A Wikipedia article describes Malcolm Pryce's Aberystwyth novels as "set in an alternative universe," a description I found helped my thinking about these odd, comic, sometimes poignant books.
I've just finished the second in the series of five, and its title gives a fair sense of the books' tone: Last Tango in Aberystwth. (The rest are Aberystwyth Mon Amour, The Unbearable Lightness of Being in Aberystwyth, Don't Cry for Me Aberystwyth, and From Aberystwyth With Love. The Day Aberystwyth Stood Still is due out this summer.)
The real Aberystwyth is a Welsh university and holiday town whose recorded history dates to 1109. In Pryce's world, it's a summer resort where it's always the off-season, the fashions are never the latest, and a whimsical melancholy pervades everything. ("I walked up Great Darkgate Street and through the castle grounds towards the bed-and-breakfast ghetto down by the harbour. This was where the ventriloquists tended to stay, along with the out-of-work clowns, the washed-up impresarios and the men who ran away from the bank to join the circus. ... Down below I could see Sospan's new kiosk — repositioned and re-established after the short-lived fool's errand of selling designer coffee to a town that hungered only for vanilla.")
Like many hard-boiled worlds, it has its disappointed young women who flock to the big city hoping for stardom but wind up doomed to grimmer fates. Only here, the girls hope to model for the fudge boxes sold to tourists but wind up in "What the Butler Saw" movies. And the diversions available to the residents of this world as they spiral downward manage the difficult double of seeming ridiculous to us (but never to the residents themselves) and affecting at the same time.:
"`Where does someone go in this town when they've reached the bottom and and have nowhere left to go?'If you're a fan of the genre, what are the ingredients of a successful alternative universe?
"There are lots of places.'
"`For you, yes! For you there are the bars and the girls and the toffee and the bingo and the whelks. For you there is a great choice. But for her. Ah! but for her? You cannot imagine what this girl was like.'"
© Peter Rozovsky 2011