Saturday, 30 April 2011

My Month in Novels (Apr)

I know these reading lists also include short story collections, but I’ve been riding high on this error for over a year now, so don’t stop me while I’m on a roll. Last month I discovered readitswapit, a UK-only site for UK-only swaps. Although no one owns any Dalkey books in the whole country (or wants to swap them), I have landed some cracking swaps. Notably a dusty old crime book I took from the Writers’ Room’s free books pile and swapped with a pristine hardback of A Fraction of the Whole. Win = me.

As a result of this site, I read a little more this month. Reviews pasted from Goodreads:

1. Kelly Link — Magic For Beginners

A canny short story writer with a wholly unique vocabulary, range and personality. The closest touchstone in history would be Donald Barthelme, though Link furthers this ironical postmodern format to incorporate fables, fantasies and fairytales into her cleverly conceived mini-epics. It’s hypetacular.

2. Xiaolu Guo — 20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth

A simple, lyrical, disheartening coming-of-age story from an eminent Chinese polymath. The tone is largely bleak and hopeless, and captures the feeling young artists have of being stuck at the bottom looking at the top: nothing but a pocketful of dreams against a world of indifference. It certainly struck a chord.

3. Dubravka Ugrešić — Baba Yaga Laid an Egg

A curious, playful triptych centred around the Baba Yaga myth. The first part concerns a writer (based on Dubravka Ugrešić) taking care of her embittered mother while a fawning admirer chases her around Slovenia. The second (and longest) is set among a group of bubbly octogenarians at a spa resort, mingling with odious males with permanent erections. The last part is a lengthy dissertation on Slavic folklore, presented by the fawning admirer, with little meta-comments on the previous two sections à la Pale Fire or Little Casino.

I wish I had more time to review all these books I read, but life is fleeting and I’d rather read another gobsmacking Work of Art than write a long dissertation. Know this: Ugrešić is where it’s at in Croatia. She’s witty, hip and erudite, and you want to be reading her. Oh yes, you do.

4. Daniel Handler — Adverbs

Adverbs has a twisty, clever authorial voice, all-knowing and wise like the best omniscient narrators, which doesn’t really deviate from its essential Handlerness, despite inhabiting the emotional realm of his lovesick hipster personnel. But Handler handles words like a panhandler panhandles handles, or a handler handles hands: deftly, with aplomb.

Like Watch Your Mouth, Handler uses recurring images, phrases, motifs, characters, spooling them through his stylish prose with its sardonic Sorrentino metacomment, its wily Nabokovian impatience, its Eggersian whimsy. Each chapter corresponds to one particular adverb, but it’s irrelevant really, as the star here is the style, and the style succeeds strikingly well at depicting the yearnings and maimings of love. And they’re endlessly funny.

5. Spike Milligan — Puckoon

Umm. Well. It’s well-known Spike Milligan had a depressive disorder, making it impossible for him to concentrate on one thing for a long time. Hence his role in the Goons and other digressional comedies. But random doesn't lend itself to novels. You can throw in Romans, Chinamen, IRA officers and the kitchen sink, but you still have to structure the thing.

Puckoon is a dated book, probably quite sexist and racist to modern eyes, and the freewheeling absurdity simply doesn't shine on the page, though there are quotable lines a-go-go. Just no novel.

6. Jonathan Safran Foer — Tree of Codes

Makes me want to read The Street of Crocodiles. I think that was Safran Foer's main intention, so Go Team Bruno! It took me fifty or so pages to realise he was constructing his own little narrative on each page, but the dye cuts made me want to construct my own from the see-throughs. I resented having to obey the book rules. It's a work of art masquerading as a book. "Put me in an exhibition!" she cries. Maybe someone will one day. In the meantime, save £20 and get the original.

7. Rupert Thomson — Soft

Soft has the most misleading blurb and design I’ve ever encountered. (This month at least: let time corrupt). Packaged as an edgy Palahniuk-style assault on evil capitalist pigs, the blurb tells us of the most marginal protagonist in the story, marketing whizz Jimmy who devises a subliminal ad campaign based on brainwashing experiments. Well . . . no.

In actual fact, this is a book about relationships. It just happens to bring the three protagonists together via a subplot about an evil fizzy pop company. It is page 118 before the blurb makes any sense, at which point we have already been intimately acquainted with hardman Barker and flaky waitress Glade. Bad Bloomsbury!

The book details their various empty relationships, drawing the characters closer, towards their unlikely destruction through tacky orange pop. It isn’t entirely consistent, or plausible, but Thomson writes with tremendous detail and insight into his peeps. So much respek. (And drink Pepsi today! Mmm . . . PEPSI!)

8. Agnes Owens — People Like That

Owens is unsentimental, honest, kind-hearted, wry and economical. The title story alone will make you wither to a heap of human KY in tears, vast tears of pain! Amazing. I love her. Thanks, Tuck. Support your local Tuck Goodreads Recommendation Machine today. Credits cards and sexual favours accepted.

9. Miranda July — No One Belongs Here More Than You

A selection of warm and witty stories, marred only by their samey voice and random feel. I have no doubt Ms July is an impeccable craftswoman, but there is meandering of a dangerous nature here, prominent enough to override any structural cleverness. On the whole: worth your attention. Standouts include “Mon Plaisir,” “The Swim Team” and “How to Tell Stories to Children.” The tone: bare-toothed kook with a splash of wisdom. July is a rich filmmaker so we don’t want her being too talented a prose writer now, do we?

Available, rather oddly in a choice of pink, yellow or green. My choice was made for me by swapping it for AL Kennedy’s On Bullfighting. A worthy swap, but it will clash in the summer.

10. Italo Calvino — Invisible Cities

I posted a Scots parody earlier on. To add: this is Ed Hollis’s favourite book, and Ed spoke to us about structure and using architecture to assemble the meaning behind your book.

11. Charlie Brooker — The Hell of it All

I don’t own a TV, and consequently have become that smug gloater at parties who stands there pooh-poohing all forms of boxed entertainment in favour of books. The Wire, you say? Oh, very impressive I’m sure, but have you read Sorrentino’s Aberration of Starlight? Big Brother is the bane of civilisation, you say? Well, you’ve only got yourself to blame, sitting there in your pants at 3AM watching Joncey tongue a carrot. Have you read any Gert Jonke? Don’t: he’s sootiresome.

As TV critic for The Guardian, Charlie Brooker sifts through the rubble of television for signs of life among the intellectual decay. He’s like Don Johnson in the cult film A Man & His Dog: wandering through a post-apocalyptic wasteland, he stumbles upon an underground cult of clown-faced freaks, then decides he’d rather starve than be corrupted by morons. Amen. He’s either a prophet or another transitory sneerer making a living through bile. I lean towards the former: this is sharp, incisive, furiously sensible prose.

12. W.G. Sebald — Vertigo

It’s hard to write about what Sebald does, since his style belongs to a tradition of German writers such as Thomas Bernhard: it’s sparse, lyrical, poetic and formally original.

Vertigo is the first of four “novels” where he pioneered his mix of memoir, historical lecture and evocative description. Like The Emigrants, the book is divided into four separate trips, whose connections (conceptual or intellectual) I am too feeble to understand. Each section explores the tension between memory and art, whether through evocative childhood paintings or landscapes etched into the narrator's subconscious.

We might define ‘Sebaldian’ as work with a philosophical and personal bent that tackles big bad German themes like Weltschmerz or Kafkaesque alienation. This book also highlights the intrinsic ocular evil of equines.

13. Roberto Bolaño — Monsieur Pain

Mr. Bolaño truly is the most productive of dead writers. Almost a decade in the sod and still churning out work hither and thither. The Insufferable Gaucho is due for UK release this year, and The Third Reich is slated for release next year in the US. The man’s unstoppable!

Monsieur Pain is his attempt at a novel in the genteel English vein: a work of straightforward historical fiction written in a hurried first-person with a tacked-on epilogue. It’s an atypical book in the Roberto canon, a “surrealistic attic” (says the New York Times) of brief scenes. Tension and mystery is the order of the day, with a dash of black humour.

It’s not of much interest to first-time Bolaño readers, as it doesn’t break much ground or sweep the reader up with a broom of cleverness. But it isn’t bad for a dead guy.

14. John Domini — Earthquake I.D.

Let me explain something about the narrator’s function. The narrator should be an observer, a voyeur, a secretary. The narrator should slowly orbit her characters, allowing them room to breathe, to grow, to take on colours and shapes, letting the actions and events unfurl in a carefully choreographed tableau of feelings and happenings. This isn’t true of all narrators. But it’s a good starting point. A good narrator also knows when to shut the hell up.

Earthquake I.D. is an accomplished and ambitious novel, populated by strange and engaging events, set in a wholly unchartered fictional terrain: modern Naples. The shelves aren’t swarming with sagas about Sicilian-American immigrants returning home to help with earthquake relief efforts. So this novel stakes its flag in original and fascinating territory, and pursues that territory with an assured, intelligent voice.

But, heavens to Betsy. That narrator doesn’t stop narrating. He loves to narrate, he loves it, so he does. And that, for me, is this book’s undoing. It’s not simply a case of style, of the Sicilian storytelling tradition fused with the sardonic Sorrentino touches, topped off with a little erudite showboating. That’s all well and good, that’s what makes the style distinctive. But there’s too damn much of it. So what happens, ultimately, is the narrator blocks our involvement with the characters, the plot, the language. He blocks the novel.

By over-narration, I mean simply excessive descriptive passages of feelings, sensations, happenings, plot machinations. You get the feeling the narrator often gives way begrudgingly to dialogue, a necessary hurdle before another long stretch of narration begins. The narrator never gets close to the characters in a gut-level way: the best moments with Barb are shown through dialogue, while the narration flaps away, digging for insight, for little profundities. It’s a novel that blocks emotional involvement through fat swathes of superfluity.

Added to this a convoluted plot with characters dumped and forgotten, an increasingly frustrating performance from the lead man ‘Jaybird,’ and the often awkward technology and sex talk. The subplot with Paul, a child with healing powers, is dropped entirely, and towards the end I had to will myself to keep reading as I couldn’t follow any of the plots toppling over themselves in this long slow wheeze towards the end.

Having said that, the research and attention-to-detail is faultless, and the book has a simmering political subplot running throughout designed to keep the reader tip-toeing on hot coals. It’s a smorgasbord of elements, knitted together with patches of sumptuous prose.

I’ve been cautious in this review since Mr Domini is a frequent Goodreads contributor (and top reviewer), and knowing the author might read a not-too-flattering review makes a person very cautious about clear expression and rational analysis. (A good thing? Certainly.) So yes, on the whole: fascinating ideas, not mad on that loquacious narrator. (Also I have to agree with another reviewer regarding the cover: it’s hideous).

15. Jim Dodge — Fup

A short fable, immaculately designed and packaged, with illustrations from legend Harry Horse. It's not particularly compelling until the oversized duck Fup turns up, and at 100 short pages, it reads like a whimsical McSweeney's story. However, in the interest of full disclosure I should explain I am a heartless swine, and magical ducks and grandpas do not break my heart, no matter who dies at the end. And "Jim Dodge" is what I called bunking off Physical Ed lessons in school. Fact.

16. David Mazzucchelli — Asterios Polyp

The first proper graphic novel I’ve read! This was such a beautiful and heartbreaking piece of work, it’ll be nigh on impossible to top it. It is rich in glorious meditation, comedy, irony and romance, weaving deep questions of binary opposites, architectural philosophy, life-the universe-and-everything around a dissolving relationship story. I don’t have the vocab or knowledge to comment on the artwork’s nuances, but the artist subtly conveys shifting moods, attitudes, histories, metaphors and so on with clever little flourishes and lovingly precise ATD.

It’s so good I almost want to abandon prose. Maybe those hip people murmuring in my ear were right, and this is the future of storytelling. Beats the bejesus out of Miranda July, thassforsure.

17. Vladimir Nabokov— Invitation to a Beheading

It’s The House of the Dead meets Monty Python’s blacker moments. Nabokov wrote this in a fortnight, and although wired to his usual stylistic and linguistic arrogance, the story meanders in the way an undisciplined half-dream half-real semi-surrealist novel might. It's not quite Dostoevsky, not quite Gogol either.

I also began to mix up Cincinnatus with Ignatius J. Reilly from A Confederacy of Dunces, which wasn’t wholly random, as the novels aren’t too far off in terms of their dark humour. This novel withers under the punitive glee Nabokov takes in human suffering and becomes a swamp of language, fantasy and metaphor in a way that utterly supplants the story. Nice title, though.

18. Shotaro Yasuoka — The Glass Slipper and Other Stories

Shotaro Yasuoka is a ninety-year-old Japanese writer who started his career bedridden with spinal caries (a rare form of TB that affects the spine), writing stories for half a century until the English-speaking world saw fit to acknowledge his work in 2008 with ONE slim volume of stories. Sometimes there’s no fairness in the world.

These stories, which take place in post-war Japan, concern the alienation, confusion and sadness that swept the country at this time, with focus on the aimlessness of adolescents, the quiet desperation of lower-class servants, and soldiers adapting to a world without war.

The translation of these tales doesn’t capture the Japanese spirit of the originals, since the translator Royall Tyler has used American English throughout, giving us pants, high schools, vacations, etc . . . all a little out of line with the uniquely Japanese world being described. Having said that, all these stories have the same first-person voice, whether it’s a child or soldier narrating, giving them a repetitive feel. Still, worth a peep for the curious. (They're funny, too).

19. Mark E. Smith — Renegade: The Lives & Tales of Mark E. Smith

A slender and typically unrepentant diatribe from MES, stretched into the only ‘official’ book we’re likely to get on The Fall. Dave Simpson’s book The Fallen gets to the heart of the fan’s obsession with the group, providing a more compassionate look at a band so beloved among writers and word-lovers. It’s a little more, um . . . balanced.

This book acts like an extension of the MES myth, sprinkling a few surprises here and there among the liquored ramblings of the great man, transcribed (and no doubt embellished) by Austin Collings. The little patches of experiment and gibberish don’t add much other than ticking the ‘unconventional’ box, but the treat here is hearing the bilious attacks on ex-band members, wives, guitarists, and Paul Morley (thrice in the first 100 pages!)

Cheese State! Fall Motel!

20. Ralph Cusack — Cadenza

Ralph Cusack was an Irish painter who, according to the Dalkey website, settled in the South of France to grow flowers for the manufacture of perfume. Why don’t modern writers take on such a sensual endeavour? You never see Jonathan Franzen bottling the smell from home-grown carnations to sell as a new fragrance. Freedom: A Fragrance, by Franzen.

Anywho, this accomplished novel was one of the first books Dalkey printed (circa 1984, no reprints yet) and is almost a manifesto for their aesthetic sensibilities. Black humour, erudite wordplay, talent for invention bordering on the criminal, difficult narrative voices, set in Ireland and France. It’s easier to read this ‘memory’ novel as a series of set-pieces, or sketches, though the stories do assume a linear form later on, peaking at odd moments then drifting behind the clouds.

Worth the price of admission for the splendid coffin-ferrying scene, where the narrator’s uncle gets tossed overboard with a dog and two bickering clerics. They sure don’t write ‘em like this anymore, thank God. (Afterword from Gil Sorrentino!)

21. Lydia Davis — Almost No Memory

Davis needs no introduction, nor pithy summary. These stories are mathematical riddles, little sentences twining and twirling around their own meaning. At the end of the collection, I felt as though trapped at the centre of a maze, as though reading them backwards would free me from the spiral of captivity.

Her style is homely-cum-brainy, the self-awareness of a part-time egghead, part-time wife-and-mother. The shorter stories tickled me the most, the longer ones felt like forced digressions. How the collection is structured has something to do with this conflict. Short sharp shocks versus long periods of concentration and tightrope-walking. I became addicted to the ultra-concise form and wasn’t as willing to go the distance.

New readers should pick up these little collections and leave The Collected Stories to the hardcore Davisites, whose brains resemble orange peels.

22. Curtis White — America’s Magic Mountain

I haven’t read Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, so I can’t comment on how accurate an ‘update’ this novel is. That’s quite frustrating as it means I can’t comment on structure or plot, since each might mirror the Mann novel, therefore armouring itself against criticism. Clever that.

This novel is a hodgepodge of elements. It’s sort of the The Shining meetsInfinite Jest, if one wanted to do that modern comparison thing so beloved among reviewers. (And one does, and one did). Hans visits his cousin’s retreat for alcoholics, whose sole treatment involves drinking more and more after listening to demented preachers inside a sweaty shack. Hans stumbles around, getting abuse from a little prick called Teddy, dreaming about a romp with middle-aged Cecile, and brooding on his parental issues.

Like Requiem, the book becomes overtaken with voices, and the novel drops its linear structure halfway through for a parade of eccentric characters, psychobabble parody, and dark little episodes that further Curtis White’s obsession with drunk fathers and broken childhoods. It’s an absolute mess on every level, but so funny and erudite, you can’t help but love it.

23. Javier Marías — All Souls

I like to take recommendations from friends, read their favourite authors, then prove them illiterate schlemiels by showing how much better Gilbert Sorrentino and Lucy Ellmann are at writing things. Then I laugh at them. Hahahaha, I go. You FOOLS! Hahahahaha. OK, no I don’t. On this occasion, Mike’s recommendation was valorous and astute.

He was absolutely right in saying Marías is the middle point between Bolaño and Sebald (or words to that effect). Combining the long unspooling sentences of the big Bolaño books, and the meandering metaphysics found in Sebald, Marías has written a unique, maddening and hilarious book at the classiest end of so-called lit-fic.

The narrator is a haughty Spanish don visiting at Oxford who gets tangled in an affair with a co-academic. OK, that sounds intolerable, but honestly, like On Beauty, it’s really quite beautiful. Marías favours laborious passages of lyrical musing and old-time wit, often straying into Henry James territory with the ponderousnessness of it all, but it’s mainly exquisite.

Here’s Mike’s review. Let him take over.

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