, at times, make the book a little choppier than the first. But on the flip side, it does allow Beaumont to have a little bit more fun with some of his characters, not least Liam the office thief, and a mysterious blogger whose identity will bring a broad smile to the face of any fan of the original book.
The star of the show once more, though, is boss-from-hell David Crutton. The early part of the book, for instance, drills plenty of comedy from something as simple as the forced signature on the bottom of his e-mails, and whenever the narrative arc switches attention to Crutton, e2 hits top gear. Whether dealing with his increasingly fed up wife, his wayward children, the constantly absent on some course or other colleague, or swapping e-mails with his PA, Beaumont seems to have the most fun writing for Crutton. In particular, the report that Crutton sends out after one particular client meeting is easily as funny as anything from the original book, and once again, had me doubled up in pain. For good reasons.
The actual timeframe of the book covers just a month, but once more, Beaumont manages to cram a lot in. He brings back old characters, and creates space to have fun with his new faces, too. The highlight of the new crowd is the not-gay-really Milton Keyne, and his attempts to ultimately find reality TV fame, although I couldn’t help but have a soft spot for Harvey Harvey, the man who takes his Internet spam just a little too literally.
If there are criticisms, it’s perhaps that, given the need to introduce new readers as well as adopting the new technologies into his narrative, it takes a little while to really hit top gear. And while gloriously over the top, the ultra-trendy Meerkat360 agency – albeit with some marvellous additions to help aid, er, ‘creative thinking’ – isn’t quite the equal of the sublime Miller Shanks from the first book.
But Matt Beaumont wins his gamble. e2 is a risky, rewarding sequel to a quite brilliant debut book. It’s not quite the equal of the first, perhaps given that the formula isn’t quite as fresh this time around, but on top gear, you’ll struggle to find a book with as many guffaws as this all year.
e2 can be pre-ordered.