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As a recent arrival to the United States from Australia, a visit to one of its famous bookstores seemed in order. I had only stepped through the door when I spied Beard’s novel, which, although published in 1996, hadn’t come across my desk before. I was glad I bought it. For all you non-smokers out there (including me), this book gives a very convincing impression of what we might imagine the superlative pleasures of smoking to be, and the agony of giving up this nagging addiction for good.
The book has 20 chapters, one for each cigarette in a pack, and Beard portrays a series of vignettes—sometimes amusing, sometimes painful, and occasionally bizarre—by which the main character Gregory Simpson makes the journey from being a committed compulsive smoker (the word “precontemplator” doesn’t begin to describe how he thinks about his smoking) to expelling cigarettes from his life.
This novel gives substance to the word “addiction”—Beard’s description of the incessant aching longing for a cigarette, the utter deprivation and desolation of doing without one’s lifeblood, is a fascinating window into the smoker’s world. Gregory’s perverse logic—perhaps a hallmark of all smokers trying to rationalise their deadly habit—is a feature of the story and in parts, becomes ridiculously funny. For example, by way of justifying his addiction, in one of his countless obsessive monologues about how endemic tobacco has become in society at large, he constructs a whimsical list of interesting “facts”—“Economics: Karl Marx spent more money on cigars whilst writing Das Kapital than he earned from its publication. This might explain his strange blindness to the obvious truth that in fact tobacco is the opium of the people. Criminology: the great Sherlock Holmes insisted that all detectives of the superior sort should be able to identify 140 different varieties of tobacco. In ash form” (page 200).
As a smoker struggling to quit, Gregory comes to the realisation that his addiction is as much a political issue as a personal one. But this novel is not for those who like a logical plot—Beard’s flights of fancy make this read a changeable and challenging one, much like the nature of the substance itself. At the end of the novel, I was left with a strange sense of dissatisfaction, as though the story was left unfinished—and of course for many smokers, this is exactly the situation they experience—have they given up for good?