I Ran Across a Biting Satire for Our Modern Times

Mischief – Chris Wilson (1993)

            I often spend much of my lunch hour at work reading (lucky me!).  One day, as I was leaving the Baylor College of Medicine cafeteria, I noticed a bookshelf tucked away in the corner.  Taped to the top shelf was a sign reading “Your Free Library.”  I am always drawn to Libraries of any type, even tiny ones.  I perused the contents of the shelves, finding many magazines, medical periodicals, and quite a few books, both fiction and non-fiction, that were interesting to me.  Among these was a well-worn paperback titled Mischief, by English author Chris Wilson.  Reading the blurbs and the synopsis on the back page I was intrigued, and took the book with me.

            From the moment I began to read this novel I found myself both engaged and amused by turn, and began to really relate to the protagonist, one Charlie Duckworth.  He narrates his own tale, describing himself then his humble beginnings, where he was found beside a Brazilian river by a British botanist who brings Charlie back to the UK as his adopted son.  This book resonantly speaks to the outsider’s experience upon being thrust into British society and culture, mirroring somewhat my experience as an outsider Puerto Rican who was brought to Houston, Texas, leaving behind every bit of societal culture I understood, and having to adapt and join the alien American culture I had seen so much on TV and movies.

            Like the very best works of satire, this is one funny book.  Also, like the very best works of satire, the jokes are there to shed light upon the horror inherent in the culture being savaged.  Charlie is, in nearly all respects, the opposite of a British gentleman.  His skin is yellow, his body is hairless, and his frame is tall and gangly.  He is a devout vegetarian.  He is so overcome with empathy and sympathy for anyone who appears in pain or suffering that he unconsciously mimics their afflictions, thereby causing the very people he is sympathizing with to reject him, fearing that he is only ridiculing their woe.  He does not understand sarcasm, nor lies, nor the very British trait of extreme politeness to the point of delusion.  He sees himself as an animal, not a Homo Sapiens Sapiens human being, and the responses and reactions he receives from the British people as he maneuvers school and life only reinforce that idea.

            Charlie Duckworth is also an astute observer of humanity, sharing with the reader the many conclusions he has come to regarding the human creature and the actions of such.  Here is an example of the type of interactions Charlie had with his University professors,

            “Holzinger gave a rhesus Monkey an electric shock every time it ate a banana,” Dr. Jobson told our seminar group. “Why do you suppose he did this?
            “Was he a sadist, a psychopath?” I asked.  It seemed a rhetorical question, but I wanted to make a contribution.
            “Duckworth,” Dr. Jobson declared…”don’t be a smart-arse.  Not in my seminars.”
            “But look at it from the monkey’s point of view…” I protested.
            “The monkey doesn’t have a point of view,” he snapped.  There was this prevalent view in psychology that animals didn’t have pleasures or feelings.  There were only things that happened to them, and things they did in reflex reply – stimuli and responses.  I knew better.  Though, I didn’t say so.

            Charlie experiences much of what constitutes a “typical” British upbringing, always experiencing things in a way that exasperates the Brits around him.  They do not know how to cope with someone who has not yet assimilated all their self-delusion mechanisms.  This is very much how life is like in our modern world for anyone not interested in acquiring wealth and/or power, or for someone whose personal values are deemed worthless by the society he finds himself in.  The kind, giving, friendly person is the first victim of the mean, selfish, and antagonistic person. 

Charlie’s insights into us humans may cut deep, but they are true insights, and exceedingly valuable.  I would recommend this book to anyone who has felt marginalized by the world at large, or out of place within a world that you did not create.  I know it resonated deeply with me, and my experiences.  Author Chris Wilson has created a profound book, dripping with the sharply observed satire expected out of someone like Mark Twain or Jonathan Swift.  It is a satire for our modern age, asking what being human really means, and whether it is worth it to try.

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