Monday, 30 April 2012

My Month in Books, Part Two (April)

14. Chris Ware — The Acme Novelty Library #20

Yes, this one was spectacular. I don’t know anything about the Acme Library except I missed the preceding nineteen novels, but the life and death of Jordan Lint was beautifully designed. A truly pioneering way to tell a simple story, leagues ahead in the originality and wittiness stakes. Like a dream that becomes a nightmare, beaming life back at us in all its horrible inevitability. I read portions of this in The Book of Other People, so completing the piece a year later was a prolonged pleasure for me. Chris Ware is not readily available in the UK, so I lament the fact I might never read another entry in his library. Sad face. Mommy!

15. Nicola Barker — Darkmans

I want to review Darkmans but I should be researching UK agents so I can submit my own novel to snotty Islington ministers’ daughters—the sort who fall down drooling at The Kite Runner or some such oxplop—in the hope that one day I can write a tongue-in-cheek five-star review of my own novel on Goodreads then re-post a series of self-promoting updates every four minutes for everyone to ignore, then fight off a caustically withering slapdown from Mr. Bryant with four pages of unpunctuated vitriol, made worse by a pompous author shot of me, unshaven, in my James Joyce glasses, oozing hard-won wisdom.

I wonder if Nicola Barker ever spends the afternoon writing a three-hundred word review for Goodreads under a pseudonym rather than delivering the next twelve pages of her latest opus to her publisher. I doubt it. See, this is my problem. I adore writing but I love reading more more more. Then I love sharing my passions on this worldwide book orgy. I flinch—no, I wince, an appropriate word for this novel—at writers who prefer writing to reading. These people are usually lawyers who decide to take up writing on the side, transcribing the minutiae of their cases for their mass market drivel, while earning £26K getting a rapist off on a technicality. Where is this going? Nowhere.

I have stuff to do. Needless to say, this book is her second masterpiece, next to Wide Open, which I still think (sorry deleted member Iain) is her best book. This one is compelling and witty, bursting with energy, comedy, heartbreak and mystery, but shows its flaws all too easily. The least nagging of these is an unhealthy use of the verb to wince—the characters are wincing all over the place, why not blench, cringe, flinch, quail, recoil, or squinch, Nicola? Anyway, fabulous book. Chris’s review and Drew’s review are better. I’m off to work, by which I mean linger on Goodreads for another hour. Curse this place!

16. Robert Alan Jamieson — A Day at the Office

An unloved and neglected experimental novel the Dalkey Archive should clamour to republish at once. An unnamed man in an office describes the lives of three intersecting characters, punctuating his narratives with free verse poems and musings much like a Scots Book of Disquiet. Ray is a dole-scrounging drug pusher waiting for something to happen that doesn’t involve employment, Helen works in a casino and recently split from her husband following a violent attack, and Duncan owns an antique shop and deals on the side too. As in Nicola Barker’s Darkmans, the narratives are hiccupped with subscript interruptions from the characters’ heads, as though the subjects can hear the narration and want to add their own snarky or poetic comments. The technique works since it places us directly into their minds without recourse to ‘he thought’ or ‘she wondered’ and brings us as to close as we can be to these pedestrian dreamers (although still largely within the narrator’s literary voice). In the hands of Ali Smith this novel might have built to a tragic or moving climax involving roulette wheels gone mad, but this author is concerned only with capturing an ordinary, melancholy snapshot of life in a very inventive and underappreciated way. One review on Goodreads (mine) and another ‘to-read’ is not a fair fate for this excellent book. Curse this life!

17. Gore Vidal — Kalki

I write this review on a cordless laptop at my girlfriend’s cabin the Highlands, the rain lashing against my cheek (I’m half indoors half out), the wind howling against my thigh (my other thigh is howl-proof). I lie. I write this in a cosy bed on a cordless laptop, the only danger being a rampaging bull butting the double-glazed windows with his horns of evil, then gouging my pretty face with said horns. All this is padding. I apologise. Sometimes I have so little so say about all these wonderful books I read, I despair about my tenure on this site. Anyway. Another Gore Vidal novel. This one is about the re-embodiment of Vishnu in a Southern US drugpusher, who summarily brings about a lotus-based global apocalypse. That’s all I need to say: sells the book pretty well, don’t you think? Vidal’s prose is sumptuously readable, classily satirical and ineffably wry. Read something by Gore Vidal. He deserves new readers. This review is pants. Sorry.

18. Robert Alan Jamieson — Soor Hearts

Jamieson’s output is largely entwined with the Shetland Isles, where he was raised in the wee port of Sandness before setting up base in Edinburgh. His debut novel is a historical melodrama that mimics the oral storytelling tradition of Shetland, although with a deeper psychological and descriptive range than a Nordic saga. Magnus (see?) has returned to Mirkwick after the alleged murder of his friend in a bar brawl, sparking ire from the local God-fearing townsfolk eager to see the flame-haired murderer swing for his sins. Part historical commentary, part murder mystery, part psychological thriller, this brief novel boasts some impressively poetic prose, despite the familiar plotline, and plants the foundations for his later novel, Da Haapie Laand. The Shetlandic dialect is interesting when transliterated—sounding more Jamaican than Scots—but Jamieson waters down the speech to keep things readable. His best novel, however, is the magically postmodern A Day at the Office.

19. Nicola Barker — Love Your Enemies

This is a stronger collection than Heading Inland, notable for the outstanding novelette ‘John’s Box,’ where a terminally ill man constructs his own coffin in a Warholian pop art stylee, and ‘Dual Balls,’ where a prim schoolteacher takes vibrating testicle apparatus into class to honour her friend and subsequently orgasms before the headmistress. ‘A Necessary Truth’ and ‘Symbiosis: Class Cestoda’ deal with oppressive domestic lives where women find liberation in odd ways: the former through a cold caller teaching philosophy, the latter through a tapeworm living in her stomach. Some stories are light, disposable whimsy, but in the appealing Barkerish mode. Note for completists: the stories in Three Button Trick compiles material from this collection and Heading Inland with no new stuff—it’s better to read the two distinct collections.

20. Adrienne Rich — Diving into the Wreck: Poems 1971-72

Exasperating and bleak poetry cycles about gender struggle and body politics. Not my usual parvenu, but I appreciated hearing this voice. On the bus.

21. Charles Burns — Black Hole

I was caught up in that lamentable period of American cinema (has it stopped?) where implausibly attractive actors in their late twenties pretend to be nubile teenage virgins hiding from serial killers or participating in leery innuendo-laden unfunny antics with ex-sitcom stars. Oddly enough this phenomenon was helped along by Wes Craven’s Scream, a film that satirised all the clichés of a genre it single-handedly repopularised—the layers of irony gradually falling away until the reliably bankable properties of cheap sexism and hack writing were fully reinstated at the top of the box office. Where they belong.

This collected comic strip dates form the early nineties and beyond so can be excused for leaping on any sexy-teenagers-and-the-supernatural bandwagons that have popped up in recent times. My central problem with Black Hole is my weariness at having sexy American teenage brats as protagonists, especially those undergoing coming-of-age experiences with an added macabre aspect. Especially if the sympathetic characters are overly sexy teenagers drawn to look like actors in their twenties. I have no time for this shit. The teenagers in American films resemble no teenagers I have ever met in my short life. They might as well be bepimpled alien creatures with tails and horny schnozzles.

Still, despite this bulging bias, I found Black Hole compelling for its structural cleverness, its striking plunder of the dark imagination, the uneasy union of the erotic and perverse. I still resented how the sexy chick escaped with only a partial tear down her spine, and distanced herself snootily from her fellow freaks, but those are my own armchair issues. (I suppose it makes a change to have a graphic novel where the nerd isn’t the hero). As for the dialogue, it clearly escaped from a teen movie of some description, but the drawings redeemed the whole shebang. Hopefully no movie will ever be attempted.

Edit, following admonishment from friend:

I have been informed by an absolutely furious friend this GN has more in common with fifties horror B-movies and ye olde pulp comics than the nineties teen-slasher parodies mentioned above. There also isn’t really a hero (even though the sideburns guy is sort of a hero), so apologies for that misleading piece of shoddy reviewage. Also, “reviewage” isn’t really a word, and only highlights my own desperate ploys for lexical originality in these hastily typed literary judgements. And finally, the forthcoming film should be written/directed by David Cronenberg or someone of his ilk, not written by Neil Gaiman and directed by some other geezer. I apologise for the distress this misinformation has caused. P.S. I also have issues with sexy beauty-queen freaks. Thanks.

22. John Updike — Rabbit is Rich

Glib Capsule Review:

Rabbit cracks wise. Rabbit talks about cars. Rabbit scrutinises female anatomy. Rabbit bawls out no-good lowlife son. Rabbit’s actions receive entirely undeserved Harvard-strength descriptive torrent. Rabbit screws his wife. Rabbit fantasises about screwing his friend’s young wife. Rabbit makes racist or sexist remark. Rabbit thinks about daughter or dead Skeeter. Rabbit goes into four/five-page thought-stream with no paragraph breaks. Rabbit wants very much to have sexual intercourse with another lady. Rabbit isn’t really rich. Randomise these sentences for 423pp, that’s Rabbit is Rich.


The third number in Updike’s tetralogy is a deliberately overweight, exhausting mess, centred almost entirely on Rabbit’s misadventures in opulence. For me, this is the novel’s greatest flaw: in Rabbit, Run, Updike wrote so eloquently from several POVs, notably from Janice’s, but here, aside from one or two swings to Nelson’s (Rabbit’s son) perspective, we’re trapped in Rabbit’s head for the long haul. Updike’s prose has gotten saggier and baggier since the 1950s—no writer but Nabokov can really sustain hyper-stylised prose over a 423pp novel (Ada being a bad example), so the marshy swamps of description tend to blur into one big OH THAT’S NICE, BUT SO WHAT? As for this comment that Rabbit is Rich is where Updike expanded upon the technical innovations in Ulysses—balls! Updike wrote breathtaking stream-of-consciousness prose in the first book, using Joycean borrowings to devastating effect. This book contains one clumsy attempt at thought-stream prose early on, replacing this with comma-drenched clumps of dullness for the duration. If Updike’s only intention was to write a supersize novel to reflect Rabbit’s distending gut and bank account, this is disappointing. His reluctance to abandon his hero’s relentless sexual musings to explore the family in greater depth is also disappointing. I wasn’t expecting change in the characters—we know they’ll remain appalling wretches until the final breath—but I needed more originality in the telling. Apart from these gripes, I lapped up the story OK.

23. Laurence Sterne — A Sentimental Journey

For those curious as to Sterne’s “other thing” besides Tristram Shandy, let me make it clear: no, this is not another spearheading postmodern masterpiece. This is a vicaresque (ha—see what I did there?) travelogue narrated by the curious Yorick, a man of questionable virtue. The chapters are bitesize but thin-in-content, making it pleasant to read if not altogether interesting—a few semi-comic mishaps befall the narrator, and the Tobias Smollett parodies are amusing too. The novel does lean towards the sentimental—sketches where the reader is asked to extend their pity towards suffering French beggars and so on. Nothing here disproves my theory that English Literature kicks into gear in the readability stakes post-1799 (yes, with exceptions—keep yer hair on). Also somewhat snagworthy are the frequent French phrases used—I had to keep thumbing back to the endnotes. Nice cameo from Toby Shandy, however. And a perfectly charming read otherwise. But not essential.

24. Rodge Glass — Alasdair Gray: A Secretary’s Biography

Rodge Glass was a man who knew what he wanted. What he wanted was to be Alasdair Gray’s indentured servant for life. After a spell at Gray’s short-lived CW classes in Glasgow, he attached himself umbilically to his mentor/idol and hasn’t let go since. This, naturally, has helped him launch his career as a novelist and has embroiled him in whatever “scene” happens to be ongoing at the moment (such “scenes” usually comprise people from certain CW groups or those who fortuitously attend certain literary events, rather than an uprising of fresh unstoppable literary talent). But despite this cynical manoeuvring (which Glass admits is a nice side-effect of his devotion), Glass’s biography is a nuts-and-bolts account of the fat asthmatic Glasgow pedestrian’s life from 0-74 (Gray is 77 now), interspersed with snippets from Glass’s “diaries” which expand upon the story with additional anecdotal information and personal accounts of their professional relationship. The overall portrait is of an explosively creative talent mostly in disarray—he was never able to commit himself to one discipline entirely, and his frustration at this is shown throughout his “obscure” years—and a largely affectionate study of his career and works. Personal info is limited (at the author’s behest) to Gray’s disastrous first marriage and his happy final marriage, and no info is given about Gray’s success as a father at all. So it’s mainly a career retrospective with the odd sparkle of revealing information (among them Gray’s habit of urinating in the sink in front of students in his university office), and succeeds at unravelling some of the self-mythologizing and deception behind the man. Mostly he was broke, unhappy and unable to stop working. (And crap at sex). Nowadays he’s broke, unable to stop, but happy. (Still crap at sex). You can’t ask for more in life, especially if you’re a Scottish artist.

25. Anne Brontë — Agnes Grey

Tackling Brontëism #1

Firstly, let’s diagnose this phenomenon. I first encountered Brontëism—definable as a slavish devotion to every word the sisters put to parchment—at university. I encountered the syndrome in American students who had spent their teens reading comedies of manners and upmarket romance novels and found in the Brontës a vicarious way to eke out their own desires for windswept romances in huge drawing rooms. Then I met British students whose puppy love for Wuthering Heights or Jane Eyre made me upchuck several weeks’ worth of pasta. So I cynically diagnosed the Brontë books as über-romance novels female readers held up as examples of the best sort of love possible in life—the love they would have if they could engineer their environment, to which all romantic relationships should aspire. Or versions of those moral-dilemma novels so popular at bookclubs and airports. It frustrated me. It was like having a particular area of literary history cordoned off to me. That I did not like.

Only problem was, I wouldn’t read the books. Now, however, I am reading the books. So this series of reviews is my attempt to understand the phenomenon of the Brontës so I can legitimately express discontent at their contemporary omnipresence, or proclaim my undying love too.

This novel is the first one by “the quiet one” Anne Brontë and describes her experiences as a governess in the homes of several brats. The first preconception smashed is that all Brontë novels are concerned with aristocratic characters: in this novel Agnes is from a lower middle-class family and volunteers to teach rich brats to help pay off her father’s debts. The chapters read like a handbook for being a patient and docile governess who has God on her side, with occasional turns of mannered humour and moments of affecting melodrama. The short chapters make the frequently dreary moments of micro-attention-to-detail regarding modes of deportment and social graces (that bog down so many novels of this period), more bearable. All in all, mildly entertaining. A lesser work from the lesser sister necessary for my experiment. More soon.

26. Gore Vidal — The City and the Pillar

So few of my GR friends have read this and other Gore Vidal classics, I have to pose the question: where does Vidal stand in the American pantheon? Do his historical novels about the Republic turn readers off for their political content and supposedly dry writing? Does his late career as polemicist and hired mouthpiece present him as a dusty old eminence, far too close to the rich and famous to have any worth as an artist of substance? Can someone born into a wealthy political family, close to JFK and Al Gore, win admiration as a novelist? Answers please. More people should read his eccentric novels—clearly Gore takes more risks than many of his American contemporaries, coming from a refreshingly bisexual perspective, not the rampantly hetero angle of Mailer and Updike. This novel is an excellent early shocker about a teenager’s nascent homosexuality, and probably still provides solace to readers today, despite its 1940s barcode. The writing is concise, unshowy and closely renders the experience in a believable, painful way. I love Vidal for his completely unpretentious, direct, anarchic, sublimely erudite books! Why don’t Americans?

27. Alasdair Gray — The Ends of Our Tethers

Gray is constantly surprising me—whenever I consign him to the dustbin of mediocrity, he returns with a superb collection of short fiction. After a seven-year absence (where he worked as a writing professor in Glasgow), he returned refreshed with thirteen tales about senility, creativity and politics. ‘No Bluebeard’ is the longest: an account of the narrator’s three marriages based on Gray’s shaky relationship history and his marriage to a steely Scandinavian who shared her name with Olympic Danish swimmer Inge Sorensen. Boasts the most awkward use of the C word in a piece of fiction (outside Updike). Also notable is ‘Aiblins’ about a deranged poet who tries blackmailing his old tutor into getting his work published through braggart posing. ‘Job’s Skin Game’ is the best story about recurring eczema you’re likely to read (outside Updike) and brims with scabby mischief. The other pieces here are brief, memorable, bittersweet and perfect. Gray is little grey deity.

Sunday, 29 April 2012

My Month in Books, Part One (April)

1. Kurt Vonnegut — Cat’s Cradle

The best way to cure Reader’s Block is to reread authors whose works induce chest pains of happiness in one’s . . . chest, so I did this with Mr. Vonnegut this afternoon. Sadly, upon rereading Cat’s Cradle, which I first tackled in 2007 at the summit of Arthur’s Seat as a love-drunk twenty-year-old starting to lick the world’s honeyest creases after a period of long-term depression, I was more disappointed than delighted. I suspect this book is read largely in one’s teens when confronting the vast nothingness of space and wondering where religion and civilisation and love and death fit into this premise. Five years later, some of these things have slid into place or slipped to the back of one’s mind to be replaced with short-assured leases on two-bedroom flats and where to purchase a decent chapatti bread for under five pounds. And so on. But this novel is a structural mess, shambolic and meandering and at times a little laboured. Mostly, however, Vonnegut is at his satirical peak and some of his finest creations and enduring ideas are explored in the novel, among them Bokononism and ice-nine and the weary reticence of a cynical humanist who loves people so much he can’t stand their company. A masterpiece at a certain time in one’s life. As a novel, patchy.

2. Craig Thompson — Blankets

I notice it’s been almost a whole year since I read my first graphic novel (Asterios Polyp on April 21 2011), so it’s fair to say I haven’t exactly immersed myself in the genre. Heh heh. My second graphic novel was an arbitrary grab at the library and was one of the few non-superhero-based entries on the shelves. Or perhaps the only non-superhero entry would be more accurate. What is with these people? You can’t be Batman, and drawing a superhero version of Batman will not bring you closer to that dream, m’kay? For Cheeses sake! (Credit to Mike for that ejaculation). This multi-award-winning piece is an autobiographical look at life in the Bible belt, with poor Craig wearing the trousers of faith many unfortunate Wisconsinians had to wear in their God-fearing towns circa the early 1990s. The romance aspect is purpler than a beetroot factory, but believable, in places. I liked the depiction of his girlfriend’s family, that seemed a more interesting plot to me, and the religious tension contrasted well with the permafrost of failed love. Nice work. I look forward to my third in April 2013. What will that be, ink lovers?

3. Spike Milligan — Hidden Words: Collected Poems

These poems are moving and silly but always deadly serious. Spike Milligan is at his poetic best in the short form, thus:

Dreams I

Dripping dreams
   of life away
Dreaming drips
   night and day
Do you hear the
   waters lap?
How many dreams
   left in the tap?


Nothing changes
Nothing does
It ends up like
It always was
It always will
Because, because

4. Gore Vidal — Duluth

Another of Gore’s raucous entertainments. This anarchic semi-satirical, semi-surreal novel flirts with the metafictional (two decades after its heyday) and flings about a dozen different plots at the reader that all intersect in sometimes random and sometimes logical ways. I gave up looking for the clever connective tissue between the elements fifty pages in, possibly because there isn’t any. Summarising the novel would also be a waste of my time, since the storylines all take various absurdist detours into fictional reality, political satire, edgy rape humour (something uncommon these days—wonder why), and an exhausting display of imaginative barbs that relent only when the book staggers to its bug apocalypse climax. This is the sort of book most authors would write if they had the status to publish anything like Mr. Vidal—a completely berserk detour of the imagination unfiltered by such trivialities as audiences, readers, or marketing strategies. Completely loco and hilarious.

5. André Gide — Uriel’s Voyage

I don’t know why Thomas Pynchon is on the cover.

6. Alison Bechdel — Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic

Shatters all my preconceptions of the graphic novel, reassures me of the form’s capacity for dense literally allusiveness, intellectual analysis and philosophical ponderings. Brilliant. The writer/artist was raised in a marvellously retro setting—a refurbished mansion kitted out like a Russian estate, with a snobbish bookworm for a father and an upper-class actress manqué for a mother (both of whom taught high-school English). The story attempts grand parallels between the author and her father, drawing comparisons with Fitzgerald, Proust and Joyce, and overegging the Greek myth a little, but also zips along with humour, eccentricity and a generation of repressed homosexuality. Mega good. Even better is Oriana’s review. Read that instead. If my graphic novel reviews seem short it’s because I’m still learning how to critique the artwork: anyone who can draw a circle sans compass is a genius to me.

7. Marjane Satrapi — Chicken With Plums
I saw the movie of Satrapi’s Persepolis and found it deeply irritating. But, being a pioneer in the graphic novel form—hell, a lone populiser of the form—I had to read something by her. This graphic novella (must I start a separate shelf for shorter graphic works?) is a melancholy folktale about a poor musician whose wife snaps his tar (like a sitar) in two. Finding no replacement for his prize instrument, he takes to his bed to die, where he reflects on his thwarted life—marrying the wrong woman, neglecting his only son, but mainly losing his tar. The question raised: if all great art is borne out of misery, who needs great art? Interesting A.L. Kennedy article about this in The Guardian recently. Anyway: very gloomy and very good. I will read Persepolis if someone twists both my arms.

8. Posy Simmonds — Tamara Drewe

I am on a graphic novel kick this weekend, but don’t worry, I have a week of Grossmith, Dostoevksy and Nicola Barker lined up, so normal service will be resumed. This one is known mostly in the UK and was serialised in The Guardian, then turned into a movie with the brilliant Roger Allam and Tamsin Greig. Being a parochial, very English piece gives it little international appeal but it is spiky and witty in a BBC Radio 4 sort of way. The movie irons out several crinkles in the original, such as the fate of the arrogant rock drummer, Jody’s death by huffing computer polish, and bringing about a happier ending for the bearded American. Very unHardylike, perhaps, but I love my underdogs to win. The plot concerns a writer’s retreat in the English countrywide, probably somewhere like Devon, and the various adulterous hijinks that take place after a local beauty returns with her crooked nose fixed to stir up trouble. Lots of fun. See the movie if you can.

9. Charles J. Shields — So it Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, A Life

A cursory glance at Charles J. Shields’s bibliography shows him to have authored a string of hack profiles ranging from Saddam Hussein to J.K. Rowling, plus books on sexual disorders, Uruguay and Vladimir Putin. Clearly this is the man to write the first full-length biography of bouffant satirical demigod Kurt Vonnegut. CLEARLY. Like him or not, he will remain, for time immemorial, the first and only man to have authority from The Master to write a full-length bio (or, at least, a vague thumbs-up from a doddery moribund man who he spoke to twice). But here we are, here it is, so it goes, and so on. Shields has written an extremely workmanlike bio, forgoing any textual trickery or temporal twiddling to present a birth-to-death portrait of the artist as a cranky firecracker, partial Mormon, and counterculture Baal. It zips along nicely. Shields’s own hack background clearly mirrors Vonnegut’s career chasing moolah in the slicks, so any protests on that front are churlish. CHURLISH. He describes well the maelstrom of family in Kurt’s life, and the agents, friends, extra kids and sparring partners.

But there’s one person missing from this bio: Kurt Vonnegut. I see only a shadow walking through these pages. I see his first wife Jane come to life brilliantly—an utterly devoted charmer who never loses faith in Kurt’s ability to become a great writer, who Kurt breezily betrays once his career picks up traction. His children swirl in and out the novel, tormented and amused at this cartoon grump lurking in his office doorway trying to write a novel with very short chapters. This isn’t necessarily a criticism—Kurt was deeply insecure and lacking identity. His shrewd businessman’s instincts dominated much of his writing life—the famous perm and moustache was cultivated to impress his readership following Slaughterhouse-Five’s huge success. His advice as a writing teacher was geared towards selling stories for vanishing magazine markets. He clearly relished his financial freedom after a long decade grafting largely for financial success. He was a free enterprise capitalist, not a socialist dreamer.

There are many unpleasant revelations in this book, mostly Kurt’s treatment of women: not impressive. Embarrassing examples abound, including his on-campus sexism and philandering in the sixties, though this is hardly surprising given the middle-aged males dominating the writing courses at the time. Basically, Kurt was an asshole. He acknowledges this many times in interviews and his books. He was an overgrown baby who wanted status and respect as an author, forever insecure about his place in the pantheon. Anyway: none of this matters, really. We have the books. Shields isn’t too hot on the canon, offering slim synopses and capsule summaries where meatier examinations might have been welcome for the devotee. He is also overly harsh about a number of his works, lingering on the critically popular ones. More drooling devotion might have been welcome.

Although meticulously compiled from limited scraps, the book is frustrating since we don’t get a better sense of Vonnegut outside his autobiographical works. Perhaps that’s the point: Kurt lived a Jackson Pollock life, as anarchic and shambling as his novels, and ultimately he was a product of depression-era America, the 30s and 40s, and remained rooted to these beginnings all his life . . . which is hardly a flaw. Learning how typically writerly he was “humanises” the man behind the novels, and does little to change our opinion of his work. His last ten years of life, sadly, were spent with Jill Krementz, whose behaviour towards her eighty-year-old spouse is not what one might term “affectionate.” Kurt really needed Jane in his life in his dotage, the poor sap. So: a solid bio with a throwaway appendix, badly endnoted. 

10. George & Weedon Grossmith — The Diary of a Nobody

11 April

Sat down to write a capsule review of The Diary of a Nobody. Interrupted by a loving thump at the door. It was Mark Nicholls from my review of Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller, a piece of spoof metafiction that ranks as my most liked GR review. I studied my 23-year-old self carefully then looked at my 25-year-old self and noted nothing had changed facially in two years except I was even more handsomely bespectacled. “Would you like to buy a copy of . . . ?” he began, but I’d heard it before. After all, I wrote it. “Finished that novel we started in 2009 yet?” he asked snidely. “Yes! I finished that like a month ago,” I said, triumphantly. Mark Nicholls from 2009 circled the Mark Nicholls from 2012 like a toreador taunting a pacifist bull. “Wow. Speedy Gonzalez. You must be the new Joyce Carol Oates,” he said. I snickered, neglecting to tell him about our vagina transplant.

12 April

I change to the present tense since the review is being written today, contrary to the opening sentence. That’s an example of what we call in the trade “unreliable narration.” Having doubts about writing a spoof diary review, despite having spoofed since my teens. I put on the new Big Sexy Noise album, Trust the Witch. Lydia Lunch appears on my desk and berates me for being a pussywhipped pastyasted whitebred chickenshed motherloving dolescrouging booksucking bitchboy. I tell her that’s far too many dashless hybrid words for a Thursday. She laughs and we have anal and a slice of malt loaf.

13 April

I will change tense, since this day follows the day on which the review was written. The question will arise, however, as to whether the first sentence needed a tense change, seeing it was written yesterday. (Although this isn’t true either—the review was actually written on the Wednesday night with a view to being posted on the Thursday!) I will walk to cupboard, where Dostoevsky’s skin is hanging on a coat hanger, awaiting its body. The doorbell will ring. A fleshy bone arrangement with organs will stand there and say: “Looking for Fyodor’s skin. Is he in?” I will wrinkle my beautiful eyes. “How do you know your skin’s a she?” I will ask. “All women will be brought low beneath the eyes of our Creator!” he will shout. “OK, cool it, come in,” I’ll say. “Ooh, using contractions now, are we?” he’ll ask. I’ll say: “Yup.”

10 April

I started to read The Diary of a Nobody. I thought how clever it might be to write a spoof review, using surreal antics as a contrast to the novel’s straight-laced satire. I realised that would probably be a mistake.

11. Joe Matt — The Poor Bastard

This strip collects Joe Matt’s ‘Peepshow’ series into one self-loathing volume. Seriously, the book groans when you open it, then whines for an hour about how no hot hardbacks find its spine attractive. I wonder if the makers of Channel 4 comedy ‘Peep Show’ took inspiration for their entirely similar entertainment about two selfish losers from the strip? Hmm. Joe Matt’s corny lovable self-parody makes for delightful reading. This really is a one-joke affair of a perpetually selfish dufus exiling himself from the world of girlfriends and regular sex into bedsits and chronic masturbation. Nothing more to be said. Good fun. The aftermath of this pathetically believable behaviour can be found in Spent.

12. Joe Matt — Spent

Joe Matt unleashes a vision of bachelor hell in this graphic novel adaptation of Notes From Underground. It isn’t really, but if there was ever a modern exploration of Dostoevskyian self-loathing and seething hatred for mankind set in a shared house in Canada, it’s this frightening piece. A confession: for a brief period in my teens I exhibited signs of such obsessive masturbatory proclivities (such as storing up sex scenes on VHS for easy midnight use), but this ended when the hormonal eruptions passed. This book explores a lifelong involvement with pornographic movies over actual meaningful relationships. Most men have secret dirties on their hard drives or materials for personal autoerotic use beyond adolescence, and any denial of this fact is a LIE you horny losers, but the question remains: why do men hate themselves so much? And is the answer simply, feebly: because they can’t get women to like them?

Martin Amis said in an interview that it is pointless to feel resentful towards women for refusing to like you, since they can detect a bachelor’s simmering resentment and loneliness a mile off, and will keep as far away as possible, thus trapping the bachelor in his woman-hating fume forever and ever. Or words to that effect. So the easiest option for the nerd is to face the potential humiliation and embarrassment of the dating scene and take each gradual annihilation of confidence and self-respect on the chin. Hmm. Thank God we have Geek2Geek in these enlightened times. This is scabrous self-parody, fun but with worrying ramifications for the author’s sanity. Most of it is probably charming exaggeration.

13. Fyodor Dostoevsky — Winter Notes on Summer Impressions

Fyodor is crotchetiest travel writer of the 19thC and this diary reads like Jeremy Clarkson Goes to France mixed with Karl Marx’s Further Criticisms of the Bourgeois Superstructure: Paris Edition. Two unpublished titles that sum up Fyodor’s critique of the French bourgeoisie, French attitudes and French gentlemen. He hates those damn frogs! Baguette-chomping cheese-eating surrender monkeys, set in their provincial ways! Curse those swine! And don’t get Fyodor started on those Polish Jews, oh-no-no. Louses and vermin and swine and mountebanks and rascals and all those other words that pop up on every second page of Fyodor’s novels. One day the Russian workers will seize control and form a benign Communist state, like the one in China, only better! Fyodor can be quite funny at times, like Jeremy Clarkson, but then the haze clears and the homespun bigotry and xenophobia stand there, hands-on-hips, shaking their little heads. As another reviewer states, Fyodor’s non-fiction was poor—try reading the perennially out-of-print Diary of a Writer for confirmation of that—but if you’re a completist, it’s short and won’t try your patience too much.

Friday, 27 April 2012

My Letter to the Editor

Dear Editor

OK, here’s the skinny. I submitted my story ‘A Florescence of Gerhards’ to you last year. You respond several months later with heavy edits, expressing a promising interest to bring the story to publication. I rewrite various sections of the story based on vague impressions of the sort of end you have in mind, enjoying the healthy and rare dialogue between writer/editor. Communication is shaky from then on as I send you my latest edits and suggestions, and you refer me to a co-editor. Said co-editor speaks to me once, claiming to have read my edits, and will return with her own edits soon, once she unpacks her luggage or such and such in her NYC basement loft or somewhere. Silence reigns for a long time. I assume the journal has bitten the dust. Eventually, you reply explaining all sorts of internal conflict, and profess you have lost the ability to be neutral on my story, the subtext being ‘I am thoroughly fed up of this piece and would like to move on.’ Being a reasonable sort of fellow, you extend an olive branch and ask me to submit another story for your latest issue, ‘Maggie’s Setlist,’ which I summarily send, having a matching story available. I take this gesture as genuine, being a naive sort of chap. You promise me a response ‘within the week,’ and I send an enquiring email, asking for that response two weeks later. I then send another email asking for a response to the non-response a month later, to which I have still to receive a response. So here we are. One disgruntled writer seeks mumbling apologies from unresponsive editor. Is this how one runs an effective, healthy, writer-loving literary journal of cutting-edge prose? Or is this another example of the excruciating dead-air snub that writers have come to hold so dear in their professional lives? I have published quite a few stories now in my (young) writing career, so it’s not as if I’m desperate to see my piece in print, and hey, chances are my piece won't "meet your needs" at this specific time. But when you open up a dialogue with someone in a friendly way, you enter into a social contract with the person that requires courtesy, courtesy, and, uh, a response. Any response. This year.

If this email receives no response I will come to the Bellow offices and put moonshine in your gravy.

Love and kisses,

MJ Nicholls

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

My Entrance at the Highland Literary Salon

I arrived primped and preened like a lady about to make her debut in High Society. I was going to the Highlands and I was entering society, so there were obvious parallels with myself and the Comtesse de Tende, say, or Lady Elizabeth Butler. I applied a subtle dab of my special man musk known as ‘Bottle With Nice Smell’ before leaving. I was ready to barnstorm that thriving hotbed of culture and literary innovation like a less poofy Oscar Wilde. I took the Citylink Gold carriage to Inverness where an attractive blonde servant girl dished out egg or ham sandwiches, tea and slabs of shrinkwrapped tablet with her hydraulically powered rictus. A meal fit for a society gentleman.

The Salon commenced at 7.30 at the Glen Mhor hotel—a terminally white hotel overlooking Loch Ness—when three or four participants awkwardly shuffled into an oversize room, with five seats by the window, and two couches positioned at the door end. The enormous crevasse in the room was clearly designed to engender a sense of community and warmth. Guesting at the salon were the organisers of the new English MA at the Highlands & Islands University—an exciting new course putting Scots lit in context with the literary traditions of Europe and America with tantalising side dishes of satire and theory.

Once the chat was over, it was my turn to dazzle. The conversations (between the eight or nine people present) exploded into a veritable Bloomsbury of wit and repartee. There was the middle-eastern oil man and his sleepy wife whose presence was never made clear, since writing was never discussed, and a bearded Glaswegian songwriter who loved to improvise responses to questions he had asked himself during your responses to his original questions. And a cyclist of some description who was always nipping off to the bar to ignore you. The people at the other end of the room I never got to meet, as I hadn’t come prepared to mount an expedition at that time of the evening.

My debut was a success. I said approximately nothing to anyone all night, except to the organiser who I spoke to previously, asking if I might be able to help out at all. He asked me if I had fundraising experience and so we had to part company swiftly. By having no one start a conversation with me all evening I avoided the potential pratfall of social humiliation and so my enshrinement in the history of the Salon was assured. I am a forgotten legend.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Writing Through Stress

I suffer from a nervous anxiety disorder, an unspecified one, which naturally manifests itself at stressful times. Lately I’ve been overwhelmed with anxiety trying to sort out my financial situation while remaining reasonably sane. It hasn’t been easy, since I spend many days fretting about meeting rent payments, waiting for money to come into my account, licking and stamping correspondence, and so on. Over the last few months I have also had problems finding a place in the world outside writing words, to the extent I am scared to do anything else, i.e. in the world of work, and I now find it impossible to picture myself in any paid employment. This problem has lead to ongoing counselling sessions to try to reduce my fear at confronting the world of money-earning.

But this isn’t a woe-is-me post, this is a post about writing through difficult times. When I have a problem that is wrenching me up inside, I tend to fixate on the problem until it goes away (temporarily), and then I can either move on immediately, or slowly over a day or so. I fear this disturbs my writing life, much in the same way it interrupts my attempts at being normal—i.e. trying to look for work or engage in the outside world. I sit down to write something but feel overwhelmed at the thought of making another piece of work come together—I think this partly stems from my MA where I had to think very deeply about the purpose for writing a story in the first place.

I feel sometimes all I have to say, generally, is that life is mostly quite hard but with occasional good bits. Where are the complexities in my work? Do I need to be employed in a range of badly paid jobs before I can gather the necessary experience to write stories with meaning and significance? When I had badly paid jobs in the past, I never wrote about them at all. Literary realism is not my bag. I only want to write about people like myself who are terrified of living. To understand why people participate in world. How, beyond having to make money, do people find the urge to get up and work all day? Is all human endeavour motivated solely by money and fucking?

At the moment I can feel my anxiety eating into my writing confidence, which is not a source of any pleasure. On a happier note, my story A Disquisition on the Erogenous Impulse in Prose Narratives was recently published at the excellent Martian Lit. And another piece written for the tenth anniversary of Piker Press, The Wonderfully Fecund World of the Hendersons was published there today.

Friday, 20 April 2012

My Theatre Debut

My first playlet was performed as part of the debut 10 Minuters evenings on March 22-24 at the Counting House, Edinburgh. The playlet was originally a short story written in the second person for an anthology, but I never heard back from the anthologisers so I converted the dialogue-heavy piece into a play, milking the final line for necessary laughs. I think the cast, organisers and writers were largely Edinburgh Uni students, the humour being collegiate and largely student-centric, but I was delighted when my play, ‘The Third Person,’ produced audible chuckles and the preceding nine minutes had a pay off.

The only snag was that my name was omitted from the program, leaving me an anonymous contributor to the audience. Oops. Still, I was worried the playlet would meet blinks of incomprehension. The actors performed my spoof Sherlockian sheep-theft mystery sketch brilliantly, especially Jack Robbins who had basically all the lines and aced his dippy Norfolk farmer accent. Criticisms? I had no communication with the director, so I was at the mercy of his (or her?) editing skills, but the script was unchanged except switching sexes of the second person. The organiser Alex Clark might have been more responsive to some of my emails, perhaps. But I’m quibbling now.

The experience has left me hungry to write more playlets—not necessarily comedic sketches, but playlets with comedic elements. Equally good was this enthusiastic review, where my play was applauded. Contrasted with this lukewarm review where I got a slight spanking. As for the other plays, they tended towards the comedic, and my own seemed to act as a chuckle-starter for the last few numbers, which played like extended comedy sketches. Good ones. ‘Crunch! And the world went down’ had the strangest title of the night but created an intriguing internet-paved inverted world. ‘Occupied’ was a tender transgender piece, nicely realised. The best of the comedic plays, for me, was closer ‘Modern Art,’ which could have come straight from Peep Show.