Monday, 28 May 2012

My Month in Books, Part One (May)

1. Alasdair Gray — A Life in Pictures

Hello, I am Colin Pie, managing director of the MJ Nicholls & Affiliated Pseudonyms Reviewing Experience (MJNAAPRE). Due to a decrease in market share of the MJ Nicholls review (dropping from nine million page views to four) and the reduced volume of likes within the last three months, for a trial period all MJ Nicholls reviews will be written from an entirely fiscal perspective. I will be reviewing this particular item to save on the labour required in sourcing original MJ Nicholls non sequiturs and irrelevant MJ Nicholls wisecracks. The MJ Nicholls reviewing style of large block paragraphs with no spaces will be replaced with a more reader-friendly spacing policy.

1) GENERAL MARKET. This hardcover book of artwork and autobiographical gloss, from an artist known largely for his novel Lanark, will sell mainly to those familiar with his fiction. It will sell to devoted readers of his novels and stories, his semi-popular stage plays, and perhaps to occupants of Glasgow familiar with his distinctive images hewn into the city’s cultural landscape. Its market price, £35, makes it a luxury item among the middle-class Scottish audience in boroughs like Dowanhill and Kelvinbridge. Wealthy overseas patrons of his work might also purchase copies.

2) ASSORTED COMMENTARY. The book is—to use a cliché the reviewing masses will appreciate—a labour of love, covering Gray’s early paintings inspired by Hieronymus Bosch and William Blake, to his most famous mural Cowcaddens Streetscape in the Fifties. It offers a complete retrospective of his large religious murals, his hundreds of portraits, his chunky nudes and his exquisite book covers. The text often interrupts the visual feast of the images, but provides an exhaustive commentary on the work and the context in which it was created.

3) WHO IS COLIN PIE? I don’t know what MJ Nicholls has said about me, but I do not imbibe too much on the weekends. I also did not set fire to my sister’s Renault Espace after a four-week vodka and Sprite binge.

4) PURCHASIBILITY. This is a beautiful collection of artwork from one of the biggest talents of 20thC (and beyond) Scottish art. The work in here is erotic, melancholy, foreboding . . . I’m sorry, but the present budget only extends to three descriptives at present. I also did not eat my nephew’s pubic hair after losing a bet in a pub. I would think, as Leader of the MJ Nicholls & Affiliated Pseudonyms Reviewing Experience, MJ Nicholls would have more responsibility than to spread such scurrilous rumours. So: in brief, if you have an extremely large budget for lavish coffeetable art books, I recommend this pristine hardcover immensely. I am Colin Pie, thank you for skim-reading this MJNAAPRE review. Send any donations direct to my house, please.

2. Lisa O’Donnell — The Death of Bees

Colin Pie here, standing in for the financial liability and tantric lovemaster MJ Nicholls. I received a postcard from him this morning. He says he tried to send me a text message but he was stuck up a hill. I also received a telegram from him this morning explaining he tried to send a postcard but he was nowhere near a post office. An email came through this afternoon explaining he would have sent an email but he wasn’t inside. And while I wrote that last sentence, he was on the phone explaining he would have phoned but he was too busy writing a postcard, a telegram and an email. He’s a scamp.

1) THIS BOOK. A debut novel from a Scottish(?) screenwriter currently trying to make it in LA. Two sisters from a Glasgow housing scheme come home to find their father’s head bashed in and their mother hanging from the ceiling. Afraid of becoming state-funded orphans, they bury their parents in the back garden (skilfully managing to avoid their nosy neighbour Lennie), then carry on as normal, minus their unfortunate betters (inferiors). It’s a magical mix of black comedy, coming-of-age drama, and quirky mainstream fiction.

2) THAT BOOK. Manages to balance the dark slapstick and outrageously laidback attitude towards underage sex and drug-popping with moments of tenderness, intelligence and humility. Marnie is the wild older sister who indulges in hedonistic binges of voddy and teenage penis, while Nelly is her younger who speaks in a clipped English accent and likes Coke on her cornflakes. The novel establishes its own internal reality and logic, so easily bats away criticisms of preposterousness. At its heart it is a gentle book about family, sisterly survival and escaping the oppressive heat of an unfeeling city environment.

3) WHY IS COLIN PIE? I was once accused of stealing a balloon. I never stole the balloon. I simply released it into nature. That didn’t stop the police from stomping into my house, hauling me off to prison. Fools.

4) BOOK. The structure and narrative toggling is somewhat simplistic, spread over a four-month cycle, alternating between three characters. This makes it extremely easy to follow but doesn’t leave room for any ambiguity, mystery or gameplay. All the characters speak in direct first-person prose, occasionally addressing a deceased relative, but what is said is said without any space for the daring complexity of a devious third-person narrator. Oh they can be yummy. Also, sometimes Marnie’s intelligence feels exaggerated so she can speak profound, literary sentences, but you’d have to be an absolute swine to deny O’Donnell this contrivance. I didn’t steal that damn balloon.

3. Frank Kuppner — Life on a Dead Planet

This Scots novel is closer to those vintage American postmodern narratives I love so dear—a sardonic, interrogative third-person narrator describes various nameless characters committing various obliquely delineated acts that question the representation of reality in fiction—than your typical historical yarns about identity, Scottishness and politics. Kuppner’s bad-tempered narrator brings to mind the cranky humour of Sorrentino and Foster Wallace as a clinically depressed young philosophy student. Unfortunately, this writer has a poet’s sensibility, so his quest for the well-turned phrase supplants the lightly metafictional frolics and humour that kept me more interested than the baffling manoeuvrings of whatever whoever on the page is doing . . . if he’s (she’s) doing something at all. (Whatever something means. Whatever means means). A muddled fuddle worth the struggle.

4. Harry Mathews — The Human Country: New & Collected Stories

The other reviews here sum up my opinion on these stories—a few pearls mixed with opaque, impenetrable rocks written largely for Michael Silverblatt. ‘Country Cooking’ is a notable standout: a perfect spoof of haute cuisine recipes. ‘Clocking the World on Cue’ is an insanely clever piece of Oulipo showboating where each sentence clocks up the mathematical values of any roman numeral letters in sentences (i.e. m, x, i) so that each adds up to 2001. Mathews’s writing is extremely stylish and linguistically impossible—he makes no concessions for the reader unprepared to participate in his games. Sadly, if he doesn’t throw the reader a bone, she won’t be that interested in playing. I had this problem with his novels too. The stories in the section ‘Calibrations of Latitude’ were among my favourite. The ‘American Experiences’ I found for the most part too advanced. My last Mathews book? Probably.

5. Wallace Markfield — Teitlebaum’s Window

Wallace Markfield is another voice howling from the void—the void of unloved unread unappreciated now-dead experimental fiction writers too cool for even the postmodern crowd. This novel is a collage of elements: each chapter opens with a list of scenes, kvetchings or moments from the 1930s Jewish Brooklyn neighbourhood the book depicts. Simon Sloan is at the centre of the piece and his story is told in intermittent chapters consisting of diary entries, letters, college notes and extended dialogue-packed pages. The chapters in between cover his family, especially his ultra-Jewish father whose good humour gives way to moments of violent son-hating misanthropy that explode from the patchwork of niche jokes, wordplays and Yiddish terms of disapproval. Simon’s early days with his filthy friends recounting sex stories about their parents provides many chuckles, and the later parts with his various Marxist, insane, anti-Marxist suitors as he shimmies up the social ladder are also written with relentless comic imagination. Not all the chapters lend themselves to the addictive pleasure-filled aspect of the Simon pieces, but the novel delivers an original suckerpunch of howling tittering Jewishness regardless.

6. Agnes Owens — For the Love of Willie

Colin Pie here. MJ Nicholls has ordered me to apologise on his behalf for the diminished reading activity among his team of highly skilled and unpaid book goblins this month. This is due in part to the unveiling of three affiliated MJ Nicholls subsidiaries: 1) The MJ Nicholls Association for Patronising Lectures on Experimental Fiction (TMJAPLEF). 2) The MJ Nicholls Department for Digressive Comedic Reviews with Little Relevant Content (TMJNDDCRLRC). 3) The MJ Nicholls House for Self-Referential Whimsy Over Substantial Textual Analysis (TMJNHSRWSTA). I have been made the CEO of the MJ Nicholls Centre for Tiresome Acronym Jokes That Aren’t Jokes (MJCTAJTAJ), which incorporates TMJNHSRWSTA.

1. Distracting Relevance. This is a novel by Agnes Owens, a retired cleaner from Milngavie, in which teenage girl Polly gets knocked up by a sleazy shop owner. A second narrative told fifty-or-so years in the future describes Polly’s attempts to write her life story in a hospital ward after a lifetime of serious mental health problems. Lean and unflinching prose from this surprising and consistently overlooked talent. This text is part of the MJ Nicholls Repository for Unknown Scottish Fiction of Little Interest to the Predominantly American Goodreads Demographic (no acronym available).

2. More About Colin Pie. I confess, I am looking to establish The Colin Pie Association for More Reviews About Colin Pie (TCPMRACP) within the MJ Nicholls & Affiliated Pseudonyms Reading Experience (TMJNAAPRE). I have secured funding from the Manny Rayner Institute for Technical Reviews About Chess No-one Reads (MRITRCNR) and the Paul Bryant Centre for Short Parodies of Unread Books for Fifty or More Easy Likes (PBSPUBFMEL) and the TCPMRACP should be in operation within four years. (If we secure planning permission from Jeff Daly first. I hear he can be bought).

3. And Finally. Who needs MJ Nicholls anyway? His days are numbered in the current economic climate. When all publishing stops in 2013 and we revert to wartime measures of rationing and water conservation in a desperate attempt to stimulate growth (as opposed to shutting down off-shore tax havens for billionaires), all literature will be an irrelevance. All that will remain are the reviewers pouring over the last two millennia of literature in witty and amusing ways, as predicted in this prophetic review. The Day of the Reviewers is coming—and I intend to cash in! Come get a piece of the Colin.

P.S. This is being performed at the Edinburgh Fringe this year.

7. Kathy Acker — Blood and Guts in High School

This book was released in 1978, making “post-punk feminism” an apposite description. Not that punk had stopped in 1978 but post-punk bands were already evolving the two-chord assault of the punk sound into something better (or in the case of Howard Devoto or Jonathan Richman before punk even happened). So this hysterical novel chimes perfectly with the nascent post-punk art explosion coming from NY in the late seventies, entwining it with this glorious period of art-school pretention and irredeemable poetry. The novel uses typographical attack weapons (enormous fonts! childish scribblings! decorative borders!) to tell its horrible story of an abused feminine receptacle desperate to free herself from the whoredom of men. Along the way, she meets Genet who also proves himself to be a prick. Tsk. Something of a response to William H. Gass’s potentially sexist typographical funhouse, Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife, perhaps? A perverse relic: mainly dark and funny now, too hysterical to make any longstanding feminist impact. I hate the cover. I feel I’m supposed to.

8. Anne Brontë — The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Tackling Brontëism #2

The second novel Anne wrote before she caught pulmonary tuberculosis shortly after her 29th birthday. Certainly not something on those 100 Things To Do Before You’re 30 Lists. 1) Paragliding. 2) Kayaking. 3) Catch pulmonary TB and die. See? Good. The problem with those lists is they presuppose readers like the outdoors and have a private income of some three zillion units. Far better the lists have simpler aims for us mortals: 1) Eat a probiotic yoghurt. 2) Bumslide down a banister. 3) Help drywall your father’s shed. 4) Post an actual letter. 5) Touch something with a DANGER OF DEATH sign. That sort of thing.

Anyway. Anne’s second novel shows her evolving considerably as a prose composer—if not in terms of style or structure, certainly in terms of content and ideas. The structure is peculiar—the first 100pp concern Gilbert Markham’s attempts to chat up a reclusive new tenant at the titular Hall, before switching to the letters of said tenant, Helen Graham/Huntingdon. This is what we MFA graduates call a fucking huge narrative lurch, but the story becomes far more interesting as Helen’s narrative voice is the strongest (Gilbert doesn’t quite convince as a man) and more rife with intrigue, struggle and heartbreak, etc.

She marries Arthur Huntington despite her supposed intelligence, an alcoholic in remission whose condition returns during his frequent trips to the dens of London. He soon morphs into a monster and Helen’s patience is tested to snapping point, forcing her to flee her fallen hubby. The novel is one of the strongest (and earliest) depictions of the human rights abuses the marriage laws of the period were capable of encouraging . . . by marrying a man the woman was entitled to hand everything she owned to the husband and become an obedient slave-creature. The prose meekly screams at this pathetic injustice and rightly so.

The writing style is extremely circumlocutious in places and only very patient, bedridden readers will want to wade through the long monologues and nature descriptions . . . I mean this in comparison with other novels of the period, so heed that warning. The structure works surprisingly well as the narrative is handed back to Gilbert, although the clumsy recourse to letters to keep the story going makes the last quarter a painful flop technically speaking . . . plot-wise, I was bursting to know how things turned out for the long-suffering Helen. Excellent work. First Brontë has passed the test. Next: Charley.

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