Wednesday, 31 August 2011

My Month in Novels (August)

1. Zadie Smith — The Autograph Man

James Wood in his thesis review covers all the thoughts I had on this one (and more and more) and is the most worthwhile review of this book around. For those who aren’t that interested, let me sum up the basics: lapsed Anglo-Chinese Jew Alex-Li is an autograph hunter fixated on Kitty Alexander, fictional Hollywood starlet of the 1950s. He spends his time writing a book on Jews v. Christians, spurning his faith, squabbling with rabbis, upsetting his bald girlfriend and cavorting with fellow autograph hunters. In the latter half of the book he meets his idol and develops inner demons.

Smith’s other novels are vast multi-character epics and her towering authorial presence benefits from having numerous dummies to manipulate, rather than the one insubstantial dummy. This novel could have benefitted from a less grandiose scope for quite a thin plot and morose protagonist: a slim 250 pages over a hoggish 419. On the plus side, the prose is as comic, stylish and rhythmic as ever, though her longer meandering passages feel like failed snippets from White Teeth. Hats off for writing a radically different second book—Zadie put up with some hostility in the UK round about this time.

2. Lydia Lunch — Paradoxia: A Predator’s Diary

An hilarious romp through the seedy sexual underworld of 1970s New York and beyond, no doubt based on the author’s “experiences” but probably embellished for added shock value. The narrator is a predator who uses and abuses men as she was used and abused by her own father. In sharp, staccato sentences the book explores a life defined by child abuse: one woman’s attempt to degrade and humiliate men through spirals of disgraceful sex and emotional manipulation. This lasts about two decades.

Lunch’s work is characterised often by stylised psychobabble, a fuzz of posturing attitude and genuine insight. Often she sets this to loud twanging guitars or shards of ear-bleeding feedback, which is a punishing alternative to therapy, for sure. This novel is well edited: no verbose reams of self-indulgent intellectualising to obscure the real terror of what went on in the protagonist’s life; simple, confessionally lurid prose ribbed with black humour. The last ten or so pages collapse into vaguely redemptive new-age claptrap, leaving the reader unclear whether anything was learned from all the nihilistic romping.

The true nihilist, of course, would admit nothing. Lydia has her credentials to think about.

3. The Review of Contemporary Fiction: Fall 2001

Gilbert Sorrentino, for those inclined to ignore my random gushings, was the greatest and most prodigious American writer of formally innovative comedic fiction. His body of work towers over the experimental scene (if such a scene exists) as a reminder of how to write daring and outstanding novels of ludicrous artistry, humour and compassion. The piece from David Andrews in here explores his techniques and the creative daisychaining of his books, among them the outstanding Pack of Lies trilogy. William Gaddis wrote lumbering satirical epics delineating the American dream. His prose was denser, tougher and more Joycean than Sorrentino but his twin-tower novels The Recognitions and JR are held in high esteem in the annals of academe. Mary Caponegro is a fabulist short story writer and the essay in here explores her work’s religious and sexual themes, and provides a primer for her works, among them The Star Café. Margery Latimer was an overlooked leftist feminist writer, dead at 33, who left behind four progressive books of daring and important writing about tortured female characters. Her work is overdue a revival, with Guardian Angel and Other Stories the only one in print.

4. Jhumpa Lahiri — Interpreter of Maladies

This collection won the Pen/Hemingway Award, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and— most impressively—the New Yorker Debut of the Year. Oo-wee! When a book receives this amount of awards, it’s a) lazy—why give two prestigious prizes to the SAME book? b) going to give the reader unrealistic expectations and c) a conspiracy of critics. This collection arrived at a time when an Indian writer hadn’t been given a Pulitzer or important award, and the committee wanted to expand its reach outside middle-class white male Americans. The stories, mercifully, still contain American settings, but have enough watered down Indianness in them to appeal to a mass market, and enough simple sentiment and sentence structure to universalize love loss sadness relationships and so on. Oh and Jhumpia is also a woman. A woman hadn’t won in a while. Important. The stories in this collection are fine but all utilise the same straightforward, overly descriptive, consciously “traditional” narrative voice, one that doesn’t take risks or explore interesting forms or ideas, falling back on saccharine or poetic tropes to go for the heartstrings and not the intellect, using human dramas in far-off homelands to manipulate the immigrant reader rather than new or novel techniques. This is not to say she isn’t a talented writer. Only I feel violently this mode of writing is beating a middlebrow, Oprah-shaped drum, and doesn’t do much except warm a heart or state the obvious.

5. David Foster Wallace — A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again

Goodness gracious. As much as I revere Wallace’s fiction—his attempt to rescue American culture from the despairing morass of self-aware ironical knowingness—his nonfiction is in another league. The sheer cinematic exuberance, the “floating eye” quality of these pieces is breathtaking and wonderful, bringing the reader as deep into each experience as is textually possible, and as close to Wallace as we can be on the page.

His fiction has a ‘surgical’ quality, much like J.G. Ballard or Will Self (whose own essay style mirrors Wallace’s, though proves less compelling than his fiction), more bound up in high-wire intellectual games which only connect when the reader is complicit in the clevernesses at the heart of these stories, or serve to undo the story by adding meta-layers more about fiction writing itself. (And so metafictional by proxy. An example would be the story ‘Incarnations of Burned Children,’ which on a deeper reading is a story about narrative position/POV, not the heartrending events depicted within. So despite his work going for direct emotional shocks, it is largely trapped in the cranium).

So in this essay collection, by making the focus tangentially on Wallace himself as filtered through the Illinois State Fair, a revolting cruise ship, or a tortured TV consumer, the work has a deeply personal and directly emotional feel, and although not as ambitious as his attempt to depict the grand throbbing alive-ness of life as in Infinite Jest, the work shines and sings with a more reader-friendly humour, brio and natural warmth, as well as the stylish feats of intelligence and logical probity that is his trademark. Phew.
An essential text for any serious reader of contemporary essays.

6. Gilbert Sorrentino — Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things

This book is dear to me as a writer, reader, wannabe aesthete lacking the Ivy League education, and someone familiar with laughing in the dark. The book presents itself as an acid-tongued rant from an embittered narrator, commonly mistaken for Sorrentino himself, who performs a serious of misanthropic character assassinations over eight lurid, self-referential chapters.

As a satire, IQOAT is as blunt as it gets, though it’s wrong to view the book as a series of personal attacks on disguised ‘real life’ artists or writers. Every element here, from the ‘wise guy’ narrator; the ‘cardboard’ characters kept on a level of pretend one-dimensionality; the multiple narrative voices; the obsession with lurid affairs and graphic sex, is part an artificial or formal construct embedded in Sorrentino’s labyrinthine structure—a sort of self-contradicting machine, where all opinions and pronouncements are bounced and denounced from a position of seeming chaos. But it’s fun.

This is a re-read from over two years ago (has it been so long?) and the novel is as fresh and surprising as on read one, but now I am able to appreciate the deeply moral and aesthetic concerns at its core: it’s a novel deeply concerned with corrupted values, presenting homespun truths in a most lofty, experimental way. Because not all avant-gardists are nihilist bastards.

7. The Review of Contemporary Fiction: Sorrentino Casebook

This special ROCF edition sounded exciting—a whole collection of essays on a sublime Sorrentino text!—but in fact, sad to say, hate to report, dislike mentioning: it’s not much cop. The opening essay by David Andrews is the most exciting and lucid, but the others tend towards the banal academic autopsy, especially the second piece (author’s name spared). Main thing to take home from this collection is the divine complexity of Sorrentino’s art, that his antiessentialist aesthetic principals have remained consistent for his five decades as a creator, and that his novels celebrate the value of pure artifice much like modernist art. This news will come as a great surprise to most of you. Some of you might even leap at this news or faint. Be careful out there.

8. Kurt Vonnegut — Welcome to the Monkey House

This collection, along with Bagombo Snuff Box, collects short stories from Vonnegut’s time writing for the glossies, dailies and slicks. The pieces range from speculative fiction to standard romance fare, each only hinting at the greatness he would achieve as a novelist. He wrote these for money, no doubt about it, and although several spar with some of his Big Stuff, they lack the scathing black humour, wild absurdity and heartbreaking pathos of . . . hmm, well, start at The Sirens of Titan and go from there. ‘All the King’s Horses’ stands out for its brutality, ‘Harrison Bergeron,’ ‘The Euphio Question’ and the title piece are satirical little SF attacks, while the others bear the stamp of conventional fifties fiction—tales from blue-collar America with social comment and breezy, everyman characters. One for the devoted Vonnegutian.

9. Raymond Queneau — The Sunday of Life

This, Queneau’s fourth last (or sixteenth) novel, preceding the blockbusting supersmash Zazie dans la metro, is standard fare from the OuLiPo founder and mathematical whizz. Valentin Brû is one of Queneau’s ‘everymen’ who takes up with a woman twice his age to help run a picture frame shop. As usual, there are zippy, tricky plots with characters flicking in and out, little comments on the act of writing and language games a-go-go. Somehow it didn’t take off for me like Pierrot or Witch Grass, probably since there’s little to tell it apart from his preceding fifteen books and no one standout character. His writing here does seem ‘transitional’ to a degree—less involved in the story, more aware of the mechanisms of fiction. Still, the OuLiPo wouldn’t happen for another eight years, so that’s a flat theory. Probably very funny for the uninitiated.

10. The Review of Contemporary Fiction: Fall 2005

Flann O’Brien is still the funniest thing to hail from Ireland since sectarian violence, in his infancy a fearless innovator and pioneer of the Russian doll structures lapped up by postmodernists. Although At Swim-Two-Birds has still to charm me senseless, I have not laughed harder at a novel since The Poor Mouth and been more impressed by surreal footnoted antics since The Third Policeman. The essay in here praises his early novels and goes in hard on his final two which although more conventional still make magic. Guy Davenport was new to me, and this overview looks at his somewhat elitist novels: their delightful utopias, love of knowledge and underage boys, their fabulist qualities. The first man to write a doctorate on Joyce, his work is cursed with erudition, left to the brainiacs to sniff and sample. I hope to sniff his brains very soon. Aldous Huxley, before his heavy mystical philosophising period, wrote scathing drawing-room novels, designed to épater la bourgeoisie (a phrase only middle-class people will understand), among them the sublime Crome Yellow and Point Counter Point. His work as a poet, philosopher, seer, pot smoker, and speculative writer is also covered. Solid issue.

11. Mark Haddon — A Spot of Bother

This book made Curious Incident fans wail and gnash their teeth in 2006. Who knows how Haddon’s reputation fares today, following the lukewarm response to this breezy domestic drama? I get the impression children’s voices are more his forte, what with being a bestselling kids' author and all. In fact, some of the best lines in this book belong to the toddler Jacob and revolve around poo and ice cream. But this is hardly worth a literary excommunication. It is the sort of book only established authors can release, but it does satisfy as a “warm-hearted page-turner” (does anyone else feel sick?)

George is the centre of the story, a retired bourgeois gent who becomes a hypochondriac, a depressive and—later on, when he watches his wife being ploughed by another man—a self-harming borderline psychotic. His descent into madness while his selfish little brood run around arguing and breaking up and making up forms the moral centre of the book, though Haddon works hard to make the selfish people loveable in the end, and almost succeeds. Katie is still about as pleasant as a wet haddock in the face, and the mother is Hyacinth Bouquet without the moral compass. The men are nicer. The women not so nice. Discuss.

So there isn’t much in the way of style, originality or humour—this is David Nicholls territory, best left to David Nicholls—but it does provide an engaging and cosy alternative to being alive for a few hours, and that’s perhaps the best thing a book can offer.

12. Joshua Cohen — Witz

It’s rare a writer gets their early, indulgent works published. My 800-page retelling of the William Wallace story written in Chaucerian Scots has sadly failed to ignite the literary landscape. Despite interest from Canongate! Bickmore loves it! Martin Amis wrote a 2000-page history of the Corn Laws and their famous Repeal in his late teens. Still unseen. Joshua Cohen isn’t a writer who leaves much in the drawer. In fact, in completing Witz before his thirtieth birthday, he’s blown his creative wad much too soon. Where next for this Jewish sprite with the biggest Joyce complex this side of upper Manhattan?

Let me state my position: Witz is an awful novel. It is a truly execrable work of literature, a shameful doorstopper written in a torturous voice, with horrible run-on sentences and huge blocks of freeform prose where plot, character, style and tone are gobbled up by a rapacious word monster drunk on language. When Witz impresses, and on every page, it has the skill to impress, it does so on the level of wordplay, and that’s what it boils down to. It’s a big book of neologisms and compound sentences and what happens when a writer barely out his nappies is let loose to indulge himself and get published.

I read this over a series of months and returning to it was always a pleasant surprise, otherwise I would’ve hurled it out a window in two minutes. The rhythm and cadence of his sentences is remarkable, as well as the tireless wordplay and invention. There are pages where the onslaught of this manic rabbinical narrator reaches a pitch of electrifying craziness. I was pulled with force into these sentences where absolutely nothing is possible to fathom, where complete opacity of action is the order. The problem with this: it lasts about two pages. Reading on hurts and the mind wanders. When I wasn’t concentrating so hard my skull split in two, here is my experience reading this book:

1) Flicking forward and seeing how close I was to completing my allotment of thirty pages at a stretch.
2) Rubbing my fingers along the spine and stroking the slightly sticky cover.
3) Thinking about what I was going to say in this review, what I was currently working on or what I was going to eat later.
4) Spurring myself on by having erotic fantasies.
5) Switching positions for holding the book so it didn’t bruise my hands or legs.

These things aside, there isn’t much hope summarising the plot, because this is a book of words and ideas. The blurb is the least helpful blurb I have ever read as nothing as cool as that happens in the book. Sadly. I am pleased I read Witz on the whole: I think it has a restless comic energy, a sprawling ambition to resurrect high-class modernism that is unprecedented. There is a lot to admire. As a novel: unreadable, no fun, indulgent, impossible, pretentious, ludicrous, outdated in its approach. I skipped the last 30-odd pages, written sans punctuation. Too much. It needs to lose 600 pages to be acceptable. At least the last thirty.

Still: it’s been an experience, and I like novels that make me fight for their respect and love. Bring it on with Witz II, Josh.

13. Raymond Queneau — A Hard Winter

This charming and terminally out of print novella hails from Queneau’s more reflective, personal period: a piece in tandem with Odile and The Last Days. An unrequited love story set in a brutal Havre winter during the First World War, Queneau gives his unique spin on a hoary old tale with his signature witty dialogue, French eccentrics and sharp observations. I put in a request at both NYRB and Dalkey for this to be reprinted—so far no responses—so the future isn’t looking good for this little corker. On a par with his earlier wartime works, with its touching scenes and picturesque dialogues, it deserves a new readership among literate Americans. (Or Brits prepared to fork out P&P).

14. Henry Miller — Sexus

Jesus. Just Jesus. Jesus wept.

I think that’s enough review in itself, but I have to spill a little about Miller. Someone on the internets told me I wrote like Miller three moons ago, and having finished Sexus, I want to hunt them down and gore them. First things first: I don’t write pornographic scenes with a vaginal fixation every twenty or so pages where the women have nineteen orgasms and beg to be pronged upon the narrator’s almighty winkle. Well, not anymore.

Second: I don’t philosophise at length in the flabbiest, most verbose prose imaginable, where the artist laments a world that shuns his greatness and free-love philosophies, his rampant misogyny, racism and general beastliness. Not now, at least. And I don’t make my protagonists hard-drinking walking cocks with delusions of greatness who stage hardcore action in roach-infested Bronx slums every two minutes, and cuss the idiocy of all those not Henry Miller the next.

As a no-holds-barred relic of the sleazy 1920s, this is an audacious text, marred by passages of sublime arrogance, outrageously boring prose soup, and completely inane porn scenes. I understand Miller’s status as a provocateur in his own time, but today his writing is a ludicrous mash-up of Dostoevsky, Lawrence and Selby. Sexus is incoherent, meandering and shameless, but oddly compelling. Rather like lovemaking itself. At least when I do it.

Don’t read him. Please.

Library: Pushkin Regional Library in Omsk

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