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.

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