Saturday, 29 May 2010

My Month in Novels (May)

Aside from fending off those families of warlocks and gargoyles, forever baying at my door, I have been reading muchly.

This month has proven one age-old adage to be true: all writers named Gilbert are geniuses. Now, I’ve only read two writers named Gilbert, but that’s two more than you, so there. And I know G.K. Chesterton is named Gilbert, and was no slouch in the brain department, so that’s further padding for my theory.

This month I read five books by
Gilbert Sorrentino, whose work I find softly disquieting (as opposed to loudly quieting). He is a fabulous (and sadly deceased) bruiser of American experimental fiction, and penned works of wit, bitterness, verve and beauty.

I read
Aberration of Starlight – an astonishing work which offers four perspectives on a romantic tryst that drives a family to madness. Using fantasies, letters, interviews, and isolated flecks of narrative, he captures the tension of 1930s Brooklyn with brutal precision. Along the same lines is Red the Fiend – a darkly hilarious tale of a child brutalised by his wretched Grandma.1

Steelwork offers snapshots of WWII Brooklyn in a more pastoral manner, displaying feats of linguistic and narrative mastery this writer has noted for future ‘influence’. Eh-hem. Splendide-Hôtel is a novella that defies explanation – it is an elegant, outstanding rumination on poetics, narrative and the artist, but warmer, wittier and worthier than that sounds.

Less successful was Sorrentino’s debut novel,
The Sky Changes, but even godlike geniuses need to find their feet.

The other Gilbert is
Mr. Adair. His novels are frothier fare, sure, but his books are clinically original, and I find the contrast between these two Gilberts sublime. His novella The Death of the Author, which tips more than a hat to Barthes (a huge fez, perhaps) offers a character who is killed by his own literary theory. The Dreamers was made into a controversial film and involves incest, cinema and nudity in Paris, 1968. Nice.

A Closed Book, which was whiffily adapted into a movie, is a fabulous suspense novel written entirely in dialogue. It tips its hat (or fez) to the Evadne Mount novels Gilbert has been writing recently. You can tip your fez precognitively, I’ve tried. Buenas Noches, Buenos Aires is Gilbert’s take on the AIDS pandemic, set in Paris among a cast of ludicrously promiscuous gays. Rather Carry on HIV Positive, mefound.

I read Gilbert’s collection of essays and musings,
The Postmodernist Always Rings Twice, which overegged the parentheses but was otherwise thoroughly entertaining (and wildly dated).

Non-Gilbert reads this month included
Christian Bök’s attempt to infiltrate the Oulipo, Eunoia. Top marks go to Graham Rawle’s collage novel Woman’s World, which innovates and dazzles, and which also helped my sister recover from her bedridden downtime. Thanks, Gray. I also got through Tom Phillips’s Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel. It was interesting.2

A second non-fiction book muscled its way in this month in the form of
Mike Barnes’s biography of Captain Beefheart. Normally I couldn’t care less about the lives of musicians, but Don Van Vliet was a mercurial talent who worked in a series of media with splooshes of skill, and so demands to be described.

The Burned Children of America is a short story collection that introduced me to some new talents, among them Julia Slavin, George Saunders and Stacey Richter. Most illuminating. I already know about Janice Galloway, but I didn’t know quite how brilliant her shorts were. The shorts in Blood are formidable shorts indeed.

And now. The duds. The moment we’ve been dreading.
McSweeney’s 26 was an unbearably tedious literary stew, offering a handful of dreary stories on two cheap flipbooks. I’ve decided that McSweeney’s is a visual and artistic triumph, but the actual writing they publish is often so foot-stompingly banal I want to strangle Davey.

I don’t particularly admire the work that comes from the McS camp – to me it reads like a movement based around bland realism. Stories about real people written in disaffected, smug prose. Bah.

Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch is possibly the worst novel I’ve ever read – an outrageously bloated slab of philosophical waffle presented in an incoherent order which invites readers to scrounge for a single comprehensible sentence. You won’t find a book with more references to maté3 on the planet.

Also disappointing was
Jonathan Lethem’s Girl in Landscape, though I’ve no idea why I’m reading Lethem as sci-fi genre-hopping isn’t my bag of literary swag. Thank you and go away.


1. It also happens to be Lydia Millet’s 8th favourite book.
2. Phillips painted over an old novel, isolating one or two snatches of the original text.
3. A stimulating milky beverage made from dried evergreen leaves.


  1. I had a friend at school called Gilbert - but he didn't write.

    I had another friend called Billy Wiggs who used to wriggle his fingers by the side of his nose (we used to imitate him and say "Billy Wiggs does this"), but he also didn't write.

    In fact, in 14 years of schooling and ten years at various Universities, I never knew anyone who wrote fiction.

    So why are so many doing it now!?!?

    Tell me Mark, do you feel disadvantaged living in the UK instead of the US?
    The US has so much more to write about.
    Could you imagine writing a song called "On the M1" in place of "On Route 66"?
    How do Abbey studios and The Cavern compare to Nashville and Graceland?
    We have a few serial killers instead of weekly school massacres, etc. The Brighton Beach clashes (almost 40 years ago) between skinheads and Teddy boys instead of Hell's Angels.
    And just one Dylan Thomas getting drunk down the pub instead of all those US heavy boozers.
    And no Thelma and Louise driving off a cliff at Dover.
    Does the Beatles Magical Mystery Tour size up to Kesy and His Merry Pranksters?

  2. Pah! Never! I would absolutely hate to live in the US. There might be more violence, murder, greed, insanity etc, but to actually be in the thick of it would scare me so stiff I wouldn't be able get out of bed.

    Give me George Formby over Elvis any day.

  3. *giggling*

    I've known two Gilberts in my life. One was a McDonald's owner who I suppose I can buy writing dark, masochistic tales that would be more your fare than mine. The other though, I went to high school with. He was quiet and attractive, and I thank you for opening this new line of fantasies for me.

  4. Gilberts forever! I'm going to change my name to Gilbert and move into myself.

  5. Jack Gilbert. Of course, it's his last name, but I imagine he went by Gilbert when Jack was a little too easy.

  6. Mark:
    Are you sure you want to do that?
    Remember, there are also the Gilbert's like Gilbert and Sullivan. Shiver.....

  7. Hey! Thanks for this list. Love these lists.

  8. AK-Mike-Chris: You are all invited to my book orgy. And any other orgies going down.