Thursday, 30 December 2010

Dumfries Shoenicht 2010

I lined up outside the Grecko Hall for a night of boozing and schmoosing with some of Dumfries’s most influential shoemakers. Since March I had been working under the influential sole man Alan Galt and was keen to get ahead in the business with a few kind words or suggestions planted at choice moments into the ears of well-to-do gentlemen. Making shoes was to me nothing but a stepping stone to fame and prestige and fast bucks, strange as that sounds, and the malaise of living with three older brothers with their girlfriends and opinions, their opinions on their girlfriends, and their girlfriends’ opinions, left me keen to hit the dust and get my own pad somewhere in town.

I brought Michelle with me. She was the fourth person I had asked on the train to be my guest, seduced by the offer of free food and a warm room for the next three hours. She looked like someone used to scraping the last mouldy bean from a tin or leaning against water tanks to absorb the heat, her eyes saggy with poverty. I suggested we walk in arm-in-arm but she wasn’t keen on this idea (I persuaded her to wash her face in the station bathroom and comb her hair a little) so we went in side-by-side, our hips colliding when the crowds squeezeboxed us closer.

I met most women on trains and had a series of short relationships for the duration of each trip. The long-term relationships I had were on business trips from Dumfries to London (Neve, Anna, Name Withheld), our conversations sustained with each stop, each delay or each shot on the desert trolley. I considered these far more worthwhile than conventional relationships. You learn a great deal about a person in one chat. The important stuff can be packed into those few hours—lifetimes are mere padding. The short-term relationships were on brief trips between work and home: most of these with girls I knew from the area who found me unpalatable as a potential suitor.

Having stepped off the train with Michelle, I began to feel an unwanted attachment to her. She’d told me she had to get home to her husband and her kids. Her husband was an alcoholic and her kids were drug addicts and she was getting her life sorted out but she needed time and money and she didn’t have enough time or money, there’s never enough time or money to sort things out, is there? I understood, or pretended to—I was a little preoccupied—but I’d never disembarked with a woman before and I started to notice things like her wide green eyes and stately big nose, or how her legs swished like the pendulum of a grandfather clock, left right, left right, etc . . .

The Grecko Hall was built in 1944. A month later the Germans blew off the back wall and the structure wasn’t repaired until 1998, where a more modern design was chosen to compliment the baroque style of the original. The venue was oddly bipolar: a literal bridge between the past and present. Phil Collins had been booked to play that evening while the shoemakers networked and drank and gave speeches. I was looking to trap Viola Nagle (the most powerful shoemaker in Europe with a chain of four hundred shoe shops and factories to her name) in a corner and tell her about my potential as an up-and-coming shoemaker. Her loafers were crafted with love and care by Burmese peasants in sweatshops, approved by both Amnesty International and Buddha, and I had a particular knack for designing snug and innovative loafers for the teen market.

I gave the usher our tickets. Michelle felt a little light-headed from the three beers she’d drunk on the train. When she saw the class of people I mingled with she put her greasy hair in a bob and checked her breath. I suggested she really ought to nip across the street and buy herself a frock, have a wash in the disabled shower then reconvene later. She agreed, seeing the chance she had to impress these horribly rich people.

I lined up behind the one hundred others wanting to get at Viola. Clearly, if each person got five minutes airtime, I wasn’t going to get at her this evening. A plan was needed to get ahead in the queue. I saw Phil Collins by the deserted buffet, pocketing a salmon sandwich and coughing on the sausage rolls. He looked older in real life than in his uplifting pop videos about walking into lights and Jesus knowing he’s right, but that had been two decades ago now, and his face showed the weariness of the seasoned pop troubadour reduced to corporate appearances and cheesy eighties reunions.

I caught him by the buffet filling his plate with chicken drumsticks. He seemed to favour the drumstick over the other savouries on offer, psychically drawn to these gristly hanks of revolting breast over the pilau rice or brackets of salty prawn.

“Helping yourself?” I asked. Opening gambits. Make or break conversations. Phil got defensive.

“Yeah, so what? I like chicken and the chicken’s free so why not fill up?”

“Yes, well. Why not? I quite like the look of these saran-wrapped cheese sculptures. Hey, there’s one in the shape of a loafer. Do you think they’d mind if I broke the wrapping?”

“Do what you like, mate. Just leave some chicken for me, would you?” he asked. Irony wasn’t present in his voice.

“Ha. Right. Hey, do you want to meet Viola?”


“Viola Nagle. She’s the most important person in this room. Apart from yourself, of course.”

“Who cares? I don’t even know where I am. All is know is there’s a free chicken, one thou in the bank, and I can mime if I want,” he said.

“You mime at live concerts?”

“Look mate, people don’t want to hear dodgy versions of the songs they love. They wanna hear the original, the song in their head. They can’t tell we’re miming if we play loudly enough.”

“I never knew that, Phil. Can I call you Phil?”

“That’s the name. How much chicken do you want?”

“Umm, that’s OK. I’m not hungry. Look, would you like to me to introduce you to Viola? She’s the woman with the queue sticking out her behind. She’d love to meet you, she’s a great admirer of your early work, especially the stuff with, um . . . I Can’t Dance, was it? Your band?”


“Right. Sorry, I don’t get to listen to much music these days.”

“Couldn’t give a monkeys, mate. Got to get back to the soundcheck,” Phil said, wiggling his well-oiled toosh as he humphed his Everest of chicken toward a sleeping roadie.

I found myself back in the queue with no hope of meeting Viola that evening when Michelle returned. She had purchased a chiffon sweater made from elk fur and an electric blue sari decorated with the constellation of Orion. The blue star system of Rigel reached from her lower calf to the red super-giant of Betelgeuse around the horizon of her hips.

“What d’you think?” she asked.

“Very starry,” I said.

“Could you give me money for this? I spent about £200.”

“Would you like to meet Phil Collins?”

“Who’s that?”

“Lead singer of Genesis.”

I thought I could use Michelle as a bargaining chip. She looked incredible when she made an effort, a fact I had noticed from her shampooed hair and pleasant musk, and her new Big Bang sari might appeal to someone clearly interested in astronomy. She swished over to the stage where Phil sat eating his chicken and telling a rude joke to his roadie.

“Phil?” I called out. He raised a drumstick to shush me.

“ . . . then I said to her, I’ve never mistook a dildo for a courgette, love!”

“Phil?” I tried again.

His roadie was howling at this crude innuendo and Phil was about to toss a drumstick at me when he caught sight of Michelle, standing primly perplexed in her galactic legwear.

“Who’s this?” he asked. He put his bucket down. A good sign.

“Michelle,” she said. “I’m from around the area and this guy asked me to come here. Thought it would keep me warm for a few hours.”

“Is that right? I’m Phil Collins. From Genesis,” he said, reaching over the stage and pulling Michelle nearer with his handshake.

“I’ve never heard you. We pawned the stereo last week. Danny said he needed the money to buy acid and lager. He said material things didn’t matter when you had acid and lager.”

“Is that right! Sounds like a right laugh, this Danny. Would you like to come back stage and meet the band?”

“Yeah sure.”

I hopped up with Michelle. Phil held a drumstick at me, meaning back off. I needed Phil.

“Phil, it’s a two-for-one deal. I’m with her,” I said.

“Oh fine. Just keep it shut.”

“Thanks, Phil.”

I went back stage to meet his backing band. Genesis weren’t in evidence, but there was a drummer in a bunnet, a guitarist drinking a Pepsi and hooting like mad at The Good Life, and a man with a goatee who barely moved or blinked or breathed. He played bass.

“Michelle, meet the chaps,” Phil said. Michelle shook the hands of the men shyly, remarking on the cool bunnet and the cool goatee and the cool Pepsi and her flattery won them over. She sat beside the guitarist who held her in a groupie-clinch (as one might hold a beer) and told her how hard it was being on the road and playing two strings at once. Viola was waiting.

“Chaps, this is the geezer who brought Michelle to us. Thank you geezer, and see you later.”

“No, look, Phil: I need you to introduce me to Viola out there. Now, fair’s fair, I gave you Michelle, you give me Viola.”

“Oh for heaven’s . . . OK. Fine, let’s get this over with,” Phil said. He stomped out the room, munching his fourth drumstick while hopping off the stage towards the queue of eager shoemakers. He tossed a drumstick at an oily smirker currently greasing Viola’s pole.

“Hey Suit, back off. I want to meet Viola,” Phil said.

“There’s a queue,” he said.

“I’m Phil Collins. You can stick your queue.”

“Oh, you’re Phil Collins?” Viola asked. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. I’ve been a fan of your music for many years.”

“Great. Listen. Sorry to bother you here, but my pal wants to talk to you. He’s an aspiring man with a great future. If you could give him a few minutes that would be great,” he said.

Viola, seduced by the nasal charms of Phil’s pseudo-Cockney accent, gave him his (my) wish. I stood before the drumstick victim and one hundred envious losers and pitched to Viola. I told her the ideas I had for the future of comfortable and affordable loafers for the teen market. About the heel strap to prevent accidental slippage. The scented soles to combat odour. The in-built toe massagers for long summer walks. She nodded and took notes and smiled and looked as though she was listening.

“Can you get me Phil’s phone number?” she asked.

“Phil? Oh, um . . . sure. What about my ideas?”

“Tell you what, you get me Phil’s number, then we’ll see about your ideas. OK?”

“We’ll see what?”

“About them. We’ll see. OK?”

“Well, all right.”

“Thank you so much for your time, it’s been a pleasure listening to you. When you get his number slip it in this back pocket here, please.”

“Will do.”

“Thank you. Next!”

Returning backstage to pick up Michelle, I had the misfortune to witness Phil Collins in his blue briefs, licking his fingers and singing ‘Sussido,’ before leaping onto Michelle and sucking on her neck like a vampire after an especially gruelling Lent. I stepped out the room and left them to it, thinking Phil a better suitor for Michelle than me, with his fondness for chicken and his four billion dollars and his blue briefs.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

My Month in Novels (Dec)

Another month, mainly crammed with Dalkies. Reviews from Goodreads:

1. Boris Vian — Heartsnatcher

The final novel from Boris Vian—sort of a Queneau for Coltrane enthusiasts—is a bleak and harrowing tale of a mother who loves her children too much. The final novel from Boris Vian—sort of a Queneau for Coltrane enthusiasts—is a bleak and harrowing tale of a mother who loves her children too much.

Well, that’s the rub. There’s also the David Lynch village, unnamed, where unfeeling psychiatrist Timortis wanders into the Old Folks Fair, where OAPs are sold to the highest bidder. He meets the Glory Hallelujah—a man paid in gold to absolve the village’s shame by fishing corpses and fish heads from the local river with his teeth, leaving the residents free to murder apprentices, abuse the vicar and be beastly in general.

Timortis moves into the house of Clementine and Angel, a feuding couple whose newly born triplets drive them apart, forcing Angel to ride out to sea on a handmade boat. While Tim gets intimate with the maid, Clementine grows paranoid that she doesn’t love her children enough. She becomes over-protective to a degree of madness, eventually sealing her children in cages and building a dome of nothingness over her home.

So. Quite strange. By turns surreal, hilarious, bawdy and brutal, this is a touching and devastating book. It satirises the hysteria of parents eager to shield their kids from a brutal world, a world symbolised in this unnamed village, with Clementine’s conclusion even bleaker—it’s better to hide from the world and shut out the ugliness. The fatal irony comes from her vanity: her children being too precious to deserve their freedom.

This is a unique and twisted gem. Boris Vian was a talent to rival Queneau, who supplies a fitting foreword. Recommended for fans of French classics and seriously weird tales.

2. Gonçalo M. Tavares — Jerusalem

Tavares is Portugal’s latest literary lion, winning prestigious Portuguese awards for his bleak and poetic novels about morally complex characters.
This short book connects six or seven people—murderer, schizophrenic, doctor, prostitute, mental patient and handicapped boy—weaving their stories together through clever leaps in structure and time.

Each story is incredibly bleak, with smouldering insights into the human mind, although the fragmented narrative occasionally loses focus when Tavares expands on irrelevant details. The stories are threadbare in their construction: most chapters taking up one or two pages, with the longer sections filled with internal detail or long-winded information.

The one ‘stable’ character, the doctor Theodor, completes an eight-volume tome on the history of human suffering—an all-too-apt irony given the unremitting bleakness of these stories. The world is bleak, the people crooks and maniacs, and fate is sadistic bitch.

Not a Christmas stocking filler.

3. Austryn Wainhouse — Hedyphagetica

Wainhouse is responsible for translating such gems as 120 Days of Sodom and Juliette, two of De Sade’s "masterworks." If we can forgive him for inflicting Sade’s punitive trash upon English readers, we can’t forgive him for this rambling atrocity of a no Wainhouse is responsible for translating such gems as 120 Days of Sodom and Juliette, two of De Sade’s "masterworks." If we can forgive him for inflicting Sade’s punitive trash upon English readers, we can’t forgive him for this rambling atrocity of a novel.

Some say translators are merely failed novelists, and this book makes no counterargument. Despite a killer opening sentence—“Oh my, yes, I am afraid that in the beginning was the Word, that the Word was with God, that indeed the Word was with God; afraid that’s there’s no escaping it and its heavy consequences, for Him, for You, for Me”—this book descends into the most insufferable self-indulgence I have read this side of Pessoa’s alter-ego, Bernardo Soares.

Set in the town of Grön, the novel includes a range of first-person soliloquies written to someone named Aimeé, whose significance is never explained. Well, nothing is explained in this novel. Nothing. Is. Explained. For. God's. Flipping. Sake. There are various Chaucerian dialogues to amuse the die-hard Fielding enthusiasts, and the sort of rambling eloquence to tire the most patient John Barth fan.

The mark of an indulgent novel is one that goes nowhere in the space of its own formal constraints. This book has impressive parodies of Victorian fiction, and grandiose pronouncements on suffering and war, but it adds up to nothing but a confusing MUDDLE O’ STUFF. It has no idea what it wants to do and plods on its merry way to a dreary conclusion. Awful!

4. D. Keith Mano — Take Five

Take Five is a big bounding satirical heffalump—583 pages, running backwards, in the life of boorish filmmaker Simon Lynxx: a sort of Brooklyn-based Peter Griffin.

The novel is split into five (well, six, actually, but who’s counting?) parts. In each, Simon runs around tormenting his film crew, his backers, his English relatives, and random ladyfolk. At the end of each, he misplaces a sense, starting with taste and ending with sight.

He speaks in a long-winded and dense smart-ass babble, spouting racist, religious and (most often) sexual abuse, insulting and abusing everyone he meets, including the women who willingly offer their bodies to him. In fact, most of this novel is taken up with Simon attempting to have sex, and its capacity for squirm-inducing horribleness knows no limits.

On paper this sounds as appealing as a year-old flan. However, Mano’s writing is truly incredible. This book is clearly a hard-won masterpiece, chocked with glorious prose and dazzling verbage. The style mimics a close-up camera shot, the action described in clipped sentences, then stuffed with mountains of freewheeling brain sputum that goes on and on. It is, evidently, a novel about excess, and in the end, it seems, redemption.

The easiest comparison is Martin Amis’s Money, but even Mart didn’t try and offend everyone (and this novel does offend everyone, barring a small tribe of elders in the Faroe Islands). Simon never loses his knack for mockery and sexual innuendo, even as he is dragged senseless into a marriage with a female priest—who he seduces in a Brooklyn sewer pipe— but he learns to live without greed and fame. It’s all we can expect of him. You wouldn’t catch Peter Griffin in a church, would you?

So: can you spend 583 pages with this putrid and horrible character? I can put up with anything if the writing is good. Others will, more likely, fault the actions of the other characters (his abuse draws people nearer to him, people he seriously screws up, but isn’t that always the way?) or find the prose too dense. So I don’t really recommend it to anyone. Just mention this as “the great overlooked novel of the eighties” at parties. That’ll do.

5. Chuck Palahnuik — Lullaby

Having partaken in Pygmy, a delightful dish of garbled phonemes and twisted terror, I returned to Palahniuk with this tale of witchcraft among realtors and reporters.

As ever, the story is ridiculous, and the satire messy and strange, but it’s all about the perverse and the shocking and the weird and the nasty. Think the Ring series set in podunk USA. Or the song "Gloomy Sunday" and its mythology.

I liked the technique of keeping the narrator’s dialogue speech-mark-free—that was neat, and Mr. P’s knack for grotesque specifics, but I couldn't help feel it was a little throwaway.

6. David Markson — Reader’s Block

A novel of literary trivia. Markson's knowledge of biographical curios is far and wide, far beyond his desire to tell his own stories, so he uses this richness of detail to weave an unconventional narrative. The trivia is interrupted by an attempt by Reader to create his Protagonist, who gets swallowed up in a bog of anti-semitic and suicidal writers. The story is never told: the idea is the anecdotes tell the story. (Though precisely what that is is beyond me. The tone is one of oppression and sadness. With a dash of Latin/Greek pretension).

Quite like David Sheilds's Reality Hunger: A Manifesto in its Barthesian plagiarism-is-the-future approach.

7. Warren Motte — Oulipo: A Primer For Potential Literature

A brief review based on Mathews’s Algorithm:

Initial formula:

A1 B1 C1 D1
A2 B2 C2 D2
A3 B3 C3 D3
A4 B4 C4 D4

A: This marvellous collection, plump with erudition, sparkling with innovation, makes me spasm in delight.

B: This overview of Oulipian techniques, rife with creativity, shiny with brilliance, makes me come.

C: The work of Queneau, especially the formulations, leaves me tongue-tied, makes me weep salt shakers.

D: Perec is present, in a glorious shiny suit, twinkly with wondrousness; makes me want to love someone.

Results upward:

A1 B4 C3 D2
A2 B1 C4 D3
A3 B2 C1 D4
A4 B3 C2 D1

This marvellous collection makes me come: leaves me tongue-tied in a glorious shiny suit.

Plump with erudition, this overview of Oulipian techniques makes me weep salt shakers—twinkly with wondrousness.

Sparkling with innovation, rife with creativity, the work of Queneau makes want to love someone.

Makes me spasm in delight: shiny with brilliance, especially the formulations: Perec is present.


OK, this is a crude (well—bad) example, but illustrates the Oulipo’s success at creating combinatorial forms in literature. Technology has made many of their algorithms possible. Especially Raymond Queneau’s One Hundred Thousand Billion Poems.

This volume contains the following:

Harry Mathews: “Liminal Poem” / “Mathews’s Algorithm”
Francois Le Lionnais: “Lipo: First Manifesto” / “Second Manifesto” / “Raymond Queneau and the Amalgam of Mathematics and Literature”
Jean Lescure: “Brief History of the Oulipo”
Marcel Benabou: “Rule and Constraint.”
Collective: “The Collége de Pataphysique and the Oulipo” / “Recurrent Literature”
Raymond Queneau: “Potential Literature” / The Relation X Takes Y For Z” / “A Story As You Like It”
Jacques Bens: “Queneau Oulipian”
Jacques Roubaud: “Mathematics in the Method of Raymond Queneau”
Georges Perec: “History of the Lipogram”
Claude Berge: “For a Potential Analysis of Combinatory Literature”
Paul Fournel: “Computer and Writer: The Centre Pompidou Experiment” / “The Theatre Tree: A Combinatory Play”
Italo Calvino: “Prose and Anticombinatorics”

The material ranges from informative, historical, to brain-busting mathematical complexity. You get from this collection a sense of quite how remarkably gifted these French writers and mathematicians were, and as a “primer” it certainly leaves you wanting to read full-length works. Harry Mathews has always been the most lucid explainer of Oulipo techniques for me, perhaps due to faults in translation, and his piece gives the best examples of combinatorics in action.

Warren Motte translated most of these pieces and at times his decision to leave quotations in the original French is a nuisance. These quibbles aside, this is a prim primer and a must for the logic-bound tinkerer.

Recommended reading:

Marcel Benabou: Why I Have Not Written Any of My Books = Pourquoi je n'ai ecrit aucun de mes livres
Italo Calvino: If on a Winter's Night a Traveler
Paul Fournel: Little Girls Breathe the Same Air as We Do
Harry Mathews: Tlooth
Oskar Pastior: Many Glove Compartments: Selected Poems
Georges Perec: Life: A User's Manual
Raymond Queneau: Exercises in Style
Jacques Roubaud: The Plurality of Worlds of Lewis

8. Ishmael Reed — The Terrible Threes

I loved Reckless Eyeballing but this novel is a mess. There are a dozen or so plots at large in this 180-page novel, most of which revolve around something that happened in a previous Reed book. Most of the characters speak in the same voice and the range of personnel involved makes it impossible to tell them apart, to pick up a narrative thread, to clear the fug—something.

All that remains is Reed’s ironical prose, which is entertaining in spots. In Reckless Eyeballing there was a greater purpose, a more disciplined spume of bile, but here Reed seems to be chatting to himself. The satire has little purpose in this book, and despite a few hints at genius, I ended up flitting from page to page looking for engaging mini-stories.

I will read more from Reed, though. I do like his style.

9. Raymond Queneau — Pierrot Mon Ami

A charming and beautiful novel with an aching undercurrent of melancholy. The story has a meandering quality but is tightly hewn through Queneau's formally strict structures. The eight chapters in this novel correspond to the eight teardrops on a Prince's crest, and the language is rife in puns and neologisms and glorious prose. Queneau is a strange and unique genius.

I should add that the design of this book is SUBLIME. The artwork is credited to N.J. Furl, who specialises in these baroque and gothic covers. See also Things in the Night and Bornholm Night-ferry.

10. Damion Searls — What We Were Doing and Where We Were Going

A clever collection of intertextual (or is that extratextual?) stories written as "re-writes" of five classics. The stories alone don't perform spectacular prose feats, but conceptually this teensy book wins for innovative charm.

11. Raymond Queneau — The Last Days

A philosophical novel framed around an autobiographical coming-of-age tale set in 1920s Paris. The story follows the Queneau-template Tuquedenne, a loner who can’t get laid and who falls in love with ideas, and the aging hustler Brabbant, a charming desperado who likes his dames young.

Queneau weaves, with his particular humour and alchemy, multiple stories together, capturing a world in flux and the melancholy of late-adolescent life: the fleeting friends, frolics and finaglings. This world is contrasted with that of the old-timers, edging closer to death and contemplating their paradoxical lives.

The result is a disarming and thoughtful work: more overtly ponderous than his other books.

12. Daniël Robberechts — Arriving in Avignon

This book is a "literary cyclotron" assembling facts and reportage and autobiog on Avignon (SE France on the Rhone River). Robberechts wanders around failing to connect with the town—apart from the prostitutes he sleeps with or the blonde girl he takes for a wife—and lists in French each landmark he has no intention of describing.

Among the dull musings, lists and ponderings there are question marks? like this? as though he is unsure what he talking about? or a teenage schoolgirl? and then long quotations from French or German texts, some untranslated speech from the non-whores he speaks to, and even a whole ten pages of historical info pasted from a better book. There are only about three paragraph breaks in the whole work, as Robberechts had no time for such trivialities as readers.

So. It’s hard to warm to this shambling travelogue-cum-confession-of-ineptitude. The text is a classic of Flemish literature, and I am prepared to concede that I do not understand the Belgians and their crazy ways. (Though I love Amélie Nothomb and her crazy ways). On the plus side, there are passages that are witty and informative and interesting and intellectual and nice (see Steven's review). But anyone can be witty about Avignon. This is not a fitting tribute to that palace of antipopes.

13. Mati Unt — Things in the Night

This novel let me down. It began with a whoosh of interest—a postmodern cocktail of writing angst, electricity and Estonian political schism. Then, somewhere around p150, reading another rambling monologue in the one voice Unt can write, I began to itch my bum. Think about my bills. Want a drink. Go for a walk. Picture Lisa Marr in her bikini.

This novel IS great. What it needs is someone to kill the last one hundred pages. So if we imagine those pages don’t exist, this is a poetic, melancholy and affecting little book, rich in beautiful descriptions of Estonian nature, mini-tales of Soviet oppression and amusing poetic interludes. It has a bouncy and free structure. It’s playful. I love these things. The design is beautiful.

But then. Those extra one hundred pages. More rambling first-person speeches. No real sense of what is going on. An anti-structure. The narrator addressing us as an absent second-person wife, who never turns up. Irritating use of exclamation marks. More Latin phrases for cacti. Oh God! Is that the time? I’m afraid I have some business to attend to, Mr. Unt. Goodbye.

14. David Nicholls — One Day

I bought this for a breezy read on a bus trip and was more impressed than I expected. The writer specialises in painful TV dramas about broken marriages and thwarted romance and middle-aged mopers, and this book is in the same vein, albeit with some prosey bits in between the dialoguey bits. (Too technical?)

Dexter and Emma's student coupling resonates with me since I too studied and fell in love with someone in Edinburgh. I would've punched both of these characters had I met them as students, but the writer really makes us care with his punchy (hee-hee) prose and marvellous character observation.

Nicholls is known for his ability to bring the pain and mischief of real adults to life on screen, and this same skill transfers well to his ambitious and witty novel. Emma is clearly the shining centre of this story, with her stoicism and painfully honest approach to life. (A little too miserable, perhaps, but this is a writer who quotes Thomas Hardy).

Dexter was a wee bit contrived for me, too much of a type (the posh-media-skirtchaser-twit), but the novel needs a fantasy element to keep it from keeling over into kitchen-sink territory. A very engaging and crowdpleasing novel.

15. Ignácio de Loyola Brandão — Teeth Under the Sun

Brilliant in ways too complex to go into right now. Look, I'll explain later, OK? Just leave it, will you? Oh, shut up. Don't take that tone of voice with me. What have you ever done then, huh? Oh, right, sure, uh-huh. Aren't you just super duper. Well. Fine. If that's how you feel about it, fine. Goodbye.

16. William Shakespeare — Macbeth, The Graphic Novel

These graphic novel treatments of Shakespeare are a marvel. Not everyone falls in love with the Bard aged sixteen, reading Hamlet or King Lear, so these gorgeously illustrated texts prick the preciousness of Shakey by giving younger people a way in. I found this comic strip as moving and dramatic and stormy as the stage version. The text is really brought screaming to life by John McDonald and Jon Haward. I wish the whole canon could be adapted like this. For life's but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage...

17. David Foster Wallace — Infinite Jest

In his 1967 postmodernist primer The Literature of Exhaustion, John Barth says: “A labyrinth . . . is a place in which, ideally, all the possibilities of choice are embodied and . . . must be exhausted before one reaches the heart.”

Thirty years later, as postmodernism twitches through its death throes, DFW publishes the labyrinthine Infinite Jest, where all possibilities are exhausted while shattering the heart. The novel is structured around a Sierpinski Gasket, a complex series of triangles multiplied through variable fractals and superfractals. (DFW was a maths whiz before being a lit whiz). This means the book is long because of rigid mathematical constraints set by Mr. Wallace, and complaints about the size will be countered with like diagrams and equations. So there.

Plot? Well. There are like a few.

James O. Incandenza is responsible for producing an entertainment so lethal the viewer is vegetated with pleasure. (Not unlike the Japanese Ringu series but with a no shrieking schoolgirls). His presence comes to dominate the inner lives of Hal and Avril and Mario and Orin who discuss and deride and avoid and confront this “après-garde” filmmaker—sort of a Bostonian Richard Kern, with Joelle Van Dyne as his Lung Leg.

Hal is the protagonist (of sorts) in the book: a precocious tennis wizard with a bulging brain. The most compelling narrative for me takes place at the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House, revolving around the life of former small-time muscle Don Gately, who I can’t help but picture as Jared Leto but with like narrower eyebrows. There are too many scenes to remember across this ten-book-sized book but coming straight from reading I can assert that Gately is rendered with explosive pain and cruelty during a pivotal fight scene, the incendiary flashbacks, and the drudgery-of-recovery scenes.

The paraplegic assassins (Les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents) are a wackier detour—like a cross between The Simpsons and like Ingmar Bergman—and for me, comprise the boring boggy bits where DFW wields banality as part of his grand stratagem for reinventing the novel. The sheer volume of acronyms across these chapters becomes unbearably tedious after a while and most readers will want to wheel these people off the mountain before long. (Except towards the end when DFW redeems the lead wheelman in a frightening and touching exchange).

Good things: the writing is unbelievable. There are pages of exhilarating aliveness and genius and speed and strength and sentences that build to crescendos of tension and tragedy. The lexicon is stellar and sublime, brimming with wordplay and revelling in the sheer delight of language. The book basically meets every criteria. It is good and bad and happy and sad and silly and serious and entertaining and tedious. It’s not short, though.

Bad things: there’s nothing other than the structural choice DFW made to defend this book’s outrageous length. It really is far loo long. I also feel sometimes the narrative voice could use a little variety. Each narrative uses the same DFW register, with only a few forays into first-person or (once) dialect experiment. I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone—no one apart from like lit-geeks will read novels this long.

DFW wanted to write something sad. I think he achieved this, though Infinite Jest is more about what Will Self called the slapstick of addiction. Although we’re made to like feel deeply for these people when it counts—spiralling in and out of addictions, their lives falling from them—the breathless energy and imagination of this book reaches a pitch of relentless satirical cleverness that enslaves the narrative. When DFW read in public he hurled words from his throat like a bullet train and this book has the endless splurge of a storyteller letting loose the confines of his remarkable mind to an exhaustive extent. So this isn’t a ‘moving’ book as such, though it is the size of ten books so it does move occasionally. It's not the literature of exhaustion, but it is bloody exhausting.

Indulgence, genius, madness, a worrying addiction to language: this has like the lot.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

My Year in Novels

I pledged to read a minimum of two hours per day this year, with mostly successful results. Sometimes I’d read nothing all week then catch up with a non-stop weekend binge. Other times I’d read to avoid the terror of writing or communing with others. My tastes have always been a little insular so I was delighted to make full use of the Writers’ Room and read a plethora of amazing material I never would have discovered solo.

Here are my monthly favourites this year:


Alasdair Gray – Something Leather

Not a rip-roaring start, but the pheromones kick in later on. I like Alasdair Gray’s awkward eroticism. This is the funniest of his novels—not as wildly inventive as Poor Things or as dourly dramatic as 1982 Janine, but growing up in Scotland, I know how inconvenient sex can be for speccy misfits. This novel describes a Glaswegian erotic nightmare: the sordid S&M dreamings of lewd private school laddies. Gray never took himself too seriously as a novelist, even if Scotland did, and his impishness shines through here.


John Barth – The Sot-Weed Factor

I’m undecided about Barth on the whole but this humungous epic was an impressive second dish. I find his brand of exhaustive literature exhausting but this one celebrates the 18thC adventure tale in style, with chaste poet Ebeneezer Cooke stumbling through Maryland looking for his darling prostitute Joan Toast. Barth is loathed for his academic coldness, his big beaming smugness, and his female characters are mostly talking vaginas, but anything was forgivable in the sixties. How d’you think Tarantula got published?


Jonathan Safran Foer – Extremely Loud & Incredible Close

Foer is one of the finest experimental writers out there and this is his magnum opus (unless Tree of Codes counts, which it doesn’t). A wonderful 9/11 comedy told from the POV of Oskar, the smartest lad on the upper east side, the novel uses a range of textual and visual techniques to add resonance and emotion to the narrative. The results are magnificent. The prose itself is funny and soaring and wonderful too, so all in all, a real winner.


Gilbert Adair – Evadne Mount Trilogy

These three novels celebrate Agatha Christie and Sherlock Holmes with three witty and postmodern whodunits. The last book in particular, And Then There Was No One (read on an eight-hour bus trip from the Highlands), is fantastic: a mix of literary satire, playful mystery and autobiography. It also tells the story for which the world is not yet ready, The Giant Rat of Sumatra—a spot-on Holmes parody that amuses and tickles. A formidable threesome.


Graham Rawle – Woman’s World

This is the first ever collage novel—a witty and fabulous narrative composed from cut-out excerpts from women’s magazines. To imagine the effort involved in an undertaking of this magnitude is mind-bending. Power to Rawle for writing (composing) something so dark and devilish and original that would work as a novel, collage or not.


Gilbert Sorrentino – Crystal Vision

My favourite Sorrentino, this one is a masterpiece in so many ways, I can’t even begin to explain. I must. I must. First, the range of voices at work in the narrative is incredible, each given distinctive characteristics to make them identifiable without the narrator’s intrusion. Also, it manages feats of incredible funniness for the entire duration, with such insane creations as The Arab and the Pooka. The tarot card structure is equally lickable.


Nicola Barker – Burley Cross Postbox Theft

Sorrentino dominated this month (and the next and the next), but this novel was a laugh riot and a worthy pick. Although Wide Open is Barker’s masterpiece, this comic work starts on a note of shrieking laughter and sustains its mirth for the duration. It also strives to reinvent the epistolary novel, and area I poked around in for the year (to no avail), and crackles brilliance throughout.


B.S. Johnson – Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry

Johnson was a great loss to modern literature when he packed it in aged 39. This novel can be read as a suicide note, a great huffy sigh, or a wickedly funny postmodern comedy in the manner of Queneau. In this novella, Christie M is a piddling bookkeeper who decides to address the moral balance in terms of his treatment from others. He must kill to keep his books at a steady equilibrium. Amazing.


Roberto Bolaño – Nazi Literature in the Americas

I was recently introduced to this Chilean overnight sensation and find his prose crackling. This novel is a series of short biographies on fictitious writers that act as mini-stories themselves while dealing a satirical punch to the state of South American literature. Wow.


Bernard Share – Inish

A strange and warped piece of literature by an Air Lingus mogul I will classify as “unrepeatable lunacy” or “bonkers insanity” or “no-idea-what-is-going-on-but-i-love-you”.


Will Self – Walking to Hollywood

The latest monsterpiece from the most verbose novelist in Britain. This novel is an autobiographical peregrination around Los Angeles, with hallucinations and fabrications and language so pristine and indulgent one wants to throw down the quill and go back to temping. Wow again.


Boris Vian – Heartsnatcher

I haven’t finished this month yet (nor have you, unless you come to this post from the strange and samey future), but this French classic is so odd and twisted and weird and hilarious I couldn’t resist. I know these summaries haven’t been too erudite or appealing. Just read these twelve books please. Or toss one on a to-read pile. I don’t care. Share my pleasure. And have a devious Xmas.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Beef in Our Hearts

Like so many wily outcasts, the music of Captain Beefheart is near and queer to me. On Friday the fallin’ ditch got his bones after a long and painful bout with multiple sclerosis. This post pays tribute to the Cap (Don Van Vliet) by recalling many stupendously good Beef moments.

Autumn’s Child

The closer on
Safe As Milk is a psychedelic ballad with gentle bass and guitar giving way to the early Howlin’ Wolf baritone, backed by the finest use of a theremin since Portishead made them cool in 1994. The song is a lament for a woman who Beef “met at a balloon bust picnic,” whose sandals he made “gambol under knees of trust.” The spinning drum rolls and yowling chorus is all nostalgia and sleaze and swirly sixties madness.

Safe As Milk

The opening stomper on
Strictly Personal, this song blasts out the dust with a galloping blues ruckus. All howling lyrics and bouncing bass and haywire blues guitar, the song goes from drum thunder into a nervous, careening mid-section, gathering steam over “bacon blue bread dog ears” until the music erupts and melts into an exhilarating climax of feedback, drums and guitar pummelling. The band literally take this song apart, going from controlled cool into primitive mania in three minutes. Absolute mayhem. And who could forget the immortal line: “I may be hungry, but I sure ain’t weird.”


This twenty-minute blues jam is on the
Mirror Man Sessions LP. I adore this song more than two hundred chocolate women. The song is a blistering blues hoedown, with Beef channelling the blues giants and honking on his harmonica over an endless assault of blues licks and beats. For those fond of Beef’s blues work, this song smothers the listener in love. It reminds him there is a reason to strive toward happiness.

Pachuco Cadaver

The whole
Trout Mask Replica LP is a must for self-respecting avant-garde rock fans, but this song is especially lickable. Over a fast and bulbous intro, where the bass, guitar and drums play three separate phrases that somehow cohere, the song segues into a spoken-word surrealist bomb with such lines as “she wears her past like a present” and “tattoos and tarnished utensils, uh snow white bag full o’ tunes,” delivered in a southern drawl as a truly delirious beat builds in the background. Saxophone noodlings from the Cap keep the music going and we never want this song to end. Ever.

Bellerin’ Plain

Lick My Decals. This song has the usual dissonant guitar mauling and incomprehensible vocals, all the better for their inspired babel. An amazing instrumental bridge, where the marimba duels with Zoot Horn’s lunar magic, takes the song to edge of madness. This song might make you queasy, if you’re listening carefully.

I’m Gonna Booglarise You, Baby

The Captain’s fondness for sleaze and low-down-dirtiness is celebrated in this song from
The Spotlight Kid. With a slinky bass line, working with a funky guitar, the music worms under your skin. Then Beef comes on like a freaky uncle at a party, trying to chat up his own daughter. I would love to be booglarised by Beef, to hell with the rash afterwards.

Clear Spot

From the
titular album, this bayou swamp ode celebrates the virtues of Amazon life. Beef lived in the Mojave desert for the last two decades of his life, and this song is nothing if not hot and sticky. The lunar guitar bites back over a militaristic beat (later used on Hot Head) while Beef avoids the mosquitoes and moccasins steppin’ all around. At the shimmering climax, it’s a good time to stop and wipe the sweat from your brow. Phew.

Bat Chain Puller

Also from the
titular album (this tit, not that one), this has perhaps the most unhinged and inspired performance from latter-era Cap. The lyrics and music on this album are something alien and this song shows the new band firing on all pistons. Over a mama heartbeat, Beef howls out a litany of Lynchian images, from “grey tubes that house people’s thoughts” and “rubber dolphins with gold yawning mouths that blister and break in agony.” The guitar and harmonica wage a war behind a truly feral attack from the Cap.


On his last two albums, the Cap’s songs have an incredible menace and pathos. This song from
Doc At the Radar Station thunders and torments. The drums slam into a spleen of ghoulish lyrics, suggesting demonic bats and popping heads. This song will induce much choking.

Cardboard Cutout Sundown

People say this music is unemotional. Wrong. Emotion is splattered over the Cap’s music. This song in particular moves me in ways chocolate women cannot. The drama and passion that blows through this utterly disquieting song is incredible. The guitars create a sense of panic, impending collapse, as though the sun is falling from the sky, the mountains erupting in flame. The Cap’s voice at this time had become gruffer and laden with wariness. The final refrain of “you hardly know a day goes by in the cardboard cutout sundown” turns me to sludge every time. Remarkable. (This one is from
Ice Cream For Crow).

So concludes this brief tribute to Beef. I hope everyone reading this goes and listens to a Beefheart song and then hurls the headphones off in disgust. The brave ones, the truly curious, will return.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

My Year in Rejections

Rude and generic and tactless and infuriating: here are my worst (and best—some people are nice) pooh-poohs for 2010! (Names and mags have been omitted to avoid headaches).


We cannot use – JB



Thank you for your recent entry to the ---------- ---------- Science Magazine Science Fiction Society Contest. We're sorry it was not successful this time round.

We thought you might like some personalised feedback as to how your entry was scored on average by the seven judges against the four judging criteria, as stated in the rules on the website.

We hope this may be helpful to you in identifying the strengths and weaknesses of your writing.

Your entry scored maximum points for originality, good for writing quality, fair on Edinburgh relatedness but low on plausibility.

Ken McLeod has advised everybody who entered to keep writing and submitting, as every published author has had many, many rejections first!

Thank you again for your submission.

Best wishes,



Thank you for submitting to ------------.
Alas . . .
Regarding "Inky Beast,"
We know that it might make you cuss,
or compelled to kick up a fuss —
but we can't tell a lie,
we gave it a try,
and the story is really not us.

Best wishes,
---- -------
Slush Editor


Dear M.J. Nicholls,

Thank you for submitting your story "The Legend of Liz Armhole" to --------'s -------- Fiction. Unfortunately we've decided not to accept it for publication. The humour of the story didn't meet its target with me, I'm afraid. I know that humour is a very subjective thing, but the story seemed to be trying to make lots of different types of jokes at once, with the result that it felt rather uneven in tone.

Hope these comments aren't too infuriating, and best of luck with your future writing.


---- ---------

Co-Editor, -------'s ---------- Fiction.


Dear M.J. Nicholls,

Thank you for your submission of "Sumfink Good." I regret to inform you that this story was not accepted for publication.

As I'm sure you're aware, this story is written with style and language that is not easily approachable, which makes the story more difficult to follow. Additionally, the formatting of the text into letters seemed unnecessary, and it would be difficult to translate into publication.

Thank you for your consideration of ---- ---- Magazine as a potential market for your work.

Best of luck,

----- ----, Editor
---- ---- Magazine


Mr Nicholls,
"The Virginity Chronicles" was a good story, but we must pass. It was below the word count we wanted and we also have a plethora of work to showcase for our debut issue. Now don't take this rejection so harsh, we enjoyed your work and would like you to submit again after July 1st with a new piece. Thanks again.

---- Team


Dear M.J.,

Thank you for sending "Breath In, Breathe Out," but I decided not to use the story.

---- ------
Not --- of --


Hello M.J.!
Thank you for submitting "Breathe In, Breathe Out" to ---- Magazine.
Unfortunately, we will not be using your story at this time. While I
loved the world you developed here, for me Mimus just wasn't a
character who could hold my interest. He felt a bit flat to me, which
made it hard to care whether or not he survived the city's edict.
Best of luck placing this story elsewhere, and please feel free to submit again!
------ -------
Submissions Editor - ---- Magazine



We must apologize for the delay in hearing back from us. Thank you for sending us this story to consider. We have to pass on it, but we do wish you good luck finding a home for it.


The Editors


[This story was submitted a year earlier and had been published elsewhere almost a year earlier too].


Thank you for your submission to ----------- Magazine. Unfortunately, your submission has not been selected for publication. Please note that currently, less than 3% of submissions we receive are selected for publication, and as a result we're forced to reject many promising stories from writers with obvious talent.

For all the latest news about ----------- please visit our website ----------- is currently closed to fiction submissions but expects to reopen by the end of April. Please check our fiction: submission guidelines for updated information on our status.


----------- Editorial Staff


Dear M.J.,

Thanks for sending in your writing for our consideration. We really enjoyed reading it.

Unfortunately it is not what we are looking for at this time.

We hope you will submit again and that you continue to visit the magazine.

All the best,

----- and ------


M.J. Nicholls,

I'm sorry to say I'm turning your submission down. Thank you for submitting to ------ ------. Good luck!

---- ---------, editor