Irreverent and witty, “Everything and More” proves that there are still areas at which the English excel--writing comic novels, designing raincoats, playing Hamlet, and slicing smoked salmon into transparency, to name a few.
Haden Brothers, the setting for this satire, is a mammoth London department store, a sort of anti-Harrods. Designed by a mad architect inspired by the Tower of Babel, Haden Brothers rises nine stories into the London air and descends several levels below ground. According to the staff manual invented by the author, it has 400 departments and 200,000 square yards of selling space, containing carpet for 600 average houses, sufficient personnel for 700 soccer teams, and enough ballpoint pens to write out the complete works of Shakespeare 20,000 times.
At Haden Brothers you can buy anything from a pin to an elephant, though elephants are special-order items and probably involve a considerable wait. Whether you want a cashmere sweater or a cottage in the Cotswolds, Haden Brothers can accommodate you.
Far more fascinating than the visible store (after all, we have those right here) is the invisible store, the basements and sub-basements, the secret passages, tunnels, shafts and vents, all essential to the plot. Equally crucial to the story is the vast, pure white penthouse in which Arnold Haden, the last surviving brother, lives as a virtual recluse.
Arnold Haden is ascetic in all respects save celibacy. In fact, he’s a satyr who demands a steady supply of young blond female shop assistants upon whom he exercises a sort of droit de seigneur.
While many of the young ladies are happy enough to accommodate him sexually, his current choice, a brand-new employee named Vita Carlisle, is vehemently not, an attitude that supplies the novel with several of its most outrageously funny chapters. Instead of just saying no, she turns up in his pristine flat with several sticks of dynamite concealed beneath her clothes, enough to vaporize most of Mayfair, as well as herself and her would-be seducer. (Of course, the author had no way of predicting that life in America would imitate art in England just as his novel appeared here, and he shouldn’t be blamed for the ghastly coincidence.)
The chief protagonist is a young man named Charlie Mayhew, who has come to London to become an artist of some sort, though he hasn’t yet decided whether he’ll be a painter, a writer or a musician. In order to support himself while exploring the possibilities, he applies for a job at Haden Brothers, and winds up as the lowliest of the low, a junior furniture porter.
Though he intends his menial employment to be only temporary, he discovers that moving cocktail cabinets and consoles around gives him long, idle stretches of time in which to think. He soon realizes that writing a novel about a department store might be his true calling. Structure and cast are ready-made, though devising a plot requires considerable ingenuity.
Still, he’s more than up to the task. His colleagues in the portering department are a lively bunch of yahoos, Arnold Haden is wonderfully eccentric, and Vita Carlisle makes a fine romantic interest. Nine floors of luxury goods are ideally inspirational for anyone with a few statements to make about rampant materialism, the decline of the work ethic in contemporary England, and the threat of global terrorism oppressing us all.
“Everything and More,” the store’s slogan, supplies the title, and the categories of available goods--bedding, accessories, exhibitions, knobs and knockers, adult games--are a perfect source for suggestive chapter headings. What more does any writer need? If not precisely Swiftian in elegance or ferocity, Charlie Mayhew’s adventures in Haden Brothers show that satire can still be an effective and entertaining way to comment on contemporary life--perhaps the best.