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.

Additional:

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.

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