When Alex and her husband Roy move into an apartment in a middle class English neighborhood and meet their grumpy, greedy and potentially insane neighbors, Ben and Pat Guppy, it becomes abundantly clear before chapter one ends with “And with that the battle lines were drawn up,” that any sane person would begin considering murder as a viable alternative to long-term unpleasantness.
After all, in any aquarium of dazzling tropical fish, the guppy is background clutter at best. But, should the rather plain and unamazing fish go rogue—like Benjamin and Pat in the finite world of the apartment building—then when all else fails, stricter measures appear more reasonable than reasonable measures.
In the well-written and vastly humorous “The Wonderful Demise of Benjamin Arnold Guppy,” Ben and Pat are quite accustomed to ruling their environment. New tenants, such as Alex and Roy, are informed by the 70-year-old Benjamin Guppy on day one of his rules and expectations: bedtime (and quiet) begin at ten except on Sundays when they commence at nine, dinner is at five. It gets worse. The Guppy’s don’t like to hear music, water draining out of the bathtub, or toilets being flushed.
Alex, who tells this story, says of Benjamin Guppy on the first page: “He made no effort to conceal his dislike of us from the outset, his opinion being formed immediately that we were not his sort of people. I consider myself fortunate in that.”
The Guppy’s shenanigans, and the delightfully droll and deadpan way the novel unfolds, are reminiscent of the outlandish kinds of circumstances played out in the 1970s BBC sitcom “Fawlty Towers.” Benjamin and Pat are clearly a couple of rogue guppies, yet their outlandish activities, their low character and the absurdity of their endless fishy demands for money for fabricated damages to their flat appear to be unnoticed by everyone except Alex and Roy.
Will Alex kill Benjamin? She has cause. And while her cause is a funny one—from the reader’s perspective—it’s hard to imagine Benjamin and Pat being humorous in real life. The strength of the book is an understated humor that builds throughout the novel rather like a snowball rolling down a steep hill. While some of Benjamin’s and Pat’s abusive words and deeds become a bit repetitive, Gina Collia-Suzuki’s style and tone more than makes up for that.
“The Wonderful Demise of Benjamin Arnold Guppy” is good for a lot of laughs, some uncomfortable truths about the nature of ill-bred apartment dwellers, and—for philosophers—an opportunity to ponder just how long a couple of angel fish can possibly swim in the dark and dangerous currents of an environment with so little privacy and space, the walls might as well be made of glass.
Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “Jock Stewart and the Missing Sea of Fire,” “The Sun Singer,” and “Garden of Heaven: an Odyssey.”