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Book review: Dr No by Percival Everett

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By Simon Demetriou

‘I don’t understand it, but I love it’

Look, if you choose to read Percival Everett’s latest novel, as I recommend you do, there will be times when you feel a little stupid. Or very stupid. Unless you happen to be a mathematician, in which case you might even be able to sneeringly pick out where in amongst all the maths-talk and maths-jokes Everett may have made a mistake. I certainly don’t know how accurate or otherwise it all is. The good news is that Dr No wraps all this mathsy dialogue up in a book whose plot is reassuringly well-known to basically everyone – because, as the novel’s name suggests, it’s straight out of James Bond.

Except in this spy novel, everything’s turned on its head. There aren’t really any spies, for one. And the supervillain, John Sill, is a lot more suave and seductive than his eventual antagonist (though there is more than a hint that Sill’s methods of seduction include at least a little chemical assistance). The man who endeavours to thwart Sill’s dastardly plot is Ralph Townsend. Or rather, Wala Kitu. Because as a former maths prodigy and now tenured professor at Brown University, our protagonist has chosen for himself a name made up of the words for ‘nothing’ in two languages from nations with which Townsend has no connection. Why? Because he is the world’s foremost expert on nothing – ‘not absolutely nothing, but positively nothing’ (there’s a lot of stuff like this, some purely semantic, some hilarious: ‘I work very hard and wish I could say that I have nothing to show for it.’)

Far from being charged by Her Majesty’s Secret Service to thwart the evil Sill, Kitu starts off employed by the villain, since Sill’s masterplan is to harness the devastating power of nothing, which he believes is what’s truly stored in Fort Knox. Ultimately, Kitu, armed with only the unflappability and literalism of a man ‘on the spectrum’, his one-legged bulldog, the suspicion – only the suspicion – that he might have ‘feelings’ for his colleague Eigen Vector (I think there’s more maths here too), and a memory that allows him to recall and apply almost everything he’s ever read, decides that nothing cannot be allowed to happen.

So, the question is: will nothing happen, or will nothing happen? Which of these would be more devastating to the plot of a novel about the potentially disastrous harnessing of the unfathomable power of nothing? Which would be more devastating to the world itself? There’s only one way to find out.


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