Saturday, 31 March 2012

My Month in Books, Part Two (Mar)

11. Robert Coover — Gerald’s Party

This is the sort of book people write drooling dribbling cock-tugging theses about—the multifariousness of its structure and tropes and voices is denser than a chocolate-and-toffee car park cake (a cake the size of an actual car park). I toggled between three and four stars because I was with then not-with then with then not-with the novel about nine times per page, lapsing from amusement into rage, from rage into arousal, from arousal into boredom, from boredom into amazement, from amazement into suicidal thoughts . . . and on and on. The US edition has a cover showing a Roman bacchanalia—this is more apposite a whetter than “dinner party from hell” (unless taken literally), or nihilistic postmodern romp, though both those elements are dominant. Basically, Ros is a slutty actress who is found dead at a dinner party which is happening in a house somewhere, and some characters respond normally (wailing and such), while others behave like psychotics, perverts, unhinged nutballs, and bad comedians, and abuse her corpse with emphasis on the crotch. Gerald spends his time wiping arses, placating his ill-placed son, and trying to screw Alison while a range of drunken voices twit around him and pull the narrative over here, over here, over here, and over here, then back here, then over here, then oh look someone’s been shot in the head oh well better have sex with this teenage whore and get stuck in her vagina, then over here, then over here into a marsh of tagless dialogue running for twenty pages or so, then into another farcical sex scene of questionable morality. I think I started out trying to praise this novel. Well, don’t read it unless you’re familiar with plotless formless hardcore PoMo antinovels that demand dissection. Otherwise, the comedic set-pieces and exhausting pace, the blurred distinction between theatre and reality, truth and exaggeration . . . all interesting nooks of interest for the avant-garde bookman.

12. Review of Contemporary Fiction: Fall 2011: Flann O’Brien: Centenary Essays

A little disappointed with this issue—thirteen academic papers on Flann O’Brien’s output, with emphasis on The Third Policeman. If you’re an O’Brien scholar this collection is a wet-dream of diverse analysis and competent theorising about the complexities of O’Brien’s dreamworlds. For me, these pieces sap some of the fun out of reading Flann. In particular, some of the multiple readings of TTP verge on the ridiculous—TTP as science-fiction or as a Thomist vision of Hell or as a pataphysical fiction. These are all plausible, but come on! Do we need all these rather dry, scholarly papers on Flann to appreciate his hilariously convoluted headaches, his wild and brain-fuddling columns, or his drink-sodden last few attempts at the novel? This lad says no, not really. The Sorrentino issue balanced the scholarly papers with biographical detail and more engaging discourse on his novel Mulligan Stew—this one misses a similar trick, despite the rambling speech from Aidan Higgins that opens the collection. Meh.

13. Rikki Ducornet — The Stain

The novel is Ducornet’s perfect form. She started out as an illustrator and artist, branching into writing children’s books and short stories in the seventies. All these are grist to her magical mill, but the novel pulls her talent for visually descriptive, poetic language and postmodern fables together, and the awards have been flowing ever since. This is her debut novel, lauded by her spiritual mother Angela Carter, and tells a typically manic tale of punitive spinsters, perverse exorcists, religious and mythical lore, seedy sexuality, and hare-shaped birthmarks. All set in early 20thC France, but equally at home in the Middle Ages. As a debut it bursts with a loopy energy, entangling itself in its many imaginative digressions, but the plot is held together by Charlotte, the abused girl at the heart of the piece. Her quest is never really obvious other than to escape her bitchhead auntie, but that seems as good a catalyst as any. Manipulative, manic, mental. This is a fitting read for my 100th Dalkey Archive book!

14. Hubert Selby Jr. — Requiem For a Dream

Selby’s novels are transgressive masterpieces with a bigness of heart and a strange, spiritual tenderness. The epigraph to this book alludes to Selby’s faith (in God) and I can see him writing about these doomed dope fiends with the compassion of a pastor tending to his flock. This heartbreaking novel follows the decline of four distinct Americans—young working-class white male Jew, young middle-class white female Jew, young working-class black non-Jew, and elderly widow. All four are addicts through their emotional disconnectedness, or more likely, failure with their parents and sons, though more likely because heroin is sweeeeet. Selby’s style is a rush of exacting S-o-C sentences, staccato pops and blips, and more elegant art-patches whenever Marion is the focus. I would argue the descent happens a little briskly, especially Sara’s commitment to a psycho ward, and the subsequent brutality of doctors and police and nurses is a little quirk of Selby’s (the world outside his personnel’s bubble is a horrid brutalising place—maybe!), but it’s all good. This is a goddamn American classic. Now we live in an age where people will review your Kindle novel for five pounds. No wonder poppers are popular again.

15. John Updike Bech: A Book

Bech is an old-school American writer (i.e. sexist and racist) whose books have secured him a place in the pantheon of the greats. Ah, the days when we had pantheons! When writers had stature and respect and tabloid headlines, when adoring fans tore their knickers off over a potent metaphor or sly Greek allusion. Gone are the days! He travels the world being droll and patronising the locals for not speaking English, and looks at ladies’ ankles, thighs and calves a great deal before he sleeps with them. Oh, the writer’s life! Such toil and torment! Attached to these thin travelogues and anecdotal scenes are the usual lyrical gushings that made Updike such a honey in the New York scene—those long descriptive sentences that make critics say “master of the language” a great deal, but that in themselves don’t really say very much in particular. Still, Updike could have written a better sentence than the one I wrote there. And there. So he wins. Except I’m not dead. So maybe I win?

16. David Eagleman Sum: Forty Tales From the Afterlives

My favourite video game of all time is a homemade 2D platformer on the little-known Yaroze—a black, programmable Playstation—called Time Slip. In this game you are a snail with a one-minute lifespan who has to use his time on screen to stand on buttons that open doors to other parts of the level. Once the minute is up, the snail is reincarnated as another snail at the beginning of the level, or at the latest checkpoint. The ghost of your previous snail remains on the map, reliving its movements after its time is up, with more and more fresh snails coming until the map gets clogged up with past selves. If you come into contact with any of your previous snail-selves, it’s game over. This raises quite a profound metaphysical conundrum for a cheapo game coded by two nerds. Imagine if we had the chance to live our lives over, in the same circumstances, with knowledge of our previous selves altering how we moved through the world, but relying on certain foundations having been laid in these previous lives for advancement in our then-present lives. Like concentric Russian dolls whose contact would spell extinction.

Knowing we had freedom to live multiple, or endless lifetimes, with the only caveat no touching our previous selves, how would this effect how we try to solve the frustrations and problems in our present lives, knowing contact with people in our previous lives would be limited to the few moments our past selves weren’t in contact with these people? For example, can you imagine how tiring it must be for someone married to seven reincarnations of the same person, having to tend to all their needs like a revolving-door of husbands/wives? How could we stay away from people, knowing our presence there would increase the chance of our own death? How could we order our lives so that our legacies built up over two hundred or so years? What if we peaked in our first lives, and the subsequent reincarnations are simply failures and frustrations?

Not bad for a Yaroze game—normally it’s variations on Tetris or Space Invaders. These clever short fictions posit such conundrums about the afterlife, from ‘Sum,’ where all the aspects of our lives are arranged in order, i.e. ten years of pain, two weeks writing reviews on Goodreads, or ‘Reversal’ where we live our lives backwards upon death, realising we have misremembered our lives, and are unable to identify ourselves in the rewind. These two tales open and close the collection. Using his background in neuroscience, Eagleman pens delightful hypothetical fables, largely whimsical and ingenious. Daintily packaged and teasingly slim, so almost impossible to resist. I heard about this book via this Intelligence Squared talk with Will Self.

17. Henri Alain-Fournier The Lost Estate

Le Grand Meaulnes is supposed to be untranslatable, and this translation by French classics legend Robin Buss doesn’t convince me otherwise. The novel hinges upon the titular Meaulnes being such a charming force of character in a lower-class school, his name echoes down the ages and his antics and adventures make him a much-beloved geezer in the province. Doesn’t quite work. But the narrator François is certainly smitten and describes Meaulnes’s first love in fits of florid descriptive prose worthy of Huysmans. Alain-Fournier (who died in the First War after this was published) seeks to capture the end of adolescence in a wistful and romantic way, and many passages in this short-chapter novel succeed at creating a dreamy forgotten arcadian paradise that might raise a tear or two, depending how pleasant your past was. But the novel lacks cohesion or credible characters, so the end result is a hotchpotch of moments within a sentimental bildungsroman frame, with a lapse or two into melodrama.

18. Benjamin Constant The Red Notebook

A painfully brief semi-fictional autobiographical romp. I could have swallowed another two hundred pages of this tale, easily, but I only got sixty-five for my sins. Constant is a bumbler in this short one, messing up his attempts with ladies, racking up huge gambling debts and expecting his father to foot the bill. The typical chutzpah of an upper-class French aesthete. He takes trips to Edinburgh and London where he becomes a peripatetic bumbler, backsliding into poverty before his inevitable return to his father’s estate, where he bumbles the apology through his chronic shyness. Constant should have penned more fiction. Adolphe isn’t enough when the writing is this crisp and engaging. I docked a star for its shortness and its erratic non-structure.

19. Marguerite Duras The Lover

If you like lyrical romantic prose in staccato sentences, written in the literariest of all literary styles, this is the novella for you. If you don’t, this isn’t the novella for you. Me, I’ve read this story a million times before. Goodnight March.

Reason to Celebrate:

This month marks the completion of my 100th Dalkey Archive Press title. You won’t find this level of slavish devotion to an obscure American press on any other blog. Guaranteed. A gushing post is coming up.

Book of the Month:

Charles Dickens The Pickwick Papers


  1. Re Timeslip: according to Van Damme's questionable 1994 SF Romp TimeCop, if you encounter another version of yourself and make physical contact, you turn into a giant purple spasmodic blob before ebbing from existence. Bummer.

    1. Haha! That is a bummer. I remember that movie, and I remember Mia Sara. Hmmmmmm. Mia Sara.

  2. It pleases me that you read so many books that I don't feel I have to read any. Thank you.