Wednesday, 28 March 2012

My Month in Books, Part One (Mar)

1. Gore Vidal — Two Sisters

From yesterday’s gore to today’s Gore, this delightful novel cured the heartsickness I felt at a certain French bile-maker. An extremely playful formal experiment mingled with exquisite high-class prose, Two Sisters describes an act of incest through a script set in Ancient Greece, a notebook by the perpetrator to his sister, and Mr. Vidal’s former lover’s confessions. Certain understandings about sexuality in the novel only make sense halfway through for those not versed in Vidal’s “we’re all bisexual” stance, but once the story takes flight, the faux-autobiographical style is a clever and effective technique. Vidal puts himself in the novel and riffs on his encounters with Tennessee Williams, Norman Mailer, and his refusal to script the movie version of Slaughterhouse V. It’s patchwork stuff, perhaps, but I was enthralled and tickled for the duration.

2. Jim Krusoe — Iceland

My first thought is of Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s infinitesimal novels and their arbitrary “and-then-something-else-happened” plots, belying perhaps some structural sleight-of-hand, or perhaps not. In Krusoe’s novel, Paul is a bumbler whose chance encounter with Emily at the organ pool (literally a pool of organs) shapes the next fourteen-plus years of his life—he’d gone there to acquire an unspecified organ but ended up having unscheduled hanky-panky on the diving board. As you do. What follows in this surreal novel is an altered reality—not exactly dreamlike, not a cold authorial playpen . . . but somewhere in between. Accepting the writer’s ludicrously wooden dialogue as a humorous meta-ha is crucial, otherwise Krusoe would be guilty of Dan Brown-level crimes against naturalism. But the cartoony cardboard-like narrator, bumbling oaf or not, barely holds the novel together, especially during the overly descriptive bridges between the next “something-else-that-happens” (usually involving unscheduled sex and volcanoes), and lapses at times into a weary absurdism. Otherwise, a highly entertaining slice of playful and wilfully weird comic fiction. And Martin Amis likes it too.

3. Nicholson Baker — The Size of Thoughts: Essays and Other Lumber

The earliest essays in this collection, labelled ‘Thought,’ are more like hyperliterate blog posts, or a Pascal Pensée, than anything resembling a conventional work of non-fiction. I haven’t read anything more word-drunk (overwritten?) outside the columns of Will Self and frankly, I didn’t expect it from Baker. Baker, of the thumbnail novel, the svelte entertainment—clearly, he needs a place to flex his writerly muscle, and the essays are that unfortunate destination. At no point does Baker stray from his own interests, so we have pieces on model aeroplanes, movie projectors, and ‘clip art’ (not the Microsoft Word variety), written in the style of a man in his shed, utterly oblivious to the audience outside of a certain Nabokovian preciousness in the prose and self-congratulatory wordplays and archaisms. Baker seems to delight in exhausting a topic well past the point most people might find it engaging—his essays ‘The History of Punctuation’ and ‘Leading With the Grumper’ are witty pieces that seem to get the balance between obsessive detail and when to stop correct, the rest do not. Sadly, a tediously long (and dated) piece on online library catalogues, and an 150-page essay on the word ‘lumber’ broom out the reader with staggeringly dull pedantry. The essay ‘Lumber,’ in particular, falls flat since it offers no explanation as to Baker’s motivation for studying the word ‘lumber’ (outside a randomness of purpose, which isn’t good enough!), making his dry excursion through early English poetry in search of lumber utterly meaningless and, eventually, unreadable as the footnotes and lengthy quotations from obscure poets and critics pile up and pile up with no significant payoff in mind. (I gave up halfway through). Baker doesn’t seem to have much purpose in his essays, outside the man-tinkering-in-his-shed—he writes like a one-man trivia machine, interesting in parts, forgotten moments later. And the cover is hideous. Orange!?

4. Joris-Karl Huysmans — Against Nature

I loved the ornate, glissading descriptions of art, music, perfume, theological texts, peptone enemas, and the fabulous namedropping of French writers such as the Goncourt Brothers, Villiers de l’Isle-Adam, Charles Cros, Verlaine, Mallarmé, Ernest Hello, Léon Bloy, Barbey d’Aurevilly, and François-René de Chateaubriand, among others. Reminiscent of Gautier’s Mademoiselle du Maupin but with a gloomier fin-de-siècle (fan-de-see-eck-le) outlook. This edition includes reviews from Zola, Mallarmé and critics of the period. (Zola wasn’t impressed).

5. Charles Dickens — The Pickwick Papers

The middle classes in this country still aspire to some half-baked bucolic idyll—renting a farmhouse, living off the land, swinging on a hammock reading Balzac while buxom farmlasses frolic in the Devonshire sun. The reality? The work involved in milking cows, shearing sheep, fattening chickens requires the brawny pluck of a youngster, not the snoozy disregard of the doddery, and those farmhouse repairs won’t repair themselves, those bills won’t pay themselves . . . until the call of the one-bedroom flat in the city becomes impossible to ignore. Unless you’re rich enough to hire lackeys, in which case, the vida loca awaits! This is a rambling and rambunctious comedic debut from the soon-to-be Bard of Blighty, rich in top-flight farce, whip-smart satire, and politely scabrous social comment. All very tame and steeped in the Fielding and Smollett tradition, but absolutely engaging from page one to page seven-and-twenty (depending on your edition), and full of marvellous set-pieces, among them the courtroom farce scene, which remains unbettered in modern satire (no, Liar Liar doesn’t count, as fetching as Amanda Donohoe is), and the subsequent imprisonment of Mr. Pickwick for being caught in flagrante consoling his housekeeper. The touching bromance between Samuel and Pickwick, the hilarious Mr. Jangle’s frantic shorthand dialogue, and the indefatigable amiability of this bucolic idyll (and occasional dark turns) make this novel essential for even the most casual of Dickens admirers.

6. Rikki Ducornet — The Complete Butcher’s Tales

I recently hosted a Dalkey Archive Appreciation book meet, sharing the wonder of this glorious little press with fellow Glaswegians. I read this in preparation for said event, but packed my bag with a dozen bedazzling specimens, among them Mulligan Stew, The Book of Jokes, Log of the S.S. Mrs Unguentine, A Nest of Ninnies, The Mirror in the Well, Pierrot Mon Ami, Night, Best European Fiction 2011, and some others. I suggest every one of you, my GR review followers, does the same in your provinces and townships, spreading the word about this incredible—that’s DALKEY ARCHIVE, what do you mean you’ve never heard of it?—publisher. This collection of enchanting fables, micro-fictions, surreal and erotic oddities doesn’t quite work as a whole—taken in small snuffs, perhaps, it would perhaps be a more satisfying concoction. Read sixty-three Dalkey books now!

7. John Updike — Rabbit, Run

Something of a masterpiece, this first in the trilogy of five explores the universal themes of domestic humdrummery, fidelity, and the repercussions of discarded dreams. The titular Rabbit is a compelling portrayal of a now somewhat stock character, the coulda-been-a-contender (in this case basketball) bounced into a life of McJobs, dowdy small-town wives, and unwanted children. Updike’s novel is the best depiction of this soap-opera conceit I have read: he transforms every banal scene into something riveting and moving and sexy and wrenching. His dialogue, character nuance, sex scenes and melodramatic moments glisten with pearly descriptive gems and metaphors, and utilise a close third-person partial SoC narrative that adds dramatic heft to his characters’ reflections. Rabbit is a brilliant creation—philandering bastard, all-too-human everyman, Hamlet-like dilly-dallier, tender lover and Mersault-like drifter. And the surrounding characters, esp. Joyce, the tormented daddy’s-girl and alcoholic, are equally stunning. I can’t wait for book number two. *runs to Rabbit*

8. John Updike — Rabbit Redux

This book is where the Angstroms became the Osbournes, without the cracking heavy metal catalogue. Or, as other reviewers have pointed out, it’s where Updike tackles Big Questions of American politics and culture within his sexy literary soap opera framework. I also see I was wrong in attempting to empathise with Angstrom—he’s clearly being set up as a Great White Dope, where racist and sexist poison accumulates and infects those unfortunate enough to fall under his sway. So we open with Rabbit’s domestic downfall: Janice has started an affair with a tachycardic Greek and his son Nelson has come to despise pop’s casual racism. Then the book veers into political and social territory as Rabbit picks up teenage prostitute Jill and installs her in his home as a live-in whore. A hippie child spurned by her parents, she is the only likeable character in the whole shebang. And this makes the ‘Skeeter’ section infuriating to read. Skeeter is a Vietnam vet and drug pusher who tries to educate Rabbit in black history over a series of after-dinner talks (Rabbit lets Skeeter stay in his front room), who shoots Jill up on mescaline when Harry’s not looking and spits out the vilest misogynist trash in front of the kid. So we’re sucked into this 150-page spiral, knowing Jill is going to perish at the hands of these imbeciles, screaming at the book GET THIS POOR JUNKIE TO HER MOTHER, but alas, she meets the grizzliest end Updike can imagine, leaving me frazzled with indignation and confusion. Is this scabrous social comment, or a piece of callous authorship? Veering towards the latter. Rabbit’s utter indifference to Jill’s death is also completely ludicrous—his character withers a great deal in this book, which is compelling but oh-so-deeply flawed. I could say more. I’ll spare you.

9. Charles Dickens — Oliver Twist

Yes, but what became of Oliver? Let me tell you. He became Oliver Twisted. That’s what. He became Battersea’s premier caulker—that is, someone who seals gaps in drywall with waterproof sealant. But Fagin’s influence seeped into poor Oliver’s caulking duties. Instead of sealant, he would put sea lions, banana skins and discount copies of the musical Oliver! Homeowners would thrash in their beds to the bleating of moribund sea lions. Houses would slip away from their districts into horrible places like Wales or Scotland. People were driven mad listening to Lionel Bart’s appalling musical numbers (with no apologies to Paul Bryant). Yes, Oliver was a rotter and no mistake. He was later dismissed from the Caulking Co. and set up a whelk stall in the East End where he met Bianca, a flame-haired human foghorn whose face was so mottled with freckles she became one oblate spheroid human freckle, living off a diet of hydrocortisone smoothies and Diprobase pasties. You didn’t think Oliver would grow up good? Please! You don’t endure a childhood of ritual abuse and become a huggable hunk. You milk it for all its worth (naming no names—Dave Pelzer) or become a corrupt caulker. I am loving Dickens right now. I also love The Vaselines. And I also love Eugenius. Ciao ciao.

10. Gore Vidal — Myra Breckinridge & Myron

Myra Breckinridge (1968) is a scabrous genderbender satire about an untouchable woman(?) out to claim her fortune from a sleazy Hollywood mogul. If you’re familiar with Gore Vidal’s haughtiness from one of his incalculable TV appearances it might take a moment to settle into this female(?) voice, but once the farcical frolics begin the novel is heap-good-fun. Among the more notorious scenes are Myra’s dildo rape of male chauvinist Rusty, and her failure to achieve Sapphic congress with the defiantly heterosexual Mary-Ann. Seen here in the appalling film version with the perfectly cast Raquel Welch. This book is notable also for Vidal’s use of nouveau roman S-o-C in the mogul’s narrative—his opinion on the French avant-garde was famously low, so what gives, Gore? Five stars. Myron (1974) is the patchy, semi-sci-fi sequel where Myron (the male Myra) is sucked back onto the set of Siren of Babylon, a fictional 1948 movie where his alter-ego Myra wrestles for domination of his/her body, like Michael Caine in Dressed to Kill but with castration instead of murder. Not for the squeamish this one. And largely incoherent, so not for anyone at all, really. Three stars.

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