Tuesday, 31 May 2011

My Month in Novels (May)

A slower reading month due to personal difficulties involving ovipositors and gynaecologists. Reviews from Goodreads.

1. Geoff Nicholson — Flesh Guitar

A novel for rockophiles that isn’t shit! Hurrah! Nicholson writes about the guitar as a phallic object, then reclaims it as a tool for empowering experimental art among the women. (Kinda). This is a difficult novel to describe: it follows the career of Jenny, an avant-garde composer present in a series of parodic musical experiments (naked acupuncture stage shows, smashing eggs against fretboards, etc), until her final performance in a dive bar.

She also finds herself talking to a teenage Frank Zappa and a deathbed Robert Johnson (and Kobain and Hendrix) in a series of hilarious scenes, while helping the careers of wayward male musicians by playing long distorted solos. It’s one of the most original fiction books about music I’ve read, despite a few lapses into cheese. Makes You Don’t Love Me Yet look like the Slipknot reunion.

2. Andrew Miller — Oxygen

One of those novels where the reader is kept bobbing on the surface of interest, an empathetic reaction, or real excitement, for the entire duration, without ever experiencing interest, an empathetic reaction or real excitement for the entire duration. Miller is a good craftsman: a carpenter who gets the words in the right order, without the allusions to Jesus or Owen Wilson. No messing.

The book weaves three narratives together with an overly descriptive prose style, depressingly inept middle-aged males, and an incongruous Balkan conflict plot to give the novel ‘interest’ and heft. All in all, it will pass the time if you aren’t thinking too hard, or if cancer novels are your bag. See also Erasure (for a novel on a similar theme). (The author also has a pierced ear in his bio shot. Says a great deal).

3. Dubravka Ugrešić — Thank You For Not Reading

These be charming and hilarious attacks on the publishing world, writers and their tics, and the laughable state of Croatian culture. These also be serious academic essays on East European writers, with ‘The Writer in Exile’ as its centrepiece: a lacerating display of egghead invective laced with personal sorrow and frustration.

Ugrešić has suffered the indifference of her chauvinist peers, the turned backs of a fiercely nationalist state, and the folly of trying to sell East European issues in the western marketplace. I can’t think of a writer up against such odds who writes with such warmth, intelligence, irony and genius. This collection is a challenging feast of lighter magazine pieces and some substantial four-course socio-cultural investigations.

For writers who are readers, readers who want to be writers, and readers who love reading.

4. Emilio Lascano Tegui — On Elegance While Sleeping

A glorious little book, told in elegant poetic chapters, tinier than a thimbleful of sand, but wittier than four Javier Maríases and smarter than one Fernando Pessoa. Written in an undated diary format, the narrator recounts his experiences as a man of leisure, from his manicured beginnings, his syphilitic middles, to his murderous ends. Wondrous little intro, too, and the translation is smooth, perfect: captures the voice nicely. (P.S. The author was a self-appointed Viscount. Megacool).

5. Jean-Philippe Toussaint — Camera

A novel in which nothing significant happens on purpose, to draw attention to the insignificant things that comprise 90% of our lives. Toussaint calls this the ‘infinitesimal novel’ and his entire canon could be read in an afternoon. That’s how infinitesimal these novels are.

There is a richness here, a more philosophical flavour to the second half of the novel, so it isn’t merely about a man hanging around a DMV office trying to shack up with a single mum. But mainly it is, and there’s nothing wrong with that: it’s funny and incisive. Très bon.

6. Raymond Queneau — Saint Glinglin

This is a strange one, even by Queneau’s standards. A full-blown Oulipo workout with extended monologues on fishes, spoof biblical verse, portentous literary ponderings and screwball farces, all written as a lipogram (missing the letter X, except in character names).

That about covers it. Except to express some disappointment. The novel is insanely creative, but the monologue chapters tend to the mundane, and the usual Queneau multi-character frolic-making grows tiresome, despite the manic plot about Pierre ousting his father as Mayor, his brother ousting him as Mayor, and the endless rainfall of the finale.

The cover is so glorious it’s still one to recommend, for readers comfortable in the arms of Perec and Mathews.

7. Rebecca Gowers — When to Walk

One thing I resent about chick-lit is there is no male equivalent, no dick-lit. Sure, there’s Andy McNab and the action thriller, but where are the clumsy males seeking handsome girl suitors, the wacky adventures of hapless guys going on shopping sprees to Dixons? One thing that’s bereft in trashy male lit is humour. Kathy Lette may be as funny as a drowning kitten but at least she tries. Andy McNab couldn’t raise a titter in a laughing gas factory.

This novel isn’t chick-lit but it’s written in a style exclusive, it seems, to women writers. Sure, we have our Sam Lipsytes, our George Saunderses, but these gents are more preoccupied with broader, universal explanations for the culture and its behaviour. Where are the despairing men in overheated flats musing on etymology? Telling dreadful Victorian jokes? A crazy neighbour, anyone?

This book concerns an eccentric hack with a spinal condition whose husband leaves her at the weekend. Over seven days, she ambles around chatting to her Cockernee neighbour, her senile mother and her bisexual best friend, while trying to complete an article on an icy holiday resort. The writer puts digression to the test, pulling the reader into the protagonist’s fertile history and knowledge of Victorian trivia. Some dialogue is a tad ropey, but the prose sings lie SuBo on steroids.

8. Danuta De Rhodes — The Little White Car

A brief cartoon romp imagining the life of the white Fiat Uno driver the night of Princess Diana’s crash. In this book she’s Veronique, a probably very talented photographer whose break up with her boyfriend leads to a drunken ride home and the unfortunate accident. The rest of the story is about her attempt to dismantle the car and avoid the coppers, while being generally rather French in that way the Brits assume all French women are, i.e. glamorous femme fatales.

Dan Rhodes’s Anthropology is some of the warmest wittiest flash fiction out there, but this feels like it was written in two weeks during a stay in Paris. For a comic novel, it isn’t nearly as risky or dark enough to rise above its cloying tweeness, its cute-funny-boyfriend tone, its half-chewed ideas. A longer book satirising a zany French movement like the Oulipo might’ve been funnier, and he could’ve gone mad with the form and style.

Shame. Feels like it’s for a younger audience, too, maybe twelve-to-fifteen-year-olds.

9. Deborah Levy — The Unloved

The two previous DL books I sampled were triumphs, most notably the dark comedy Billy & Girl. This one was closer to Ophelia & the Great Idea in style, but given scope to roam outside the short form, this style becomes an overblown flan of staggering pretention.

The book opens in a French chateau with a vague drawing-room murder setup. We’re then introduced to a range of characters worse than Big Brother contestants for sheer violent weirdo backward madness. These are the Unloved of the title: representatives from America and Europe brought together to pervert each other in this wherever-the-fuck location.

Woven through this non-story are long diaries of a violent marriage in Deep South USA and some sort of East European conflict narrative. The novel is pathologically hard to follow, so feels more like a series of dreamlike, violent set pieces. The characters speak in a form of poetic lit-speak, even those with heavily accented dialogue, making them little more than ideas strung together with arch, arrogant language.

Dark sexual abuse and graphic violence punctuates the narrative, which is uncompromising and incomprehensible.

10. Kurt Vonnegut — Timequake

Timequake is billed as Vonnegut’s last “novel” but it’s neither his last, nor a novel. Hocus Pocus was the final novel from the Master, and A Man Without a Country his last book. This is almost entirely autobiographical, with a few digressions on the career of Kilgore Trout to keep the fictional proceedings going.

No complaints from me. Kurt is on fine form, wisecracking and wise, settling into his batty old grandfather role with ease. What is surprising about this volume is the candour he displays when talking about his own family, a matter of contention among the Vonnegut clan. But his personal life was always entwined with his writing: from way back to his early 70s novels, when he began to write personally detailed prefaces.

This book’s catchword: Ting-a-Ling!

11. David Foster Wallace — Consider the Lobster and Other Essays

Outstanding. The closest one can get to triple penetration in essay form.

Each one is a stunner, from the grotesquerie of the Adult Video Awards in ‘Big Red Son,’ the magniloquent ass-handing of John Updike, the sublime pedantry of the modern classic ‘Authority and American Usage,’ the obsessive campaign chronicling of ‘Up, Simba,’ to the staggeringly researched meta-bubbling John Ziegler profile ‘Host.’

All the essays succeed at tying razor-sharp exegeses of American culture to a holy clarity of insight, showing how acutely attuned to the nuances of the human mind Mr. Wallace was. Even among the shorter pieces here: the Bergman-like silence of ‘The View From Mrs Thompson’s’ to the dazzling dissection of Dostoevsky, this is super-stellar belles-lettrism from outer space.

And to top it all, I now feel deeply for lobsters.

12. Vladimir Nabokov — The Luzhin Defense

Hands-up: I read some of this at bullet-train speed because I had to return it to the library. Yes, I could have withdrawn it again, but there were only fifty-odd pages left and some new Foster Wallace was in that set my hands a-twitchin’ and my brain a-spinnin’.

So I didn’t let the sumptuous prose slowly unfold, I didn’t delicately caress his sentences with the same narcissistic mania the author bestowed upon his own works. But there wasn’t much sumptuousness here, anyway. His third novel is a more straightforward work, plump with overlong descriptions and meandering scenes between unconvincing characters.

Mrs Luzhin in particular (Emily Watson in the film—delicious) doesn’t seem a convincing spouse, nor does her attraction to the über-tortured chess-whizz Luzhin (John Turturro in the film—delicious) seem particularly well-rationalised, outside his general weird-genius aura. Luzhin stumbles through the novel like Rain Man, driven mad by trying to solve an impossible chess problem and his general uselessness as a human being.

Surprising how people cite Luzhin as a ‘warmer’ Nabokov character: I couldn’t stand his drivelling idiocy, and the intrigue for me fell to the way he was going to crush Mrs Luzhin’s heart. The title also seems to refer to how Mrs L defends Luzhin in the eyes of her parents, how she keeps him in expensive mini-breaks with scenic greenery. Lucky for some.

If you happen to be a chess genius, however, this is probably the greatest book you’ll ever read. (Chess memoirs excluded—that’s cheating).

13. Paul Morley — Nothing

I was thinking about this book in relation to B.S. Johnson and his suicide. Morley’s father, from a similar poorish background, committed suicide when his life was going nowhere. Johnson seems the antithesis to this: a man with a promising career in fiction, unpopular in his lifetime, but building a reputation among peers and critics. Despite his impressive achievements and high successes, he too ends his life with a whoosh of melodrama.

There’s something about the children of WW2, something about that generation that lead to unfortunate daddies. Raised by parents with one foot in the 19th century and the other in a more liberal post-war age, the sons are brought up in harsh and demanding regimes. As a result, the sons then flail around trying to meet these demands and impose the same on their brood, struggling to keep up with the modern world. This need for success, notions of manhood, pride and so on, if not achieved, lead to capital F failure.

Paul Morley, Best Rock Writer in UK, explores his own father’s suicide in this exhilarating memoir by taking the reader through his complex relationship to dead bodies (he saw Ian Curtis laid out on a stretcher), his waning relations with his dad, and the mindset that lead Mr Morley to end himself in a car somewhere outside Gloucester.

There’s a dedication to B.S. Johnson afterwards, and Morley’s approach to telling the story is as stubbornly non-linear: the first section is about his aborted attempts to write the book (or imaginary versions of the book), there’s a straightforward memoir section about his school life, a series of little vox pops on various themes, and transcribed interviews. His style is maximal, indulgent even, but always warm and witty.

14. Dag Solstad — Shyness & Dignity

A bunch of so-so ideas barely stapled together in novel-form. Elias Rukla (fore- and surname used throughout the whole novel) is a teacher who has a moment of realisation about a peripheral character in Ibsen’s The Wild Duck. His pupils couldn’t give a hoot, and he smashes an umbrella to bits in the playground as a kind of rebellion.

Flashback, then, to his time at university, his friendship with an eminent philosopher, and his subsequent marriage to an “indescribably beautiful” woman, who is described thus so often it would be more truthful just to call her “male fantasy femmebot 2.0.” (Or abbreviated: MFF 2.0).

Other bits of social comment, literary opinion and existential musing are dotted throughout, but none of this matters, since the style is so dreary and digressional there isn’t anything close to an interesting storyline or 3D character. It isn’t formally interesting enough to make these elements irrelevant, and most of the writing is repetitive and amateurish. It is translated from the Norwegian, of course, so we could always blame the translator.

15. David Foster Wallace — Girl With Curious Hair

My main response to reading Wallace is that I’m not clever enough to read Wallace. I go through long periods in his fiction not knowing what the hell is happening and what the narrator is narrating. My second response is that Wallace wrote fiction with a universal appeal, inscrutable at times, but with a heart and a mind built by NASA. Despite this, despite his intention to strike a basic human chord, his fiction is largely the domain of the hyper-literate, or folks like me, straining to be hyper-literate. Wallace’s intellect both attracts and repels potential readers, for both good and bad reasons.

This collection is largely free from such anxieties, however. Stories like ‘Little Expressionless Animals’ and ‘My Appearance’ explore Wallace’s contempt for TV over higher art forms, ‘Lyndon’ and ‘Girl With Curious Hair’ are hilarious satires on American success and wealth, and ‘Luckily the Account Representative Knew CPR’ and ‘Everything is Green’ are shorter examples of the infinite interpretability of his work.

These selections demonstrate his flair for aggressive comedy, intensely felt language, experimental forms, and Pynchonesque wordplay.

Sadly, there are stories that demonstrate the less appealing facet of his work, namely the almost pathological indulgence. Wallace arrived on the scene when postmoderism was in its death throes, yet became a compulsive reader of these texts: Pynchon, Barth, et al. His work, to me, does partly belong to a postmodern tradition, filtered through a more ironic lens, one knowingly beyond such a passé form, though still besotted. Like how I feel about Michelle Obama. I know she is a useless presence in my life, though I still crave her uxorious attentions in the oval office, despite loving my current spouse.

‘Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way’ is something I should have loved—I respect metafiction and have a higher tolerance for its “exhaustion” than most. But this was sheer exhaustive indulgence, some incomprehensible homage to John Barth with cringe-inducing self-comment and more showboating grandiloquence than four Joyces. It reads like the kind of fiction Wallace himself would later lampoon, the dry academic work from campus writers, albeit stamped with more wit, ideas and general impressiveness. Metafiction about metafiction is really a niche genre.

‘John Billy,’ ‘Here and There’ and ‘Say Never’ were inscrutable to me, but this was only my first reading. If there’s one thing Wallace demands, it’s more than one reading.

16. B.S. Johnson — See the Old Lady Decently

The more mass-market drivel that gets churned out on production lines, the more stuffed bookstores are with nine-book series on teenage vampires, the more absurd B.S. Johnson’s suicide seems. Today, Johnson’s books would struggle to find their way into print. No publishing house would take House Mother Normal from an unknown. Nor have the sense of adventure and reckless fiscal guts to bind The Unfortunates. In the sixties and seventies all his work (poems and plays too) were in print.

So if he were alive today, he’d probably have to kill himself.

See the Old Lady Decently
was part of the proposed Matrix Trilogy, a biographical account of his mother’s life and a rumination on the state of the British Empire since the WWI battles at Ypres. This is his final final book and remains out of print and in the shadow of Christie Malry’s Own Double-entry, which many (including me) mistake as his last. (And which is clearly the superior work).

As a book it isn’t Johnson at his best: the experiment doesn’t have the same exuberance, skill or humour as his other novels. There are no clues as to Johnson’s own mental decline here, despite the usual fourth wall moments—if anything this book is lighter and more heartfelt than his spikier efforts. What shines through is a love for his mother, his London home, and his country. And, inevitably, Laurence Sterne.

17. B.S. Johnson & Julia Trevelyan Oman — Street Children

Johnson provided charming captions for this book of B&W photographs from film and television designer Julia Trevelyan Oman. The shots are of 1960s London street urchins, and Johnson’s text is formatted to set the scene of each shot, some bits witty, some bits moving. One shot in particular, of a blonde girl sitting on her doorstep gazing forlornly into space, her face pulled taut with worry, melds with the text—where Johnson imagines an abusive father—beautifully.

designed the sets for Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs and was given a CBE in 1986. This is one of many interesting collaborations involving Johnson in the sixties: the others include a collection of stories with Indian poet Zulfikar Ghose and four themed fiction anthologies.

18. Will Self & David Gamble — Perfidious Man

This book combines an essay by top-flight satirist Will Self and the male odalisques of David Gamble with a long transcript of an interview with a female-to-male transgender, whose story becomes the centrepiece of the book. The focus is somewhat skewed: this is supposed to be a book on maleness, what maleness means, though is more a look at trans problems. Still, the off-kilter approach to maleness—maleness as experienced by someone in a female body—fits into the Self world of grotesque mirrors and strange inversions.

Warning: contains two or three penises.


  1. Your reading capacity stuns and humbles me.

  2. Yes, but one of them was a book of penises. So it should also disgust you.

  3. Some very interesting titles here. Agree about the DFW book and will pick up the Vonnegut in the next week or so. Did you ever read Vonnegut's speech "Fates Worse Than Death"? Still my favorite.

  4. Jeff: There were two DFWses, you agree about both? Or one, or the other one, or neither, but another you read?

    I haven't read any of Vonnegut's "official" nonfiction titles yet, just finished getting through his novels!

  5. Sorry, I overlooked "Girl with Curious Hair"--but no, I dont agree that it is for the 'hyper-literate'. If that was his intention, I don't believe he would have taught writing, which he did. While the bulk of his writing is not as accessible due to his choices, I think that he wrote how he felt most comfortable in expressing his voice. So tough, yes; impossible, no :)

    I am still finishing "The Pale King", so I cant give my notes on it yet, but I will say that his most enjoyable book for me personally is "Brief Interviews with Hideous Men".

  6. Agreed, not impossible to read, but stories like ‘Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way’ won't make sense if you haven't read John Barth, which is pretty exclusive.

    Still to read Brief Interview and Pale King... looking forward!