Monday, 23 November 2009

The Staggeringly Concise Book Review Series [#7]

This blog is in danger of becoming a bibliophile’s wet dream, what with the neverending procession of book reviews I’m churning out. In that case, I’d better do something else.


Nope. Can’t think of anything.

So, to more books. Three this time. Two quickies and one not-so quickie.

We begin with the sublime Varying Degrees of Hopelessness from my current authorial muse Lucy Ellmann. This novel, like the other two I pimped out, is abundant in mordant wit and scalpel-sharp solipsism. We follow our heroine as she refuses to settle for second best in her suitors, despite being a 32-year-old virgin, and flinch as her flatmate Pol ruts with the man of her dreams.

The novel is a postmodern parody of the Austen romance – a cynic’s re-imagining of Austen in a world stiffened by repression, loose morals, and the degeneration of cultural mores. Ellmann cools it on the CAPITALS in this book and uses a stoic first person narrative for our heroine which, when contrasted with the main third person narrative, creates buckets of tragic humour. Another despairing romp for the terminal realist. Infinitely recommended.

Felipe Alfau’s Locos: A Comedy of Gestures is a lost gem from the late thirties and was forerunner for the postmodern movement of the ‘60s onward. The novel is a series of interlocking tales wherein characters are redistributed among the manifold Spanish topographies, sometimes for significant contrasts, sometimes for simple mischief.

The novel has more in common with the ancient storytelling tradition, narrated in a fable-like voice, but Alfau is conscious of the limitations of this form and deploys footnotes and authorial corrections to challenge the stiffness of the Great Canonical Novels. Their plots are immutable, whereas his book invites a reading in any order, with any number of interpretations. The stories are a mixed bunch, but
The Necrophil stood out for me: a ghoulish tale about an old crone obsessed with death that leaves a haunting resonance.

Finally, Belgian writer
Amélie Nothomb’s tasteful media satire Sulphuric Acid. Since the invention of reality television, novels have been shooting from every pipe of the cultural sewage works, pouring scorn on greedy TV execs and lazy ignorant viewers. This one-sitting read briskly states the obvious in the form of a gentle fable – the narration is childlike in simplicity, and it dumps its disgust and irritation in the most eloquent way imaginable.

The novel takes place inside a reality TV concentration camp where contestants are voted off to be slaughtered by a panel of dull camp guards (called Kapos). One girl, Pannonique, catches the viewers’ eye and she soon strikes up a rapport with the amoral producers and the Kapo guard Zdena. She is then embroiled in a psychological struggle to liberate the viewers from their depraved inhumanity towards man and so on.

Nothomb has a quietly enraged voice (compared to the outspoken Ellmann) and delivers this mordant fable with enough simmering anger and basic dignity to keep us entertained. It’s not wildly original, but it’s workmanlike and charming. It’s also an important book to refer back to when the inevitable happens and we do end up killing each other on TV. (Japan will be first, I bet).



  1. I like the premise of Sulfuric Acid. I also love the title. That alone would make me pick it up in a bookstore. I also gotta admire any writer who can capture both “simmering anger and basic dignity.” A tough but admirable trick.

    Best Regards, Galen

    Imagineering Fiction Blog