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.

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