Thursday, 31 March 2011

My Month in Novels (Mar)

Nothing beats sitting down to read in a warm room with your feet upon a freshly squeezed lemon. Here are some books I read with my tongue hanging out. Review from the ever-unpopular site Goodreads.

1. Donald Barthelme — Forty Stories

I don't know what happened. There I was, excited to cadge a library copy of a Barthelme book, a rarity on these shores, having stored up eight months of warm feelings for
Sixty Stories. But no. It all came crashing down with this insufferable series of self-ironising experiments, non sequiturs, intellectual masturbations and opaque parodies.

What happened? Well, it is entirely possible
Sixty Stories exhausted the capabilities of Mr. B, so widely adored among the McSweeney's generation, serving up an inferior batch of stories. Nothing here took off in the same insanely original, witty and definitively weird way as the previous collection. There wasn't a story in here I'd want to have repeated intercourse with for months on end before lovingly slicing the warts off my cock.

And that's a shame. That is grand old shame.

2. Rikki Ducornet Phosphor in Dreamland

Magical, delicious, fishy novel.

3. Nicholson Baker The Mezzanine

I wrote a longer post on this earlier.

4. Italo Calvino Mr. Palomar

I'm not one of your starry-eyed prose-droolers who appreciates beautiful writing on its own terms. I need formal innovation or structural complexity or dazzling dialogue or knee-snapping humour to keep me amused amid the lexical contortionism. This makes Calvino an infuriating bedfellow: his Oulipo-era prose is constructed with tight mathematical rigidity, yet what comes through in this work is the shiny artifice of his prose, the sparkly poetics of the Cosmicomics. Not good.

Well . . . I don't whether it's exhaustion from reading the dizzingly obsessive The Mezzanine, but this reflective novel didn't move me particularly. Hats off to the rigorous structure, though, and that final chapter: beautiful. (I'm not averse to a little beauty on its own terms).

5. Roberto Bolaño The Skating Rink
So once again I find myself pulled into the world of novellas and short fictions, knowing I can finish these books in a day or two, feeding my book addiction with quicker and thicker thrills, piling up the novels until somehow the outside world subsumes itself into the fictional realm, leaving me free to write my own lurid and oblivious end. I wanted Monsieur Pain, but some lightning snarfler got in there first, leaving me with this charming whodunit narrated by three quite samey-sounding men. Not the bulkiest, beefiest Bolaño, not by a long chalk, but a squirrely suspension of the form nonetheless, alive with the same breathless haste as other Robbie books.

6. Vladimir Nabokov The Eye

And again, forgoing the chance to spend a week souping through Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, I chose this 90-page quickie, written not by Nabokov but by Naboko, as the cover confirms, a dazzling novella (filed in my shelves under novels, I find sub-shelving a tedious business) involving a nameless narrator who shoots himself and hovers around the story waiting for the penny to drop.

Naboko's prose is at its rippling glorious peak in the suicide scenes: never has a writer scalped the human mind with such savage laser-vision, and although attentive readers will guess the twist after the bullet is shot (I did, look ma, I'm clever!), there's no earthly reason for bypassing this suspenseful short, unless you're still souping through Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle, in which case, The Eye sees you, he is waiting.

7. Alasdair Gray Ten Tales Tall & True

Consistency isn't Alasdair's strong point. He compulsively drops clangers following masterworks: regard the patchy Unlikely Stories, Mostly following Lanark and the dreadful A History Maker following the triumphant Poor Things. No, I tell a lie: this was released after Poor Things, but please don't contradict me, I'm tired and my mother told me about a horrible murder earlier, so I'm not in the mood for your smartness.

Ahem. Well, this is a rather slight collection, the stories twee or semi-polemical or simple, with short forays into wonky experiment, as in the logic-mashing 'You' (where the second-person present is deployed by the reader rather than author) or the cute 'Fictional Exits' (where art is the only escape from life's disasters).

All in all, it's not a work of staggering talent or originality but Gray had already written his masterpiece, so everything after that was gravy. The best piece in here is the straight autobiography 'Mr Meikle.' And please, Goodreads stop telling me my reading list is growing and asking me to share on Facebook, or so help me God I will cut you into meaty chunks and serve you with pickled duck farts.

8. Dorothy Nelson Tar and Feathers

This is a bugger, really: there are so many technical problems with this novel it's almost an outright failure, but on a gut level Nelson punches and spars with the toughest Oirish miserabilists.

There's a massive issue with narrative POV, the story leaping from Ma to Da to Ben in very confusing shifts, sometimes Ben narrates for Da or Ma, causing huge logical rifts in the novel, and more directly, the high literary style doesn't seem to fit with the class of criminal scallies being portrayed.

On a prose level, it's all about the style: the kitchen-sink flashiness of classical Celtic despair. If you thought Angela's Ashes was for sissies, this is the book for you.

9. Alan Warner Morvern Callar

Morvern is a troubled young woman from a fictitious Highland fishing village who walks into an inheritance after her boyfriend slashes his wrists in her front room.
She goes abroad, goes to the pub, gets a book she didn't write published, works in the supermarket, goes abroad again and goes clubbing very many times both home and abroad. She remains as inscrutable and strange as possible, allowing the reader little window into her semi-psychotic mind, leaving them entertained but bemused. Same thing in the film. It's good.

10. Zadie Smith On Beauty

This is a book full of unbeautiful people: obnoxious teenagers, philandering academics, stuffy professors, right-on street rappers, wispy rich kids and more obnoxious teenagers. Zadie takes a scalpel to Anglo-American academic relations, probing away at the race/class issues with her usual mordant unflinching cruelty and compassion. She plants a series of depth charges in the lives of her wibbling characters, watching them each explode in turn into quivering heaps of gloopy suet. As ever, the ride is a scream.

11. Eva Figes Nelly's Version

A sleepy novel about an amnesiac who wakes up in a strange hotel room and goes for long boring pastoral walks which are described in painful detail, and meets an old (maybe) friend who has an unlikely dialogue with her in a shop before being violently assaulted and then her (maybe) son turns up and she acts haughty towards him for the whole book and then she has wrinkly sex with her (maybe) husband and then looks in mirrors then does something or other but the book peters off with no real climax or interest and the dull prose sends the reader into a sleepy haze as the narrator walks through another dreary field and the trees are described and the plot is left to the reader to explain because the writer has finished now and has other things to do.

12. Hubert Selby Jr. Last Exit to Brooklyn

A searing sift through the slurried slums of post-war Brooklyn. The only book that uses shock, violence and vulgarity to depict a world of tragic isolation that truly pierces the heart, gets you so deeply you feel you are THERE, in this boneyard of brittle bones and broken bodies, crying and fighting and fucking and SHOUTING AT YER FREAKIN KIDS TA SHUT THERE TRAPS.

Selby's editor on this book was Gilbert Sorrentino, who helped Selby refine his extraordinarily precise style, his pitch-perfect dialogue, distinctive abuse and misuse of punctuation, his staggering pacing. His essay in the collection Something Said illuminates the construction of these elegant art-bombs, unlocking the complexity and beauty in Selby's compostions.

Best Brooklyn novel, bar none.

13. Martin Amis The Moronic Inferno and Other Visits to America

A slim and sedulous selection of Marty's early-80s US travels. His status as an author and critic has grown considerably since 1986, so this collection lacks any relevance or substance, contemporary-wards, but there are good pieces. Bellow, Updike, Roth, Mailer, Vonnegut, Capote, Heller. They're all here. (And all dead). *

Marty's non-fiction output is rather thin on the ground. Apart from the tremendous collection The War Against Cliché we could use more articles and opinions from Britain's more desireable sexagenarian. I'm looking at you, Penguin.

* OK, except Roth. Not long to go now!

14. Nicola Barker Five Miles From Outer Hope

A swift, impish novella from the refreshingly oddball Hackney genius. Medve is your narrator: an acid-tongued sixteen-year-old with a line in erudite putdowns. (Except the story is narrated twenty-odd years in the future, with the narrator doing the voice of her teenage self — the logic is a little messy. Anyway).

Medve's world is turned on its head when a smelly South African ex-medic comes to stay in her father's derelict hotel. His determination to inspect her vagina becomes an increasing bugbear (as well as his inappropriate singing on fishing boats), so Medve exacts a fiendish revenge by hiding a rubber caterpillar up her cootch and pulling it out by a slippery cove. Much to his disgust and dismay.

Yes. This is Nicola Barker's realm, all right. It's fast and funny and sordid and silly. With an entirely uncalled-for serious wrap-up ending. Wide Open is her best book, but this is a charming little comic performance.

15. Carol Ann Sima Jane's Bad Hare Day

This is the closest we will ever get to a high-brow, experimental version of Sex & the City.

It’s set in the Big Thrapple and focuses on one woman’s (Jane’s) adventures: being pleasured by retroussé noses, purchasing shoes, being filed on first (divorce victim), trying to stop her father fucking drains and her mother fucking walls, groping the lift operator, teaching her best friend how to pleasure men, and having more random nose sex.

The end result is tiresome screwball farce written in the choppiest style, like a series of sassy hiccups. Being a DAP book, the language and wordplay is first-rate, and the humour is outrageous and funny, but it doesn’t really form a novel as such. More like a selection of aperitifs ranging from delicious to tasteless to horrible to lipsmacking.

The end result: a monumentally unusually so-so book.

16. J.G. Ballard Super-Cannes

A business complex in Cannes is gradually overtaken by a psychopathic philosophy, threatening a Third World War. As in all JG Ballard novels, the narrator’s perversities are explored, the veneer of wealth and success is lifted, and an underworld of crime and sickness unleashed.

This is Ballard’s longest novel and doesn’t benefit from its chunkiness. In fact, the detective novel plot and overabundant description make this a less successful work from the master of short-form fiction. It also doesn’t help that this novel is a retread of Cocaine Nights, moved from London to France (and featuring few actual French people).

For diehard Ballardians only.

17. Dubravka Ugrešić The Ministry of Pain

A profoundly intelligent take on Serb/Croatian emigré life following the death of Yugoslav Prime Minister Josip Toto. Tanja is a teacher living in Amsterdam responsible for a Croatian literature programme, who realises her students are much more interesting than her topic.

Very fresh, witty and moving.

18. McSweeney's Issue 17

This issue is an exercise in world-class parody, with top marks for invention and attention-to-detail. Arriving in a clump of documents belonging to one Sgt Maria Vasquez, the issue spoofs the spam mail letter in the form of a ‘spam manuscript’ (a novel excerpt printed on double-sided A4) and a series of automobile and trout photographs.

The stories themselves are entirely incidental, included in a spoof literary quarterly called Unfamiliar. It is what McSweeney’s might have become without the vision and money of Dave Eggers. The stories are presented in a split-page format, and are largely short and unfocused. They are also noticeably weaker than the other McSweeney’s works, which feels like a conscious effort to lampoon the editorial standards of their sham magazine, although I might be wrong. (They cop out on the credits page by listing ‘McSweeney’s contributors.’ Boo!)

The centrepiece of this issue is a painstakingly compiled scientific magazine, Yeti Researcher. A full-length ur-spoof, this tedious and fascinating document explores the bigfoot myth, squeezing every last drop of plausibility from its long discursive essays. The end result is laudable for going full-out and making the whole endeavour entirely convincing. There is no way of knowing this would be a parody to outsiders.

Other items include a padded envelope of gorgeous modern art and a thigh-slapping advert for a garments company specialising in stick-together clothes with shared armholes and hoods. Top marks. (Minus one for the actual featured writing).

19. Agnes Owens A Working Mother

A crisp, fluent, fluid, exhilarating tale of a working mother’s descent into alcoholism. Owens’s prose is simple, unshowy, her characters addictively vile and unhinged. She opts not to write in dialect, or give a sense of place, though the world here is probably 1960s Glasgow. The story strikes a note of heartbreak from the first offhand man and wife quarrel, and sustains this with black humour, erudite dialogue and brusque scene-leaping.

Read Agnes Ownes now! Feast your eyes on this sensationally clever prose!

20. Slinkachu Little People in the City

They're tiny!

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Creative Non-Fiction – Second Slurpings

I thought I’d add to the insightful and delicious posts written on this topic (a staggering sumtotal of one) with a brand new sense-check-point. (A point to sense-check).

TANGENT: This blog used to be a place where I poured opinions and thoughts into the vacant punchbowl of my unconscious. Most of the time I spend reading novels and writing fiction and engage in no conversations about actual occurrences taking place in the actual world. The vacuum I have chosen to inhabit is one built on a foundation of misanthropic distance, a poor vantage point at the outpost of human suffering.

I am planning to write a creative non-fiction book about gaming addiction. Our classes have primped us for the task: I now have clear ideas about structure, tone and narrative position (exclusive terms for MA students! terms I would not have used over a year ago!) and look forward to sinking my teeth into this unfathomable undertaking.

TANGENT: The phrase ‘non-fiction’ still sends me lunging under the desk in terror. When I was a wayward undergrad and looked to the future I saw two paths: decadence and penury as a writer, or teaching snotball kiddies in Caldercruix High School. I chose the former. I have no authority to impart. I am not a voice of authority: I take notes, I listen to the wisdom of others. Facts and their arrangement is not my trade.

Right now I’m working on a detailed book proposal. (This is a lie. I spent the weekend reading McSweeney’s and the rather fabulous Dubravka Ugrešić. But let’s pretend). The proposal shouldn’t be an insult to the senses if I assume the reins of this bolting colt and take authorial control like a big grownup writer who knows what he wants.

I am concerned about research. I have a short attention span for facts and will have to process these truth-bombs in short shocks. To counter each truthfulness gleaned from the internet’s banks of bullshit I will need a shot of memoir action to keep me going. Which explains the memoir/investigation structure I’ve chosen for this purpose. Help to be found in the strategic arrangement of pages and their contents.

TANGENT: A train station opened in my hometown last month. When I went there, this ludicrous zigzag staircase unfurled along the line beside a car park barren of cars and a platform barren of life. Since I was a child there has only been one direction out of there, and the option to go RIGHT opened up such a wound of space I burst into tears.

The course has been discursive, with guests such as Kate Summerscale, David Miller, David Robinson and Edward Hollis who each contributed invaluable information on proposals, structuring and tickling the investigative spirit. Beneath this impenetrable cloak of despair I wear, this sardonic waistcoat I trail around like a string of porky entrails, I feel optimistic.

TANGENT: Optimistic being a synonym for delusional.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

My Latest Book

In this award-winning exposé, Rudeness Among Jewish Realtors, award-winning novelist M.J. Nicholls uncovers the truth behind the seemingly pleasant world of realtors in a Jewish enclave of Los Angeles.

Nicholls speaks to former realtors who give a frank and honest portrayal of their obnoxious and hurtful trade. “Sometimes guys would refer to their penises as their willies,” says one witness. “That kind of talk is inappropriate in a profession that thrives on decorum and friendliness. They should know better, especially on the Sabbath.”

“They shouldn’t be working or referring to their genitalia on the Sabbath,” says another witness. “The Sabbath is a holy day, not a day for walking around using horrible slang words for the penis and going to work.” Other witnesses speak of horrible acts: drinking Pepsi when speaking to clients, applying make-up when on the phone, cursing in Yiddish, and quoting long passages of the Talmud while drawing up contracts.

Nicholls takes an unflinching look at this world of kosher horrors and architectural sloppiness. One reviewer says: “Everything you wanted to know about Jewish realtors, and everything you didn’t want to know about Jewish realtors. It’s all here. And then some. Shabbat shalom.”

Order now from Monkey Spine Press, £100

Thursday, 17 March 2011

One Day I Bought a Cactus

One day I bought a cactus. That isn’t interesting. No. Cactuses – or cacti – don’t usually open stories with a flourish. This cactus, however, had several strange properties.

Firstly, it was bald. It was a slaphead cactus. In the same way a baby can remain hairless into toddlerhood, this poor cactus was smooth and snug in its adulthood. When I got it home, I ran my tongue along its stems, tasting its green silkiness. I checked its underside for spikes. I watered it hourly so it might realise its full cactus potential.

Secondly, it refused to grow unless I played it thumping drum ‘n’ bass music. This genre involves a dump-dump-dump-dump beat that never seems to end. To this music, the cactus wiggled its three prongs, expressing an acute sense of timing.

This isn’t where the strangeness ends, however. Oh no. One afternoon, having left the flat with a thundertrance raveup on the ipod deck, I returned to find the cactus with its largest prong stuck up the cold water tap. How it got there, I have no idea, but the tap was running at full power when I pulled it free. The cactus appeared to be absorbing the water! Little bleeder was soaking up it like a parched Laurence of Arabia!

I decided to conduct a little experiment. I placed the cactus and a jug of water on the floor. Next, I put on Roni Size’s classic New Forms LP. Then I left the room, leaving the door ajar. I slammed the front door, pretending to have absconded the flat in case the cactus was reluctant to be seen. I tip-toed back into the hall. From a crack in the door, I watched it leaping around the room, dancing in a sexual frenzy to the music.

Well. I was quite taken aback. I had never seen a small potted plant letting loose with such abandon before. It flexed its stems in time to the thumping beats, spinning across the carpet and doing 360° flips. When the song was over, it leapt into the jug and drained it dry in under ten seconds. How much water it consumed! And how quickly!

Charmed by my funky plant, I set up a camera to record his crazy dances. I found a rusty bathtub in the shed and filled it to the brim with water. Leaving the people-shy performer to his own devices, I watched him tear up the garden, flipping and spinning and flexing his stems with undue aggression for a small household plant. More disconcertingly, however, was the sight of him sucking up the entire contents of the bath.

I did wonder. People get dehydrated during raves, and plants thrive on water, but – a whole bath? In under ten seconds? How is it possible for a cactus to drink in and store so much water in so little time? I can only assume he expended so much energy, dancing like mad for an hour, that a whole bath was required to hydrate him again.

My video was attracting millions of hits on YouTube. Most people assumed it was fake, and I was starting to question my own sanity. I bought a second bald cactus from the same garden centre to see what might happen. I set up my bath and camera. They both danced to the music, using each other’s stems to perform sleazier routines, locking together in lewd displays of hedonism. That was enough. I demanded an explanation.

I went to the garden centre, where the sales assistant told me:
“Your hairless cactuses are more playful, fond of acid house culture. They don’t have them spikes in ‘em, you see. You try and do a freeform boogie with a million pricks in yer skin!”

This made sense, in a sense. I couldn’t image someone getting up to breakdance during acupuncture. Was it possible cacti were nature’s dancers, and people had neglected to notice for centuries, favouring only the prickly, static cacti? Yes. It was possible.

Upon further research, I discovered events for cacti who loved getting their groove thang on and went along to a special meet in Eastbourne. The sight of a room full of bald cacti doing a series of complicated dances – the lambada, the watusi and the polka – was a treat. However, I noticed my cacti getting itchy. It was clear they craved a harder, stronger beat. They longed for the clash of those cymbals, the kick of that snare.

The inevitable happened. My cacti began to grandstand. They performed wild, inappropriate dances, elbowing other cacti out of the way and spinning wildly in defiance. I was humiliated. The organisers were furious with me. My cacti ran amok and leapt into the water vat, draining it dry then lying on their backs, panting in ecstasy.

It was clear they were unhinged. They could not be trusted to control their wild urges in public, and were costing me a fortune in water bills. A decision had to be made.

I took them from the flat and, bidding them a wistful farewell, threw them into the local pond. As I shed a tear for my talented dancing plants, I noticed bubbles rising from below the surface. I knew they’d lap up some of the water, but this was ludicrous. After a few minutes, the ducks and swans were being drawn into my cacti’s whirlpool.

They were draining the pond! The thirsty so-and-sos! I looked around, panicking. Had people seen me throwing them in? How could I get them to stop? With their stems extended, and to the amazement of unlookers, they sucked the pond dry within a few minutes while the ducks and swans gave resistance, paddling furiously.

Fortunately, this strange story was to end happily.

Fourteen mallards, nine swans and five geese landed in a pile-up on my cacti, tearing them to pieces. As they munched upon the prongs, the water gushed from their roots, flowing back into the pond in magnificent waves, capsizing chicks and coots. As the pondlife bobbed around the vortex, I walked away, thinking next time I would get a mushroom instead.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

The Madness of The Mezzanine

Whenever I get onto a train I look for the seat farthest from other passengers as possible. If I’m going to read, I need silence, or near silence—I need at least five or six seats distance. Finding the right seat is an exact science. This night, coming home from a concert, I enter the car and there are people spread at an infuriating equidistance apart, almost positioned on purpose at four-seat gaps to upset my four-to-six gap rule. I walk past a few shaggy night-people, including a man lurking at the back who wants to rape me.

Once I’ve passed people walking up the aisle, I don’t want to turn around and go back if the seat situation is more favourable where I came from. I don’t want my behaviour to appear to these passengers, who watch you out of boredom, as odd, and I don’t want it to seem as though I’m dithering because I’m somehow repelled by their presence.*
It’s important to have this sensitivity on a night train, when all passengers are potential rapists and murderers, until proven otherwise.

So I find a seat on the left row in between two solo passengers, with a gap of about three seats in front and two seats behind, with another man two seats ahead on the right row. There’s a group of women conducting a conversation up ahead, their voices quiet at first but getting louder from time to time, competing with the rattle of the train as it speeds up. This will pose the greatest threat to my undisturbed reading of the Nicholson Baker.

The Mezzanine requires concentrated reading and is not ideal for trains. It’s ideal front room reading.*
The book’s protagonist discusses the exaggerated minutiae of certain trivial aspects of his life, from shoelaces to escalator etiquette, to the value of paper towels over hand driers, each topic getting more and more detailed until it becomes absurd comedy, Flann O’Brien style. I read for a few moments before a large giggle hits my ears from across the train. The women misled me. I had expected late-night sleepy train talk, instead I got a rowdier bunch, with one blonde shrieker the ringleader.

I push on, but it becomes impossible. My ears are picking up threads in the conversation, following the repeated half-drunk drivel about some bloke being a dick and someone needing to phone someone and tell him something about being a dick or something because he shouldn’t have said that, whoever he is, the dick. It becomes useless to keep reading knowing this will go on and on, this dick and this phoning of. There are frustrating lurches in the conversation when the woman shuts up, but almost invariably, she will start talking again when I get into a long sentence, forcing me to backtrack and read it again.

There are further dilemmas. I don’t have the greatest eyesight, and the lights on Scotrail trains are diffuse and dim. So reading the footnotes becomes a chore for me, trying to follow these complex sentences in the tiny font under appalling lights, and the darkness outside offers no additional help. I don’t want to bring the book right up close to my eyes, as that can effect my long-range vision, so I have to squint a little or focus really hard. If I’m focusing my eyes, I’ll stop focusing my brain, meaning I’m reading but not taking in the words, their meaning or what’s being said. So there’s no emotional response: no laughter, merely slavish word-counting. There is no point reading like this.

As the train picks up people from other stops, the pressure of concentrating my mind and my eyes becomes impossible, so I stop reading and wait until the women get off. When they do, I start reading again. At the next stop, the paranoia that a psychopath has boarded the train and wants to rape me in the bum becomes so great, I have to look up and make a quick assessment of the new passenger, check his psycho credentials. If he sits behind me, which he does, of course, I’ll have to keep one hand on my possessions, in case he should slide a hand through the half-inch seat gap and steal my valuables. (Or go for my penis).

When the inevitable happens, and I’m alone in the train with a man behind me, I get too paranoid and start thinking about rape and how terrible it might be to get raped tonight. I start thinking how awful it must be to be a woman and be paranoid about getting raped, but here I am, an ugly man, thinking about getting raped, so I’m there already. All I need are the breast implants. There’s no point reading now, not with rape and death on the cards. I start to get a little dour, thinking about other problems—financial, personal, familial—making each problem into something huge and insurmountable, until I can’t stand to even hold the book, so depressed and self-involved have I become in those four minutes.

Soon it’s time to get off. My only concern then is getting away from the rapists. All fourteen of them. Fast.


* This may be the case, depending on the smell of alcohol or cigarettes coming from each passenger. If there’s an especial stink, I will make allowances and escape to the next compartment, if available, or the farther end, if not.

* There are three categories of books: those to be read with extreme patience and concentration in my front room, with next to no sounds except outside traffic or my girlfriend clawing at her keyboard. (Ideally she wouldn’t be in the room, but I read a great deal, and we do live together, so it isn’t exactly plausible to get her to leave while I read. I could try, though.) The other two are bedtime reads: books that can be read while dozing off (to help dozing off). The other can be read on trains: potboilers, thrillers, etc.

Friday, 4 March 2011


I hate the word stasis. It is a hideous, malformed wretch of a word. Look at how the upper case S lords it over the lower case T, like a mother and father from an all-American family, overseeing their ‘asis’ brood. And what about that brood. Regard the two conformist brothers, little S and little S, two uptight swots with crew cuts and matching silver-rimmed spectacles, outsmarting one another on their way to Harvard and Cohen & Cohen Attorneys-At-Law. It is sickening to see such avarice in those so young!

And the girls. Little A, the quiet one, lavishing her role as ditzy repressed girly-girl, mummy’s little treasure, while her show-off sister I dances and sings around the house, poking her needy nose where it isn’t wanted. These two girls will end up like the Bouvier sisters in a crumbling mansion, milking Jackie Onassis until she takes them back to a life they recognise, where the dreams of a once prosperous America seemed only a kiss away.

Say it. Stay-siss. Treating one’s sister like a dog. Like a fowl little beagle who won’t stop yapping and coughs butter pats upon the new shag carpet, who humps the legs of guests, who defecates in the most expensive dog fowling areas, forcing you to take a turd in your hand and toss it into someone’s garden. Someone who is watching and who will telephone the police, who will fetch the Polaroid and snap you. And your hand will stink for hours, because you can’t get to a toilet, because your dog has run off to go eat squirrels.

Stasis. How vile and crude you are, in name, and in meaning! Empires lurch to a halt, kingdoms once ruled with spontaneous wit and invention, benign kingdoms with each newborn a potential Archimedes, a possible Galileo. How you poison all human endeavour with indecision and doubt! You are the wrinkles on our skin, the fat on our thighs, the bags under our eyes, the bitter acknowledgement of lost time.

You are the devil’s juice, you are the cause of all unhappiness. You and your rotten children.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

My Month in Novels (Feb)

Another month has elapsed. I've tried to persuade time to go a little slower, but there's no talking to him. Reviews from Goodreads.

1. Zadie Smith — Changing My Mind

love Zadie Smith. Her essays are so fluid and learned and passionate, so intimate and insightful and intelligent, how could I not love her? Among the pieces collected here include the moving ‘Dead Man Laughing’ about her father (Smith comes from an atypical family background), a horrifying report on Liberian aid workers, and the dissertation ‘The Difficult Gifts of David Foster Wallace.’ Essential fodder for the passionate modern reader.

2. Raymond Queneau — Odile

Another installment in Queneau’s trilogy of romans à clef. The other two novels, The Last Days and A Hard Winter (translated to English but hasn't been reprinted since 1938!) re-imagine Queneau’s youth in a bittersweet and often self-critical way.

This novel is about the perils of trying to live a unique and different life to everyone else. (Who are also trying to live unique and different lives). No matter how hard the protagonist tries, how mathematically he orders his world, he can't escape his feelings for the bland-spoken Odile. A satire on the Communist movement in 1930s Paris (and attack on Breton’s Surrealists) is also here in all its teeth-bearing splendour.

3. Micheline Aharonian Marcom — The Mirror in the Well

A breathtaking erotomanic romp, written in horny run-on sentences and sticky stream-of-consciousness. A woman embarks on an affair with you, the reader, gasping in pleasure at your cunnilingus prowess, until you abandon her for a Parisian with nice boobs. Silliness aside, this is a powerful and original blast.

4. Curtis White — Requiem

Quite astonishing. On a par with the finest Sorrentino, but with a more devastating moral beauty. It's a “documents” novel structured around a Catholic Mass for the Dead that takes a scathing look at modern moral degeneracy. Like the finest experimentalists, White is in a league of his own. And often shockingly religious. (How uncool!)

5. Jane McGonigal — Reality is Broken: How Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World

I’m in two minds about this ambitious beast. On the one hand, the author is clearly bonkers and operating on an epic bandwidth of partial megalomania. On the other hand, her enthusiasm and spirit of uncrushable optimism is a reassuring and powerful thing.

So. What to do? I love the premise of this book—taking games beyond the world of isolationist escapism and applying them to our real lives to bring some of their imaginative wonder to the world. I love some of her ideas. I find her relentless desire to improve and involve charming.

I don’t agree with her diagnosis. Games haven’t dulled our view of the world. The problem comes before games. If we’ve chosen to retreat into games to escape the world, it’s because we’re tired of our politicians, consumer society, our staid relationships with others. It’s natural we’d want some of the magic of gaming in our lives once we’ve started playing. But if we’re collectively depressed as a people, the problem runs deeper.

I digress. The main problem with this book is it’s poorly written. Jane puts her ideas forth like a motivational speaker, stuffing the prose with insufferable buzz words (fiero, epic win, blah blah—pick any page and you’ll find them), diverting our interest in these ideas with this constant yanking attempt to link her concepts and ideas together. Some sentences should simply be shot, such as: “Games help us work together to achieve massively more.”

She’s also far too obsessed with grandeur, using the word ‘epic’ on almost every page. Every single project she proposes requires a level of upbeat peppiness that gamers simply don’t have. She seems to have forgotten that a great percentage of gamers are teenagers, who only want to drink Pepsi and shoot zombies, not participate in epic strategies for saving the world. The scale of these ideas (saving the world for starters, curing global depression for afters) is insane. BARMY, do you hear me? It gets daft quite quickly.

This is the main problem. You can see on this video people struggling to take her seriously, and the slight air of the loony bin about her.

The second half of the book is basically a list of Jane’s own work and is a huge self-pluggathon. I feel these ideas might have been more successful if she was willing to poke fun at herself more—convincing people about this requires someone willing to admit to their madness, a little tongue-in-cheekiness, and let the ideas seep in after. I’m not convinced she has that level of self-awareness, so her sincerity may be her undoing.

Anyway, they laugh at all great visionaries to begin with. I’m backing Team Jane.

6. Alasdair Gray — The Fall of Kelvin Walker

One from Gray’s raging nationalist staple. A confident Scot from a remote village goes to London to make his fame and fortune, but can’t shake his father’s Calvinist guilt. A rather dour book with no redemption. Lovely. (Nice cover, too).

7. Bernard Share — Transit

Transit is a dire absurd farce from the genius behind Inish.

Unlike that book (written in 1966), this one (written in 2009 at the insistence of Dalkey Archive editors, methinks) lacks the same alchemical linguistic brilliance, the rhythmic repetitions and Martian hilarity of his first book.

The same tone of utter chaos reigns, but the humour is random and parochial, the time-leap techniques boring and monotonous. It’s like a cross between Vonnegut’s Timequake and those scenes in Being John Malkovich where Malk is chasing John Cusack through his subconscious. “Little Johnny Malk-a-pee!” The allusions to Flann O’Brien adds pain to a book that groans with misfiring puns and blink-eyed humour that sits gurning on the page like a dead sausage.

Read Inish instead. ‘Tis really rather wonderful.

8. B.S. Johnson — B.S. Johnson Omnibus

Three B.S. Johnsons in one! Praise the Lord! (Though Johnson was an atheist, so praise the gravitational singularity!). Albert Angelo was a quick read, and an exemplary collage novel about a teacher longing for lost love while battling a classroom of London urchins. The experimentation is impressive, ranging from reported speech, first-second-third person narratives, cut-out paragraphs, offensively funny homework, to meandering thoughts. Then there's the legendary cut-through pages, tricking the reader into predicting the plot. A crazy work.


Trawl is a more torturous read: a proper Beckett homage, the prose bound in tight Doric columns with next to no paragraph breaks. A trawlerman (or someone loafing about on a trawler) ponders his isolation in the world on a trip to a Finnish port. The narrative comprises detailed memories, from his childhood in the war, his transfer from working to middle-class, to his various sexual relationships. There are also glorious ruminations on the sea, the sky, the vicissitudes of seafaring life. On the whole this novel is less rewarding: long stretches of the work seem indulgent and tedious. The narrator isn’t convincing or likeable, though glimpses of Johnson’s own past can be seen throughout, which is more interesting.


And for afters, there’s House Mother Normal, stripped of its original subheading “a geriatric comedy.” This is the most typographically innovative work from Johnson, using blank space, kerning and line breaks to tell a mordant story about an OAPs’ home run by a sadistic House Mother. The narrative is told from eight OAP POVs, some sad, some naughty, some bleak. The climax is pitch-black humour more in line with someone like Chris Morris. Pretty astonishing. This Omnibus is essential reading for devotees of the avant-garde, in a time when the avant-garde is no longer sneered at.

9. Joseph Heller — Catch 22

This broad, black comedy spends its time veering between mordantly hilarious and endlessly frustrating. Written before the invention of writing classes, or editors, the prose is outrageously overwritten (adverbs, four nouns instead of one, the whole shebang), but almost always compelling. There is a war going on between your interest in the cast of desperadoes and crooked generals, and your stamina for such fatty page-hogging wordiness.

Overall, though, this book's ambitious non-linearity has to be applauded, despite the word sandwiches, if only for that moment when Yo-Yo removes the dying soldier's flak jacket to reveal a gruesome outpouring of organs. That moment goes down in cinematic and literary history, and is the whole crux of the tragedy. So for those struggling to finish this book (it's the #1 unfinished book on Goodreads), I urge you to keep going.

If you don't keep going, then you'll have to fly more missions. And if you do keep going . . . ah, you know the catch.

10. Vedrana Rudan — Night

Vedrana Rudan is the Lucy Ellmann of Croatia. That will mean nothing to most of you, so I recommend you read this in tandem with Doctors and Nurses and sit in your chair plump with indignation.

Like Lucy, her tone is one of constant raging hormonal madness, blasting everything from the Serbs, the Croats, men, women, children, work, life, well . . . little is sacred in this woman's bleak and bitter rant.

Some may be offended by the personal insults to the reader (we are called “cunts” more than five times throughout), but this rant serves a greater purpose: to underline the insanity and inhumanity of wartime life during the Serb/Croat conflict. Some scenes will make you upchuck your liver. Powerful stuff.

11. Kurt Vonnegut — Armageddon in Retrospect

A fine collection of posthumous writings, themed around Kurt’s wartime experiences in Dresden. There are some truly essential stories here, among them ‘Just You & Me, Sammy’ and the wonderfully crafty ‘The Commandant’s Desk.’

12. Gabrielle Burton — Heartbreak Hotel

An impressive, innovative novel, though ultimately exhausting and not comprehensively satisfying.

13. Ron Loewinsohn — Magnetic Field(s)

I was attracted, magnetically, to this novel after a glowing analysis of Loewinsohnian poetics in Sorrentino’s essay collection Something Said. I also can't deny the attraction to a novel that shares the namesake of Stephin Merritt’s chamber-pop legends (same name, more committed plural).

Well. Letdowns all round. The novel comprises three sections, two 45 pages in length, buttressing the centrepiece, which is a prim 90 pages. This is symmetrical structurally: 45 pages per hour, four hours reading in total. The book, as you may suspect, uses the magnetic field as a pull for its characters, plot, language, recurring images, etc.

Essentially what we have are three separate stories, loosely connected to one another through Loewinsohnian poetics. The first concerns a burglar and the metaphysics of burglary. The second is a lengthy ramble about a depressed teenager who writes concrete music and kills himself. The last is a male fantasy snore about a middle-aged academic dating a supermodel.

The prose is fluid, clever and stylish, but strikes an authorial distance that makes it hard for us to care. So in the end, I didn’t.

14. Ivan Goncharov — Oblomov

I adore classic Russian literature, more so than classic English or American. It was always a regret of mine that I never got to study any Russians, having opted to do an English/Scottish university degree in 2004. Still: regrets, regrets.

Oblomov is a sentimental satire, poking fun at the indolence of the landed gentry and the indecision of the ruling class leading to ruin and shame. The hero is a dreamer who struggles to get out of bed until one day he meets Olga, who he woos and courts and then loses through laziness, taking to his bed again until devious clerks start wheedling his money. It’s all very miserable and melodramatic, like all great Russian lit.

The novel isn't always economical with plot: there are stretches of soupy indulgence with the Oblomov’s Dream chapter, and later sections detailing Olga’s thoughts and feelings feel utterly inconsequential to the story. Anywho, Oblomov himself is a tragic hero, cut from the Rashkolnikov or Underground Man cloth. Recommended for Tolstoyians and your cheerier Dostoevskyians.

15. Deborah Levy — Ophelia and the Great Idea

An interesting collection: metaphysical, cerebral and playful. A book for actual grown-ups. Fancy that.

16. Vladimir Nabokov — Transparent Things

I read this exhilarating novella in a two-hour burst, knees bumped with bliss, hands clasped in delight, eyes lacquered to the page.

This is Nabokov's penultimate novel, before the “doddery” (so says Martin Amis) Look at the Harlequins, and not including his unfinished posthumous one, The Original of Laura. This is part of his trilogy of “nympholepsy novels” (so says Amis again), and shows the cartwheeling prose gymnastics of the last great Russian writer at their finest. Essential.

17. Manuel Puig — Eternal Curse on the Reader of These Pages

A novel written (almost) entirely in dialogue, like
A Closed Book or Deception, both written (almost) entirely in dialogue.

This removes any authorial presence from the book, and as Barthesian and savvy as this is, the technique falls flat when explanations are needed for what can’t be conveyed in dialogue. This novel concerns an old man, who may or may not be an Argentinean gangster, and his hired companion, who may or may not be a failed academic, who tell stories to one another, which may or may not be lies, but mostly (sometimes) are.

That's as lucid as this novel gets, and the mystery isn’t really very interesting, nor is it resolved very well: Puig chooses to break the form by tacking on a series of explanatory letters afterwards, wimping out a little and leaving the reader even more bemused. Having said that, the novel is rather good fun, by turns witty and dark and interesting.

(I admit to having lost the thread halfway through and soldiering on. If someone would like to patronise me and explain things I really don’t mind).

18. Mark Barrowcliffe — The Elfish Gene: Dungeons, Dragons and Growing Up Strange

I’m doing some early research for a possible creative non-fiction book about gaming addiction. I spent my childhood hooked on Sega Mega Drive and Playstation games, withdrawing from the outside world into a realm of spinning hedgehogs and spinning bandicoots.

I can relate, then, to the author of this memoir, who spent his teenhood hooked on Dungeons & Dragons. The central difference between an addiction to an RPG like this and video games is human contact. The RPG involves interacting with other people, being very theatrical and confident in yourself. The video game supports a withdrawal into isolation.

Partly since my experience was much less colourful than his, I find it hard to take his addiction seriously. What he describes is a strange and funny childhood: intense, certainly, but hardly traumatic and sad. I understand his disappointment in real life vs. the fantasy world, but you have to wonder at his lack of any self-control. (Did his parents even care?) For the most part he is allowed to run free and his behaviour goes ludicrously unchecked. An absence of any self-consciousness seems to have hurt him in his post-D&D years.

Anyway: this isn’t a very well-written book. Too much psychiatric couch analysis, off-hand anecdotal pub-fodder, and a general tone of wistful regret and self-doubt strip the work of narrative oomph. A little passion and flavour would help save the book from its tone of a depressed stand-up comic riffing on his youth in some smoky pub. I haven’t read his fiction books, but you would expect more from a writer’s memoir.


Photo: Massachusetts public library