Tuesday, 1 March 2011

My Month in Novels (Feb)

Another month has elapsed. I've tried to persuade time to go a little slower, but there's no talking to him. Reviews from Goodreads.

1. Zadie Smith — Changing My Mind

love Zadie Smith. Her essays are so fluid and learned and passionate, so intimate and insightful and intelligent, how could I not love her? Among the pieces collected here include the moving ‘Dead Man Laughing’ about her father (Smith comes from an atypical family background), a horrifying report on Liberian aid workers, and the dissertation ‘The Difficult Gifts of David Foster Wallace.’ Essential fodder for the passionate modern reader.

2. Raymond Queneau — Odile

Another installment in Queneau’s trilogy of romans à clef. The other two novels, The Last Days and A Hard Winter (translated to English but hasn't been reprinted since 1938!) re-imagine Queneau’s youth in a bittersweet and often self-critical way.

This novel is about the perils of trying to live a unique and different life to everyone else. (Who are also trying to live unique and different lives). No matter how hard the protagonist tries, how mathematically he orders his world, he can't escape his feelings for the bland-spoken Odile. A satire on the Communist movement in 1930s Paris (and attack on Breton’s Surrealists) is also here in all its teeth-bearing splendour.

3. Micheline Aharonian Marcom — The Mirror in the Well

A breathtaking erotomanic romp, written in horny run-on sentences and sticky stream-of-consciousness. A woman embarks on an affair with you, the reader, gasping in pleasure at your cunnilingus prowess, until you abandon her for a Parisian with nice boobs. Silliness aside, this is a powerful and original blast.

4. Curtis White — Requiem

Quite astonishing. On a par with the finest Sorrentino, but with a more devastating moral beauty. It's a “documents” novel structured around a Catholic Mass for the Dead that takes a scathing look at modern moral degeneracy. Like the finest experimentalists, White is in a league of his own. And often shockingly religious. (How uncool!)

5. Jane McGonigal — Reality is Broken: How Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World

I’m in two minds about this ambitious beast. On the one hand, the author is clearly bonkers and operating on an epic bandwidth of partial megalomania. On the other hand, her enthusiasm and spirit of uncrushable optimism is a reassuring and powerful thing.

So. What to do? I love the premise of this book—taking games beyond the world of isolationist escapism and applying them to our real lives to bring some of their imaginative wonder to the world. I love some of her ideas. I find her relentless desire to improve and involve charming.

I don’t agree with her diagnosis. Games haven’t dulled our view of the world. The problem comes before games. If we’ve chosen to retreat into games to escape the world, it’s because we’re tired of our politicians, consumer society, our staid relationships with others. It’s natural we’d want some of the magic of gaming in our lives once we’ve started playing. But if we’re collectively depressed as a people, the problem runs deeper.

I digress. The main problem with this book is it’s poorly written. Jane puts her ideas forth like a motivational speaker, stuffing the prose with insufferable buzz words (fiero, epic win, blah blah—pick any page and you’ll find them), diverting our interest in these ideas with this constant yanking attempt to link her concepts and ideas together. Some sentences should simply be shot, such as: “Games help us work together to achieve massively more.”

She’s also far too obsessed with grandeur, using the word ‘epic’ on almost every page. Every single project she proposes requires a level of upbeat peppiness that gamers simply don’t have. She seems to have forgotten that a great percentage of gamers are teenagers, who only want to drink Pepsi and shoot zombies, not participate in epic strategies for saving the world. The scale of these ideas (saving the world for starters, curing global depression for afters) is insane. BARMY, do you hear me? It gets daft quite quickly.

This is the main problem. You can see on this video people struggling to take her seriously, and the slight air of the loony bin about her.

The second half of the book is basically a list of Jane’s own work and is a huge self-pluggathon. I feel these ideas might have been more successful if she was willing to poke fun at herself more—convincing people about this requires someone willing to admit to their madness, a little tongue-in-cheekiness, and let the ideas seep in after. I’m not convinced she has that level of self-awareness, so her sincerity may be her undoing.

Anyway, they laugh at all great visionaries to begin with. I’m backing Team Jane.

6. Alasdair Gray — The Fall of Kelvin Walker

One from Gray’s raging nationalist staple. A confident Scot from a remote village goes to London to make his fame and fortune, but can’t shake his father’s Calvinist guilt. A rather dour book with no redemption. Lovely. (Nice cover, too).

7. Bernard Share — Transit

Transit is a dire absurd farce from the genius behind Inish.

Unlike that book (written in 1966), this one (written in 2009 at the insistence of Dalkey Archive editors, methinks) lacks the same alchemical linguistic brilliance, the rhythmic repetitions and Martian hilarity of his first book.

The same tone of utter chaos reigns, but the humour is random and parochial, the time-leap techniques boring and monotonous. It’s like a cross between Vonnegut’s Timequake and those scenes in Being John Malkovich where Malk is chasing John Cusack through his subconscious. “Little Johnny Malk-a-pee!” The allusions to Flann O’Brien adds pain to a book that groans with misfiring puns and blink-eyed humour that sits gurning on the page like a dead sausage.

Read Inish instead. ‘Tis really rather wonderful.

8. B.S. Johnson — B.S. Johnson Omnibus

Three B.S. Johnsons in one! Praise the Lord! (Though Johnson was an atheist, so praise the gravitational singularity!). Albert Angelo was a quick read, and an exemplary collage novel about a teacher longing for lost love while battling a classroom of London urchins. The experimentation is impressive, ranging from reported speech, first-second-third person narratives, cut-out paragraphs, offensively funny homework, to meandering thoughts. Then there's the legendary cut-through pages, tricking the reader into predicting the plot. A crazy work.


Trawl is a more torturous read: a proper Beckett homage, the prose bound in tight Doric columns with next to no paragraph breaks. A trawlerman (or someone loafing about on a trawler) ponders his isolation in the world on a trip to a Finnish port. The narrative comprises detailed memories, from his childhood in the war, his transfer from working to middle-class, to his various sexual relationships. There are also glorious ruminations on the sea, the sky, the vicissitudes of seafaring life. On the whole this novel is less rewarding: long stretches of the work seem indulgent and tedious. The narrator isn’t convincing or likeable, though glimpses of Johnson’s own past can be seen throughout, which is more interesting.


And for afters, there’s House Mother Normal, stripped of its original subheading “a geriatric comedy.” This is the most typographically innovative work from Johnson, using blank space, kerning and line breaks to tell a mordant story about an OAPs’ home run by a sadistic House Mother. The narrative is told from eight OAP POVs, some sad, some naughty, some bleak. The climax is pitch-black humour more in line with someone like Chris Morris. Pretty astonishing. This Omnibus is essential reading for devotees of the avant-garde, in a time when the avant-garde is no longer sneered at.

9. Joseph Heller — Catch 22

This broad, black comedy spends its time veering between mordantly hilarious and endlessly frustrating. Written before the invention of writing classes, or editors, the prose is outrageously overwritten (adverbs, four nouns instead of one, the whole shebang), but almost always compelling. There is a war going on between your interest in the cast of desperadoes and crooked generals, and your stamina for such fatty page-hogging wordiness.

Overall, though, this book's ambitious non-linearity has to be applauded, despite the word sandwiches, if only for that moment when Yo-Yo removes the dying soldier's flak jacket to reveal a gruesome outpouring of organs. That moment goes down in cinematic and literary history, and is the whole crux of the tragedy. So for those struggling to finish this book (it's the #1 unfinished book on Goodreads), I urge you to keep going.

If you don't keep going, then you'll have to fly more missions. And if you do keep going . . . ah, you know the catch.

10. Vedrana Rudan — Night

Vedrana Rudan is the Lucy Ellmann of Croatia. That will mean nothing to most of you, so I recommend you read this in tandem with Doctors and Nurses and sit in your chair plump with indignation.

Like Lucy, her tone is one of constant raging hormonal madness, blasting everything from the Serbs, the Croats, men, women, children, work, life, well . . . little is sacred in this woman's bleak and bitter rant.

Some may be offended by the personal insults to the reader (we are called “cunts” more than five times throughout), but this rant serves a greater purpose: to underline the insanity and inhumanity of wartime life during the Serb/Croat conflict. Some scenes will make you upchuck your liver. Powerful stuff.

11. Kurt Vonnegut — Armageddon in Retrospect

A fine collection of posthumous writings, themed around Kurt’s wartime experiences in Dresden. There are some truly essential stories here, among them ‘Just You & Me, Sammy’ and the wonderfully crafty ‘The Commandant’s Desk.’

12. Gabrielle Burton — Heartbreak Hotel

An impressive, innovative novel, though ultimately exhausting and not comprehensively satisfying.

13. Ron Loewinsohn — Magnetic Field(s)

I was attracted, magnetically, to this novel after a glowing analysis of Loewinsohnian poetics in Sorrentino’s essay collection Something Said. I also can't deny the attraction to a novel that shares the namesake of Stephin Merritt’s chamber-pop legends (same name, more committed plural).

Well. Letdowns all round. The novel comprises three sections, two 45 pages in length, buttressing the centrepiece, which is a prim 90 pages. This is symmetrical structurally: 45 pages per hour, four hours reading in total. The book, as you may suspect, uses the magnetic field as a pull for its characters, plot, language, recurring images, etc.

Essentially what we have are three separate stories, loosely connected to one another through Loewinsohnian poetics. The first concerns a burglar and the metaphysics of burglary. The second is a lengthy ramble about a depressed teenager who writes concrete music and kills himself. The last is a male fantasy snore about a middle-aged academic dating a supermodel.

The prose is fluid, clever and stylish, but strikes an authorial distance that makes it hard for us to care. So in the end, I didn’t.

14. Ivan Goncharov — Oblomov

I adore classic Russian literature, more so than classic English or American. It was always a regret of mine that I never got to study any Russians, having opted to do an English/Scottish university degree in 2004. Still: regrets, regrets.

Oblomov is a sentimental satire, poking fun at the indolence of the landed gentry and the indecision of the ruling class leading to ruin and shame. The hero is a dreamer who struggles to get out of bed until one day he meets Olga, who he woos and courts and then loses through laziness, taking to his bed again until devious clerks start wheedling his money. It’s all very miserable and melodramatic, like all great Russian lit.

The novel isn't always economical with plot: there are stretches of soupy indulgence with the Oblomov’s Dream chapter, and later sections detailing Olga’s thoughts and feelings feel utterly inconsequential to the story. Anywho, Oblomov himself is a tragic hero, cut from the Rashkolnikov or Underground Man cloth. Recommended for Tolstoyians and your cheerier Dostoevskyians.

15. Deborah Levy — Ophelia and the Great Idea

An interesting collection: metaphysical, cerebral and playful. A book for actual grown-ups. Fancy that.

16. Vladimir Nabokov — Transparent Things

I read this exhilarating novella in a two-hour burst, knees bumped with bliss, hands clasped in delight, eyes lacquered to the page.

This is Nabokov's penultimate novel, before the “doddery” (so says Martin Amis) Look at the Harlequins, and not including his unfinished posthumous one, The Original of Laura. This is part of his trilogy of “nympholepsy novels” (so says Amis again), and shows the cartwheeling prose gymnastics of the last great Russian writer at their finest. Essential.

17. Manuel Puig — Eternal Curse on the Reader of These Pages

A novel written (almost) entirely in dialogue, like
A Closed Book or Deception, both written (almost) entirely in dialogue.

This removes any authorial presence from the book, and as Barthesian and savvy as this is, the technique falls flat when explanations are needed for what can’t be conveyed in dialogue. This novel concerns an old man, who may or may not be an Argentinean gangster, and his hired companion, who may or may not be a failed academic, who tell stories to one another, which may or may not be lies, but mostly (sometimes) are.

That's as lucid as this novel gets, and the mystery isn’t really very interesting, nor is it resolved very well: Puig chooses to break the form by tacking on a series of explanatory letters afterwards, wimping out a little and leaving the reader even more bemused. Having said that, the novel is rather good fun, by turns witty and dark and interesting.

(I admit to having lost the thread halfway through and soldiering on. If someone would like to patronise me and explain things I really don’t mind).

18. Mark Barrowcliffe — The Elfish Gene: Dungeons, Dragons and Growing Up Strange

I’m doing some early research for a possible creative non-fiction book about gaming addiction. I spent my childhood hooked on Sega Mega Drive and Playstation games, withdrawing from the outside world into a realm of spinning hedgehogs and spinning bandicoots.

I can relate, then, to the author of this memoir, who spent his teenhood hooked on Dungeons & Dragons. The central difference between an addiction to an RPG like this and video games is human contact. The RPG involves interacting with other people, being very theatrical and confident in yourself. The video game supports a withdrawal into isolation.

Partly since my experience was much less colourful than his, I find it hard to take his addiction seriously. What he describes is a strange and funny childhood: intense, certainly, but hardly traumatic and sad. I understand his disappointment in real life vs. the fantasy world, but you have to wonder at his lack of any self-control. (Did his parents even care?) For the most part he is allowed to run free and his behaviour goes ludicrously unchecked. An absence of any self-consciousness seems to have hurt him in his post-D&D years.

Anyway: this isn’t a very well-written book. Too much psychiatric couch analysis, off-hand anecdotal pub-fodder, and a general tone of wistful regret and self-doubt strip the work of narrative oomph. A little passion and flavour would help save the book from its tone of a depressed stand-up comic riffing on his youth in some smoky pub. I haven’t read his fiction books, but you would expect more from a writer’s memoir.


Photo: Massachusetts public library

1 comment:

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