Saturday, 1 October 2011

My Month in Novels (Sep)

Hello. I am a reader. Books are what I read. Here are the books I read between September 1-September 30.

1. Gustave Flaubert — Bouvard and Pécuchet

Although Flaubert intended to make chumps of his protagonists, B&P are actually lovable eccentrics, whose inquiring minds put our dull unquestioning conformist lumps to shame. A tour through the humanities, sciences, and theologies woven around a tale of two civil servants free to pursue a life of the mind outside the drudgery of work, Flaubert’s last book is far from becoming the final masterpiece he intended, but still dazzles, tickles and titillates with erudition and high-class humour.

2. Xiaolu Guo — A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers

A bleak romance tale between a Chinese student and an arrogant vegetarian van driver, narrated in oddly distancing Engrish. Like Guo’s other künstlerroman Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth
, it paints a painful picture of immigrant life abroad, and kicks One Day so far up its sanctimonious arse, one can barely glimpse Anne Hathaway’s goofy grin from Ursa Minor. The style is slightly similar to Palahniuk’s Pygmy, though this came first, and the humour is less bourgeois satire, more Chairman Mao’s Big Book of Communist Funnies. As a bedtime read it's splendid and lively, then bitter and heartbreaking.

3. T.C. Boyle — Drop City

The collapse of the sixties free love movement is perhaps the greatest defeat Western society has endured. The flower children believed in a world unshackled to government control and white-collar slavery, they believed in an autonomous collective of free love, drugs and sex. By listening to the Doors and smoking hash in Californian tepees, they hoped to bring about a social revolution, to overthrow the squares by doing nothing whatsoever. Then again, they only believed in this because their bourgeois parents had the misfortune to raise them in a time of plenty, giving them the freedom to run off and party in multicoloured pants with a wad of hard-earned notes in their tote bags. I hate hippies.

Drop City has little sympathy for the hippie movement as it cocks a snook at the idle brothers and sisters whose goal was, essentially, to avoid work at all costs and puff on drug pipes. Nowadays, hippies are known as PhD or liberal arts students, and the drug consumption remains the same. Centring on a large cast of caricatured free-lovers, Boyle’s detached narrative style has the surgical cynicism and breathless rush of Foster Wallace, with the compassionate satire of Kingsley Amis.

Although his narrator goes a sentence or three too far with each description, he hits a note of buzzy mania, perfect for the vibrant rush of the era, though obviously quite infuriating in its excess. As the commune (based on a real commune in Colorado) battles nasty Nam dropouts and a planned council demolition, the group hotfoot it to Alaska, where they take refuge in their iced-out bus and numerous well-insulated shacks. Star, the least loose of the women, is somewhat the centre of the novel, though Boyle’s narrator is more of your top-down move-the-marionettes model, less personally committed, and little genuine empathy is achieved for any of these freeloaders and grizzly weirdoes. It’s a fun ride, regardless.

4. Michel Faber — The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps

Sometimes I write reviews and have nightmares about how appalling and misinformed and rubbish these reviews must look on the ALMIGHTY WALL OF REVIEWS, and I must step back into the reviewing box and tackle books with a heroic second heave, like a bleeding Ali lunging for the last time at Trevor Berbick.

So: this novella is an endearing mixture of modern horror and romance. It falls into the camp of modern “character piece,” focusing on Siân, a Welsh-born student architect digging up remains at Whitby Abbey who unravels a family scroll given to her by cringey student doctor Mack. The novella unearths revelations about Siân’s accident in Bosnia while relating an 18thC murder intrigue and does so with wit and natural charm. In the original review I posted a picture of Roy from The IT Crowd, but the shame has haunted me ever since, so from now on it is text text text all the way, baby.

5. Ismail Kadare — The Successor

Read this to help clear my desk. Interesting Albanian thriller with a clever structure. I wasn’t that thrilled. The writer looks like a sinister KGB Eric Morecambe.

6. Ewa Kuryluk — Century 21

Another staggering dense impossible hilarious maddening insane longer-than-it-looks novel from the Dalkey catalogue. Kuryluk’s first (and only, it seems) novel in English, Century 21 is a mosaic novel blending fictional dialogues with Ancient Greeks, postcolonial European authors and a Moon scholar, along with long narrative threads told from obfuscated points of view, making the work an inscrutable ludic exercise in meaning.

An AIDS-ridden Djuna Barnes mingles with Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides in Manhattan, Malcolm Lowry baits Joseph Conrad’s attempt to Anglicise his works and erase his Polish identity. The Ancient Greeks go on at length in effusive tracts bordering on the maniacal, among them Latin poet Propertius and Ptolemaic Queen Berenice. The novel abandons, as says the blurb, the unities of time, so all these people orbit each other’s narrative strands, the Latin poets popping up in modern day New York. All sense of where, what and why is nowhere to be seen, though the novel builds its own internal sense somewhere down the line, partly since Kuryluk’s prose is outstanding.

A triumph of style, shifting narrative voices and esoteric academic wankery, Kuryluk demonstrates a mastery of language in a book dense with allusions, references, Latin and German and Italian quotes, and inherently absurd situations rife with high-brow comedy. Another tough, dazzling and original work form the Dalkey staple, fated to rot in obscurity.

7. Émile Zola — Thérèse Raquin

You know how it is. Your mother marries you to your sexless cousin and in silent defiance you enter a torrid affair with a peasant painter. All those hours spent humouring the dull man in your dreary shop, waiting for your next animalistic tussle with your fiery lover. Then one day, you realise the conventions of early 19thC society are going to prevent you from ditching the boring old blood tie, and you will never be free to give yourself to true love.

God, the boredom! I mean, you can’t even knit properly, can you? That last cardigan was missing an armhole and wasn’t even big enough for my nephew! So what do you have to live for? You are, after all, a docile little mouse brimming with despair and desperation whose only chance at happiness lies in the arms of a bone-idle gadabout who only wanted a quick shag anyway. Perhaps if he bumped off your other half, made it look like an accident? Oh now you’ve gone and done it. Didn’t I warn you watching your husband drown would come back to haunt you? How do you expect to look your mother in the eye ever again, you dozy bint? Well. I suppose it’ll have to be several years of mental torment, depression and unrelenting misery, followed by a teary confession to your paralysed mother, until someone finally pours you a cup of poison and ends your sorry lot once and for all. Hold out, there’s hope. But not in this book.

8. Guy de Maupassant — Pierre et Jean

Unlike Robbe-Grillet’s predatory eyes and unspoken menace, Maupassant offers a tale of overt bitter jealousy, with a healthy dose of bastardism thrown into the mix. Jean is the sole inheritor of a family friend’s fortune, leaving his brother Pierre dazed as to his own bad luck. Quite rightly in that situation, you’d be gutted—nothing for me? who was this tosser? So Pierre arrives at a simple conclusion that tears his family apart, all very suddenly, after many pleasant pages of boating and courting and happiness. This edition has an unbearably long and dry introduction . . . so maybe seek out another, if scholarly use be your bag.

9. Alain Robbe-Grillet — Jealousy

A key text of the nouveau roman, an unnamed ‘all-seeing eye’ narrator navigates his way around an African banana plantation, obsessively describing a potential affair between Franck and A . . . in a state of continual present (or ‘pressent’ as Tom McCarthy quotes from Joyce in his introduction). In French ‘jalousie’ refers to a window, making it harder in English to position the narrator as a jealous husband, crucial for decoding the book.

The detailed geometrical descriptions of the house and its inhabitants form its emotional nucleus: one can imagine the distraught husband poised outside taking notes and embellishing details. This makes all the action and description unreliable, giving the book its detective novel reputation: is it possible to make sense of all the repetitions, random scene breaks, contradictory sentences, squashed centipedes, apparent car fires and form a coherent plotline? Look upon it as an IKEA self-assembly novel. Right now, I only have the scaffolding erected, I still have weeks’ worth of drilling hammering and screwing to do before anything satisfies.

10. Philippe Djian — Betty Blue

Betty Blue is venerated on campuses for its anti-establishment, free-spirited, all-you-need-is-love-provided-the-bitch-is-hot stance: the film is a hotbed of classic French passion and anarchic comedy. The novel however, is more in your Bukowski-Miller vein, with its likeable tossbag narrator and occasional moments of hideous self-aggrandisement.

Béatrice Dalle was about twenty in the film: in the book Betty is thirty. So this is not a story about young love that can’t be contained in a series of small pathetic provincial French towns. This is more a tale of life-scarred soldiers seeking that elusive something that keeps them bound to the world. Betty finds it through her lover’s novel, the narrator finds it through Betty and his enslavement to her charms (whatever these might be), and throughout, the love between them seems almost entirely one-way, as Betty slides into dementia.

The novel is stylishly written in the first-person but the American translation is a little corny in places, like listening to dubbed actors saying things like “hey, baby” in a studio. And again, that gaping question remains: is the narrator so stupid he can’t see Betty’s mental illness coming a mile off? Are we supposed to believe he doesn’t want to face her illness in case he loses her? Hmm. Also: it’s shocking how faithful to the novel the film seems to be. Barely a scene here has been omitted, though the book doesn’t open with a three-minute explicit sex scene in a slow zoom. In fact, sex isn’t really integral to the novel. I’ve lost you now, haven’t I? Oops.

11. Colette — Claudine’s House

A wistful memoir of a bucolic childhood idyll—or part of Colette’s Claudine cycle, who knows—this slim volume contains vignettes of French provincial life (Colette’s French provincial life), with emphasis on the lush countryside, sneaky cats and dogs, passing aunts and uncles, and formidable French mothers. Each remembrance is crafted like a flawless short story: precious, warm, intelligent and softly heartbreaking. Far from being magical, often these stories take dark and melancholy turns, especially as time passes and Colette takes over as maman of the estate. A delightful volume from Hesperus Press.

12. Émile Zola — For a Night of Love

A short collection of three tales. ‘For a Night of Love’ pits poor lovestruck Julien against the Ice Queen Thérèse. He tries seducing the merciless maiden with his sublime flute skills, only to find himself in her bedroom disposing of the corpse of her half-brother-lover. I hate when that happens. Having sneaked the corpse out of town undetected, he lays his weary burden by the riverside, confusing tiredness with a death wish. ‘Nantas’ pits another down-at-heel against an Ice Queen. This time, the titular hero inherits money and power by covering for Flavie’s accidental bastard, earning her devoted contempt. As he ascends into high office, it occurs to him he is in mad drivelling love with the horrible bitch and flings himself at her feet. Melodrama with a cheery (and implausible) ending. ‘Fasting’ is quaint padding. Excellent stories.

13. Denis Diderot — Jacques the Fatalist

For those exhausted or defeated by Tristram Shandy, here is a precursor to the postmodern novel that packs in more incident, philosophy, bitching and warm humour in its 237 pages than most modern avant-garde writers manage in a whole corpus. Jacques—the titular Fatalist—attempts to recount the tale of his “first loves” while accompanying his Master on a series of oblique misadventures that invariably end up as digressions and more digressions. All postmodern tricks—stories-within-stories, frames-within-frames, direct reader-insulting—are present, and better than in 1971. This is a wild and hilarious romp with a fiercely readable translation from the unfortunately named David Coward, and this edition has an exemplary introduction that neither squeezes all life from the work nor drowns it in academic verbiage. Proof once again the French are the true genitors of all great literature. So it was written up there, on high.

14. Jacques Roubaud — Hortense Is Abducted

From Jacques the Fatalist
to Jacques Roubaud: OuLiPo’s lesser-known practitioner and most famous surviving member, excluding Harry Mathews, who isn’t really French anyway. For some reason, Dalkey Archive have only released two volumes in the Hortense trilogy—the first, Our Beautiful Heroine, has been translated by Overlook Press, but is due a reprint—but grumbles aside, there’s much ludic OuLiPo larks in this farcical detective spoof. A brief scan of this book’s blurb sums up the anarchic and delicious imagination of this professor, scholar, wit and all-around genius. Daft, ingenious, hilarious postmodern fun for the high-brow reader too proud to read Sedaris.

15. Patti Smith — Just Kids

There is a whiff of earnestness about Patti Smith but now we’ve got that out the way, shut up and listen to Horses, Easter, Gone Again and Trampin’ back-to-back for a whole month. If your nerve-endings and spatial awareness aren’t merrily bamboozled with light and love, you are not fit for human habitation. For Patti is a creature unto herself.

Just Kids radiates pure, unfiltered love for her friend Robert Mapplethorpe, and its simple prose tells a powerful tale of two driven artists seeking release into a wild and beautiful world. For all those stargazing liberal arts majors interning in publishing houses, get out there, get thee to a garret and get thee to a used copy of A Season in Hell and learn how to live. That is an order, divined upon thee by the almighty Gods of heartbreaking original life-shaking capital-A art. You must learn. Brave the winds. The only thing to fear is the unpure image.

16. Pierre Albert-Birot — The First Book of Grabinoulor

This is a mere excerpt of a lifelong work from an influential Surrealist: if a Surrealist can be called influential and not raisin custard splash-splash booger-doop-doop-waa-waa-pants. Grabinoulor expanded into a six-book cheese mangle, and it’s easy to see why only the first book has been translated. A high modernist relic, sans punctuation, time-space-plot, andsans most things one might expect in a novel, except words, it has some of those. Dalkey don’t usually publish typographically inventive books: this is the one aberration in their canon. If they did, I would be up them like a silver ferret to reprint B.S. Johnson’s
Travelling People and they would be sorry they ever published Daniel Robberechts instead. So this: about as tolerable as a Surrealist text gets, and as the OuLiPo said, the Surrealists were always “intellectually puny.”

17. Nicholson Baker — Vox

I liked this. Right now it’s 11.51PM (later when the review is complete) and I would rather be munching a shellfish platter than writing this review, but here goes. (That was not an innuendo, in case you were worried. However, it is a little known fact that men are attracted to oysters as it’s the closest they can get to cunnilingus in food form. I was told this at a marine snack-shack in Orkney). So. Two people dial a sex chat line, switch to a private room, and have a natural conversation that culminates in mutual masturbation. That is Vox. I think we can safely say, without a moment’s hesitation, this book is Romeo & Juliet for the postmodern age. Right. It’s now 11.54PM. I’m off to bed. I liked this.

Book of the Month: Denis Diderot — Jacques the Fatalist


  1. Your months in novels always kill me. Damn my eyes.

  2. You can always get, you know, glasses. They're not so bad. Then again, I've been a speccy four-eyes since I was six. So I know no other way.

  3. Funny. I got ==Xiaolu Guo — A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers== because the copy we had in the bookstore, that at the time gave me money because I spent some time there, fell to the ground and got smudged. With something that looked like semen from a person (man, actually, presumably) with sand instead of sperm in his testicles. This sand semen infected copy became a trophy of a hard days's work of hanging out in a bookshop for me, and I treasured it beyond materialistic pleasure. It became a symbol of everything holy and linguistic, not just for me, but for everyone that ever visited me in my apartment that I turned into a museum for this book. I placed it in a glass cage, secured it with booby traps and ninjas, and told all my friends that if I were to die - tragically - they must immediately see to the book being transferred to the national treasury which currently only holds the royal underpants. If I were to die untragically, they should merely make sure that the book was correctly alphabetized under C for Concise, since there already are too many titles starting with "A" in the English language.

    It never occurred to me to read it, though.

  4. That is a beautiful story. In fact, I can safely say without fear of contraception, er, contradiction, that it's my favourite story about a sand/sperm-covered copy of Xiaolu Guo's A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers bought (or awarded, this detail is unclear) from a bookstore where the person works and who then enshrines it in some private metaphorical cage (the only cage ever made out of glass in existence) and properly alphabetises it in a system wherein the word "Concise" has its own subheading EVER.

    If the story comes out in paperback, I will gladly grace the pages with my own sandy man-juice.

  5. I've "worn" glasses since I was five, but as an adult I've rarely worn them. Now I need a magnifying glass and bright light.

  6. Or a new prescription. OK, I'll shut up now. Love your work.

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