Tuesday, 31 July 2012

My Month in Books, Part Two (July)

13. Charles Dickens — Dombey and Son

A big bloated behemoth Dickens. An instructive homily on pride and behaving like a coldblooded douche towards your daughter because she isn’t a son. Once Dombey’s son dies (not a plot spoiler, it happens early on), the novel seems to collapse, start again. Britain was in mourning for Paul Dombey’s demise, and this grief is reflected in the sluggish pace that follows. Wonderful, wrenchingly excruciating scenes between Dombey, whose hauteur builds to pitches of teeth-grinding stubbornness, and his many minions. The Solomon and Son subplot is stretched a little far, the scenes with lonely Captain Cuttle don’t help energise the book in between the necessarily languorous Dombey parts. Florence’s struggle at the centre of the story, her devotion to her father, is a development for Dickens: a sophisticated portrayal of a daughter desperate for a tyrant’s love and approval. A broodier, less comic endeavour than its precedents. As a social commentary, the book has heft. Big business thrives the more heartless and depersonalised it becomes. Dombey’s downfall is linked to his weakness of heart: had he remained a tyrant, his empire would have thrived. Modern parallels? Look out the window. Effective secondary characters, but many eye-glazing moments. Sighs and page-skimming. Descriptions spiralling out of control at this stage, approaching their full Dickens circumlocutious apogee. Edith’s arrival propels the book from its mid-part doldrums into an electrifying psychological battle of the sexes, Dombey determined to enslave his wife, Edith turning his nose up at his pathetic puffedupness. Marvellous. For those who want the abridged version, try this for Florence, this for Dombey.

14. Meredith Brosnan — Mr. Dynamite

Comparisons with The Tunnel and Take Five are not too far off for this Guinness-fuelled, torpedo-strength virtuoso performance-rant par excellence. The former for its claustrophobic comedy, its unflinching devotion to a warped mind, the latter for its linguistic play and Falstaffian tomfoolery. Jarleth Prendergast is a frustrated multimedia artist whose dreams are not coming true, but a chance encounter with $33,000 bequeathed by an Irish aunt prompts a reversal of fortune. Narrated in short bursts of stream-of-consciousness (tamed s-o-c, broken up with en dashes) in thoughts addressed to a lawyer friend from Ireland (a voice in his head), the book abounds in hipster references, hilarious quips and original wordplay, held together by an erratic, improvisatory plot. Dalkey rarely publish first novels from contemporary writers, despite soliciting manuscripts, but when they do, they strike gold. (Sadly this man [for it is a man] hasn’t published anything since).

15. Kurt Vonnegut — Between Time and Timbuktu or Prometheus-5

For those who’ve worked their way through Kurt’s fourteen novels, five short story collections, four non-fiction collections and assorted insubstantial curios, your last act of barrel-scraping lies with his short-lived career as a playwright. Happy Birthday, Wanda June is your other option (or perhaps you’ve done that already? top of the class!) and sadly, in addition to an old novella from the 40s Basic Training, someone has released his COLLEGE NEWSPAPER work as an e-book in an act of madness (although no trace of this exists on the Devil’s Marketplace in the UK, sigh of relief). This teleplay was released in hardcover at the height of Kurt’s popularity, so is clearly a bibliography bolsterer, but not without its merits. The teleplay appears to be an imaginative reprise of some of the best SF concepts and messages from his short stories and novels, notably Cat’s Cradle and ‘Harrison Bergeron,’ interrupted by stills from the show (and photos by Jill Krementz) to create a not entirely unsuccessful textual-TV hybrid. Given the book takes less than an hour to complete, it’s an inoffensive experiment, and at least the designers attempted something original rather than simply reproducing the play. Beats reading another volume of unpublished bottom-drawer fiction, says this shameless completist.

16. Alexander Theroux — An Adultery

This is a novel about that fourth girlfriend of yours, the one you had before you settled down with the woman you are convinced you love (all evidence points to love, you quarrel only monthly, you are only mildly displeased when it’s her on the phone), who you only learned three months into the relationship was married with two children, a parrot, a canary, and her own independent restaurant chain specialising in coypu dishes. The woman who phoned you at three a.m. to tell you she preferred Worcester sauce to mayo, who only liked making love in the utility closet at your parents’ house, who would burst into tears if she spotted an upturned tack lying on the carpet because it reminded her of childhood tacking carpets with her papa in Wisconsin before the flood swept all her belongings and little brother Timmy away. The woman you still love, despite her having eloped with a kangaroo trapper in the Australian outback, put on twenty pounds, and developed a mescaline addiction to embarrass Syd Barrett. It’s not your fault, we have no say in the matter.

Theroux’s equivalent is named Farol and his novel is a Perecian “attempt to exhaust an adultery,” running at 396 pages of marathon-strength first-person analysis of the narrator’s relationship with his erratic, shambolic disaster of an on/off lover. Comparisons are drawn by the blurbers with Flaubert and James, and the novel is rather like listening in on James’s conversations with his therapist as he drones on with unimpeachable eloquence about every nuance of his present relationship. For me, the book exhausts itself around the three-hundred page mark, where I skipped to the end towards the inevitable, downbeat conclusion. Otherwise the novel was in danger of lapsing into extreme tedium and silliness through excess. Theroux’s attempt to exhaust each and every nuance of this topic, rendered in extremely stylish, lyrical and bilious prose, also serves to put the topic of adultery in American letters to bed, perhaps partly his ambition too. Otherwise, a remarkably accomplished solo performance, perfect for those who agree “character is plot.” [With my sincere apologies to Mr. T for pages 300-386. In another life, maybe].

17. Lyn Hejinian — My life

An excellent “poetic autobiography,” told in lyrical, repetitious, elliptical prose, slowly passing through a life with baffling clarity, bamboozling starkness and confuddling honesty. The chapter headings usually reappear embedded in the subsequent chapter text, hinting at mathematical structures or arrangements between chapters (or even sentences?). As a non-poet and rare poetry reader, I’m rarely impressed by this sort of high modernist plate-spinning trickery, unless it’s purely prose, but this book impresses by its emphasis on the word over the world (thanks Gass), which Hejinian’s bourgeois book-driven upbringing would have inculcated in her from the off. All that matters is what the artist committed. The rest are citations and footnotes.

18. William Carlos Williams — The Doctor Stories

William Carlos Williams was perhaps (Gilbert) Sorrentino’s most abiding influence, which isn’t so surprising when reading these stories drawn from Williams’s life as a GP (which he practised his whole life, in addition to writing a bibliography this size—holymolywow). The stories are mildly experimental in their shunning of inverted commas and confusing first-person narrators with characters and reported speech, and their ear for dialect and speech is sharp—all things Sorrentino expanded upon in his Brooklyn novels. Otherwise, the content of these pieces is straightforward. Unlike the treacherous hells experienced by Bulgakov in his Country Doctor's Notebook (travelling through Russian blizzards to deliver babies using faulty forceps), Williams has lesser but equally teeth-clenching ills to compete with such as hysterical mothers, obstinate children and poor families with nine kids unable to spot him a few dollars for his trouble. All in a day’s work as neighbourhood saviour and poet shamelessly mining material. The straightforward tone of the stories, unflinching and honest, helps them deliver powerful suckerpunches to the heart. Contains several grimly wondrous poems too.

19. William Gaddis Carpenter’s Gothic

There was no way I was going to start my Gaddis experience with his 976pp Olympic marathon The Recognitions, not having sampled his style first. Unfortunately, there is nothing in this short novel to repel me from said monolith except perhaps the disorienting dialogue and scene changes (of the four characters in this novel no one formally enters or exits, nor conducts the same conversation), but the man’s prose is unique, mellifluous and (could it be?) readable. What! you say. You mean it isn’t an even more densely packed Recognitions, or like Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49—all the extraneous readable prose cut completely, leaving only the cult-forming unintelligible gibberish? No, sir! This novel offers a series of brief interviews with hideous men, with heiress Elizabeth at the centre, whose life with her one-expletive-only husband, leeching brother and slippery landlord forms the “crux” of the piece—so much as this “piece” has a “crux”—taking us on an inventive satirical bus tour of American . . . greed? religious propaganda? men who behave like a world-class assfaces? dehumanised dudes in search of the dollar? All this and less. Mr. Salvage sums it up rather well, “bitter and loud.” 

20. David Foster Wallace Brief Interviews with Hideous Men

4.5 stars rounded up to a fanboyish five. Brief Interviews is the strongest short story collection from the affectionately acronymously monikered DFW in this reviewer’s eyes—Girl With Curious Hair falling too far into a sort of rat-escaping-the-fictional-labyrinth obliqueness, and Oblivion supersized with unstoppable novella-length formal flops. Both flaws are in evidence here but are steeped in so much hip-shaking wonderment it’s heartless not too turn a blind eye. ‘Forever Overhead’ and ‘The Depressed Person’ and ‘Octet’ and the title stories are the formidable insulation of the book, caulked with little vignettes and cool experiments, giving the collection a clear-minded unity, purpose . . . manifesto, even. Unlike the other collections, Brief Interviews feels touched with the same form-owning irrepressible one-man Goliathian intellectual megalomania at play in Infinite Jest and A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. The mostly appalling ‘Tri-Stan’ and ‘On His Deathbed’ can be excused because they belong to the broader purpose of allowing the one-of-a-kind mind of DFW to expand to its fattest, happiest horizons on the page for us all to see. Not that I’m pandering to the mythopoeia or anything. But this is a seriously significant work. Got it? [P.S. The UK Abacus DFW editions are useless. Miniscule fonts and hideous covers will not help win a legion of British supporters . . . ]

21. Xiaolu Guo UFO in Her Eyes

The ‘documents’ novel, or the ‘found documents’ novel, is the most popular way to escape the Barthesian author v. scriptor dilemma. To sever all claims to the book being formally authored by the dude whose name is on the cover, to turn the ‘author’ into ‘editor’ to remove all traces of their presence from the manuscript and relegate them to scissors-and-paste men (or women) so all their biographical cultural educational historical baggage has no chance to infect the reader’s brain with a single personal judgement. How many novels have you binned after reading ‘recent Iowa Writers’ Workshop graduate’ or ‘frequent contributor to The New Yorker’ or ‘edits the independent poetry journal eLiXiRs?’ Anyway, unless the author’s name is wiped from the cover completely (in hardcover—his cover ‘accidentally’ self-blown in paperback), the struggle is futile. This novel is a ‘documents’ novel from an ex-pat Chinese Londoner and makes effective use of government documents and reports to tell the story of modernisation on peasant village Silver Hill and its inhabitants. The tone is poised somewhere between indignation and gentle mockery, working up to an understated, inevitable climax (whether the form assists the resonance of the suicide isn’t certain). But I like this woman. Powerful filmmaker too: She, A Chinese and How is Your Fish Today? being notables. 

22. Charles Baudelaire The Flowers of Evil

Superlative. Thrilling. Sensual. Naughty. Macabre. Joyous. Liberating. Essential. Poetry for the reluctant poetry reader, i.e. me. (A little distracted here listening to Belle & Sebastian’s Write About Love which I finally acquired. Hence the choppiness). Great translation. Don’t care about reading in the original or what is lost in translation. Each translation adds to or improves the previous and this one reads pretty swell to me. Where do I go from here? Verlaine? Rimbaud? Mallarmé? Pam Ayres? (No one’s on GR at the weekends anyway, I don’t have to bust too many vessels being erudite). Read this shit now.

23. Ishmael Reed The Free-Lance Pallbearers

Ishmael Reed is another unread unsung hero of American literature, relegated to a footnote in the canon for not being white and macho and writing about what happens behind closed doors in the wheatiest windiest nooks of the Midwest. His debut novel (this one) announces his important, original voice among the muscles and machismo. Reed’s language combines the free-wheeling rhythms of jazz and Beat poetry with erudite slapdown of Swift’s satire and Joyce’s tireless lexical invention. The first fifty pages of this cartwheeling absurdist satire electrify, dazzle, slapsmackbangwallop the reader with their hilarious, sui generis flightiness. This being a novel in the rollicking sixties language-as-music style, its absurdity has weary moments. But you’ve certainly never read writing like this before, unless you’ve read another Reed.

24. L. Frank Baum The Wonderful World of Oz

Dorothy is actually a dumpy, doughy backwater farmgirl in this book. She would have grown into a stout, strong-limbed muscular farmers’ wife with no time for things like affection or intercourse, but a damn good head for cornshuckin’ at 99 degrees in the hawt Kansassy summer. So the well-worn epithet ‘no place like home’ is of course a vicious ironic phrase meaning ‘shit, you’d better get outta that backwater Kansas wheat paddy before stupidity, indolence, routine, depression and phenobarbital addiction kills the love inside ya, never mind them talkin’ lions and kooky tinmen honey.’ Having said that, I haven’t read the follow-up novels. Maybe she marries a millionaire. Just further proof that adulthood spoils everything and we peak as humans at thirteen. This was my first time with this novel. Perfect little story, beautifully done.

25. Nicholson Baker The Everlasting Story of Nory

Book report: The book I red was called ‘The Everlasting Story of Nory’ by Nicolson Baker. I liked this book becoze the girl who is in it who is called Nory but her long name is Ellynor is very nice because she helps out her friend Pamela when people are bullying her and she makes up good stories. Sumtimes I was bored and their were bits I didn’t understand becoze the book is hard in places with diffycult words and its more a girls book than a boys book. Nory is very smart she is smarter than me or most peeple my age and she is a merkin but goes to a skool in england which is the cuntry below my one which is scotland. my daddy told me Nicolson Baker has other books which are not for kids this makes sense to me as he uses big words not sootable for kids. Nory is nice but I think girls are smelly and sumtimes I flick bogeys at them becoze they get on my nerves sumtimes. Girls should red this book they would like nory as I sayed she is very nice how she helps out her friend I think this a very good books. That is the end of my report. 

26. Alasdair Gray — Why Scots Should Rule Scotland

History report: Scotland is the cuntry I live in it is a small cuntry beside England wich is the bigest cuntry in the UK. Sum peeple think Scotland should be indeependent wich means not ruled by the peeple in England becuze peeple in England do not look out for peeple in Scotland becuze they think Scotland couldnt work without England. One of these peeple is Alstair Grey who rote about that in this book wich I found boring it was all about Scots histry. If Scotish peeple were given freedom like in the film Bravehart there would need to be more peeple making things like shortbred and haggis and other Scottish things like that. English peeple are no good at making things like shortbred or haggis or kilts there needs to be Scottish peeple doing that. I wish Alstair Grey had riten a more better book this one was realy long and boring I liked the story at the end I wish there were more storeys in this book I supose it is a histry book that concudes my essay on histry.

27. Alasdair Gray Old Men in Love

I read this since my undiagnosed obsessive-compulsiveness towards canon completion (or oeuvre overdoing) bade me do it. Do you see. No question mark. There was simply no way, having read eighteen other books by Alasdair Gray, and sampled two others, plus a biography, I wasn’t going to read Old Men in Love, his last novel. Illogical. In this universe, in this incarnation of me I was always going to read Old Men in Love at some point. Kismet. Geddit. No question mark. My verdict is really irrelevant here, since what I should be reviewing is the book in relation to the others in my OCD canon completion experience. How did this, as the nineteenth book in my reading order, match up to the other five or six I read through blind loyalty to an author I cherished in my late teens? Answer: matches up swell. Old Men in Love is a cunning cut-and-paste exercise by a master of the half-arsed-but-beautifully-designed last-minuter. As Gray’s self-annihilating alter ego Sidney Workman writes in the afterword, the novel comprises bits culled from old TV plays, dreary historical narratives, and previously published articles on politics and place. The whole thing is an A+ exercise in suturing old bits and passing it off as an At Swim-Two-Birds or If on a winter’s night a traveller-style exercise in stops-and-starts frames-within-frames and yada yada. Gray has been looting the avant-garde for most of his career, and since most Scottish readers have never heard of the postmodern authors he steals from he’s held up as an original in this naive land. So this is not a novel. The individual bits work together quite well. The Tunnock sex fantasies are silly. I had to skip the Socratic dialogue and parts of the religious narrative. Bits are merely Gray chatting to himself. Anywho. I am almost finished with Gray. One left. G’night.

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