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.


  1. I am always BAFFLED by how much you read. I think I read 3 books in December (plus one of my own for an edit, plus a novela of a friend for a critique, but still... 4.5.)

    I want to see Heartsnatcher as a movie and I want you to give a seminar so I can master that algorithm... mostly because your examples made me snort.

  2. At this rate I'll end up doing no writing whatsoever. I'll try to keep the book count to a sensible level next year. Sometimes I push myself a little too hard.

    That algorithm was hard! I was going to do a blog post based on it, but I stumbled at the first hurdle.