Saturday, 30 July 2011

My Month in Novels (July)

1. Cynthia Rogerson — Love Letters From My Death-Bed

Rogerson is like an American Lucy Ellmann . . . no hang on, that’s not right. Rogerson is like Lucy Ellmann, but one based in Scotland . . . no hang on, Ellmann lives in Scotland, right? Rogerson is like Lucy Ellmann, but one living in the Highlands . . . didn’t Ellmann recently move to the Highlands? Oh for God’s sake. Forget the comparison.

So this is a warm (and murderous) tale, part family drama, part black comedy. The sort of thing Annie Griffin might script—another American milking Scotland for its oddness. (Both moved here in 1981). A hospice in California is struggling to attract dying people to keep itself open, so the owner recruits illegal ‘doctor’ Manuel to drum up business. Manuel tells Morag (who he desperately loves) that she has three kinds of cancer and she could die anytime. Meanwhile a band of unpleasant stoners knock around having unpleasant adventures.

That’s the book. The whole premise hinges on the utter absurdity of Morag—a somewhat intelligent character, her Scottishness pumped to the max—believing that her old friend (an ex-restaurant cleaner) could secretly be a doctor, and diagnose her with three cancers. If that loopy plotline can be excused, then the reader is free to revel in the spiky and funny prose, the grappling attempts at affection between these emotionally autistic people, and the wisdom of its author.

The little excerpts from a ghost’s diary that preface each part feel a little superfluous, as do the illustrations in the book, but they add colour and intrigue to the proceedings, so we can excuse them too.

2. Bernard Perron & Mark J.P. Wolf (Eds.) — The Video Game Theory Reader 2

This compendium is essential reading for all aspiring game theorists, tackling video games from a range of angles—psychology, market analysis, narratology, education, the whole caboodle—with an accessible range of academic papers and reports.

The focus is, naturally, on academic work, but the best academic writing presents itself in a readable way, shushing the poindexters and pleasing the populace. Academic writing should aspire to be as fluid as the best non-fiction work, and the best papers here do. Those authored by research teams or groups are the worst: smothered in technical language of no interest to those outside research facilities. Boo to them.

I shouldn’t have read the whole thing but what can I say, I’m getting into the topic. Let a man show a little passion from time to time.

3. Raymond Queneau — Children of Clay

Les Enfants du limon emerged in 1939, the fifth of nine novels in a decade of tireless creative energy for the Parisian polymath. Unlike the other OuLiPo originals, Queneau had a solid body of work behind him before co-inventing potential literature, using the group as a springboard for ideas, to launch him into superstellar orbit. His output of poetry, essays and songs is far greater post-1960, though his corpus of novels act as fine exemplars of the OuLiPo methods—methods that would seep into postmodern literature throughout the sixties and beyond.

This novel perfects the sharp comedic timing and pace found in later novels Zazie dans le metro and Pierrot mon ami, while indulging the bibliographical hobbyism common in his early life as part-time philosopher and reformed Surrealist. Our protagonist, M. Chambernac, is working on an encyclopaedia of French “literary lunatics” in the 19thC, and hires trickster Purpulan to do the cataloguing and secretarial work. As he completes his work (of which vast screeds are reproduced here), he finds his own mind teetering off-piste, and discovers the real lunacy may be closer to home.

As in all Queneau novels, there are multiple plots and characters: here centred round the (im)moral figure of Chambernac, his cousins, children, former workers. What dazzles here are the dialogues, poems and scenes, sinister demonic undercurrents and violent realist flashes—all unique to Queneau’s world, all packaged in exquisite humour and endless play. The ending alone is worth the slow, tiring slog through old texts: as the game unravels, Queneau is one step ahead of the reader at every turn, and the final pages bloom with the divine efflorescence that is Great Literature.

4. Steven Poole — Trigger Happy

This is a passionate and very English (and a decade old) cri de coeur for games to rise above their shortcomings and triumph as a platform for aesthetic wonder and transcendent magic! Yeah! Come on games! Has that happened? A decade on from 2001, that is? Umm . . . no. Not especially, though there are enough truly great games to contest this. Don’t look at me, I’m an observer, I am the horny fact collector.

The text is very flighty and academic: the author being a Cambridge lit graduate and Guardian columnist, so out come the Ancient Greek references and wide-ranging citations from French theorists to psychologists to Martin Amis. Poole begins with impish humour but ups his game when the passion kicks in and he’s banging on about symbols and the constant deficiencies he sees in games preventing it from achieving power as a wide-reaching artform on its own terms and conquering the world! Yeah! Go games! (I may be slightly drunk).

I liked it.

5. Mikhail Bulgakov — Black Snow

There are some oppressive regimes (well, most of them) where it’s not a good idea to be a wit. Like Burma, for example, where two comedians were sentenced to twenty years hard labour for, um . . . telling jokes. Or, as Bulgakov learned the hard way, when Stalin is King and Russia is tooling up for another war. Black Snow is about censorship but mainly about the inner workings of the Moscow Theatre, how Stanislavsky was a fraud, and how being a playwright in Stalinist Russia was harder than swallowing a church.

The narrator is a suicidal and callow writer who grumbles his way through the Russian theatrical elite, dodging censorship, criticism and resentment at every turn. As a satire on the writing life it’s pitch-black, as a cock-snook at stage pretention it packs a wallop. Modern shows such as The Bigger Issues or Annie Griffin’s Coming Soon flesh out the ideas explored, showing great comedy does stand the test of time.

The novel is unfinished and the ending is tacked-on, but be fair, the writer was scheduled to die in a few weeks.

6. Toby Litt — Corpsing

Oh, how I missed reading these very London sorts of novels: scheming, intrigue and shagging among loony eccentrics in the media! I confess to reading two Tony Parsons novels when I was sixteen and being entertained by the cosy bubble of London infidelities (before realising my error and picking up Camus the next month). I also read a few books by Sean Thomas and Sean Hughes which pounded that middle-aged middle-class media self-disgust thing to death.

Toby Litt can be excused because Corpsing straddles the line between accessible lit-fic and mainstream blokey fiction rather well. In this genre pastiche a TV producer attempts to solve the mystery of why someone shot him and his ex-girlfriend in a busy restaurant three times each. The narrative moves apace, our hero in the noir-ish mode but laregly unlikeable, delving a little deeper into the psychology of relationships when not entirely concerned with plot. But it's largely a plot affair.

7. Ali Smith — The Accidental

A flat-out triumph of structure, style, shifting narrative voices, rhythm and language. A pitch-perfect technical masterpiece. Split into three components—the beginning, the middle and the end—the story moves between four perspectives: daughter, son, father, mother. Each section describes various events around a holiday trip to Norwich and the arrival of Amber, a charismatic drifter who changes her behaviour to accommodate each person.

A very tight, free indirect style is deployed to bring the third person narrator as close to each character as possible, from Astrid (sulky teenager daughter) and her show-off vocab, Magnus (sulky teenage son) and his mathematical attempts to work through grief, Michael (philandering father) and his embarrassing poetic endeavours, and Eva (writer mother) and her resigned melancholy, her cosy middle-England spirit. Each voice is rendered with tonal precision and demonstrates a mastery instructional to all writers.

Amber is the central catalyst of the book (little portions between each section are devoted to her voice, or what is assumed to be her voice), the one trigger that sends the story and characters into strange spirals, while their mundane domestic dramas continue undisturbed. She steps into the novel as an unrestrained, truly free individual and compromises the stifling repression rippling at the heart of this typical family.

The technique is very close to Sorrentino’s Aberration of Starlight, another complete triumph of structure and style. If you care about truly spectacular writing and appreciate a writer successfully spinning more plates than is frankly human, The Accidental will knock you flat on your ass, as it did me. Genius.

8. Brad King & John Borland — Dungeons and Dreamers: The Rise of Computer Game Culture from Geek to Chic

An informative but unstylish look at the visionaries behind games like EverQuest, Doom and Ultima Online, with particular focus on Richard Garriot, a designer who dubs himself Lord British and likes to buy castles. His story is the most entertaining and shows a truly eccentric character at work, a D&D geek and Lord of the Rings fan determined to bring co-operative fantastia to the mainstream. And he did.

The book loses focus, drifting into other stories and personalities sometimes at random, so keeping this about Garriot would have made more sense, esp. when you include family photos in the text, otherwise it ends up looking a bit weird. And that's the plight of most gamers, it seems, looking a bit weird. Bless ‘em.

9. Niccolo Ammanti — I'm Not Scared

A small-town kidnapping tale, told from the POV of an ickle boy. What vexes me about narrators close to the child's perspective is that the narrator is usually a grown-up narrating their childhood from twenty or so years on. The same is true here: the grown-up Michele is narrating his childhood twenty-odd years later. My question: why would a grown-up write his story with such a close childhood POVunless he was a writer who had consciously taken that decision to sustain such a narrative position and style? Answer me that, Consuelo!

Regardless, this reads basically like a film script: extremely fast action, a new paragraph break every sentence, picturesque Italian scenery, manipulative child-beating. Someone ought to make a film version. Oh wait . . . they . . . they . . . they'd have to pay the writer. Never mind then.

10. Barry Atkins — More than a Game: The Computer Game as Fictional Form

An attempt to turn games into ‘texts’ to be ‘read’ like books or films. I see the point: games are interactive narratives and follow constructs similar to books and blah blah . . . but so what? Call me a philistine, but I don’t want people doing degrees in comparative computer game lit. And until game developers write half-decent scripts and dialogue for their products, there’s no particular reason we should elevate their cultural position.

This book was rather dry, lonely and plodding.

11. The Review of Contemporary Fiction: Fall 2007: New Australian Fiction

A damn good (but not damn great) introduction to some of Australia’s brightest fictionistas. As in the manner of these things, most of the writers are legends in their homeland and not ‘new’ (as in young), but the stories are fresh and the writers new to Brits and Yanks. Among them: Carmel Bird, Greg Bogaerts, Gerald Murnane, Ouyang Yu, Thomas Shapcott, Christos Tsiolkas, Michael Wilding, Delia Falconer and Christopher Cyrill.

The overall flavour of the collection is eclectic: no stories enforce Aussie stereotypes and several are written by ex-pat authors living in Australia writing about China or India. In fact, there is very little clue as to their Aussieness, which was probably the intention: to display the cutting hedge of avant-garde o'er there in a culturally unpatronising stylee. One story is written in stream-of-consciousness dialect, however (and it’s the worst one there. Ha.) I suggest seeking out work by Delia Falconer, A.L. McCann and Christos Tsiolkas.

Or maybe I will.

12. Patricia Waugh — Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction

This is almost three decades old, but still crackles with energy and page-turning excellence. (And it's an academic text!) A brief and thorough rip through metafiction and its practitioners, with emphasis on Muriel Spark, John Fowles and B.S. Johnson. This is all the reading one need ever do on that curious and anarchic blip in the continuum of literature, that still continues to baffle readers and critics to this day.

Long live authorial intrusion and self-consciousness!

13. W.G. Sebald — Austerlitz

More meandering and glorious Sebaldian prose, with sentences callipered from 18thC German texts and respooled into post-war Wales, France and Germany, with one man’s attempt to comprehend the horrors of the Theresienstadt workcamp and—obliquely—the Holocaust. This novel is a longer, more distancing work than The Emigrants or Vertigo, both chopped into four chapters and separate narrative threads.

The framing device here is unusual, with the narrator (Sebald?) quoting long screeds of dialogue from a conversation with Jacques Austerlitz, whose story comprises the novel. Within this frame, a sub-frame, when Austerlitz quotes from Vera, an old lady who helps him uncover his secret childhood. Both these devices are distracting—for the narrator to recall book-length dollops of conversation the interviews would need to be transcribed, and no mention is made of this occurring. Likewise, the long dreamy sentences are forever punctuated with ‘ . . . said Austerlitz’ to remind us we’re within a frame.

This aside, Austerlitz is a dour meditation on unimaginable horrors, handled with exquisite tenderness and power. Occasionally dull, written as one continuous block with no paragraph breaks, punctuated with miserable and fascinating photographs, and less humour than usual.

Listen to Sebald discuss this book in this final interview, recorded eight days before his death in a car crash.

14. Martin Amis — Night Train

Amis tries a badass American she-cop voice in this thinking man’s police procedural. The voice is acceptable once the story shuffles on apace, spiky and mellifluous in all the right places, more pastiche than proper policewoman. The story is partly snappy thriller, part hmm-ing on suicide. There isn’t much room to let things like character or intrigue grow, and the last third collapses under too much stylised posturing. What, you say, stylised posturing? In a Martin Amis novel? Why, never! I liked it. It’s cute, and not half as stiff as House of Meetings.

15. Agnès Desarthe — Five Photos of My Wife

Agnès Desarthe is a celebrated French children’s novelist and this is one of three of her adult novels translated into English. This and Good Intentions are available from Flamingo and Chez Moi from Penguin. This book concerns an octogenarian Jew named Max who hires a range of painters to recreate his deceased wife’s image from five grainy photos. The book is a meditation on age, time passing and, circumspectly, love. I found the book rather slowly paced, a little indulgent and not entirely successful at achieving the bittersweet pathos it needed to keep the reader engaged. The protagonist was a complex, interesting character but ultimately the story wasn’t that interesting.

16. Nicholson Baker — Checkpoint

I decided to read some lovely short books this weekend, among them this strange little Iraq war polemic. I liked Baker’s The Mezzanine, though confess to finding the last third a slog (is the footnote dead? Discuss). No such problem here, as this all-dialogue number serves us quick and chin-stroking content from cover to cover. Two friends gather to discuss the ramifications of assassinating George W. Bush and talk tangentially about their lives.

This book makes brevity a narrative strategy: it’s too short to be “about” one thing in particular, to carry a political message. To me, it articulates that cloud of confusion when war was declared, when outrage swept across the world and most right-minded people wanted Bush’s head on a spike. Towards the end, the book argues against anger itself, dejectedly suggesting we should shake our heads and move on, being powerless to stop things. And, alas, it’d be right. Sad, funny, wacky, and deeply serious. Bravo.

17. Vladimir Nabokov — Mary

Vladimir’s debut, pictured here in resplendent pink, is the slight tale of arch git Ganin remembering his first love—the obeisant Mary with the Tartar nose. The novel suffers from lingering descriptions of almost every strange nuance to each individual scene, written before Nabokovian prose was truly Nabokovian. This problem dogs some of his earlier work, among them Invitation to a Beheading and The Luzhin Defense in its snoozier moments.

This general qualm aside (well, it’s quite a large qualm, but fans, keep reading) the characters are rendered with good humour—several of them caricatures from older Russian novels (the sick poet, the bored daughter, the tedious man)—and the nostalgic throb of lost love is palpable: many fans of this book empathise with the summertime setting and the ebbing away of affection. Alas, however, the ending is an amateurish drop-off, barely worth the slog through long passages of seasonal flux and ponderous pining.

18. Amélie Nothomb — The Character of Rain

A book narrated by a two-year-old intellectual prodigy, slyly based on the author’s own upbringing in Japan. As the blurb states, the book looks at the Japanese notion of okosama, or the Lord Child, a piece of lore where children are revered as Gods until they are three. This is true of a toddler’s own outlook: there is no one more important in the world than themselves—attention lavished on others is downright insulting.

What transpires is a curious novel about a two-year-old experiencing the world through her distended brain. Imagine a more compassionate (and female) Stewie Griffin in a posh Japanese house, with a father proficient in Noh singing and a bitter ex-aristocrat nanny who leaves her to die. This is fun and a little more cerebral than the satire of Sulphuric Acid or the wry storytelling of The Book of Proper Names. Worth a snifter for the uninitiated.

19. Samuel Beckett — Ill Seen Ill Said

Beckett frightens me almost as much as Joyce, with his complete disintegration of language and adherence to stubborn avant-garde aesthetics that batter and bugger the reader into depression. This short assemblage of paragraphs further reinforces this fear, and makes me want to hide under the duvet reading Andy McNab until the sun comes up. But hey, I won’t be beaten. Here’s to readingMurphy in the next few months. *raises metaphorical glass*

On a side note, reading multiple small books in one day is as physically exhausting as it is mentally ditto. I have a bad case of reader’s pinkie and am off now into town to get it licked by Donna the Dirty Dominatrix. Night all.

20. Alexandros Papadiamantis — The Murderess

This is a charming little tale of a mother smothering and drowning babies, a mad brother stabbing his sister, and Harrison Ford-style adventures on Greek cliff-faces looking onto crashing death-waves below. Mr. Papadiamantis serves us a moral fable with oodles of suspense and terror, weaving a folky classical Greek yarn around a desperate on-the-run action narrative, told slowly and elegantly, with vitality and astonishment. Sublime little 19thC novella.

21. The Review of Contemporary Fiction: The Editions P.O.L Number: Fall 2010

This edition of ROCF, fast becoming my favourite literary journal, examines the work of French publisher Editions P.O.L, the Gallic Dalkey Archive Press. A series of interviews, smitten scene-setting pieces and excerpts from their books make up the issue, which is shorter than usual but still handsome. Several P.O.L books are available in English, among them Jacques Jouet’s Mountain R and Marie Darrieussecq’s Pig Tales: A Novel of Lust and Transformation.

22. Lewis Carroll— Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass

I never had the sort of parents who sat reading Lewis Carroll to me as I drifted off to sleep. My parents weren’t crackheads or slovenly brutes, they simply had different kids books. So there. Adventures in Wonderland was the funniest of the two: it seemed madder, witter and sharper somehow, but Through the Looking-Glass is none two shabby either. It was fun to engage with the enormous critical debate around the books as I read, spurred on by the extensive endnotes and 40-page introduction, though the intrusive notes had me compulsively skimming back and forth between the text and the trivia throughout, driving me a little mad, as mad as a March Hare, in fact.

What struck me the most was how horrible everyone was to Alice, which is to be expected, I suppose, Alice being the sweet face of purity and all, but my God she gets hell from those Queens. Towards the end the combative nature of these Victorian hags made me a tad peeved, but then it’s all in good humour, and the humour abounded, and the magic shone. No other book has appealed to an age gap of 2 to 100 for over a century, so clearly this is a treasure, and sod all the bastardisations.

23. Gilbert Adair — Alice Through the Needle’s Eye: A Third Adventure for Lewis Carroll’s Alice

This ‘third adventure’ is a witty and warm as Carroll’s own stories, perhaps even more so since the emphasis is largely on wordplay, puns and sheer delight in the magic of language. Adair doesn’t parody Carroll, merely imitate his creations in his own unique style, making the settings a tad more modern, but still firmly ensconced in the 19thC. Fresh from reading the two originals, I can safely say this holds up as brilliant and funny, paving the way for the author’s later translation of Perec’s lipogram A Void.

* Library: Public Library in Massachusetts


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