Sunday, 31 October 2010

My Month in Novels (Oct)

A quick run-through of this month’s reading materials. Reviews pasted from Goodreads.

1. Kurt Vonnegut: Slapstick, or Lonesome No More!

Another sublime lesson in humanism from the doyen of deadpan. This novel is rich in humour, pathos, cynicism, invention and all-purpose lunacy. Top Von.

2. Flann O’Brien: The Best of Myles

This bumper-sized collection of Cruiskeen Lawn columns runs to 400 pages in a small 10pt font. You would be mistaken for thinking this covers his entire career at the Irish Times. In fact, it only covers from 1940-1945. Begad!

Bearing this in mind, his output was extraordinary. The range of wit, erudition, linguistic skill and creativity is outrageous. Among the funniest columns are the "Research Bureau," "The Brother" and the "Catechism of Cliché." O'Brien is at his finest when taking a ridiculous idea and stretching it to breaking point.

His grasp of language is also amazing. This book bedazzles with endless wordplay and puns. There are also frequent forays into Latin and French, as well as an entire section written in Gaelic. The section "Miscellaneous" is less successful. There are one too many rambling and baffling columns here, and the book does seem to run on forever.

Still: a top read and the definitive collection of O'Brien's articles and genius during wartime Ireland. A pint of Flann is your only man.

3. Kurt Vonnegut: Player Piano

Vonnegut's first novel (circa 1952!) bears little relation to his later, greater works, barring the subject matter. Player Piano is an ambitious speculative story about evil man-made machines turning society into one big fascist corporation. Yes, yawn, but this was seven years after D-day. Time has not been kind.

His storytelling is lucid, amusing and real, but falls away in the second half. This book is twice the length of his other works, and too self-consciously first-novelly to sustain interest until the final court scene. (Yes, an actual court scene! And there's a rousing speech from the hero too!)

Think of this as a piece on a par with the short stories he wrote in the '50s: writing with purpose, vision and coherence from a writer who would break into absolute genius at the turn of the sixties. For Vonnegut completists only.

4. Kurt Vonnegut: God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

My Kurt Vonnegut marathon continues. This novel hopped around a little structurally (not in a good way) but was still miles funnier, more dignified and powerful than most anti-capitalist satires. Next!

5. Flann O’Brien: Myles Away From Dublin

Articles written in the last six years of O'Brien's life (1960-66) under the pen-name George Knowall. His wild and innovative years on the Irish Times behind him, here he settles into a mildly grumpy smart-alec persona.

This version of O'Brien is a easier for some to swallow. The writing is standard column stuff kept entertaining by the steady prose.

6. Flann O’Brien: Myles Before Myles

What amazes about this collection:

a) The humour hasn't dated, even if the references have.
b) It is twice as erudite and funny as any modern satirical book.
c) Flann O'Brien wrote an entire magazine by himself.

This collection is a scream: especially the excerpts from Blather, his early ramblings, and the assorted silliness under a billion or so pen-names.

The cuttings from The Bell and his poetry translations are very dull. But who cares. This is one of the funniest books you'll never read.

7. Kurt Vonnegut: Jailbird

Jailbird is a quintessentially Vonnegutian tale of rich-man guilt and the futility of capitalist America.

The story is most effective when dealing with Walter's love interests. Vonnegut captures the intensity and importance of relationships like no other writer, by stretching them throughout life, showing how love endures more than money or career success. He does this, of course, with dollops of sentimental irony.

I think "sentimental ironist" isn't a bad summation of Vonnegut's style, though his books always have a unique theme or thread running through them.

8. Flann O’Brien: The Hair of the Dogma

OK, too much Flann O'Brien is exhausting. I'm taking a well-deserved break.

The Best of Myles is more than enough Cruiskeen Lawn for anybody. Leave this collection to the diehard fans. Among the treats here are the articles on a Dublin man's pint-wife relations, pieces on The Poor Mouth, Finnegans Wake and bicyclism.

9. Greg Boyd: Carnival Aptitude

Charming combination of collage and flash fiction. The art is surreal and witty, the stories perverse and poetic.

This is the perfect way to showcase flash pieces. Flash fiction is basically a way for poets to write prose and consider themselves "proper" writers. This artistic triumph makes a convincing case for brevity.

The author is (or was) the editor of Asylum, which may or may not prejudice you.

10. Amélie Nothomb: The Book of Proper Names

Nothomb is a tough cookie to fathom. Her books are simple and short, predictable to the point of cliché, and yet eminently readable. She doesn't mess around. She tells the story as fast as possible and leaves the reader in a glow. That is clever.

This novella is a riff on the child-prodigy-runs-into-obstacles theme, with an undercurrent of murder and madness. Nothomb does a good job playing with these clichés, moulding them into something original with wit and panache.

(NB: I think I've used the phrase "wit and panache" in about fifteen reviews so far. Curses!)

11. Stanley Crawford: Log of the S.S. Mrs. Unguentine

A novel written in the form of a ship's log. The style isn't wholly compelling but Crawford creates a strange, dreamlike world of marriage in a state of exploding madness. Isn't it always?

Good bedside reading for all the recently divorced out there. (Especially those who married sailors).

12. Bernard Share: Inish

Words alone cannot describe the awesomeness of this book, but I ought to try.

Imagine being trapped in the mind of an OCD amnesiac possessed by the spirit of James Joyce and Flann O'Brien. Imagine a book that uses such strange, warped idioms, again and again, that the mind is forced into hilarity by proxy.

Imagine a story that makes no sense, but entertains and amazes with the galloping energy of the prose. This book is a masterpiece. It has to be read to be believed. (Hint hint).

13. Andrew Kaufman: All My Friends Are Superheroes

The binding in this book is criminal. I mean the 2006 Telegram Books edition. You can barely open the damn thing.

That's maybe a blessing. There are better ways to pass the time than reading 100 pages of saccharine whimsy. This book is so cute I want to punch its face in. Though I am sure it has its admirers.

14. Chip Kidd: The Cheese Monkeys

Awesome book. Terrible ending.

15. Gilbert Sorrentino: Something Said

As well as a fearless formal innovator, Sorrentino was also an academic of immense eloquence and skill. These essays serve as manifestos for all that is original, inventive, daring and unclichéd in fiction and poetry. Writers discussed include William Carlos Williams, Edward Dahlberg, Gabriel García Márquez, Raymond Queneau, Italo Calvino, Flann O'Brien and Donald Barthleme.

16. Kurt Vonnegut: Deadeye Dick

This is satire at its blackest. Deadeye Dick might be the angriest of Vonnegut's books: nuclear weapons, small-town life, hopeless parents and marriages, drug addiction, warped governments, racism, police brutality and gun laws. It's all here in this mulligan stew of righteous indignation.

Brilliant. A real tour de force of grumpy trouble-making.

17. Percival Everett: Wounded

A warm but gritty book about a reluctant horse trainer saving lives and kicking ass.

18. Fernando Pessoa: The Book of Disquiet

The Book of Disquiet is a LiveJournal blog as written by E.M. Cioran or Albert Camus.

Bernardo Soares, Pessoa’s leading alter-ego, imagines “the corpse of [his] prose” being “lowered into general oblivion” upon his death. This might have been the case had not archivists rescued his fragmented idlings from the black void and published them in this volume.

It strikes me, given Soares’s desire for extinction, and the delusion of posterity, that this selection of writing is redundant. What impact can one man’s daydreams, solipsistic tracts, repetitive observations, written from a chronically depressed mind, have on another? What is the function of this book? If the writer is so intent on being ignored, on doting on life’s gloominess, why should we waste our time lauding the prettiness of his prose?

Would he care that a legion of people find this book a philosophical masterpiece, that we empathise with his eternal struggle with everyday life, with his permanent existential misery? No: he is only happy in dreams.

This is similar to Marcel Benabou’s nonbook: it is the very fact of its valuelessness that gives it its value. In practice, at least. With The Book of Disquiet, Soares has written himself into extinction.


  1. Ha! I had a similar reaction to the Kaufmann (though my copy opened fine). Though I also thought it was kind of sad. And a little hopeless. I liked the idea, though - superheroes that aren't superheroes. But then it got old. Ack.

    Your October has been quite impressive!

  2. Hello again. Are you not out Norwegian trick-or-treating? Think of tooth rot! The glorious tooth rot!

    Kaufman: If he'd kept the narrator's invisible-to-his-lover superpower until the end, it might have given the book more pathos. As you say... it got old, ack!

  3. My Lord. I applaud your readerliness.

  4. Loved your right-on reviews of Vonnegut...but you missed Slaughterhouse 5 and Mother Night, two of the best.

  5. Hi Mohamed. Yes, I love S5 & Mother Night. The films, too, are amazing (esp. MN). I read those ones a long long time ago, but they're work a second look.

  6. M.J. - the screenplay adaptation of MN is one of the best-made movies I've seen. Nolte, Arkin and the rest of the cast did a superb job!