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In his acknowledgements at the end of the book, Ashley Stokes thanks a number of people and things for providing the inspiration for Gigantic. Among them we find: the year 2000 AD, Bungle from Rainbow, Buck Rogers in the Twenty-Fifth Century, Chewbacca, Judge Dredd, The Unexplained, and Phil Collins. He does also thank some of the real people in his life who made the book possible, but it’s interesting that this particular list comes first. Such a strange and disparate group of people, characters, and abstract concepts goes a long way towards explaining the comedic lunacy of what is an exciting, uproarious, absurdist novel.
Kevin Stubbs, aka Agent MonkeyMan, aka the Knower, is a member of the Gigantopithecus Intelligence Team (aka GIT), tasked with finding and recording, once and for all, irrefutable footage of the elusive relict hominid (aka rectal hominid, aka Big Foot). You might feel that that’s a lot of “Also Known As” monikers to swallow in one sentence, but that’s because in Gigantic, everyone has an alias. It’s just part of the everyday life of a cryptozoologist who has spent 10,000 hours out in the woods of North Surrey, kitted up, developing “super-surveillance hearing skills” in pursuit of a giant sasquatch.
The problem is, the new Lead Investigator, Maxine Cash (aka Sci-Borg), is not a believer (or more accurately a knower, since Kevin knows for a fact that the Gigantopithecus exists, since he’s seen it more than once, FACT). Maxine has been tasked by Kevin’s estranged Ukrainian wife to prove once and for all that the fabled “monkey man” is not real. But as she employs her rigorous, sceptical approach to Report #214 – soundly refuting each piece of evidence after a large and mostly drunken group of people having a party on Banstead Common claim to have seen the beast – Kevin and his even stranger henchman of sorts, Derek Funnel (aka the Funnel) become more and more convinced that the sighting is genuine. Indeed, their increasingly elaborate excuses for Maxine’s findings border on the psychotic, brainwashed ramblings of doomsday cult followers.
Much of the book revolves around the tensions within the GIT as they explore the claimed sighting in what turns out to be the team’s final case. The narrative unfolds in a series of case reports, penned by Maxine, followed by Kevin’s overlayered commentary, giving a different, whackier take on the events related in the very sober, factual reports. Maxine is clear-headed and no-nonsense, while Kevin and the Funnel thrash around manically, convinced of the overriding sanctity of their role, which is to discover no less than the missing link in the evolutionary chain between apes and humans; a discovery which, once proven beyond all doubt, will turn them from ridiculed outsiders to lauded heroes.
The narrative voice is a kind of assault on the reader’s sense of decency, like being told a story by a paranoid schizophrenic in the throes of a complex series of hallucinations. There is a purpose behind this approach, of course, though occasionally it can become rather cloying. People don’t walk, they “yomp”, a head is frequently referred to as a “bonce”, and near the end, Maxine’s mouth is called a “sushi hole”. The scenes where Kevin and the Funnel are attempting to emulate the creature’s characteristic lope, as well as copying its Tarzan-esque howl (which is transcribed in full by the author: “Ahaaaarrraaararaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa”), balance precariously on the line between comedy and just plain old “too much”. But there is a certain endearing, comedic effect that accrues through these self-consciously amusing descriptions and events. The gathering absurdity spins a web around the reader, making us question the nature of the story’s reality. But at times one finds oneself wondering whether there will be any solid ground at all, something (anything) that one can relate to.
This much-needed sense of stability, of emotional depth, is a long time coming, but it does eventually emerge in the form of the narrator’s backstory. We know from very early on that his mother raised him as a Jehovah’s Witness, with its attendant shunning of modern comforts and entertainments, but we do not get a proper feel for Kevin’s sense of rejection and loneliness until the final third of the book. As the hunt for Big Foot reaches its crescendo with a sighting that even the sceptical Maxine cannot refute, a series of flashbacks shows us the full extent of the abandonment Kevin has experienced at the hands of his fellow humans, including a girl’s brutal humiliation of him during his school days. As Franco (aka Franchescalicious) first leads him on then socially traumatises him in the most public manner, we begin to understand why Kevin would seek absolution in an obsessive pursuit of a creature considered inhuman.
That it is this very compulsion of his (routed in his desperate desire to regain a semblance of self-worth, of purpose) that has driven his wife and son away, too, makes it all the more tragic. This is the point at which we start getting behind Stokes’ wayward, eccentric protagonist, willing him to succeed in his process of redemption, and the novel is all the better for it.
As a consequence, the ending is surprising even though we could have seen it coming a mile off, were we of sound mind. Such is the web of nonsense the author weaves around us. We simply cease being able to think clearly.
In this sense, those familiar with Ashley Stokes’ previous works will find the high-energy, overblown comedy of his latest novel somewhat familiar, though perhaps ramped up into fifth gear. This outing represents the author’s usual style on some form of performance-enhancing drug, which is sometimes to the novel’s detriment. It is a good laugh, however, and a great example of an entertaining story capable of lifting us out of the mundane. No wonder, then, that Gigantic is a lockdown novel, as it seems to be one of the boldest examples of escapism this reader has ever had the opportunity to get lost in.
By Ashley Stokes
Unsung Stories, 244 pages