Tuesday, 30 November 2010

My Month in Novels (Nov)

Another month gone. Reviews pasted from Goodreads:

1. Walking to Hollywood: Will Self

Self’s latest is a triptych based around three mental pathologies: obsessive compulsive disorder, psychosis, and Alzheimer's.

"Very Little" explores Self's permanent obsession with scale. "Walking to Hollywood" finds him investigating who murdered the movies. "Spurn Head" is a bleak walk along a crumbling coastline and a rumination on death.

The narrative mixes Self's psychogeography writing with mordant satire, surreal fantasy and personal reflection. The book's freewheeling absurdity is gloriously funny and insane, though the last part stretches the form to breaking point, and my interest waned as he sat discoursing cliffside with a Struldbug.

Packed with Self's wide vocabulary and unique prose pyrotechnics, this is his most intimate and verbose work yet.

2. McSweeney’s Issue 24

“Come Back Donald Barthelme” — A tribute to America's hippest short story writer. I read Sixty Stories recently and found myself in a state of amazement. These testimonials to greatness show I'm not alone in my amazement state.

“How To Make Millions in the Oil Market” — I can't remember a single thing about this story, though I read it only yesterday. I remember one hideous sentence, which I quote here: "Not even in Fallujah when he was with the 82nd Airborne and the 3rd Cavalry had blamed them for their dead had anybody ever looked at him like that." Ouch!

“Stockholm, 1973” — A charming and witty telling of the bank robbery that lead to Nils Berjerot discovering Stockholm Syndrome.

“Bored to Death” — A grim but compelling story about the writer getting involved in a brutal kidnapping plot.

“Look at Me” — I liked this tale of a loser-becoming-a-hero-but-at-what-cost.

“Death of Nick Carter” — A story from the 1920s by Philippe Soupault. One of those curios McSweeney's likes to throw in to annoy or astound us.

“The Last Adventure of the Blue Phantom” — Starts out OK, but sags BADLY by being novella-sized in length and meandering about with no narrative discipline whatsoever.

I still wish McSweeney's would publish shorter stories in their quarterlies. If you don't like a piece, you are often stuck with it for thirty-odd pages, and that's your hard cheese. You're paying a hefty fee to be disappointed.

On the whole, though, another formidable issue.

3. Pastoralia: George Saunders

"Pastoralia" (the opening story) shows what Saunders can do. How his prose can be funny and surreal and warm and satirical and touching. Unfortunately, having done this, the other stories in this collection are shticky filler.

"Winky" was another strong piece, but I found myself snoozing through "Sea Oak" which does a surrealist dance in a ra-ra skirt, and getting annoyed by his rhythms in "The Barber's Unhappiness." His repetition, his rambling passages of superfluous detail, how he goes on so long you have forgotten the characters' names, but that doesn't matter, as they are barely rendered anyway, and so on.

Overrated, but who cares, he's part of the establishment now. Give him the Pulitzer, why not.

4. The Book of Jokes: Momus

Marvellous. It's from The Dalkey Archive, so of course it's marvellous. Oddness and perversion from the Scottish legend.

5. Tlooth: Harry Mathews

Perhaps the most baffling book I've read so far. Very playful and Oulipan in spirit.

(P.S. I'm not sure if its "Oulipian" or "Oulipan" or "Oulipoian". Forgive me).

6. McSweeney’s Issue 21

Hits: Rajesh Parameswaran, Miranda July, Arthur Bradford, Greg Ames, Joyce Carol Oates.

Misses: Stephen Elliott, Yannick Murphy, Holly Tavel, Kevin Moffett, Christian Winn.

The rest were somewhere in between. Rajesh Parameswaran's "The Strange Career of Doctor Raju Gopalarajan" was a strange wonder and wins my impromptu BEST STORY IN #21 award.

7. A Nest of Ninnies: John Ashbery & James Schuyler

This brisk entertainment is good clean fun for those who like reading about affluent 1930s aesthetes having gay adventures in Paris, New York and Rome. (That's not a huge contingent of the marketplace, hence this book's unknown status. I liked it.)

John Ashbery, Pulitizer-winning poet of some 83 years is apparently on Goodreads, by the way, a fact I doubt very strongly.

8. Reckless Eyeballing: Ishmael Reed

Another gloriously talented writer hanging with the cool Dalkey kids. This is a scathing satire on race, couched in a scathing satire on the NY theatre scene. Ian is a Creole playwright who finds his success by toning down his misogynist content to please the feminist crowd.

In this book, the characters wear their sexist and racist prejudices on their sleeves. Imagine a world where everyone spoke their minds and everything was determined by class, race and gender. Oh no, hang on . . . we're in that world. Oops.

9. Mavis Belfrage: Alasdair Gray

Tremendous collection of stories drawing upon Alasdair's days as a schoolmaster. Very dour and very Scottish and very weird.

10. Op Oloop: Juan Filloy

I have to give this five stars for the outrageously elegant language and fantastically insightful writing. Just wow. Wow with bells on. Wow to the translator.

Juan Filloy lived to 106 (died in 2000), and apart from writing refereed boxing matches and wrote 6000 palindromes. This would be an impressive enough feat in itself, but he also wrote this book about a Finnish statistician on the day of his 1000th sexual conquest. That's all I'm prepared to summarise.

OK, so the dinner party scene is too long but Op Oloop's meeting with "the daughter of [his] dreams" is unbearably heartbreaking. This book burrows so deep inside the psyche, it's no surprise to learn Filloy was pals with Freud.

Just wow.

11. 2666: Roberto Bolaño

A five-books-in-one monsterpiece from Chile's most profitable literary export.

Each book has its own narrative identity while retaining the Bolaño stamp: sprawling sentences savaged by commas, a free indirect style where dialogue blends with prose and narrative position hops from person to person, strange poetic waves of readable and glorious prose, and nasty sex.

"The Part About the Critics" is the funniest section, a real page-turning satire where a cast of lonely academics chase the spectre of the German author Benno von Archimboldi. This is where the Bolaño scholars get out their T-squares.

"The Part About Amalfitano" has made no lasting impression on my memory, but it is short and follows on neatly from the previous section, before the nightmare begins.

"The Part About Fate" follows a black sports journalist who finds himself investigating the unsolved murders in Santa Teresa, which form the core of the novel. The tone changes to the moody, horrific and powerful, subtly shifting into the detached reportage used in the next section.

"The Part About the Crimes" is the toughest (and longest) part of the book. Almost three hundred pages of clinical descriptions of gruesome murders, here the hot sticky hell of Santa Teresa sets your face on fire for a punishing tour through Dante's Inferno.

"The Part About Archimboldi" is a more straightforward biographical WWII story. The character could come from a Vonnegut novel, though the style is vastly different.

These are basic summaries. Within each section are hundred other stories and digressions, each entertaining or tedious depending on your mood (or how sore your thumb is). A few times in the book, the story moves from third to first person without warning and some sentences go on for pages. In other words, this is for very patient readers only, those willing to seek out the beauty and pain and love and torture at the heart of this outstanding book.

12. Watch Your Mouth: Daniel Handler

The UK paperback edition of this book has the ugliest design and corniest blurb I've ever seen, but the text itself is a marvellous linguistic whirlwind through incest, or imagined incest, golems, or imagined golems, and operas, or maybe novels.

I became aware of Daniel Handler through Stephin Merritt's band The Gothic Archies, and a mean-spirited review (by Lucy Ellmann) of Adverbs. Since I trust Lucy Ellmann implicitly, I read this instead. It is, quite simply, gleefully bonkers.

13. Galatea 2.2: Richard Powers

An astonishing masterpiece from a genius with a horribly schlocky name.

The reviews by this man and this guy are amazing, so read those for specifics.

14. Little Constructions: Anna Burns

This is an unbearable comic novel about an Irish crime family and their various misadventures, as told by one of the gang.

The narrator is a traumatised blatherer, more intellectual than your average Irish gang member, who tells the story in a rambling ironic style, painting the family as cartoon characters, killing intrigue with a relentless barrage of comedic asides, boring psychobabble and randomly capitalised character names, like The Other Policeman, and such.

Some of the humour is hilarious, and had the author exercised restraint and chosen a less inscrutable structure—leaping back and forth over twenty-five years, in and out of scenes, giving no sense of place or time—this might have been an outrageously good satire. As it stands, the narrator is unbearable, like a mad auntie having a nervous breakdown, going on and on and on until you want to tear out her vocal chords and bake a pie.

It’s clever and funny, but the end result is a densely packed swag bag of ambition that never coheres into something beautiful.

15. The Flight of Icarus: Raymond Queneau

A novel in script. Charming and hilarious and as cute as a button.


  1. Bless your eyes. Great list.

  2. And I didn't read Infinite Jest! I am awesome!

  3. Good writeup, Mark. BTW, I mentioned one of your posts here: