Thursday, 31 March 2011

My Month in Novels (Mar)

Nothing beats sitting down to read in a warm room with your feet upon a freshly squeezed lemon. Here are some books I read with my tongue hanging out. Review from the ever-unpopular site Goodreads.

1. Donald Barthelme — Forty Stories

I don't know what happened. There I was, excited to cadge a library copy of a Barthelme book, a rarity on these shores, having stored up eight months of warm feelings for
Sixty Stories. But no. It all came crashing down with this insufferable series of self-ironising experiments, non sequiturs, intellectual masturbations and opaque parodies.

What happened? Well, it is entirely possible
Sixty Stories exhausted the capabilities of Mr. B, so widely adored among the McSweeney's generation, serving up an inferior batch of stories. Nothing here took off in the same insanely original, witty and definitively weird way as the previous collection. There wasn't a story in here I'd want to have repeated intercourse with for months on end before lovingly slicing the warts off my cock.

And that's a shame. That is grand old shame.

2. Rikki Ducornet Phosphor in Dreamland

Magical, delicious, fishy novel.

3. Nicholson Baker The Mezzanine

I wrote a longer post on this earlier.

4. Italo Calvino Mr. Palomar

I'm not one of your starry-eyed prose-droolers who appreciates beautiful writing on its own terms. I need formal innovation or structural complexity or dazzling dialogue or knee-snapping humour to keep me amused amid the lexical contortionism. This makes Calvino an infuriating bedfellow: his Oulipo-era prose is constructed with tight mathematical rigidity, yet what comes through in this work is the shiny artifice of his prose, the sparkly poetics of the Cosmicomics. Not good.

Well . . . I don't whether it's exhaustion from reading the dizzingly obsessive The Mezzanine, but this reflective novel didn't move me particularly. Hats off to the rigorous structure, though, and that final chapter: beautiful. (I'm not averse to a little beauty on its own terms).

5. Roberto Bolaño The Skating Rink
So once again I find myself pulled into the world of novellas and short fictions, knowing I can finish these books in a day or two, feeding my book addiction with quicker and thicker thrills, piling up the novels until somehow the outside world subsumes itself into the fictional realm, leaving me free to write my own lurid and oblivious end. I wanted Monsieur Pain, but some lightning snarfler got in there first, leaving me with this charming whodunit narrated by three quite samey-sounding men. Not the bulkiest, beefiest Bolaño, not by a long chalk, but a squirrely suspension of the form nonetheless, alive with the same breathless haste as other Robbie books.

6. Vladimir Nabokov The Eye

And again, forgoing the chance to spend a week souping through Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, I chose this 90-page quickie, written not by Nabokov but by Naboko, as the cover confirms, a dazzling novella (filed in my shelves under novels, I find sub-shelving a tedious business) involving a nameless narrator who shoots himself and hovers around the story waiting for the penny to drop.

Naboko's prose is at its rippling glorious peak in the suicide scenes: never has a writer scalped the human mind with such savage laser-vision, and although attentive readers will guess the twist after the bullet is shot (I did, look ma, I'm clever!), there's no earthly reason for bypassing this suspenseful short, unless you're still souping through Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, in which case, The Eye sees you, he is waiting.

7. Alasdair Gray Ten Tales Tall & True

Consistency isn't Alasdair's strong point. He compulsively drops clangers following masterworks: regard the patchy Unlikely Stories, Mostly following Lanark and the dreadful A History Maker following the triumphant Poor Things. No, I tell a lie: this was released after Poor Things, but please don't contradict me, I'm tired and my mother told me about a horrible murder earlier, so I'm not in the mood for your smartness.

Ahem. Well, this is a rather slight collection, the stories twee or semi-polemical or simple, with short forays into wonky experiment, as in the logic-mashing 'You' (where the second-person present is deployed by the reader rather than author) or the cute 'Fictional Exits' (where art is the only escape from life's disasters).

All in all, it's not a work of staggering talent or originality but Gray had already written his masterpiece, so everything after that was gravy. The best piece in here is the straight autobiography 'Mr Meikle.' And please, Goodreads stop telling me my reading list is growing and asking me to share on Facebook, or so help me God I will cut you into meaty chunks and serve you with pickled duck farts.

8. Dorothy Nelson Tar and Feathers

This is a bugger, really: there are so many technical problems with this novel it's almost an outright failure, but on a gut level Nelson punches and spars with the toughest Oirish miserabilists.

There's a massive issue with narrative POV, the story leaping from Ma to Da to Ben in very confusing shifts, sometimes Ben narrates for Da or Ma, causing huge logical rifts in the novel, and more directly, the high literary style doesn't seem to fit with the class of criminal scallies being portrayed.

On a prose level, it's all about the style: the kitchen-sink flashiness of classical Celtic despair. If you thought Angela's Ashes was for sissies, this is the book for you.

9. Alan Warner Morvern Callar

Morvern is a troubled young woman from a fictitious Highland fishing village who walks into an inheritance after her boyfriend slashes his wrists in her front room.
She goes abroad, goes to the pub, gets a book she didn't write published, works in the supermarket, goes abroad again and goes clubbing very many times both home and abroad. She remains as inscrutable and strange as possible, allowing the reader little window into her semi-psychotic mind, leaving them entertained but bemused. Same thing in the film. It's good.

10. Zadie Smith On Beauty

This is a book full of unbeautiful people: obnoxious teenagers, philandering academics, stuffy professors, right-on street rappers, wispy rich kids and more obnoxious teenagers. Zadie takes a scalpel to Anglo-American academic relations, probing away at the race/class issues with her usual mordant unflinching cruelty and compassion. She plants a series of depth charges in the lives of her wibbling characters, watching them each explode in turn into quivering heaps of gloopy suet. As ever, the ride is a scream.

11. Eva Figes Nelly's Version

A sleepy novel about an amnesiac who wakes up in a strange hotel room and goes for long boring pastoral walks which are described in painful detail, and meets an old (maybe) friend who has an unlikely dialogue with her in a shop before being violently assaulted and then her (maybe) son turns up and she acts haughty towards him for the whole book and then she has wrinkly sex with her (maybe) husband and then looks in mirrors then does something or other but the book peters off with no real climax or interest and the dull prose sends the reader into a sleepy haze as the narrator walks through another dreary field and the trees are described and the plot is left to the reader to explain because the writer has finished now and has other things to do.

12. Hubert Selby Jr. Last Exit to Brooklyn

A searing sift through the slurried slums of post-war Brooklyn. The only book that uses shock, violence and vulgarity to depict a world of tragic isolation that truly pierces the heart, gets you so deeply you feel you are THERE, in this boneyard of brittle bones and broken bodies, crying and fighting and fucking and SHOUTING AT YER FREAKIN KIDS TA SHUT THERE TRAPS.

Selby's editor on this book was Gilbert Sorrentino, who helped Selby refine his extraordinarily precise style, his pitch-perfect dialogue, distinctive abuse and misuse of punctuation, his staggering pacing. His essay in the collection Something Said illuminates the construction of these elegant art-bombs, unlocking the complexity and beauty in Selby's compostions.

Best Brooklyn novel, bar none.

13. Martin Amis The Moronic Inferno and Other Visits to America

A slim and sedulous selection of Marty's early-80s US travels. His status as an author and critic has grown considerably since 1986, so this collection lacks any relevance or substance, contemporary-wards, but there are good pieces. Bellow, Updike, Roth, Mailer, Vonnegut, Capote, Heller. They're all here. (And all dead). *

Marty's non-fiction output is rather thin on the ground. Apart from the tremendous collection The War Against Cliché we could use more articles and opinions from Britain's more desireable sexagenarian. I'm looking at you, Penguin.

* OK, except Roth. Not long to go now!

14. Nicola Barker Five Miles From Outer Hope

A swift, impish novella from the refreshingly oddball Hackney genius. Medve is your narrator: an acid-tongued sixteen-year-old with a line in erudite putdowns. (Except the story is narrated twenty-odd years in the future, with the narrator doing the voice of her teenage self — the logic is a little messy. Anyway).

Medve's world is turned on its head when a smelly South African ex-medic comes to stay in her father's derelict hotel. His determination to inspect her vagina becomes an increasing bugbear (as well as his inappropriate singing on fishing boats), so Medve exacts a fiendish revenge by hiding a rubber caterpillar up her cootch and pulling it out by a slippery cove. Much to his disgust and dismay.

Yes. This is Nicola Barker's realm, all right. It's fast and funny and sordid and silly. With an entirely uncalled-for serious wrap-up ending. Wide Open is her best book, but this is a charming little comic performance.

15. Carol Ann Sima Jane's Bad Hare Day

This is the closest we will ever get to a high-brow, experimental version of Sex & the City.

It’s set in the Big Thrapple and focuses on one woman’s (Jane’s) adventures: being pleasured by retroussé noses, purchasing shoes, being filed on first (divorce victim), trying to stop her father fucking drains and her mother fucking walls, groping the lift operator, teaching her best friend how to pleasure men, and having more random nose sex.

The end result is tiresome screwball farce written in the choppiest style, like a series of sassy hiccups. Being a DAP book, the language and wordplay is first-rate, and the humour is outrageous and funny, but it doesn’t really form a novel as such. More like a selection of aperitifs ranging from delicious to tasteless to horrible to lipsmacking.

The end result: a monumentally unusually so-so book.

16. J.G. Ballard Super-Cannes

A business complex in Cannes is gradually overtaken by a psychopathic philosophy, threatening a Third World War. As in all JG Ballard novels, the narrator’s perversities are explored, the veneer of wealth and success is lifted, and an underworld of crime and sickness unleashed.

This is Ballard’s longest novel and doesn’t benefit from its chunkiness. In fact, the detective novel plot and overabundant description make this a less successful work from the master of short-form fiction. It also doesn’t help that this novel is a retread of Cocaine Nights, moved from London to France (and featuring few actual French people).

For diehard Ballardians only.

17. Dubravka Ugrešić The Ministry of Pain

A profoundly intelligent take on Serb/Croatian emigré life following the death of Yugoslav Prime Minister Josip Toto. Tanja is a teacher living in Amsterdam responsible for a Croatian literature programme, who realises her students are much more interesting than her topic.

Very fresh, witty and moving.

18. McSweeney's Issue 17

This issue is an exercise in world-class parody, with top marks for invention and attention-to-detail. Arriving in a clump of documents belonging to one Sgt Maria Vasquez, the issue spoofs the spam mail letter in the form of a ‘spam manuscript’ (a novel excerpt printed on double-sided A4) and a series of automobile and trout photographs.

The stories themselves are entirely incidental, included in a spoof literary quarterly called Unfamiliar. It is what McSweeney’s might have become without the vision and money of Dave Eggers. The stories are presented in a split-page format, and are largely short and unfocused. They are also noticeably weaker than the other McSweeney’s works, which feels like a conscious effort to lampoon the editorial standards of their sham magazine, although I might be wrong. (They cop out on the credits page by listing ‘McSweeney’s contributors.’ Boo!)

The centrepiece of this issue is a painstakingly compiled scientific magazine, Yeti Researcher. A full-length ur-spoof, this tedious and fascinating document explores the bigfoot myth, squeezing every last drop of plausibility from its long discursive essays. The end result is laudable for going full-out and making the whole endeavour entirely convincing. There is no way of knowing this would be a parody to outsiders.

Other items include a padded envelope of gorgeous modern art and a thigh-slapping advert for a garments company specialising in stick-together clothes with shared armholes and hoods. Top marks. (Minus one for the actual featured writing).

19. Agnes Owens A Working Mother

A crisp, fluent, fluid, exhilarating tale of a working mother’s descent into alcoholism. Owens’s prose is simple, unshowy, her characters addictively vile and unhinged. She opts not to write in dialect, or give a sense of place, though the world here is probably 1960s Glasgow. The story strikes a note of heartbreak from the first offhand man and wife quarrel, and sustains this with black humour, erudite dialogue and brusque scene-leaping.

Read Agnes Ownes now! Feast your eyes on this sensationally clever prose!

20. Slinkachu Little People in the City

They're tiny!

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