For those seeking a pass into the perverse otherworld of Britain’s one-man imaginarium Will Self, these polymorphous novellas are a fine beginning. In ‘Cock’ a provincial wifey sprouts a string-bean male appendage that envelops her femininity, turning her into a masculine beast seeking to part the bald hillocks of her hubbie’s buttocks for some anal adventure. In ‘Bull,’ sports hack John Bull acquires a set of fleshy she-lips on his backleg and starts a strange affair with a vaginally fixated, philandering GP. If these summaries don’t naphthalene your imagination then there really is no reason for you to read books. (Reading Self makes one inclined to use naphthalene as a verb—pardon me). Cock & Bull is a modern horror story—the horror of warped selfhood, how genital-gendering can lead to a strange transvestism of the self, can scramble our notions of wo/manliness so badly we don’t know whether to give or receive anymore. As usual, Self dazzles with his linguistic foreplay, taking us to a dreamy little climax with his powerful intellect and grotesque imagery. A sick treasure and one of my personal favourites, along with How the Dead Live. Bookspotters’ Note: This hardback edition from Atlantic Monthly Press circa 1993 has the best cover art. This is a re-read from a few years ago.
I love difficult fiction, since even if I don’t understand the author’s particular intentions, I can pick and choose meanings like at some ontological deli. The trouble with some OuLiPo work, alas—and more broadly in the novels of Harry Mathews—is that his novel-length games pose specific problems and solve them in specific ways, often using egghead algorithms I am too dim to comprehend. As with Tlooth, I was entertained for the duration, but could have used a detailed roadmap. [This is a roundabout way of saying I didn’t understand how this novel ended, and if anyone wants to enlighten me, please do so below].
The Journalist has a simple premise: a businessman recovering from a nervous breakdown keeps a journal of his post-recovery life, using a very pristine prose style akin to a certain Harry Mathews, that gradually descends into Nicholson Baker-like tracts of precise, exhaustive and tedious detail (as in The Mezzanine). He breaks all the categories of his day into sets and subsets, leading to an almost symphonic string of paranoid ramblings and pedantic detail. Gogol’s ‘Diary of a Madman’ springs to mind at once—the premise here is the same.
The novel is hilarious and oddly chilling. Yet it falls into that OuLiPo trap of obsessing on inanimate objects, like the most boring moments in Perec, or in Robbe-Grillet’s entire corpus.
Some excerpts from the comprehensively reviled 18th edition (precisely) of the Uxbridge English Dictionary:
Analogy — something that makes you itchy and sneezy
Barbecue — long wait for a haircut
Climate — first instruction at mountaineering school
Diphthong — fondue underwear
Exceed — a plant
Flabbergasted — appalled at your weight gain
Gastric — lighting a fart
Hoedown — agricultural strike
Infantry — a baby oak
Jacuzzi — Italian version of famous essay by Emile Zola
Kitsch — a small kitchen
Laplander — a clumsy private dancer
Miasma — the reason I have an inhaler
Nobleman — eunuch
Optical — to giggle during surgery
Parapet — an airborne cat
Quest— the Jonathan Ross family coat of arms
Rambling — jewellery for sheep
Semolina — a system of signalling with puddings
Tailback — post-operative Manx cat
Undeterred — a skidmark
Vigilant — an insect that stays up all night
Weeding — Scottish handbell
X-rated — no longer appreciated
Yo — a yoyo that only goes one way
Zucchini — animal park enthusiast
First, a digression. (How can one digress before the story has even begun? Surely for a digression to take place, a tangible thread needs to be established? Well, what is this parenthesis exactly, if not a digression? Point proven). So: that digression I promised. My first brush with love was with a Scottish lassie named Emma (not a very Scots name, but if local flavour is required, let’s call her Agnes). So Emma-Agnes was the victim of my affections and the entire “passionate” encounter is best described a “polite” encounter. In fact, excessive politeness was responsible for our inevitable separation.
It happened thus. I had been friends with Emma-Agnes for a few years in school and decided to write a page-long summation of my feelings toward her, apologising for my inappropriate biological urges impeding on our friendship. I expressed regret that I was attracted to her, and understood entirely if she’d want to sever our union and banish me, even though we took the same train daily, the same classes, and a few tutorials. To my surprise, she wasn’t repulsed and we carried on as friends. A few months later I wrote a second letter asking if we might go to lunch together, if that wasn’t too forward, and I would pay for her meal, if that wasn’t too sexist an attitude to take. She agreed.
And it progressed at this pace over the year. I eventually wrote her a letter requesting a lip-to-lip exchange, which occurred a month after the letter had been sent. Emma-Agnes already had a boyfriend at this stage, and would fall pregnant a few months later, but she kept up her side of the agreement. On an empty train carriage, I leaned in for the exchange. I hovered close to her face, then stopped to ask her if this was the correct angle for a satisfying “kiss.” She nodded and egged me on cordially. There was contact: her lips were a little sticky from lipgloss, so it was like kissing a Jelly Baby’s innards. After the peck, I was on the point of collapse. She was offering a second, more fuller exchange, but I decided that was enough for one afternoon. Absolutely marvellous. (You may baulk, but we shy people take what we get in this life, and when we love, we love like dying men crying out for morphine).
She left to have her baby a few months later and I didn’t see her again. It seemed she preferred the father of her child to me. I guess he was a little more assertive a lover. Ah well, the delirium of young love! This book is good.
I am drawn to Harry Mathews—eighty-year-old Anglo-French poet, essayist, novelist and American Oulipian—largely because the Dalkey Archive Press publish a large wodge of his novels, and I respect the Dalkey Archive Press more than I respect all the world’s leaders and notable persons. So I am willing myself to love Mr. Mathews although his work is perched on the inscrutable side of potential literature—his games come with no instruction manual. Not so in this short collection of sixty-one vignettes of people masturbating across the world: here, these elegant little paragraphs are a characteristically (of the Oulipo) naughty formal experiment. Imagine that scene in Amelie where Ms. Tatou imagines everyone having sex in Paris at that precise moment, but in autoerotic terms. A lovely volume with watercolour illustrations from Francesco Clemente—it takes only twenty minutes to read, about as long as it takes to achieve climax. Or longer if you, you know.
Regard the mushroom people: their Vauxhalls are emblematic of an anti-inflatory ecosystem. To decode their literature, commit the following procedure.  Insert a zucchini into the Upper Ventilation Shaft, taking time to scalp the rogue dripping insidious seedpeople.  Suggest a mode of dance for the staplers. Do not describe their weevils as disrespectful. You risk criticism from the unholy arc of M.J. Nicholls—a disgraceful cannibal among the pigeons.  Caulk the skirting boards of the Shadek Temple for the arrival of Prince Edward Island, the foremost performers of foul-mouthed Scottish indie. When the sky tilts upwards, regard this review as a rather obvious parody, and scoff at grade nine, then torch the weak badgers: their sides are green. Fire a warning shot at the rich and overly educated author, Mr. “Ben Marcus,” and perhaps comment on his producing a work of such slick literariness after his five million dollar private education at Brown etcetera. Retract this comment as sour grapes or dour skates.When all is over, regardez-vous the debut as sub-Italo Calvino and dismiss it with a cavalier contempt, then go looting for peachier literary treasures amid the salt.
A “challenging” and “difficult” work of “experimental” criticism that shows me up as the third-rate wannabe hack who can’t close-read for toffee that I am. Jack Green was (or is, or was) an underground crank who wrote first-rate criticism in lowercase and no punctuation in his newspaper (ah—how things have changed . . . oh um oh hmm) and this work torpedoing lazy reviewing was published without his consent in the early nineties. The pieces date from the 1950s, and take Gaddis’s The Recognitions as their springboard to call all reviewer clichés into question: all of which exist today, all of which I have committed at some point. (Things such as comparisons to other authors, calling the writer “erudite” and the prose “challenging” or “something that will mature over several reads.”) The overall product is a pedantic, passionate defence of an uncategorisable novel (am I falling into the trap?) and a reminder that criticism should aspire to meticulous text dissection and laser-eyed close reading. Nowadays, only published authors review books in national papers: a step forward or a sideways lunge into incompetence? Jack would know, the bastard. [P.S. I don't want to read The Recognitions. It sounds bloody difficult.]
This frustrated and tickled me in equal measure. I adored the frenetic pace, the comedic chutzpah and cartwheeling craziness in the manner of Ishmael Reed or D. Keith Mano’s Take Five. The language was serpentine, maximal and gushed out like golden fonts from a tyke’s diaper (or nappy, if you’re British, which you aren’t, are you?) BUT. And here’s a big but . . . I like big buts and I cannot lie. This exhaustive style, in today’s hypertwitchy reading world, lends itself to the weary page-scan, the lazy skip-scan-skip until the dialogue kicks in or a paragraph break finally pops up from the descriptive shrubbery. So I think that’s Elkin’s downfall as a novelist: he’s too damn sesquipedalian in this age of the decircumlocutious.
But I thought the ride was a scream: Ben is a sublime comedic schmuck, a perverse inversion of the American Dream, and his adopted family of afflicted brothers and sisters tenderises the savage. BUT. There are moments of sexual wish-fulfilment (i.e. seventies retro stuff), a little tasteless satiric cruelty (killing off his cast of lovelies in ha-ha-disgusting ways), and that endless gush of words floods what would otherwise be a bitter and lean satire. Elkin’s own troubles with MS are channelled through Ben in a detached but “recognised” way, i.e. he doesn’t drown the problem in humorous abandon. But he leaves us too mired in his vast imaginative bog to touch a tangible emotion. I will read another Elkin. [P.S. This book has the ugliest cover Dalkey has ever designed! Look at it!]
One of the funniest curios from 60s postmodernism, this typopathic novel has the bitchingest range of stretchy fonts and the craziest kerning of any apparently serious work still in print. An attempt to link “penetrating” a woman’s body to “penetrating” the body of a text, or something like that, it’s more an excuse to splice sexy nude shots of a dusky model with outrageously dated textual effects and high modernist gibberish. All right, William Gass would never accept that explanation, but hey, this was the sexy sixties—surely some of that avant-garde fairydust touched the recent writer of Omensetter’s Luck? Some of the textual effects, thought radical in Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, are used here in a more condensed form in this part dense literary novella, part Playboy special. (And yes, they appear to have airbrushed out the model’s navel on the cover, sexist pigs). A fun oddity for formfreaks.
Curtis White’s father fixation reaches its summit in this short novel, blending parodies and shifting forms to create what David Foster Wallace calls a “witheringly smart, grotesquely funny, grimly comprehensive, and so moving as to be wrenching” piece of work. This is what Jack Green might call in reviewing terms a “boner”—quoting someone else’s words to pad out the review instead of having to formulate an opinion. But I’ve been reviewing all over the place this weekend and, I might add, on my own here in the GR offices—no one else has read one single book this weekend out of one hundred-odd friends. Is anyone reading this December? This is another digression to stop me having to speak about the book. OK. You win. Curtis White is terrific—his work runs largely on comic vignettes that pass into the “wrenching” and personal, with a style somewhere between the ironist excesses of Sorrentino and the trickery of Coover. Jack Green would call that a boner also—playing the comparison game to cover an absence of useful analysis. Ah. Who cares. What’s on TV?
I find growing up such a strain, partly since I’ve hit my middle twenties and I can’t seem to get on with it. All the routines of life—unemployment, infidelity, alcoholism—I look upon with wry amusement, as mere targets for my satiric inner child to mock from my ivory tower. This novel paints a cynically accurate portrait of teenagehood (at least among rich Catholic kids) as texting thugs driven by spite, sex and sleeping pills. And the adults too are misguided souls, aimlessly searching for an elusive whatever in a disappointing and cold world. But for the duration, Skippy Dies is a manic not-really-coming-of-age-at-all novel written in a range of delicious close third-person narratives, flipping between breathless teenage babble, a convenient scientific genius (helps add cosmic heft), and an adult pedagogue with a wandering penis. The sublime comic energy that infuses this novel guides the reader through its giddying 600+ density, through its crass humour, teenage theatrics, comic caricature, towards the unusual ending where it withers into oblivion like the sequel to Carrie. Now back to my miserable life . . .
Here’s something to warm the cockles this Christmas (what are cockles anyway? do cockles fit in a stocking and are cockles an acceptable present for a nephew?)—a Zola novel with a happy ending! Happy, that is, if you happen to be a pious foundling embroiderer with aspirations to sainthood who wins her Prince Charming after having her heart crushed and submitting to her parents’ pessimistic wishes and God’s will, who is brought back to life two minutes from death by a snog from an archbishop who also happens to be future hubby’s father. I think that qualifies as happy, or indeed a cogent English sentence. I want cockles for Christmas. Please send this starving boy all your cockles!
I’m applying for positions of paid work at the moment (known as a “job”—so I’m told), and after about a month of no replies I’m about ready to sign up for the convent. I would love to be a nun! Provided I had computer and broadband access, and was permitted to read any book I so pleased, I’d put on my habit and sing the sacraments! Unfortunately all the nun positions are filled at the moment, despite me faking three months nunning experience on my CV. (I’m considering changing the name on my CV to Jeffrey Archer, since everything else on there is made up—British joke, Google the bestselling turd). This book is amazing! Diderot is such a fiendishly funny satirist, wiping the floor with all his 18thC cronies. The Nun takes us from a sadistic convent regime of starving and torture into a sumptuous world of desirous shephebes (my coinage—hire me someone!), in breathless first-person prose: excellent rhythm, pacing and plotting. And a wee bit titillating. The book was originally orchestrated as a hoax, which makes me love Diderot even more.
So . . . the war. The Second one. Or is that the Second One? Do we capitalise all Things Pertaining to the War? I think it’s appropriate to capitalise when referring to the Greatest Atrocity in All of Mankind . . . or if not appropriate, respectful. And people, well, people keep writing books about It. That War. That Pesky War! This near-1000-page novel is the rambling testament of SS officer Dr. Max Aue, devoted Hauptsturmführer (Captain), later Standartenführer (Major), semi-repentant monster and lunatic, following his humble beginnings liquidating all non-Aryans to his time, uh, liquidating all non-Aryans.
The novel is written in a flat first-person prose, heavily factual with some surgical dissections of the narrator’s complex emotional life. The breadth of research on display is outstanding (Littell spent five years researching and less than a year writing the book) and the reader gets swept along in these rhythmic flows of gruesome insider information—blandly descriptive horrors keep the reader going through shock, acting as an unfortunate emotional catalyst. Largely, however, the book is about the collapsing bureaucracy of the Nazi regime, rendering absurd their illogical brand of single-minded barbarism as a kind of Weltanschauung through cold unbiased fact.
Critics of the book complain about the narrator’s obsession with excrement, but excrement acts as an unpleasant metaphor for his disturbed mental state, for the rotten world of wartime Europe—Max Aue might have murdered his mother and stepfather, and still holds a torch for his sister whom he sodomised as a teenager. This warped one-way romance builds to a devastating pitch 900 pages in (worth the wait) where he falls into a perverse erotic fantasy, merging his body to his sister’s by writhing in her bed sheets, imagining himself back in the snug seat of his mother’s womb. The suggestion being Max, nor his colleagues, should have ever left the womb, or ever ceased being infants.
Plus, critics hate long novels. They have to review four or five per week, they can’t be doing with 1000-page monsters with conflicting moral messages. This Novel About the War, however, is an absolutely breathtaking piece—a fresh and contentious addition to an already bursting market. Sure, it has its flaws: suffocating marshes of micro-detail and long dialogues between SS officers of an often tedious nature, but the overall execution is coolly done, as if JG Ballard had written about the War. Oh, hang on . . . So, if you have a spare 25 hours this week, make this one a priority. A modern classic? No. But damn good.
As a deliberate contrast to Jonathan Littell’s 1000-page monster The Kindly Ones, I re-read this early Vonnegut masterpiece. The 1997 Robert B. Weide adaptation with Nick Nolte is one of my favourite movies, and where the novel is structured in typical nonlinear fashion, the movie embellishes and adds colour to the novel in its linear form. The two mediums complement each other perfectly, so if you haven’t seen the film version, do it soon! And if you haven’t read this brilliant novella, the confessions of Howard W. Campbell Jr., an American spy posing as a high-ranking American Nazi whose talent for writing propaganda makes him one of the most powerful fascists of the war, do it soon too! Some criticise Vonnegut’s writing for its Twain-like simplicity, but Vonnegut is a great economiser, and his novels demonstrate a perfect mastery of tone, rhythm and moral rightness, never shying away from the moving humanism that underpins his greatest work. This novella is so freaking wonderful it’s unreal. Read me!
This book has the dubious honour of being the 400th book I’ve read over the last two years, the first being John Barth’s appalling Coming Soon!!! (whose three exclamation marks speak of a desperation undignified for such a dignified dignitary). If you think I’m some sort of freak who lives in a tin house with nine cats, you’d be right, only I don’t have cats and I live in a Glasgow flat with ceilings so high all the heat collects ten feet above me. As a consequence I write this enswaddled in fur (from the nine cats I skinned) and a pair of velvet-lined slippers, with a cup o’ warm coffee afore me. Check out MFSO’s review, which includes a chemical formula and more hybridised words than is healthy from a man under thirty, and check out Knig-o-lass’s review which gushes and splutters love for this Russian curio. Me? I found the novel badly structured, slipshod, drearily eloquent like early Nabokov, bereft of character or style, and frankly an overcooked turkey. I do concede that the final chapter, esp. the mother’s suicide, gives a sharp shock, but that’s about all the novel does, gives a series of sharp shocks. Plus, cocaine only features in the last sixty pages, it’s also “novel with dull schoolboy reflections” and “novel with prostitute” for the duration. Read only if you’re desperate to out-weird your bookish friend who’s always sniffing out of print relics from yesteryear.
17. Kurt Vonnegut — Breakfast of Champions
Kurt at his most caustic, rambunctious and playful. When Vonnegut releases Kilgore Trout into the world on his fiftieth birthday and he looses the ghost of his father, this scabrous novel becomes a personal and moving account of a man, his father, and a big old lemon of a world. There’s an early clip of Kurt reading from this on YouTube, where the tale was told in first-person from Dwayne Hoover’s POV (and Kurt was but a phantom), but the third-person narrator opens up the metafictional element that proves integral to the heart of the novel. But listen: this is a furious assault against all that
A collection of essays, speeches, ramblings unearthed on his hard drive(s), one short story culled from a BBC annual, and the titular unfinished Dirk Gently novel. The essays are breezy and witty, often lacking focus when discussing science and technology, but comprise (realistically) the most readable of his non-fiction output. There are some readers, yours included, who feel Adams spent himself on the Hitchhiker’s books: although the Dirk Gentlys were absurdist romps sutured with awesome logic, they didn’t hang together as novels. The short excerpt from The Salmon of Doubt, however, might prove me wrong: the usual warmth and humour is present, although in nascent form, (the narration even slips from third into first person, a sign of Adams’s dissatisfaction). But all in all, nobody who loves Adams could resist reading this book, despite snoozing through the travel/nature pieces to get to the stuff they want. It’s a pleasing gallimaufry. Savour it, because there is no more.