Saturday, 5 May 2012

What Pooh Said to Dante

Manny Rayner is a popular reviewer on Goodreads, where I waste 90% of my time. This is a review of his book, What Pooh Might Have Said to Dante and Other Futile Speculations.

This is an entirely new thing—a book of (and about) paratexts. A book about the chatter of books: the reviews, commentaries, responses around texts. And here I am poised to contribute to the paratexts around this book of paratexts. Is a revolution stirring within these pages? Or is this some sinister catalogue of subliminal advertising filtered from the digital culture into our precious print-space? Let us explore.

I am reviewing a book of book reviews. In these book reviews, the reviewer, Manny Rayner—author of New York Times Bestsmellers Putting Lubricants into Speech Recognition: The Vulvar Grammar Compiler and The Smokin’ Language Translator—pronounces on various categories of literature, from children’s classics to pop trash to dearly beloved classics. At face value, this is merely a compilation of erudite reviews from a man committed to popularising his responses to literature online. But look deeper.

You are being sucked into a subtle matrix, what the postmodernists call a “recursive loop,” where a narrative finds itself trapped in endless hall of mirrors. As you read, you begin to notice how Manny’s reviews expand outside the texts being discussed—sometimes digressing from the original texts completely, like a new bacteria evolving from its host. Your response to his responses will leave you hungry for responses to your response to his responses and so on like some perpetual conga line of literary sodomy. Soon you will find yourself trapped in this Mannyworld where all that matters are the carefully worded responses to books. So: is this book is the end of books?

Flash forward four years from now, where Manny’s review of the latest Philip Roth is the number one bestseller on Amazon. Philip Roth hasn’t written the book but Manny knows the content of this nonbook from the preceding Philip Roths—yenta and fucking—and can deliver a withering 200-word slapdown in his usual amiable style, safe from mailbombs since no once can tell if he’s American, French, British or Norwegian. The discourse has eaten the discoursed. This is when the authors will have their revenge.

To knock Manny, karen, Bryant and co from their perches the authors write perfect lampoons of their reviews and these reviews themselves become the most popular, returning the authors to their previous place as online nonentities. But nothing can stop the recursive loop except the passing of time—the authors whose texts were parodied will die out, along with the reviewers—there remains no new literary material to write about outside the reviews, all literature has slid out of print. The future is reviews about nothing. The future is an endless oneupmanship to see who can write the wittiest, most popular 200-word capsule review on fuck-all. This is Manny’s fault.

But what about the present? Even if you dislike his brand of smarter-than-thou humour, you have to admit Manny is an important ventricle behind Goodreads (the one linking the brain to the heart, say, or to the bowels). Who else would read Twilight, Harry Potter and Angels & Demons solely for the chance to write snarky, erudite, silly, reviews? Or to impart complex info about chess, linguistics or French grammar?

Sure, he has his flaws: he won’t read your recommendations unless they were already on his reading list. He won’t read works in translation so he won’t read anything in the vast canon of European (except France and Norway), South American or Asian literature. He rarely dips his toe into American postmodernism (or anything from the Dalkey Archive) and always posts reviews of obscure things he read in his younger days. As for this volume, I am partial to the parodies—selections include Beckett, Orwell, Nabokov, Milton, Proust and Austen and various mash-ups. And the dialogues raised the most titters too. So for now, sip slowly on the volume, but watch out for that recursive loop. It cometh. 

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