Thursday, 30 June 2011

My Month in Novels (June)

This month began with a splash of Dalkeys and some vintage works from my favourite comedic writers, derailing into research texts for my gaming project. The second half took a detour into the macabre and apocalyptic with some post-nuclear romps, the best being The Slynx: an absolutely terrific novel and the best read this month. (From Tolstoy’s great granddaughter, no less!) Reviews pasted from Goodreads:

1. Yves Navarre — Sweet Tooth

This month began with a splash of Dalkeys and some vintage works from my favourite comedic writers, derailing into research texts for my gaming project. The second half took a detour into the macabre and apocalyptic with some post-nuclear romps, the best being The Slynx: an absolutely terrific novel and the best read this month. (From Tolstoy’s great granddaughter, no less!) Reviews pasted from Goodreads:Come, one and all, roll up roll up for this side-splitting French farce! Meet Rasky, a middle-aged man dying of AIDS in a New York hospital, recalling his favourite sex attacks from the past, and teasing his Latino toyboy Carlos about inaccurate quotations from Renan! And meet Luc, his lover, living among a lovely group of insects known as the scurbius gang while his lover dies his painful death surrounded by perverts and weirdoes!

And see, dear punter, aging spinster Lucy, who has little to do with the actual plot, and whose involvement is oblique at best, incoherent at worst, wander around being rich and wearing makeup, bolstering the frequent descriptions of how smelly, feculent, roach-infested and sweaty good old New York City can be in the summer of hate. Tickets free!

Before you go, be sure to sample the choppy prose style, the stylised dialogue and narrator, the pretty but laboriously boring narration and unclearly marked speakers, and—of course—those delightful scenes of sexual abuse and lust among far-gone loons destined for soup kitchens! The fun never ends!

2. Lynne Tillman — American Genius: A Comedy

Being locked inside this narrator’s consciousness is like being trapped in a lift with a dermatologist specialising in Latin words for itchy, a tweed-suited Kafka scholar, a psychotic artist, and a trivia quiz show bore who knows the exact dates of the Crimean war, then being gaffer-taped to the ceiling until the lift operator prises open the doors and saves you from this torture, only to recite his four hour lecture on eczema. Being locked inside these never-ending paragraphs, these uncoiling merciless sentences of Shandyesque digression, of amusement and anecdote, tedium and incident, is like inviting all the people you might ever meet in the world ever, and have them talking at you simultaneously while the television plays in the distance over a car radio and a roomful of logorrheics sponsored to speak only in Henry James sentences. Being locked inside this writer’s novel is like being tied to a Pollock canvas and cannoned with four pools of paint while Barthes discusses the semiotics of semantics and the sublime vicissitudes of sandwiches, then shoves your melted brain into a tank of formaldehyde while the New Yorker staff pace the floor with their wine and their goatees and their smug little smirks and ask: “But is it art?”

3. B.S. Johnson — Travelling People

Henry Henry is a graduate awaiting his degree classification (or does that make him a student? he doesn’t stude much) who travels north to Wales where he finds work as a barman in a stuck-up country club. While there, like a 1960s Roderick Random, he has various adventures with the snooty manager, haughty Welsh nationalists, and a gorgeous gold digger.

This is Johnson’s first novel and it’s brilliant. A range of techniques brighten each chapter, from thought-streams, screenplays, Sterney digressions, cheeky authorial impositions, to some hilarious design work. One character’s near-drowning is shown by having a page full of wavy lines gradually rising up on the prose, and the ‘black page’ is lifted from Tristram Shandy to show the character’s death (to startling effect).

Johnson was a sublime comic novelist, as vital a postmodernist as Barth, Pynchon, Gaddis and Sorrentino. The fact this novel isn’t available in print means a small press somewhere needs to pull their finger and out and get it back on our (virtual) shelves. NOW. I’m looking at you, Dalkey!

4. Charlie Brooker — Dawn of the Dumb

It is incredible the amount of column inches Brooker has devoted to napalming reality television. This collection consists largely of endless attacks on the preening twits who participate in this witless gonk. Why, you may ask? Well, if we stop voicing our disgust for this drivel, the alternative is lying down and accepting it, as we’ve done with so many second-rate television abortions aimed at lobotomised squirrels. We need Brooker sparring against this sludge, even if he takes a morbid pleasure in watching it.

Brooker’s howls of pain add to the great tradition of existential literature—Sartre, Camus and co—only using Celebrity Love Island to illustrate man’s gradual regression back into tetrapods. Fun hate.

5. Raymond Queneau — Witch Grass

This isn’t some magazine for curious botanists, oh no. It’s Queneau’s debut showcase novel, a bright blazing epic of comedic splendour, and a love letter to Paris and its pond life.

At the present moment I feel a little languorous, so further observations or reductive summaries will have to hang fire until the liveliness of spirit is once again reinstated in my brain. In the meantime, here is a general piece of advice: don’t read Eggers. Read Queneau instead. Don’t read Coupland. Read Queneau instead. Don’t read Amis. Read Queneau instead. Don’t read Palahniuk. Read Queneau instead. Don’t read Coetzee. Read Queneau instead.

Let’s face it, we waste too much time not reading Queneau.

6. Olivier Ronin — Hotel Crystal

Strangely, this book almost works. It coasts along on its charm and wit, each anecdote vaguely amusing or tongue-in-cheek, while the reader quietly hopes that a greater plot or revelation will emerge, helping him piece together the mystery behind these little excerpts. Not to ruin the surprise—the mystery isn’t pieced together. These are fragments and nothing more. Sure, linked together via literary tangents or recurring names, but still fragments.

The running ‘commentary’ in footnotes is the biggest failure here, attempting to graft on a second layer of textual analysis which doesn’t really make sense if we don’t know who compiled these excerpts and for what purpose. Ditto with the pointless index and constant author name-dropping. The verdict: if it’s in your local library, have a read. It's better than dry-swabbing your stool.

This was a charmer for the first hundred pages or so, despite the premise being dodgier than a teenager’s attempt at changing the literary landscape as we know it by doing things done in the early days of Ancient Rome and going hey, look what I’ve invented!

A ‘found documents’ novel (no groaning please—House of Leaves, you liked that, didn’t you?), the text is comprised of chapters scribbled on various paperbacks left in hotel rooms. The content of these found scribbles comprises detailed descriptions of said hotel rooms and various anecdotes from the unknown author (who might be Olivier Ronin—ooh, clever!) about his life as (what seems) an international man of mystery.

7. James Paul Gee — What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy

Mr. Gee has become the leading (or only) academic to discuss games in serious theoretical terms. This short and effective book gets to the gristle of the matter, drawing heavily on linguistics to show how the skills learnt and refined in games might revolutionise classroom education.

I support Gee’s findings entirely: the education system is in desperate competition with games, and unless new approaches—drawing on the problem-solving and independent thinking skills children learn from games—are taken seriously, an immensely important opportunity for a whole new generation to rise above mediocrity will be lost.

As a writer, Gee is fluent, occasionally indulging in his beloved jargon terms, but educators, parents and gamers should find this a refreshing read. Sadly, this hardcover edition was badly proofread: not a good idea for books with ‘literacy’ in the title. Makes people look silly.

8. Chuck Palahniuk — Haunted

This enormous hardback, with hideous shocked-doll peepers peeping out the gothic stencilling and black laminate paper, foregrounds the content rather well. It’s a tongue-in-cheek homage to Poe and co, mingled with some of that postmodern irony so beloved by the people in marketing who run our lives through bar charts.

As a stylist, I respect that Palahniuk isn’t lazy, putting his trademark transgressive style away in novels like Pygmy, a hilarious and brilliant little comedy that hit the mark nicely. This book feels like Chuck on autopilot, and though I admired the structure initially, the repetitiveness of the ‘present-poem-short’ sequence became banal, and as Dan pointed out, the stories written by the characters have the same voice and tone as Chuck.

There are some engaging pieces here—several like a bloodier, blunter Ballard— others mordant satirical attacks on fame, artistic ambition and so on. (Easy targets). Others are blatant shock fodder or forced attempts to shock that become embarrassing. The main narrative involves hologram characters chopping off their fingers and toes, and as such doesn’t sustain a 400-page novel as much as the stories do.

In the end, it seems as though a point was being made, but it got lost somewhere in all the dismemberment. Let’s call it an ambitious failure and move on.

9. Joshua Cohen (ed.) — The Review of Contemporary Fiction: Spring 2011 Issue 31-1

An issue devoted to failure: failure, largely, in writing among writers and writers who wrote about failure, themselves commercial failures, whose failure becomes either transcendent or famous for its failure.

Sam Frank’s ‘The Document’ takes the form of his father’s early short story, interspersing straight autobio with reflections on his time being thumbtacked by Saul Bellow in the late 60s. David Markson is the strange glue that holds the collection together: a man who found his form through a failure to plough his own narrative furrow, a form through lack of form, and ‘The Failure of Americans’ explores him in relation to Melville and Stein.

‘Itchy Homo’ and ‘The Five Percent Paradox’ are embittered explorations of publishing and the writer’s 100% guarantee of continual failure as life’s thorny backdrop. For light relief, there are selected messages between Gilbert Sorrentino and John O’Brien (Dalkey Archive editor), where the novelist snipes about his advances, his cover art, his general obscurity in the book market. It’s enough to make you detach the noose.

Includes excerpts from the divine Eileen Myles memoir Inferno and a not entirely promising draft of Michael Brodsky’s WiP Invidicum.

10. Valerie Walkerdine — Children, Gender, Video Games: Towards a Relational Approach to Multimedia

A poindextrous little number where Welsh and Australian kids are forced to video game while clipboard freaks relate their behaviour to Deleuze, Lacan, Butler and Derrida theories. The author freak is Valerie Walkerdine, academic and installation artist (someone who ‘installs’ art—don’t the worker drones do that?), and she writes rather well for someone who ties her language to the train tracks of academic verbiage.

The theorising and academic point-scoring is intercut with interesting transcripts from obnoxious little squirts playing games ten years out of date. Walkerdine then picks apart their behaviour and draws some interesting conclusions about power dynamics, gender roles and how silly it is to summarise in words what happens on a Mario Kart screen.

Next year’s bestseller. Defo.

11. Aleksander Hemon (ed.) — Best European Fiction 2011

I will endeavour to rate this fabulous collection in the manner of the Eurovision Song Contest scoring system. The only difference being both the talent levels and absence of musical content. No hang on—there isn’t any musical content in the Eurovision Song Contest either. Har har! Oh, me! You should own this outstanding anthology for its breathtaking scope and impressive quality. Scores out of ten. The ten-pointer indicates a favourite in the collection.

Wiliam Owen Roberts, Wales — 7 pts
Hilary Mantel, England — 8 pts
Ersan Üldes, Turkey — 6 pts
Verena Stefan, Switzerland — 6 pts
Merce Ibarz, Catalan — 8 pts
Enrique Vila-Matas, Spain: Castilian — 7 pts
Drago Jančar, Slovenia — 9 pts
Vladimir Arsenijević, Serbia — 8 pts
Andrei Gelasimov, Russia — 5 pts
Lucian Dan Teodorovici, Romania — 9 pts
Gonçalo M. Tavares, Portugal — 8 pts
Olga Tokarczuk, Poland — 8 pts
Frode Grytten, Norway — 9 pts
Manon Uphoff, Netherlands — 8 pts
Ognjen Spahić, Montenegro — 6 pts
Iulian Ciocan, Moldova — 6 pts
Blaže Minevski, Macedonia — 7 pts
Danutè Kalinauskaitè, Lithuania — 7 pts
Stefan Sprenger, Liechtenstein — 6 pts
Nora Ikstena, Latvia —7 pts
Marco Candida, Italy — 8 pts
Éilis Ní Dhuibhne, Ireland: Irish — 9 pts
Kevin Barry, Ireland: English — 8 pts
Kristín Eiríksdóttir, Iceland — 8 pts
László Krasznahorkai, Hungary — 7 pts

Ingo Schulze, Germany — 4 pts
Zurab Lezhava, Georgia — 9 pts
Eric Laurrent, France — 7 pts
Anita Konkka, Finland — 8 pts
Toomas Vint, Estonia — 8 pts
Peter Adolphsen, Denmark — 7 pts
Michal Ajvaz, Czech Republic — 9 pts
Nora Nadjarian, Cyprus — 6 pts
Mima Simić, Croatia — 8 pts
Alek Popov, Bulgaria — 9 pts
Goran Samardžić, Bosnia & Herzegovina — 10 pts
François Emmanuel, Belgium — 7 pts
Victor Martinovich, Belarus — 8 pts
Dieter Sperl, Austria — 6 pts
Arian Leka, Albania — 5 pts

12. Tatyana Tolstaya — The Slynx

This exceptional little pearl should go straight atop your reading list, knocking off that willowy story collection, those fat-arsed historical doorstoppers, and that free verse thing carved into tree bark. Get rid of them all. Put them in a glorious bonfire and read this instead.

The granddaughter of Leo T has all the talent of her antecedent, cribbing also the mordant wit of Bulgakov, the lyrical euphony of Nabokov, the despairing glamour of Zamyatin. The Slynx is a first-rate novel on all fronts: original and captivating in its form, succulent and rib-tickling in its prose, dark and prophetic in its subtext, sutured together with sugary feasts of stylistic invention that would make even the illiterate smile.

A book about now, about the past, about the future—this book time travels, this book inhabits the fourth dimension. Read it now.

13. J.G. Ballard — The Drowned World

The novel Ballard liked to pretend was his debut—The Wind from Nowhere, anyone?—depicts a world stuffed to the runnels with silt, salt water, silt and more silt. Rich in near pornographic descriptions of bogs, croc-filled lagoons and giant lizards, this is a tough and horrendous novel, all the more so knowing this fate awaits our grandchildren.

Because Ballard is always right. The flood is coming. Get your paddles, ladies. In the meantime, read this book. What is it? Hmm. Apart from the sumptuous descriptions of ooze, silt and lizards, there’s a fight-for-survival plot for the first 70 pages, a strange romance sub-plot for more pages, a swashbuckling pirate adventure for 50-odd pages, and an all-out action thriller starring Kevin Costner for other pages, mainly towards the end. Then there’s the deep stuff, like in Heart of Darkness.

So that’s the offering here. Imagine the middle point between Heart of Darknessand Waterworld. Imagined that middle point? Good. Yes, that’s it, that’s The Drowned World. Blub blub.

14. Tom Robbins — Still Life With Woodpecker

Tonight I feel generous. Tonight I feel enchanted by the purpose of the moon. So tonight, I will allow four glittering stars to orbit this frustrating crank of a novel. Without parroting the sensible assertions from the hundred or so Goodreaders, let me be brief and say: I agree, in part, with every criticism and praise in some small way about Robbins. I do. And yes, this book does contain sentences like:

As he throbbed in her throat, pumping jet after jet of that steamy translucent mucilage with which Cupid tries to glue the world together, she felt as if she were gulping concentrated ecstasy, and it made her blood croon.

But. Well, I have a house-big heart for comic novelists. I can tolerate their verbose, stylised prose, their cardboard characters acting as mouthpieces for authorial diatribes, their devotion to female genitals (as a ‘peachfish,’ no less), and general disregard for basic narrative techniques. I can tolerate it, but only once a year. I have shot my wad of tolerance, and won’t be venturing Robbinswards again. Maybe I’ll buy a peachfish instead.

What makes love stay? A prenup.

15. B.S. Johnson — Aren’t You Rather Young to be Writing Your Memoirs?

Aren’t You Rather Young to be Writing Your Memoirs?

Published close to Johnson’s end, this collection ties up the loose ends of his work before his plunge into the afterlife. And it’s painful. The introduction is an illuminating and sardonic overview of his novels and acts as a final artistic statement: a legacy, an epitaph. But the short fiction pieces collected here show up the worst facets of Johnson’s work. All his pieces were semi-autobiographical to a degree, making it hard to separate the voice of his bruised male protagonists from the voice of Johnson. This is the case here, and the voice is condescending and arch: almost displaying outright contempt for Joe Reader. Johnson’s novels work because their dazzling forms are as moving and hilarious as conventional works—he convinces the reader of a way forward for fiction. He adopts the sort of 19thC voice he fought against in these stories, dripping an unpleasant arrogance over moments and people in his life, sniping against those stupid enough to read dime-store novels. The true Johnson was a compassionate, cuddly character, comically honest, so these stories are borne mainly from personal and professional frustration. Plus, unlike his novels, they offer no alternative to the standard short story form. In the final story ‘Everybody Knows Somebody Who
’s Dead’ he composes a memoir while sneering at a creative writing textbook, but nowhere in the collection (except the longest piece, which is excellent) does he use original forms. These are embarrassments best left unread. Just as well it’s out of print, then.


I ain’t got no call to read no poems, but while I was at the NLS, I thought I’d have a peep at his first poetry collection. These were reasonable little efforts, set to strict metrical forms and not free verse, as you might assume. Johnson was a competent poet, writing about sixties London and the Welsh countryside, though he doesn’t have much of a voice. The best poem was a tribute to his mate Zulfikar Ghose, who co-authored this and wrote a piece about him in this.

16. Georgi Gospodinov — Natural Novel

Quite highly appraised among Goodreaders, but I wasn’t entirely sold on the technique(s). The posit is that the author is writing a novel of beginnings that might form a coherent linkage on its own terms, and the novel we’re reading becomes such a novel, in a postmodern stylee. Hmm. Obviously he hasn’t read If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller, which does this already and brilliantly.

Since the Calvino slander fails, we’re left with the other ideas: a novel about nothing (Seinfeld: The Novel), a ‘natural’ novel discussing the natural world in relation to the behaviour of miserable ex-husbands, and the throughplot of the author’s divorce, which is the one emotive meathook (or metahook—aren’t words fun?) he gives Joe Reader. The end product is an idea stew that’s too short to harm anyone, and the writer is funny and poignant often. Naturally.

17. David Williamson Shaffer — How Computer Games Help Children Learn

In this summer’s must-read, Associate Professor Shaffer pounds into our heads the notion of ‘epistemic’ games that will turn next year’s children into a group of innovative professionals before their tenth birthdays. He argues that by playing games designed to encourage children to think like professionals in their field, they will grow into a new generation of bright sparks able to cope in a ‘postindustrial’ world, already equipped with the language, rationalising skills and knowledge to succeed.

Well, yes. Only trouble is these games are highly hypothetical now: very few custom-made games are available in classes, and very few schools have the budget for classrooms with wall-to-wall computers, and if gaming became the norm in education, children would grow bored on an entirely new level. However, if anything can lift children from the stupor of impersonal school learning, it’s these games. So let’s get going.

Shaffer uses the words ‘epistemic’ and ‘postindustrial’ and ‘practicum’ a lot in the text. He also seems to have forgotten to write a conclusion. And his prose is occasionally soporific. But I love the man’s mind. So all good, all good.

18. Julian Barnes — Flaubert’s Parrot

A little too Radio 4 for my liking: pseudo-scholarly musings on Gustave Flaubert, cosier than a cushioned futon in the House of Lords. Mostly diverting and amusing: if a shade pompous and niche (i.e. you don’t have to have read Flaubert to read this, but it helps). Nothing more to add, particularly. Except this edition was so tiny I had to shrink my hands to hold it. Thanks, Picador. Anyway. Did you read about my Guinness World Record in the paper the other day? I am the first man to listen to Tubular Bells the whole way through without stabbing the stereo! What a man! Next week I take on Suggs.

19. J.M. Coetzee — Disgrace

A fierce, intelligent book so deep, dark and delightful I would need to write one of those exhaustive reviews I usually skim-read or scan for paragraph breaks to do it justice. But right now, I can’t. Let me keep it brief: an aging academic is brought tumbling down after the suspected or implied rape of a young student, then forced to deal with his own brutal assault and horrifying rape of his daughter. If you thought that was enough fun, it all takes place in South Africa, so there’s a whole race and class debate tossed into the mix too. The protagonist, although dashingly well-rendered, is something of a literary construct, but this is searing realism at its worst, so no complaints from me. Just don't read it on holiday.

20. Cynthia Rogerson — Upstairs in the Tent

A fast-paced, unpatronising novel about the unfortunate realities of life, love and putting babies in the river. Kate, the middle-aged Highland mother, is the emotional centre of the novel: up to her neck in it when her daughter suffers a mental breakdown and a saggy Californian man comes to clean the bats out her belfry. Meanwhile a down-and-out lad mooches around the Highlands, suffering at the hands of vengeful hags, before stepping in as the unlikely hero towards the end. The prose is stylish, sharp and simple, though the writer’s tic of using shorthand does become a pain (i.e. Goes down stairs. Looks at her. Thinks about pies). I also dispute the use of italics throughout the novel, but these are minor quibbles: what matters here is the warm, often painfully realistic prose, smart enough to dish out a happy ending. Recommended.


  1. Another excellent round of reads! I like that you read Gee, and I will confess to you that many in the education field have felt as if Gee abandoned previous serious work to delve into the world of gaming. I do not share that opinion, as I have always felt as an educator/researcher that the point of our work is to change and pursue avenues that we feel can best contribute to the conversation about revolutionary educational praxis for current and future teachers and scholars.

    Oh Chuck Palahniuk, always so close in those books, but yet just always seems to miss the target. While I liked the idea behind Haunted, I believe it fell flat as a social commentary/ satire, which is what it always felt like it wanted to be. His early work ending with Choke still mean much to me, but from Haunted on it has felt like a series of hit and miss stories.

  2. Absolutely, re Mr. Gee. I do think he's laid the groundwork for a radical revamping of the education system. Children simply need some fun stimulus to motive them into learning in today's hyperactive, ADHD age. Gee's ideas strike me as eminently sensible.

    I loved Palahnuik's "Pygmy" but on the whole I'm not a convert . . . a little too much shock value over content.