My students seem at times to be wholly obsessed with “getting back” at people who have done them wrong. I try to calm them down, to refocus them on positive things, but the truth is: when you want to get revenge you are completely and absolutely immersed in that feeling. You can’t help but fixate on those who have wronged you and those who must now pay the price. It is an obsession, a complete fixation that overwhelms mind, body and soul. That heightened emotional state breeds a greater emotional investment by the reader.
And it has done for centuries, hence the ongoing appeal of Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo with all its swashbuckling through stage (9 separate scripts in the 21st century) and screen (most notably in 2002) and into prime time television (in ABC’s Revenge). But perhaps the most compelling version of the story comes from British actor/game show host/scholar/author/wit Stephen Fry whose 2000 novel Revenge can happily be found in most bargain bins of your local second hand book store.
Fry retells the classic tale of betrayal and deception far from the tumultuous France of the early 18th century. Instead he opts for the seemingly bland era of early 80s/late 90s England. The long forgotten (often historically obscured threats) of a militant IRA & chaotic Tory party mean little to an American audience, but they perfectly support this story and become intimately familiar in the context of a wrong man seeking justice.
For Fry, young Ned Maddstone–all-around likable private-school prodigy–is the unfortunate protagonist. Witless to the machinations of his malevolent “friends”, Ned’s privileged place in society is crushed in the course of a single afternoon. A prank, a package and a family secret combine to exile him to a psychiatric hospital in Scandinavia where distance and uncertainty wipe away his memories of what h really is. With the help of a curmudgeonly mentor, Ned regains his memory and seeks a return to his old life by revisiting cruelty upon cruelty on the heads of those who wronged him first.
A public figure who prides himself on love of language, Fry is a reader’s writer: the kind of writer who will gleefully use anagrams as an homage (Ned Maddstone = Edmond Dantes–Dumas’ original protagonist), incorporate a plethora of references to antiquity along with a healthy dollop of good-old-fashioned vulgarity. (My favorite quote: “Where were you when [someone got their comeuppance] on live television? I was watching television, shit-for-brains…where were you?”) But best of all he understands the truth of revenge.
Fry makes sure that it’s terribly fun to watch Maddstone (styling himself as Simon Cotter, tech gazillionaire) undo the treacherous louts who ruined his life. And I mean that in the truest sense of “terribly”. As the story unfolds you are both completely, totally and horrifyingly captivated. The destruction of a human life to satisfy personal animus is awful…and awfully entertaining. For that alone this is a phenomenal book