Wednesday, 30 November 2011

My Month in Novels (Nov)

1. Alasdair Gray — Working Legs

I read this in the bath. Right there. I am all soaped up and pleasant smelling. It’s a play Gray wrote for a little disabled theatre group: nothing special, really. Broad satire and old-school melodrama set in a 1960s Scotland, not the 1990s it was written in (and perhaps meant to depict). It depressed me a little as a starving writer, as I know the sting of receiving and losing government benefits, and right now with our double-dip recession and Tory leaders, the UK is going all Thatcher again. So this was not a cheerful read. I might cry. Pass me the Kleenex. Gray’s artwork is always pleasant, alas. And there was a happy ending. Almost.

2. Harry Mathews — 20 Lines a Day

It’s late and I need a little time to let Mathews’s charming and meaningful vignettes seep into the right side of brain—as in correct, not the opposite of left—before I pass comment (or into sleep). Over the years 1983-4, pivotal in Mathews’s life, and in literary history, the American Oulipian wrote twenty lines per day, based on an old Stendhal quote. During this time seminal OuLiPo members Georges Perec and François LeLionnais passed away, and these short entries touch upon the sadness in his life and the horror of trying to write through it all. It’s the highbrow equivalent of Blogger, more or less. Some entries are ponderous, some funny, some random, some moving. Towards the end he overeggs the second person, but who’s complaining? This brisk book is expressive and charming.

3. Alf MacLochlainn — Out of Focus

One of the earliest Dalkies. The novel’s blurb (see novel’s blurb) takes a stab at summing this up, and almost succeeds. The closest I can get is to say it’s like a cross between Inish and the Research Bureau columns in The Best of Myles, but not as good and twice as weird. The illustrations are hilarious and some lines are so absurd I chuckled, despite my utter bemusement. I read this while distracted to the point of . . . distraction. So add an extra star if you must to excuse my anxious state, and congratulate me on my graduation, which was today.

4. Dubravka Ugrešić — Lend Me Your Character

More magical egghead prose from Croatia’s best woman. ‘Steffie Cvek in the Jaws of Life’ is a patchwork novella with various instructions for perforating and crocheting the prose. Where B.S. Johnson might actually knit a novel in a scarf, Mrs. Ugrešić merely presents the idea with her customary sardonic wit. The story collection ‘Life is a Fairy Tale’ involves a woman who finds a penis in her hotdog, a zealous translator of Daniil Kharms failing to reach her publisher, a reworking of Tolstoy’s ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’ involving a cannon on a train, and a man who borrows a writer’s female character to have sex with his male character. Absurd brilliance from this restless firecracker. See also Baba Yaga Laid an Egg.

5. Jonathan Coe — Like a Fiery Elephant

As writers, we are overly conscious of our foibles and traits: where we see ourselves on the great graph of dysfunction. On the page, I have walked the perilous road of selfconscious indulgence, of postmodern pretention. I have written dozens of stories, and two novels, that collapse into self-referential revelation: pure spits of Johnson’s own plea: FUCK ALL THIS LYING! I have stepped onto the stage like a shy schoolboy and told my embarrassed audience: “I have nothing to say except how much I hate myself.”

This shambles ended for me when my first novel, A Postmodern Belch—a shameless vehicle for dated metafictional tricks, a Mulligan Stew without the theory—caused its small LA publishing house to collapse through bilious dissent. For who, in good conscience, could publish two hundred pages of a writer treading water, showing off his verbal artillery, but so scared to write a well-rounded character or fast-paced plot, he would never make these poor fresh-faced saps a single cent? (I am convinced to this day the editor faked her sister’s car accident to shut down the press and hide from me).

So I came, a year after my first serious novel was torpedoed, to B.S. Johnson. Seeking amusement. Lightness. Inspiration. I found in Christie Malry a quaint dark comedy, a book unreplicable in its technique, which I wanted to write so bad, my valves chafed. Then on to Albert Angelo: a full-bodied experimental workout with curious perforations. Less envy, more curious squints. Then the humorless snooze of Trawl: an unrelenting Beckett homage, seasickness in hardback. And last, House Mother Normal. A startling work of poisonous comedy, confirming to me the warped magnificence of this sad man.

I forgot The Unfortunates—to me, his least successful novel, despite its standing as an objet d’art among the vain literati. What I learned from Johnson, among other innovators, was how to make a form or structure integral to the emotional core of a work. There’s no point writing an 1000-page epic in misspelled Norwegian iambics if this form isn’t crucial to the meaning. The rampant postmodern dickery that mars my juvenilia (which, although dated, is at least charged with a Pythonesque mischief—see this example) was crucial in my ongoing quest for identity as a writer, as an unsalaried drudge on this woeful sphere. It’s not a vast education, perhaps, but I’m a slow learner.

My fascination with Johnson seems typical: I too was raised in a working-class household, absconded to university, and now swing awkwardly in a bourgeois hammock. Although class is less divisive in the UK as in the 1950s, I can empathise with Johnson’s attempt to prove himself as an artist in a world of Oxbridge leg-ups and Cambridge cronyism. I often indulge in logic-free rants against a literary system that refuses to subsidise ambitious creatives living in penniless decadence. I have an arrogant streak. (But unlike him, I am svelte, raffish).

So his persona, his techniques, his suicide, his charming turn on the ITV special Fat Man on a Beach (prime-time avant-garde films!), all drew me to him naturally. My interest, while mostly distanced, has stretched to reading some of his out of print works at the NLS archives—more from a stubborn obscurantism of preoccupation that makes me such a hit with the ladies than genuine obsession. (I also like to snowboard on the novels of David Markson).

So at last, I came to Coe’s magnificent bio. And what a triumph. Entirely readable, compulsive, obsessive, fascinating—all these words and more. Coe, himself a mainstream and tame novelist, makes his own literary approach clear from the off: Johnson, far from being a literary mentor or inspirer, is more a strange avuncular figure in his life, like my distant relatives in Invergordon. Who I am told have money, but I never see a cent.

This fat volume, with its criminal small print (not helpful for us lame-sighted) is as comprehensive a book one could expect on Johnson, and the speculation about his own relation to the occult, and myths, plus his rumoured homosexuality, all add intrigue to this complex portrait of a mad, feverish and unbalanced creative firecracker. A terrific book, and apologies for the preamble, but this review is really about me, isn’t it?

6. Alasdair Gray, Agnes Owens, James Kelman — Lean Tales

Not much cop, governor. I don’t have time for Kelman’s raw punctuationless obscurity—to me, it’s not an effective representation of his characters, nor his Glasgow. Like Gray’s Lanark, it places him outside his homeland, but in a bad way, since Lanark is freaking awesome. Agnes Owens I always have time for, and her stories here are largely impressive, barring a few fabulist flops. And Gray, oh dear Mr. Gray, once again proves his incompetence at the story form. One gets the impression he writes whatever he pleases, stands back and allows people to congratulate him on his originality of form. These pieces are dry, autobiographical bores, told in Gray’s arch schoolmaster style, and his two portraits belong in newspapers, not a storybook, being articles, not stories. After Lanark, Gray was enshrined in the pantheon of Scottish greats. He got away with murder from then on: Unlikely Stories, A History Maker and Old Men in Love being three examples. I think our love affair has reached cessation.

7. Nicholson Baker — The Fermata

The Fermata doesn’t simply posit the question what would you do if you could stop time? It assumes, quite rightly, that everyone would undress and violate their fellow citizens within about four seconds, so asks instead how would you use this erotic licence to engineer love in the moving world?

Such is the problem of our hapless obsessive narrator who, like the hero in The Mezzanine, observes a pathological attention-to-detail to the minutiae of his warped inventions. Since constructing his time-stopping device through a series of implausible homemade contraptions, he has practiced a strict moral code: no stealing and no sexual deviation observable to his victims in the moving world. A laudable practice that he doesn’t always observe, especially with those he has reciprocal sex with.

Sadly, I came to identify with the narrator at points—not in his planting-porno-on-the-beach or his whipping-himself-into masturbatory-frenzies side—but in his attempts to manipulate fate while remaining invisible to the victims of his infatuation.

In my case, I became infatuated with a woman in a blue-button hat who caught the 8am train into Edinburgh. After some harmless staring I detected her reading Treasure Island and tried dropping feeble hints that I too was reader, and that although we only shared a train trip and interest in books, we one day might unite in supernovas of love and set the universe on fire. Or, failing that, do it quick and nasty in the driver’s cabin. My technique was to carry a book underarm at all times, as though the book might magnetise her toward me. Feeble.

This novel is awesome. Exemplary verbal gymnastics, hilarious neologisms (or neolojisms) and crazy Flann O’Brien-style humour. And lashes of gratuitous pornographic content. Perfect.

8. Stendhal — The Red and The Black

I promised myself I wouldn’t spend too long clacking out a review of this one: usually, after a frenzied Sunday of reading I like to mellow out for the last few hours, and not dissertate (apparently that’s a word!) on a lofty French classic. Plus there are a few tip-top reviews already, like this one and this one and this one, so who cares what the anaemic Scot has to say? Really? In short: loved the epigrams, didn’t mind the frequent blurring of narrator with interior narration and dialogue, and thought Julian a loveable little bastard. Sure, the persistent tuggings between affection, class, love, ambition, and so on, became unbearable, and Julian shooting his true love because she threatened his insincere love didn’t quite scan on the plot level, but who cares with prose this schizomanic? Love Stendhal.

9. Claudia Rankine — Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric

Perhaps a little dated, but if a poet can’t wax about the world now, or then, or now as it was then, what world are we living in? We’re not living in the world now, thassfursure, we’re living in the world then. When topical poems were out. (When this then is, I am uncertain. But let it be said poems about eating cheese in 1907 are hardly taught on campuses—or is it campi?) Anywho. This brisk series of prose-poems or prose lyrics ruminates coolly on contemporary America: scraping away at the darker layers of our lives, tipping often into polemic. (I think it’s campuses. But I like campi. Why can’t our plurals be more Latinate nowadays? What’s with these purple-headed octopi ruling the language? Or is it octopuses? They ought to be ashamed. I liked this book).

10. Jacques Roubaud — Some Thing Black

This ten-part poetry cycle was written by Oulipo legend Mr. Roubaud in memory of his young wife Alix Cléo, a Canadian photographer who died of an embolism aged 31. Her own book Alix’s Journal, also available from Dalkey, is a collection of moody B&W photos and compliments this volume, creating a chilling portrait of death and its permanent imprints. The poems here use various complex constraints and stark free verse to express the impact of loss, nagging absence, and the begrudging afterness. Several photographs from the Journal round off the volume, creating what is perhaps the most moving Oulipo production in English, and a beautiful memorial to an unrealised talent.

11. Marie Redonnet — Hôtel Splendid

Redonnet has a disquieting stylish simplicity: she writes each sentence on thin ice—cool and exacting—threatening the next moment to crash into freezing inscrutable waters. This tale, narrated by the third in a trio of sisters running a derelict swamp-side hotel, bares a striking similarity to the Bouvier sisters. That is, Jackie Onassis’s eccentric kin who holed themselves up in their Grey Gardens mansion in self-imposed exile, until Mrs. O paid an overdue visit and rescued them from pneumonia. (See the good film). Here, Rimbaud’s Hôtel Splendid is inverted: rats, damp, insect swarms, clogged toilets and tropical fevers complete the visitors’ stay in the house of horrors. The narrator takes it all in her stride, chillingly detached until the whole operation crumbles around her—nary a tear, but many a drop of sweat—spent. Ecstatically unique. See also Sorrentino’s take on Rimbaud, Splendide-Hôtel.

12. Marie Redonnet — Forever Valley

From derelict hotels to derelict churches, the second book in Redonnet’s triptych involves another nameless narrator’s frolics in squalor. This one takes place in a beyondbackwater, where the clueless sixteen-year-old narrator is talked into a life of profitless prostitution with sinister customs officers. Presiding over a dying priest and his crumbling parish, she goes in search of “the dead” by digging four holes in the garden where some previous town has, suggestibly, been buried. Meanwhile her ersatz mother Massi plots to save the “valley below” from its bad milk crisis by seducing the town back into some semblance of its former self. As in Hôtel Splendid, the style is an aching melancholic treat, where vapours of pleasure rise from the existential mire into pure prosaic bliss.

13. Marie Redonnet — Rose Mellie Rose

The final little slip in Redonnet’s triptych doesn’t have the same lyrical melancholy as its predecessors (perhaps, in part to the series being written in little over six months), but retains the fabulist magic and surreal antics that made the other two so charming and unique. The improvisation is more apparent in this one, and doesn’t suggest as much structural wizardry behind the pages. This edition has an illuminating (and somewhat arrogant) essay by the author explaining her intention to fight her way free of poetic/authorial influence. I heartily recommend Redonnet to readers of the French novel post-Grillet and post-Oulipo.

14. Milan Kundera — The Unbearable Lightness of Being

A good Europop lit-fic offering—a bit outmoded now, like Snap! or 2Unlimited. But still compelling fodder for philosophising undergrads with higher aspirations than erotic encounters with their right hands. The narrator is droll, sardonic, wise, and almost unbearably smug. In fact, I thought about using the line The Unbearable Smugness of Being but I decided not to because . . . drat! Also: I have vivid memories of the film version, where Juliette Binoche’s underpants ride up her crack in a most pleasing manner for the teenage male viewer. I’m sure when Kundera wrote this novel he wanted his expansive intellectual vision reduced to reminiscences of cinematic titillation. I’m sure he’d appreciate this review’s emphasis on tawdriness over complex discourse on Czech politics. I’m sure. So: this hasn’t become a favourite. It was solid intelligent lit-fic: repetitious in places, ambitious in structure, scattershot in plot. I tripped up over the amount of quotable lines and overlooked the endless use of the catchphrase Es muss sein! I didn’t say anything when the Tomas plot turned into Confessions of a Window Cleaner. I even cut Tereza some slack for being a self-loathing dormouse, and the other characters adulterous imbeciles who intellectualise their childish behaviour and hopscotch across Europe at the first sign of trouble. I think art and adultery make for entertaining bedfellows. If someone fellates you at the opera, is that somehow less damaging than getting fellated in a motel? Kundera doesn’t address this question exactly, but it would make for a good final book. He’s 82 now. Somehow, that makes this review seem even more disrespectful. I’ll pull the plug.

15. Voltaire — Candide, or Optimism

A re-read from undergraduate days. I wasn’t quite as amused the second time around: the shambolic charm seems to have worn off and I found the freewheeling structural chaos more vexing. I’m a spoiled bourgeois used to precision engineering in my novels. Having said that, Candide is more about the quotable lines and shining philosophical maxims littered among the dismembered torsos. But: the text requires a boatload of explanatory notes, which engulf the chapters themselves, lending a glaze of dullness to the reading experience. So, what to do? Voltaire is such a fascinating figure, plump with wisdom, I would pick out a biography and lick up the pages instead. Give me a minute and I’ll find one. OK, how about this one: The Age of Voltaire?

16. Jáchym Topol — City Sister Silver

An enormous hypocaust of a novel. A sprawling epic both exhilarating and insufferable. Split into three sections (see title), this Egon Hostovský Prize-winner uses a freeform poetic style—fractured dreamlike clauses caught in large cumulonimbus paragraphs—blending narration with dialogue, breaking down all linear time and plot into a continuous “pressent” narrative. We weave in and out of scenes with no distinction between reality, fantasy or dreams, scarcely aware of what is “happening” but oddly mesmerised by the violent, postapocalyptic imagery and stark street dialect. The easiest comparison point is A Clockwork Orange, which the novel references and plunders, especially in the early scenes of gang violence and oblique, frightening nihilism. On a language level, Topol is a poet, so it’s all about the ripples of language as they move through large paragraphs flooded with ellipses and phonetic dialect (rendered here in American gangspeak), with occasional respite in zippier dialogue exchanges. The most notable ‘plot point’ is the narrator Potok’s apparent love for his sister Černá (not his literal sister, though that’s also unclear), which dominates the latter half of Sister and beyond.

The most notable scene occurs when Potok and his cronies find themselves in Auschwitz sifting through the bones of the murdered. The dialogue that ensues with a talking skeleton is one of the most macabre, blackly comic scenes to be found in any novel since Ralph Cusack’s Cadenza, and as such pushes Topol into his own league of mad inscrutable weirdness. It would seem City Sister Silver—written during the Velvet Revolution, when Stalinism became Capitalism—aims for a panoramic sweep of postwar East European history, using fantastical and improvisatory techniques to capture the mood of a generation. Whether this succeeds, who can say? The last two hundred pages are an exercise in endurance and patience, the style having exhausted itself and peaked in earlier chapters. And translation-wise, the American gangspeak often clunks beside the Czech names and references. Hats off, however, to Alex Zucker for translating the untranslatable. For the reader I recommend dipping in and out, taking scenes and chapters in any order, manipulating the novel’s form for a more satisfying reading experience.

17. Ishmael Reed — Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down

A Wild West satire predating Blazing Saddles—almost as funny, twice as anarchic. Written in a series of stand-alone paragraph fragments, Reed sends up the genre’s clichés, taking a broader pop at American politics and race relations circa 1968. The proceedings are surreal and outré: from scandalous subversions of Western myths and characters to sudden appearances of presidents and popes. (And questionable sexual politics). I’m sure I missed most of the novel’s references and subtleties, but I had a rootin’ tootin’ darn good two hours all the same. Along similar lines, Gilbert Sorrentino’s Gold Fools.

18. Ali Smith — The Whole Story & Other Stories

It’s official. I am not as smitten with Ali Smith the story writer as I am with Ali Smith the novelist. Isn’t that usually the case? It’s either one or the other with writers. Could Barthelme write a decent novel to save himself? Nah. (Don’t link me to The King. Puh-leaze). Could Barth write a short story to save either himself or Mrs Barth? Nah. What about Martin Amis’s short pieces? Oh please! So it goes. There are stories in here I adored, most notably ‘The Universal Story’ which toggles narrative positions like a prized platespinner, and ‘Erosive’ which confronts the notion of structure: can a story ever, truly, finally, really, properly end? The central beef I have with her stories is their oblique, wraithlike narrators, their recourse to the second person, their uncertain “poeticising” of the quotidian. But Ali is the best novelist writing in Scotland today, so don’t take my criticism with anything less than a keg of salt.

19. Geoff Dyer — Out of Sheer Rage: In the Shadow of D.H. Lawrence

This entertaining look at authorial and general angst—fast becoming a sleeper hit on Goodreads—almost meets the hype, minus the actual parts about D.H. Lawrence, who is as pleasant to read as F.R. Leavis’s Guide to Dysentery. The narrator, unnamed, but accepted as Dyer himself, stumbles through his charmed life fretting about the best European paradise in which to write his sober academic study, the hilarity escalating as his Lawrencian angst takes over. Dyer’s apparent wealth sets up him up as a figure of fun until the more probing parts about his past take over, when he assumes an air of Roquentin. Clearly, however, Dyer isn’t a writer paralysed by inaction (see his books page), but for the duration, I was fooled. The US edition changes the subtitle to Wrestling with D.H. Lawrence—to make it seem less like a sober academic study?

20. The Review of Contemporary Fiction: Summer 2011: Gilbert Sorrentino and Mulligan Stew

I have hit the Sorrentino MOTHERLODE with my first RCF subscription. First last season’s Failure Issue, featuring selected bitchery from the Dalkey correspondence archives, now this complete issue devoted to Gilbert and his comic masterwork Mulligan Stew. Sadly, I slurped it up like a coke-addled groupie, and now the Sorrentino comedown must begin. The issue features a range of scholarly essays on MS—perspectives on the aesthetics of failure and its hidden politics, along with a look at the text’s use of boredom and satire in the masque play Flawless Play Restored. Peter Blegvad has contributed a series of glorious illustrations to compliment the pieces, and has added his own art poem “The Sweet of Love” to the issue. Jonathan Lethem pops up with a short article on Sorrentino’s indispensable avant-garde bible, Something Said. Notable also are the pieces by Ammiel Alcalay and Gerald Howard’s tour of his Brooklyn neighbourhood. If you haven’t read Mulligan Stew yet, and you’re nearing death, please do so instantly. FABULOUS issue.


  1. "What I learned from Johnson, among other innovators, was how to make a form or structure integral to the emotional core of a work" - exactly what I love about Johnson, and what you dont get in many feted experimental wankers.
    Great review, nicholls, though you've offended me with "The Unfortunates—to me, his least successful novel, despite its standing as an objet d’art among the vain literati." I shall have to slap you across the face with my glove next time you emerge from the depths of Glasgow.

    Miss West

  2. Greetings Miss West. I'll be sure to have my face galvanised with some ferrous spray of some description in anticipation of your slap. No idea what I'm talking about. Thanks for the comment. I love BSJ.

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