Wednesday, 29 February 2012

My Month in Books, Part Two (Feb)

13. Stuart Kelly — Scott-land: The Man Who Invented a Nation

Walter Scott, author of interminable, antiquated, cliché, laughable historical novels, invented the little nation called Scotland. Scott’s influence extends its tentacles far from the enormous spiracles in Princes Street Gardens, far into the Borders, Highlands, and America. This wry, exciting book explores this outrageous legacy, and how Scott’s creations have defined two centuries of Scottishness—inventions the Scots have used to define their standing in the world, have exploited as a fruitful national brand. Kelly explores Scott’s own compulsive pseudonymous tendencies—post-Waverley, Scott wrote as the character Author of Waverley, along with a series of whimsical editors and antiquaries—and his remarkable influence on the novel form. Of especial interest to me is that Scott first invented the notion of characters leaving their authors, as in the postmodern larks of Flann O’Brien—Sterne predates Scott, of course, but still. Phew. A historically exhausting read, but extremely funny, warm and comprehensive. As a side dish, the author Stuart Kelly introduced me to writers like Gilbert Sorrentino, Harry Mathews and Donald Barthelme, among many many others, and my reading owes him a remarkable debt. Hopefully this review is some recompense: Stuart is an extremely gifted bibliophile (best read man in UK, for definite) and a delightful writer!

14. David Markson — Wittgensteins Mistress

This is the first Markson I have read with, at least, his own linear sentences (if not structure or plot). As with certain Dalkey Archive titles, it helps to read around the book first (Foster Wallace’s RCF review from 1990 being a good place to start) to understand the technical philosophy being explored alongside the devastating depiction of loneliness and madness that forms the upfront textual heft. On a prose level, each sentence occupies its own little island of significance, standing alone as separate paragraphs, as the memory and trivia flux zigzags along the page, offering rare titbits from the narrator’s past, along with increasingly crazed factual inaccuracies. Namedropped as a former lover is Lucien—the protagonist in Springer’s Progress, perhaps?—and the slight chilling reference to her dead son and arson tendencies add a grave shade to a world of apocalyptic art references and extremely long menstrual cycles. Comparison points might be made with B.S. Johnson’s more basic exploration of grief The Unfortunates or Lynne Tillman’s American Genius: A Comedy, but the novel stands alone as a bewitching original.

15. Albert Camus The Fall

The follow-up to Christos Tsiolkas’s bestseller The Slap, where a boozy Australian lunatic whomps a friend’s child at a party and creates a hotbed of interpersonal tension over 400 outstandingly boring pages. In The Fall, a different boozy Australian accidentally (or was it intentional?) elbows a child onto the grass, causing him to fall and hurt his pelvis, causing outrage on the streets of Canberra! Are our children ever safe from inebriated philanderers with pointy elbows? Why can’t drunks wear elbow guards in the presence of the under tens? Find out in this soon-to-be-a-TV series-probably bestseller-definitely. Music by Mark E. Smith and fourteen dole claimants. Contains such songs as: ‘Veggie Burger Boogaloo’ and ‘Aussie Trip-Whip Redux’ and ‘Man Fax Joist Answer King.’ Director: McG. Also: soon to be released, the ravings of a despairing shagger whose semi-fascist dogma supposedly speaks universal truths about the frangibility of mankind. Will appeal to nerdy students and existentialist punk bands with names like Fist of Human or The Seabed Drown Club.

16. Rikki Ducornet — The Jade Cabinet

Ducornet is blessed with a bedazzling flair for magical language, and in this delicious novel (the fourth instalment in a quartet themed around the elements, this being ‘air’), she wields her wand with consummate charm and panache. Etheria—a silent and unpossessable siren—is wedded to the brutish pragmatist Tubbs, who swaps his emeralds for her maidenhead, which he takes by force in a handsome cab one unhandsome afternoon. His bride, whose spirit abounds with childish magic, breaks free, and disappears forever, leaving Tubbs despondent at the hands of the Hungerkünstler—a vicious witch who usurps the narrator’s father and pyramid-loving boffin Baconfield. Lewis Carroll is somewhere in the mix too, snapping underage girls in his charming dotage. Ducornet writes fluttery fables in seductive Nabokovian prose, dripping with descriptive pearls and gems. This short novel enchants.

17. Carlton Mellick III The Haunted Vagina

Do the stories of bizarro books even matter? To an outsider, the whole genre seems to be one extremely tedious oneupmanship contest for the most eyecatching title—whoever writes The Haunted Vagina wins the wackiest dude prize, and readers. (And Carlton Mellick III is that winner, hence me). But the friend who plopped this specimen on my lap—eliciting honks of laughter from the surrounding nerds—was on a mission to convince me the bizarro genre was more than embarrassing titles like Fuckers of Everything on the Crazy Shitting Planet of the Vomit Atmosphere (an actual book—I’m sure it’s a smash hit on GR, sneer). The verdict? I was surprised. This is twee! This is cutesy! It’s like if the latest Joseph Gordon-Levitt movie was set inside Zooey Deschanel’s ladygarden. Sure, there’s cuss words, gratuitous 69-ing and waterfalls of streaming semen (spelled ‘cum’ here—docked a star for that), but you get that if you Google ‘harmless cute fluffiness’ these days. It’s, like, actually about loneliness, and about really being in love with boneless Latex women (chauvinism or feminism?—discuss) over adopted college girls who sat six degrees before turning thirty, or it’s an ecological parable, or about the circle of life (Hakuna Matata!) or something. I wish I had read these books at fifteen. They really would have made me very happy indeed. So, bizarro. For all your outlaw zaniness, your sweary titles, your butt plugs and lubricant, you really only want someone to love you . . . probably your mother. Probably.

18. John Hawkes Whistlejacket

John Hawkes’s novel The Blood Oranges always triggers the following memory. I was eight or thereabouts, pootling for sweets in a little shop beside the funeral parlour and draper’s shop. Between the curtain and draper’s was a little sneak lane, giving easier access to the suburb. After buying a pack of Parma Violets and Refreshers, I headed for the lane, only to see a gang of yoofs in shellsuits swearing and kicking the wall. Back then I was courageous. I took risks, I walked into the valley of death. So, stuffing the sweets down my coat, I barrelled down the lane, expecting to be blocked, interrogated, robbed, beaten, raped, stabbed in the anus. A few little barbs were tossed in my direction. Nothing serious. No maternal slanders. Then I felt an attack of citrus on my left cheek. Someone had thrown an orange fragment at me! And the peel. I was being attacked by health-conscious bullies! Or was the sacrifice of this orange slice a protest against fruits—would they have tossed a Yorkie chunk, for instance, which was more likely to blind me? Whatever, I was burning. It was acid! It was semen! It was alcopops! My face was going to melt off! I ran down the lane, wiping my face, crying. So thanks, John Hawkes for triggering that one. Whistlejacket is the first Hawkes for me: nothing special. I loved the sensual, flowing prose, the elusive narrator and his sexy, stately-home sisters, but the middle chapters cling to meandering descriptions of dead-end set-pieces, and the last part is a biliously English description of a foxhunt that thoroughly stirred my chunder. Very ornate, dismissible work.

19. David Foster Wallace The Pale King

Well, wow. What an epic, wondrous book. I felt a breathless clarity, exhaustive elation, and all-over giddiness reading The Pale King—a feeling unsurpassed in the overlong Infinite Jest (which could lose 300+ pages easily), the often wilfully opaque stories in Oblivion, or the CPU-on-speed attack of his “floating eye” essays. Might this have been (or be) the perfect distillation of all Foster Wallace’s talents? All his strengths are here, in full bloom—his dizzying insights into the microbial subtleties of human interaction, the obsessively compiled data-splurge that engulfs the reader in euphoric waves, ADD depictions of humdrumness rendered so alive, thrilling and affecting as to make the reader shout with delight. Plus, in this novel, Brazil-like comic surrealism (levitation and business babies), light metafictive indulgence (insertion of scalier author minus middle name), and little vignettes of Beethovenian melancholy (the wrenching plight of the sweatiest kid in class). The longest chapter, ‘Irrelevant’ Chris’s monologue about his wastoid beginnings and his calling to the IRS, makes the biggest effort at trepanning the IRS psyche, w/o attendant mockery or knowingness. Second longest: the fictional Wallace’s entrance into the IRS, taking fifty pages for his bus to dock, spiced with unexpected footnoted fellatio and flash-fire trivia that’s almost interesting. Lastly, rounded female character Meredith Rand and a sane analysis of the problem of prettiness. All magnificent. Every sentence. No boring parts at all. Is this hyperbole? Perhaps. But wow. A better unfinished novel you will not read . . . only the pain of the author’s passing will diminish its impact.

20. Seymour Chwast — Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Graphic Adaptation

Researching Dante’s Divine Comedy for a new novel idea. Good place to start, this: packs in all the tortures, Greek references and relevant historical detail. (Having not read TDC, of course, I only have Mr. Chwast’s word for that). Can’t help feeling the punishments weren’t always equal here, on a stratum-by-stratum level. Gluttons were made to lie in a mire of excrement, while carnal sinners were simply tossed about the air, like on a fun wind simulator. Whee! Let’s be carnal! Whee! Also, in the fifth circle the wrathful simply had to mud wrestle each other, which at some point might become more pleasurable than painful, while the glum were drowned in the River Styx. Later, those who sell church pardons are tipped upside down in fiery tubes, their feet ablaze, while astrologers, diviners and magicians simply have their heads turned round. Hardly a punishment, no? Might make for more daring sexual adventures. Chwast’s artwork is playful, amusing and vivid. A charming introduction to Dante.

21. Mark Steel Whats Going On?

I devote a large percentage of my viewing activities to political satire, probably more than is culturally healthy, and do so now almost on autopilot whenever I have mealtimes to kill or crave laughter. This comedian and activist I relish in particular, partly through his brilliant lecture series on philosophers, poets and troublemakers, The Mark Steel Lectures, 96% of which are available on the old YouTube device. The design of this book irritates me. Why can’t any book by a comedian—especially one containing in-depth cultural and political analysis—be marketed without contrived wackiness? Anyway, it’s a vastly entertaining blend of scathing anti-capitalist invective, touching personal insight, and assorted cultural meanderings on events throughout the noughties.

22. Mark Thomas The People’s Manifesto

Amusing and sometimes serious proposals for a political manifesto, taken from the Radio 4 show of the same name. The latest series is running now (as of Feb 26 2012) on Radio 4 for those of British domicile. Some suggestions (from the book):

— Shut tax havens down . . . bomb Switzerland
— Models should be chosen at random from the electoral roll
— Legalise all drugs
— There should be a maximum wage
— Everyone should be given the day off on their birthday
— The Daily Mail should be forced to print ‘The Paper That Supported Hitler’ on its masthead
— There should be an age of consent for religion
— Anyone found guilty of a homophobic hate crime shall serve their entire sentence in drag

23. Mark Thomas Belching Out the Devil

There seems to be a trend now for our favourite tooth-rotting products to be made by duplicitous irresponsible prickheads—the happy world of Haribo (child labour, quelle surprise), our old favourite Nestlé, and Coca-Cola, the sugariest sickliest dentist’s favourite. So, from this excellent book, ten reasons to boycott Coca-Cola. 1) They are lying hucksters who hide behind lawyers, every inch the cartoon criminal multinational. 2) They contract out to people who use child labour on their sugar plantations, then shirk all responsibility. 3) They drain the surrounding water from depleted water sources, and leave local communities to die of drought. 4) They hate trade union movements and love exploiting workers, then shirk responsibility for violent resistance. 5) They bully shopkeepers into stocking their product then sabotage rival drinks. 6) Their marketing department are tasteless buffoons who peddle sickly bullshit sentiments to control the marketplace by tattooing their ugly logo on every square inch of the globe. 7) Their drink is tooth-rotting, sickly, syrupy, stomach-churning gloop and I would rather imbibe donkey’s piss. 8) Coca-Cola are concerned solely with global domination and maximum profits, no more, no less, and everything else they say is meaningless rhetoric, saying: “Buy Coca-Cola now. None of your business how we make it.” 9) I hate Coca-Cola. 10) Don’t believe their lies. Mark Thomas is my hero.

24. Kurt Vonnegut While Mortals Sleep

Lordy, why were these stories published? This is buried-in-the-bottom-drawer stuff, early examples of competence in the writing-for-slicks-and-glossies side of Kurt’s career. There were two sides to Kurt in the fifties and sixties: one was the knockout novelist who wrote prophetic, visionary, hilarious, moving and perfect books of permanence that no one noticed until Slaughterhouse V. Then there was the hack who wrote formulaic stories to keep his family in shoes, clothes and Drano. And I confess: I dislike the hack! I don’t rate his short stories at all. They strip the essence of his Vonnegutness completely, leaving a first-rate craftsman and moralist without the satirical bite and crazy exuberance of Cat’s Cradle et al. These unpublished bottom-drawer pieces have good twists and morals, and as ‘Guardian of the Person’ or ‘Out, Brief Candle’ show, can be moving . . . but slim pickings. The short form has come a long way since these pieces were composed. The boredom sets in quite early on here, and completion is a struggle. (I skipped the last four). Why did I bother? Why, I’m a Vonnegut completist-obsessive, of course. Duh.

25. Jean Teulé Eat Him if You Like

This might be the worst text I have ever encountered on paper. Remember, I am a man who has read Hopscotch, Finnegans Wake, The New Testament, early Martin Amis and a Jodi Picoult novel (don’t ask). So I have form when it comes to bad texts. I also write myself, so I know when something emanates whiffs of nose-pegging men’s urinal proportions. First, and pardon the swear, this book is fucking horrible. Second, it is fucking pointless. Opening with some appalling exposition smuggled clumsily into dialogue, and continuing in this vein, the novel sets up a wealthy young man who chooses to go to war. Teulé puts the reader on this young man’s side, so we care about his heroic plight. Then he enters a backward provincial village, where through some lame misunderstanding the villagers brand him a Prussian traitor. And so, the ‘satire’ or ‘absurd comedy’ aspect is established with some pathetic sub-Monty Python Life of Brian rip-off gags. Except what follows can hardly count as satirical: the villagers proceed to stone, kick, torture, kill, dismember and then cannibalise the book’s hero. Gruesome descriptions are relished to provoke chunder in the reader while, presumably, we’re meant to giggle at the increasingly barbaric and disgusting torture on display, while thinking: “Golly, what a savage depiction, what a stark satire of a barbarous age.” BUT IT’S ALL WRONG! You can’t establish a hero the reader CARES ABOUT then gleefully have him tortured in a series of horrific, wince-inducing scenes! THAT ISN’T SATIRE, YOU BUFFOON! Have you even read Swift or Voltaire? What hurts the most is the writer seems to relish in the crowd’s stupidity, AS THOUGH EGGING THEM ON . . . and he has the nerve TO THROW IN A GRATUITIOUS SEX SCENE midway through an amputation! I am willing to put this down to some Anglo-French humour misfire. But if this book has the same throwaway, cartoon STUPIDITY and DEPRESSING, STALE, DISGUSTING, POINTLESS VIOLENCE in French, then you, Jean Teulé, ARE EVERYTHING THAT IS WRONG WITH THIS CULTURE. If you simply wanted to get a rise out people, well done, mission accomplished. Now stop writing books. So please. This book sniggers at human suffering and torture and violent ignorance in the guise of satire. It completely misses the mark in such a way, it is disgraceful it was even published, let alone translated. FATUOUS SHOCK FODDER FOR IDIOTS. IF THIS REVIEW MAKES YOU WANT TO READ IT, YOU’RE ONE OF THE IDIOTS. Sorry about all the caps. Or the lack of paragraph breaks. (And before you ask, my copy didn’t come with a blurb). I did not like this book.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

My Month in Books, Part One (Feb)

1. Michel Butor — Mobile

An exasperating caffeine rush of a novel, predating the Beats in their attempts to capture the mescaline cyclone of a trip around America. In 1959, leading French avant-garde writer Michel Butor brummed around the States (one hopes in an open-top Cadillac), collecting titbits of information for use in this freewheeling collage novel. Butor stitches state names, trivia, long Thomas Jefferson passages, and all manner of inscrutable arcana to capture an America before the most miraculous decade in its history. One recurring topic is black segregation—reports from historical accounts of slavery, mixed with Jefferson’s unreliable views, and repeated accounts of fifties ingrained racism evoke the storm that would erupt with Martin Luther King. A marvellously engaging and eccentric novel, completely batty, strangely affecting and weirdly funny. There goes my stock of adverbs for the week. Read me!

2. Honoré de Balzac — Colonel Chabert

A litmus test for the betrothed—would you, after your man’s been killed in the latest war, pronounced dead and buried, and after you’ve married again and had children, take your man back when he turns up haggard and pauperous on your mansion doorstep? (Yes, this happens at the end of Tom Hanks’s Castaway, minus the mansion, but Balzac got there first in this novella). Well, WOULD YOU? When the bedraggled Colonel finally falls in with some solicitors who help his case, he hopes for once and for all he can reclaim his wife and fortune. Unfortunately, he married a former prostitute who’s less than chuffed the Colonel is on the scene and does her damnedest to suppress him and keep him a peasant in the bogs. Balzac’s typically poisonous writing is in full flood here in this quickie—one longs for a longer, meatier story. WILSON!!!!

3. Harry Mathews — Armenian Papers: Poems 1954-1984

A selection of high-class poetry from Harry Mathews, who is both an arch stylist from Princeton (from American nobility, no less) and an OuLiPo prankster capable of some sublimely erudite versifying. Sometimes his unforgiving (and smug) elitism impedes one’s pleasure in his novels, with the tedious bourgeois minutiae of The Journalist being a good example. Or the inscrutable structures and games in his early books, such as Tlooth. This collection demonstrates both parts of his character, and naturally, the OuLiPo centrepiece (a love poem re-imagined in thirty different forms), was the scene-stealer for me. The title poem is a cycle written in homage to the missing work of an Armenian monk—intriguing for those who like that sort of intellectual backslapping. (What about the poor folk, Harry? What about the starving kids, Harry? Hmm?)

4. Gustave Flaubert — Three Tales

I have the fire department coming around later for a lecture on electrical safety. Apparently, my unplugging policy needs revising. For fifteen years of my life, I never unplugged a single plug (even in multisockets) and encountered no raging conflagrations in my boudoir (except in the bed—wink wink). But now everyone’s telling me what a buffoon I was! That you must ALWAYS unplug your appliances at night in case spontaneous friction occurs and the whole neighbourhood burns to a crisp! So, looking forward to that. I bet no one out there in GR land obsessively unplugs all lamps and computers and kettles before going to bed. Madness. Anyway, this book. ‘A Simple Heart’ is a delightful tale, if a little stiff and downbeat. ‘Legend’ is a bracing historical fiction, and ‘Herodias’ is the most insufferable slab of dullcake I’ve ever eaten. I’m off now to unplug this computer, and all the others in the village. Update: FIRE! UNPLUG EVERYTHING! SMOKE, FLAMES, DEATH! SAVE YOURSELVES!

5. Robert Alan Jamieson — Da Happie Laand

At some point in my early twenties, I decided all Scottish writing was obsessed with nationality, identity and history, and scowled at all those novels that arrived on the scene dripping with Scottishness—the usual suspects Irvine Welsh, Alan Bissett and Ian Rankin. Since then I have met several Scots writers whose work deals extensively with Scots history, what it means to be Scottish in Scotland looking back on Scots history, and Walter bloody Scott, and found them seriously amiable chaps. Some have even become mentors! So I made an attempt to re-engage with the modern Scottish novel.

This novel slightly skewed my expectations, since it details at length with the spurious history of Zetland, a settlement off the New Zealand coast, where impoverished families emigrated from the Shetland isles in the 1800s. (Zetland is in fact a borough in Sydney, Australia). But the narrative proper takes place in Shetland and centres around a ‘lost sheep’ looking for his missing father. The first-person-present narrative provides the novel’s plot-pulse, while the history adds intrigue and depth to a novel concerned with . . . nationality, identity and history. Is there any escaping this recursive loop, O Scots Quillholders?

In fairness to Mr. Jamieson, the novel is written in bracing Queen’s English, with the occasional patch written in an invented New Zealand-Old Scots hybrid dialect, and straddles the line between detailed historical puzzles (who knows what’s invented and what’s genuine?) and a dark, personal tale of a man and his lost father. Both narrative threads spool into one another, gradually coming together in a subtle, disturbing way. A moody, entertaining and readable Scots novel about Scottish identity, nationality and history. (At long last!)

6. Georges Perec — Things: A Story of the Sixties & A Man Asleep

Things: A Story of the Sixties predates all those tiresome novels about corporate-culture ennui, Ballardian death of affect, and dehumanisation through advertising and leaves them weeping into their MaxPower V9 toasters-cum-dildos. What a heartbreaking and beautiful novella! Oh Georges, is it really so sad? Perec narrates from a distance, leaving his characters Sylvie and Jérôme to fumble through a blank lower bourgeois existence, besotted with appliances and desperate to shimmy up the ladder without accepting their place as adults. By piling up descriptions, razor-sharp character analysis and cultural scene-setting, Perec captures the painful loneliness of upwardly mobile corporate life—his writing glitters with perfect, wrenching subtlety and humour. Oh Georges, Georges, Georges! And then there’s A Man Asleep, a beautiful exploration of complete disengagement from the culture, written in energetic second-person prose, chock with penetrating insights into man’s desire to escape the terror and horror of everyday life. An absolutely magnificent duo of novellas—epochal, strange and powerful.

7. Marie Redonnet — Candy Story

Redonnet levers her fiction into gear with the crank of computational affectlessness, rendering her work seemingly devoid of shape, liveliness or narrative spark. But it’s there. So this seemingly arbitrarily generated occurrence happens to a seemingly arbitrarily generated character and then another seemingly arbitrarily generated occurrence happens to another seemingly arbitrarily generated character, matter-of-factly reported by the narrator, who then has sex with someone who calls her Candy. Then another seemingly arbitrarily generated occurrence happens to a seemingly arbitrarily generated character and then another seemingly arbitrarily generated occurrence happens to another seemingly arbitrarily generated character, matter-of-factly reported by the narrator, who then has sex with someone who calls her Candy. And so on. It’s only 96 pages. If someone would like to present me with an academic paper on Redonnet I’ll revise this knuckleheaded review, but for now I can only guess at her behind-the-scenes manoeuvrings. For balance, I love her novels Hôtel Splendid and Forever Valley.

8. Émile Zola — The Ladies’ Paradise

Life in an 1860s Paris megastore. As capitalism staggers around on its bunioned feet, waiting for the next self-perpetuating excuse for sickening human greed and useless backbreaking timewasting bullshit in pursuit of Capital to relieve its burden, it’s time to question what we want from an economic system here in the West. A completely equal distribution of funds is impossible since people are cash-hoovering greed machines who will stab their mothers to get a bigger pie slice. Communism is unpopular due to its fascist tendencies. Perhaps we could try kindness, generosity, wealth-sharing and self-sustaining communities? Stop laughing. The Ladies’ Paradise explores the viperous world of ladies’ retail and the nascent capitalist machine. Bitching and hating and desperation and greed and corsages. That’s the fashion world for you. Denise is Zola’s pure-hearted ingénue who, rather implausibly, and clumsily, enchants the evil chauvinist Octave Mouret with her dowdy virginal loveliness. After a long struggle, she becomes the belle of the megamall, and tames the old beast by refusing to surrender her maidenhead. Nowadays, to get that kind of career traction, you have to humiliate yourself on The Apprentice. The novel is festooned with elaborate descriptions of store displays, which go on and on until we get the bleeding point, and the POV is schizo even by Zola’s standards, but the whole work is admirably ruthless. So: death to capitalism! All hail have-a-tenner-on-me-ism!

9. Janice Galloway — All Made Up

Original review:

I actively dislike novels about writers’ schooldays, about their early inurement to bullying through their book-munching habits, how reading Virgil at twelve opened them up to a world of bookish intelligence while all the other losers languished in meaningless office drudgery. All this while the great author sits ruminating from his study in Morocco, sipping sherry and having his toes waxed. Now: this isn’t a novel but a memoir, so demurely sidesteps the first charge, commencing to calmly commit all the offences stated in the remaining clauses—Galloway licks up Latin, bites down Bartók, huffs on Homer. All this while her vicious, resentful sister systematically tries to crush her spirits at every turn, and her daft old mother trots out strangleable platitudes from her backward auld peasant mooth. The sequel to This is Not About Me, this book covers Janice’s high school period—periods, boys, motorbikes, classical music and all-out tribal warfare—and the prose has a lyrical, stoical voice that for me failed to mask the heartbreaking bleakness of this adolescence, the grainy old photo of this bygone era: an era best surrendered to historical indifference. If you’re Scottish, give this a bodyswerve.


This book left me sullen and moody, with an additional heart-heaviness I can’t quite understand. Here’s a numerical attempt to explicate this feeling. 1) This memoir takes place in a bleak coastal town of Saltcoats in the late 1960s and 1970s. I used to take holidays in a bleak beach area called Blackness (pronounced Black Ness), so perhaps the deeply evoked sense of dreary, empty silence touched me through some embedded recall of this childhood time. 2) I am a sap for nostalgia. I pine for events that happened several days ago, my heart gets heavy about the passing of time and the fleetingness of life. This memoir might simply have tweaked the clitoris of my nostalgia. 3) The world Galloway describes made me lament on how my own teenage years paled in comparison, since we shared working class upbringings (albeit hers in viler circumstances, bleaker times, with far worse people), and she bloomed into a fighting toreador, while I limped along slowly through long days of torpor and social anxiety. 4) I always wish my own past went differently, despite Woody Allen’s epithet about doing the same things over again. I love a regret I can gnaw on for a week. 5) This was simply an extremely powerful book that got under my skin. She should get an Oscar.

10. Nicholson Baker — The Anthologist

How true it is a poem should rhyme! For who among us prefers lemon to lime? Baker defends the rhyming verse, in prose both chaste and terse. Paul Chowder discusses meter, rests and beats—but he’s no bleater, pest or Keats. For those au fait with his minimal writings, buy this today for liminal sightings. Who says poems should be lucid? Why, that’s all froems and booshid! So: let’s go. Erudite essays on Fenton, Teasdale and Millay, so good you should buy it to-day. Can I keep this up for the whole review? I almost certainly can, but that I will not do. Baker is such fun he’s my number one (STOP IT), I love his quirky blirky fun (STOP IT NOW), and this one’s a bun of fun under the hot July sun (SHUT UP). I like Nick Baker. (He’s not a Quaker).

11. Nicholson Baker — U & I

Oh this is absolutely sublime! Baker, Baker, candlestick maker! But. I have a little problem dishing out a terse, considered and witty review, howevs. Reason? I read so much there is SIMPLY NO TIME to write all these reviews. Look, I have a life! Don’t believe me? Well . . . you’re right, I’m clearly not a high-flying fashionista (tweed is cool, right?), but I have OTHER THINGS TO WRITE! I’m supposed to get cracking on a synopsis for a new novel this weekend, and it is currently 21.43 GMT. This is UNACCEPTABLE! Goodreads, you are sapping me! OK, here’s a box of adverbs for you: this is the best Baker I have read. Ineffably, windingly, smugly, warmly witty, fabulously sneaky, cheeky and heartfelt. I still think Updike represents an old-school Harvard upper middle-class WASP gloatingness (and perhaps Baker does too?), but this man (Baker) writes pedantically pleasurable sentences of cuddly hilarity, erudition and wonder. If you’ve read Updike, please tell me which novels to CONSIDER reading. I must go and procrastinate further.

12. David Markson Springers Progress

At some point David Markson seems to have become physically unable to write linear sentences, stifled by the anxiety of influence, or the agonising labour of such a well-trodden enterprise, and his failure to do so. Eventually, his novels would break down into nuggets of trivia, lost forever to the bookish world of highbrow literary allusiveness that engulfed most of his postmodernist friends. This novel is written in a berserk shorthand that flits between a sardonic narrator, a close third-person narrator, and long passages of stylised dialogue—all packed tight with literary allusions, direct quotes, clever wordplay, Latin snippets, and all manner of flighty lexical indulgence. The plot is Moss-thin: a writer has an affair with an attractive woman whose arse he admires. Thus begins a novel that groans with cringing sexual puns and romps, a borderline sexist agenda, and an almost intolerable series of staged comedic dialogues that go nowhere. This technique condenses the long-winded indulgence in similar novels of the 1970s, making it harder to soup through than a horny Roth or a panty Updike. Original and fun nonetheless.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Peeping Tom 3-1-2-4 [4]

1-2-3-4 → 2-1-3-4 → 3-1-2-4 → 4-1-2-3

Window 4

The dude’s up to his old tricks, though why does he spend so much time in the kitchen? He closes his laptop and places it inside a rather large holdall, along with a few tins from the counter: tomato soup? beans? There’s red dye in his hair now, even worse than the green. It looks like tongues sticking out his head. Very “cool,” I suppose. He opens the cupboards and takes some packets and tins, does the same with the fridge, lifting pots and bottles and tossing them into his bag. A large bar of chocolate is glimpsed, along with a two litre bottle of lemonade/water. With a sheepish face, he leaves the room. Perhaps he’s packing for a road trip? Common at his age.

Ten minutes or so later, a man walks in and feels the surfaces, fumbles in the fridge. He feels around until he falls back against the cabinet, staring at nothing. The man is either blind or so dumb he can’t use his eyes. From the expert way he navigates his surroundings, walking in mental grids around the kitchen, he’s probably not a spastic, or “mentally challenged” as they say nowadays. He runs over to the fridge and starts flinging things at the walls, collapsing into tears on the marble floor when it ends. Odd.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Peeping Tom 3-1-2-4 [2]

1-2-3-4 → 2-1-3-4 → 3-1-2-4 → 4-1-2-3

Window 2

An empty bathroom. Empty, empty, empty, until a little girl runs in giggling and climbs into the panelling beside the bath. Her tiny body slots into the space with ease, and she closes the panel with a few crooked fingers. A minute later the moody boy from next door comes in along with the husband who’s soon to be down one sexy heavenly wife. Together they scan the bathroom, the boy pointing to the panel in a bored way.

The husband is full of beans, really making an effort: babysitting no doubt, though if the mother is in next door, why? Does she want the little tykes out her hair while the fat man is mending the plugs? He lifts the panel and does a peekaboo, shouting at the girl “found you!” or similar. She climbs out the bath panel, bursting with laughter, her face a picture of happiness. The boy folds his arms by the sink, a picture of anything but.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Peeping Tom 3-1-2-4 [1]

1-2-3-4 → 2-1-3-4 → 3-1-2-4 → 4-1-2-3

Window 1

She sits on his chair where he’s farted and sweated and dribbled down himself, corrupting her delicate buttocks with his emanations. She’s in a summery blue dress, not unlike a Roses tin: little red flowers enlivening the fabric. One—deliciously— rests near her lower pubis. She’s sipping a cup of tea or coffee and talking to the greasy one, who’s not looking too bad today, no doubt rescued from the dowdy doldrums by the real woman. Her hair has been washed and her skin looks shinier, cleaner: faintly rouged cheeks and a slick of lipstick make her more presentable, maybe even . . . pretty?

They nod their heads, talking talking talking. The lesbian has made herself more desirable to her prey, and today she hopes to swoop in. Her body language is stiff: clearly she lacks the sexual vocabulary to take on a specimen as exotic as the lady. Together, they stand up and the lady reaches for her handbag and pulls out some makeup implements and doodles on the lesbian’s face. She must be wet with excitement. There’s laughter, a little shoulder touching, then they collect their handbags and walk out.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Peeping Tom 3-1-2-4 [3]

1-2-3-4 → 2-1-3-4 3-1-2-4 → 4-1-2-3

Window 3

A strange sight: the fat man standing! Well, half bent over half slouching. He probably never stands upright, his body couldn’t take the sheer physical strain. He’s holding a wrench and a range of tools adorn his belt: who knows if they’re practical work tools, or additional fasteners to keep up his massive trousers? With a great heave, he pushes the TV table aside then drops to his knees, shaking the whole building. He’s messing with plugs and wires: so, he’s an electrician? Explains why he’s bone idle.

The tall mother enters, her hair let down this time. There’s something fierce about her, not unattractive, but no doubt she works with men in tough men’s work. Police? Doctor? She’s got a cup of tea in her hand and leaves it for the fatso, along with a digestive on a saucer. Words are exchanged. No doubt: “Could you bring me a whole box of biscuits?” She points and gestures at the plugs and wires, explaining something: what she wants done. The fat man smiles and gives his neck fat a workout. Disgusting.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Lydia Lunch Smiling

SMILING! :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :) :)

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

On Not Winning a New Writers Award

I applied for a Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award. I did not win a Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award. This means I am not as useful, valuable, talented or promising as the recipients of the New Writers Awards. This means my work is not up to the standard of the winners. This means I am clearly nowhere near as excellent as the winners of the New Writers Awards. I was not even shortlisted for a New Writers Award. This means I wasn’t even considered for the New Writers Award. This means my confidence has crashed into a huge wall. It will take a long time to recover from this. This is why I am writing in declarative sentences without the usual tired shtick. I hate not winning a New Writers Award. I am considering a change of profession. Perhaps I could rescue hedgehogs from the sides of roads? I hate being a writer. Wasting my life, wasting my time. Ignore this. It’s because I didn’t win the New Writers Award. I’m not a roofer poet or a friend of the panel or something. Anger simmering now. Time to log off. Fume.

Monday, 13 February 2012

A Partial Excuse For My Misanthropy

1) I am awestruck when I meet a new person. I babble to overcompensate for the feelings of respect I have for this person who is alive, like me, and who lives a life, like me. 2) I like people! 3) Then something happens. The more I speak to the person I have met who is brilliant, the more I start to realise how profoundly not brilliant they are. How ordinary. How like me. 4) All those wonderful words they used when we first me, like “hello” and “pleased to meet you,” now seem pathetic. This new person will have to fight to earn my respect. 5) No one works hard to earn respect unless there’s money involved. 6) So I dry up in conversation. My childlike enthusiasm to make a new lifelong friend dissipates. 7) People don’t want new friends as adults unless they can give them things. Like money, power or IKEA products. 8) So I fall silent, feeding my interlocutor lines from time to time, looking at my watch. 9) What a disappointment! How dare this person be ordinary? Why wasn’t this person ecstatic to meet me? 10) This is one reason for my misanthropy—I come into every new interaction with enthusiasm. I listen. I am attentive. I am committed to giving this person ears to air their grievances and do their usual speaking thing. 11) Usually, the other person isn’t. 12) People need to be more excited to meet me. I’m not saying hopping up and down. But at least laugh at my shit jokes. At least laugh! 13) You bastards!

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Popular Culture: A Contempt

a) Let’s not mince words. All populist entertainment is repulsive, useless, dangerous and witheringly anti-intellectual. b) Except maybe Doctor Who. But that’s hardly Beckett, is it? c) I first became an intellectual snob in my late teens. I witnessed first hand the slow declension of burgeoning intellects through a routine of television, video games and a fear of reading books. d) How did I escape this declension? e) I learned words like declension. I started to read books. After a decade of unbridled virtual hedonism I crushed Sonic the Hedgehog to death with The Brothers Karamazov. f) I say: it’s not hard to respect difficult art and escape the self-perpetuating loops of populist cliché. You don’t have to read broadsheets. You don’t have to speak eloquently about anything with intellectuals. Who cares about all that bulldash, the haw-hawing in ginsenged dining rooms? g) All you have to do is read, watch, listen. h) I spent four years thinking Green Day made the greatest music in the universe. One day, I heard some Stravinsky and burst into tears. i) Does this make me a pompous girlie-man? j) No. k) Or yes. l) I surprised myself by tackling Dostoevsky novels and finding them relevant to my own life, psychology, etc. m) So it all became clear. The only way to grow as a human being through art is to confront difficulty, to embrace difficulty, and be pleasantly surprised when that effort translates into bliss. n) This isn’t a homily, it’s an anecdote. But I truly believe people who hide in dreary commercial art are betraying their capacity to think and improve and understand. o) Everything.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

The Book Memory Access System

1) I map my entire life in books. Don’t call me mad. Have understanding. 2) It helps me remember the important moments. I recall the book I was reading when such-and-such happened. Then I remember the event. 3) Sometimes, of course, I remember the book more than I remember the such-and-such that happened. 4) Therein lies the tension in this literary memory system. 5) You see, although people think life is chaotic, unpredictable and arbitrary, on a day to day basis, life is routine and drab. 6) Unless we have money. 7) But even still, forethought eliminates the truly ‘spontaneous’ moments of life: no one suddenly goes off to Mexico for a week. They think, perhaps two hours beforehand, about going off to Mexico. 8) There is order everywhere! 9) Except, perhaps, in this anecdote. 10) But here’s the problem: this memory system creates a fundamental tension between the act of living and recalling life, and the act of living through books and recalling life through books. 11) For example, I might remember Alyosha’s moral goodness in The Brothers Karamazov profoundly, over the time I slipped on the beach and made everyone laugh oh-so-loudly. 12) The beach incident, when I mix with people in the sunshine, might be considered a ‘precious’ memory moment, but to me, the story of Alyosha pricks my memory to a greater extent. 13) The question: could my love of books, and this memory system, reduce all human endeavour to a rubbish plot with flat, lifeless characters, no action, and terrible drudgery? 14) Or do I lead a particularly boring life? 15) Not when I read books, I don’t. And I’m not about to stop reading books anytime soon.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Man on a Bench: A Roman Anecdote

i) The littlest things can drastically alter a person’s mood. ii) For example, seeing a squirrel scurry across the road and shimmy up a tree. That would improve one’s mood. Seeing a squirrel flattened by an HGV hauler—that wouldn’t improve one’s mood. iii) But I knew this man. iv) He sat on benches all day long. Sometimes he’d feed the ducks, sometimes he’d sit and observe passersby. v) I spotted him on various benches across Edinburgh. He sat with a neutral expression. Looking. Most people, as people do, dismissed him as a creepy loner. vi) People are so very empathetic. vii) But I loved this man. viii) He was a modern day Underground Man. He sat on the sidelines of life, observing. Cold and detached. All day long. On benches. A visible nonentity, the bland face of self-erasure. ix) Chances are he had a family, or a cat. But when he sat on those benches, on his lonesome, the serenity oozed from this man. x) I took comfort in the fact that a person can be happy without people. That people are useful, and necessary, but essentially undesirable. xi) So whenever I spotted him around town, sitting blankly on his bench, my mood skyrocketed. xii) How brilliant to be alone, in the throb of a city, and to be content! xiii) I haven’t seen him in a long time. Hopefully he hasn’t committed suicide.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

The William Tell Overture: An Alphabetical Anecdote

a) I used to live in student accommodation in the city of Edinburgh, sometimes dubbed “city of literature,” despite more people buying DVDs than books per annum. b) I spent my days in a box room writing mediocre essays about Austen and Dickens. c) In my spare time, I wrote appalling 900-page tracts about sexual frustration. I used self-deprecating humour to make life seem less terrible. d) This technique doesn’t have the same efficacy in my mid-twenties. e) But. f) During the second term a new student moved in. This student loved classical music, usually the happy bombast of Beethoven’s Ninth and similar. He would play his music at ludicrous volumes, shocked some bepimpled Scot might scorn the beauty of Beety. g) I scorned. h) Later, when our acquaintanceship was reaching its peak of begrudging tolerance, he got a girlfriend. i) At night, horrors emerged from his room. j) When sleeping with his girlfriend, he would sing embarrassing sexual songs to the William Tell Overture. Among the most horrible, sung by his girlfriend, was: Put it in, put it in, put it in in in, put it in, put it in, put it in in in, put it in, put it in, put it in in in, put it iiiiiiiiiiiinnnnn . . . put it in in in! k) And so on. l) This really happened. m) This setup became so dire, I would find replacement accommodation for the next term. n) And seek counselling. o) I no longer enjoy the William Tell Overture.