Sunday, 24 January 2010

My Month in Novels (Jan)

I’ve managed to squeeze in five or so novels over the last month, but on the whole I’ve been dangerously deprived of that crucial IV drip of literary genius. That mainline of mastery, pumping directly into my veins, required to keep my own endeavours fresh in originality. So: to books.

The Xmas period was spent in the bedroom I grew up in reading a writer I grew up reading – the redoubtable Will Self. Having found his previous collection of newspaper articles too long-winded and tiresome to sift through, I had low expectations of
Feeding Frenzy.

However, while the parents got sloshed on cheap Pernod downstairs, I was entertained by Self’s witty discourses on architecture, his rollicking restaurant reviews, and assorted commissioned pieces ‘bout roads. Nice. I also found myself reading about his traumatic experience isolating himself from his loved ones during Xmas, while endeavouring to exile myself from my loved ones during Xmas. Did I go down and join them? Ehm…. nah.

Nick Cave, whose blistering music soundtracked the ickier moments of my adolescence, has written a second novel,
The Death of Bunny Munro. I read most of this on a bus bound for Inverness as the snow encased the entire North of Scotland in four months' worth of blinding white boredom. The book was a dark romp. Cave is erudite enough to reign in his extreme preoccupations with sex and biblical doom to create a tight and sleek little number. Most impressive. Though nothing beats ‘dem tunes. Start with "Let Love In" and never look back.

The longest novel I read was John Barth’s
Coming Soon!!! which stirred the most bile and delight during the festive period. I read the first fifty pages, found myself intrigued and excited at the antics therein, then I put the novel back in my bag after the one hundredth page. I was utterly infuriated with the style. However, this is the only book I have ever given up on, only to try again and find the rest a frustrating but divertingly original read. Full review here.

For giggles and wiggles I dipped into
The Book of General Ignorance which is the perfect book for pedants, aspirant trivia hounds and those curious about the fallacies underpinning most of our common knowledge.

Back home, as the new year took shape, I leapt into Alasdair Gray’s
Something Leather, which is an entertaining novel from the self-deprecating cruiser of old-school Scottish postmodernism. I found the various S&M tales therein diverting but the whole experience felt like a series of short stories and didn’t quite gel into a cohesive piece on a par with his classics, despite the exquisite final torture sequence. Marvellously designed, as usual.

I spent last week grappling with Jonathan Safran Foer’s
Everything is Illuminated, which frustrated and illuminated me in equal measures. Any novel that comes festooned with a dozen quotes from hacks claiming “this will reshape the future of the novel as we know it” is always a struggle. I want the critics to dislodge themselves from the writer’s arse, wiggle back to their drooly flats, then come up with their own opinion.

I found the structure almost conventional (surely not?) as the book plodded along, although the meandering nature of the various tales-within-tales soon wore me down. The novel is Tardis-like in that it appears pocket-sized, but takes a giant concentrated heave of effort to get through. Its Ukrainian narrator is not fond of paragraph breaks, loves repetitions, and is salacious to the point of sleaze.

In fact, this novel’s bizarre mix of eroticism and WWII horror is somewhat disquieting on the whole. I found myself torn between arousal, boredom, horror, and laughter. At times the writing borders on histrionic – the melodrama between the grandfather’s lovers becomes ludicrous, and Foer exhibits the excruciating desire to excavate each human emotion from his personnel as his contemporary Lydia Millet.

That said, the one stream-of-consciousness scene turns out to be the most powerful moment in the novel. Which is quite an achievement, as even Joyce didn’t pull that one off. There’s also a scene of gruesome slaughter that ranks as one of the most naturally horrific depictions of WWII horror that I've ever read. Foer is a compassionate writer, but at times I felt this compassion giving way to a detached glibness that soon bored me. So, an odd mixture. Worth exploring.

Last week I was introduced to the worst book in the world. It isn’t Dan Brown. No. This accolade is awarded to Quintin Jardine’s
Fatal Last Words. It is an execrable blight upon literature: a cynical blob of unedited, unproofread shelf-filling turd matter. The linked review is clearly written by a man who hasn’t encountered a book in his life.

Quintin Jardine has all the talent of a cockroach twitching through its death throes, but none of the fighting spirit. He is a petty, unpleasant, self-important, pompous, snivelling lump of hatred. His ‘books’ reflect this. I can say, without fear of libel, he is the worst writer working in the universe today.

Oh, one last thing – I now like Nicola Barker. Hurrah! Her novella
Small Holdings managed to capture the verve, quirkiness and addictive quality of her prose that her doorstopper books milk for over five hundred whopping pages. Well done, Nicola. I always believed in you.


  1. Here's why Jonathan Safran Foer is going vegan! Check out this informative and inspiring video.

  2. Buzz off to Burger King, Spamhead.