Friday, 31 August 2012

My Month in Novels, Part Two (Aug)

9. James Joyce — Ulysses

First, about the haste. This book is a page-turner. Forget Stephen King. Joyce is the man you read in bed, furiously tongue-fingering the pages to see what seminal modernist technique he invents, masters, inverts, spins on its head like a circus freak with a whirligig in his bonce. The first five episodes set the pace perfectly, setting the reader up for the all-singing all-dancing feats of outrageous showboating that follow in the remaining thirteen chapters, each adding a few Jenga blocks to the superseding chapters to challenge the reader and keep her on her toes. Look, Joyce loves his reader! He’s the most unpatronising author this side of L.L. Cool J.! Joyce believes in you. He believes everyone has the capacity within them to crack his boggling Enigma code, and if that isn’t some heartwarming Sunday school moral, what is? So what if Joyce was wrong and every reader would need The New Bloomsday Book merely to scratch the surface of this amorphous, expanding superbrain of a book? Ulysses is an infinite novel. Unlike Finnegans Wake, where every attempt at some semblance of lucidity and meaning falls flat—the book a distant satellite fated to drift forever in space—Ulysses is an infinitely re-readable supernova of emotional and intellectual replenishment. Pure aesthetic pleasure. Everything that followed Ulysses expanded, plundered and rehashed Ulysses. It was the end and beginning of literature. If you like any books at all, anything post-Ulysses, you’re an ideal candidate to read Ulysses. It will break your heart, and your brain. End of.

10. Charlie Brooker — Unnovations

Spoof ‘innovations’ catalogue. Russio’s review covers this one adequately—a mostly crude and misfiring curio from the otherwise darkly humorous, clever satirist. In his series Screen Wipe and the Guardian Screen Burn columns Charlie Brooker perfected his one-man lonely bedsit crusader against TV mediocrity routine, before then he was almost as rude and perverted as many of the nitwits he was spoofing. In his series of TV dramas Black Mirror one of the stories revolved around the Prime Minister sodomising a pig—in the drama this was played in a deadpan, serious way—here the pig sodomy appears twice for crude laughs. What a strange recurring motif. Anyway, the entries in this were written by a series of writers (credited in small print in the opening page), so the blame and shame can be shared. Largely sweary, vaguely sleazy male-dominated humour for the self-loathing late twenties cynical male market. The saddest existing market. (For cheapskates or curious the whole thing is archived online here at Zeppotron).

11. Nicola Barker — The Yips

The middle point between Darkmans and Burley Cross Postbox Theft. Attempts the weaving of a series of anarchic comic plots à la the latter with the palpable if underunderstated tone of pathos of the former. The Yips is a yelping comedy, stuffed with manic eccentrics, their manic eccentricities cranked to eleven in the form of larger-than-life dialogue tics—ludicrous overemphasis, autopilot whimsy, cartoony character traits, etc. The book’s linking solvent comes in this questionable notion of ‘embracing pain’—each character learns to accept their shortcomings and internal agonies like religious virtues (one character is a female vicar, another a Muslim fundamentalist manqué) . . . this seems somewhat curious from a writer who wants to see people “lit up by the beauty of their suffering.” Hmm. Pain aside, Barker completely exhausts her laughter muscles in this one—the agenda is largely one of manic tittering at the expense of narrative heft. Sadly, the pace flags and the relentless kookiness of her personnel really does begin to grate after a while, and the investment we have in these characters, esp. the agoraphobic tattooist Valentine, isn’t quite satisfied as the 500th page is turned. Where will her next novel take her? A reprise of the more moody literary wonders of Wide Open or Reversed Forecast? Why not? Newcomers, do Darkmans first.

12. Deborah Levy — Swimming Home

This queer, disquieting novel blends a dark, surreal Topor-topos with a Hollywood noir of forties vintage. Taking place in 1994 over a week in a French holiday resort, the novel centres around stuttering botanist and exhibitionist depressive Kitty Finch and her interaction with a ragbag of unlikeable snobs, poets and snotty brats. Like her 1995 book The Unloved, Levy creates an unpleasant world with little empathy, where language is the only refuge, where the icy shimmer of the exacting prose keeps the reader entranced. The novel brought to mind This Mortal Coil’s Blood. For each moment of beautiful clarity, such as ‘Mr. Somewhere’ or ‘With Tomorrow’ there are oppressive, opaque instrumentals like ‘Andialu’ or ‘Loose Joints’ that create a stifling atmosphere, that strain to add layers of darkness to the already dreamlike beauty of the vocal-led songs ‘You and Your Sister’ or ‘Til I Gain Control Again.’ (I made my own version of Blood a few years ago, cutting out the floatier, drearier instrumentals to create a more ‘perfect’ LP). Anyway, a worthwhile investment and pleased to see this on the Booker longlist.

13. Jerry Kosiński — Being There

Peter Sellers’s last (and best?) performance was in Being There—directed by Hal Ashby with Kosiński’s screenplay—one of my favourite American tragicomedies. The original novella compresses the meat of the movie into straightforward and simple chapters, mimicking the simple mind of Chance, the anonymous simpleton whose plain-talking homilies propel him into the top of American life within four days. The film brings the character of Chance into being through Peter Sellers, who expands upon the simple phrases and bland dialogue in the book to make the character an unforgettable, profound, hilarious and tragic figure, not unlike Sellers himself. So these five stars are for the screenplay and novella. If you haven’t seen the film it’s a beautifully paced, slow-moving and surreal satire, exquisitely performed by all and with a moving melancholy tone, and perhaps one of the most spine-tingling endings in all cinema. Bravo.

14. Osman Lins — The Queen of the Prisons of Greece

The last novel by a noted Brazilian writer (smiling in his author photo—always a good sign). Part highbrow reflection on the art of fiction in relation to reality, part faux-academic analysis of an unfinished manuscript by the narrator’s deceased inamorata. Diaristic in form, immensely creative and erudite in content, Prisons of Greece is a captivating experiment with occasional patches of dreariness and esoterica. Builds to a dazzling and disturbing climax when the writer’s handle on reality loosens completely—a response to unutterable loss? a writer overanalysing himself into madness? absorption into his lover’s manuscript? Loved this. Also from Lins in English, Avalovara and Nine, Novena. 

15. Charles Dickens — Bleak House

Roll back to 1986—I was touring with Loudon Wainwright III upon the release of his More Love Songs album (which includes the famous ‘Your Mother & I’) when Loud strikes up a confab about Dickens. “Nicholls,” he begins, bunk-loafing in his usual roguish manner. “I do declay-ah that Bleak House is the greatest novel of the century, yessir-ee.” I was strumming a zither at the time, co-writing a song that would later appear on History. “Loud, you must be out of your mind. Everyone knows now that Ulysses is the greatest novel of the century.” Never one to miss a literary quotation, Loud shot back: “Thank you, Mr. Burgess. How many other books you read this week, one or two thousand?” Those were fine times, until the drinking and restraining orders, etc. And now, twenty-five-and-a-bit years later, I have read Bleak House, and I can see why Mr. Wainwright was so smitten. Sprawling in his epic sprawlingness—a Gargantua of fog-blocked Weltschmerz—a complex, challenging dual narrative—a scathing satire on the circumambiguities of the law and the chancers who practise—a vibrant and lively Dickens crackerbox of eccentrics and noble memorables—a long long long long saga of such sublime and intolerable long long long longness other long things seem short in comparison—a breathtaking final third where all the plots converge in a most invigorating heartsmacking masterful manner—oh Yes. Take that, Loudon.

16. Alison Bechdel Are You My Mother?

Once more Alison Bechdel knocks a stellar work out the park (after half a decade of torturous self-analysis) and repositions the suffering neurotic artist at the forefront of serious art. By turns frustrating and self-absorbed to such mindboggling depths of solipsistic screwdriver-in-the-head nuttiness, the novel slowly reveals itself as a complex rendition of mother-daughter psychodynamics, touching upon Virginia Woolf, Adrienne Rich and pioneering feminist psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott along the way. A much-too-intimate soul-on-the-page work of quite outrageous braveness and unrepeatable, wrenching and yucky emotional honesty. Read to the end. Honestly, the ending pardons everything. You won’t like her, but you will love her. As good as Fun Home.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

My Month in Books, Part One (Aug)

This month I tried to focus on my Dickens obsession, but a series of comedy books and obscurios distracted me, plus tackling the Twin Towers of David Copperfield and Bleak House was an intimidating prospect. I started a Ulysses reading group in a Glasgowshire alehouse, and planned to read the novel over four months with folkinos, but Ulysses being so darned captivating I ended up reading the whole thing in five days. More on that tomorrow. Reviews pasted from Goodreads.

1. Charles Dickens — David Copperfield

Finished. Having a hard time spinning superlatives for this review. It is more or less established I strongly like, or passionately love, every Dickens novel I read so why not slap a five-star badge on this masterpiece and hop down to Bev’s café for a veggie burger, free sexual innuendo with every purchase, a fly in every milkshake, and a 50p discount on all half-cooked omelettes? Fine. Some highlights. Improvements in characterisation. Notably, the villains. David’s friendship with Steerforth partially blinds the reader to his scoundrelly tendencies until his flitting with sweet Emily. Uriah Heep’s squirminess and umbleness wrongfoots the reader until his scoundrelly tendencies are unmasked (although David outs him as a beast from the start). The first-person narrator opens doors of eloquence in Dickens’s prose hitherto closed in the topographical omniscience of previous works. As usual, a memorable cast of eccentrics, stoics, loveable fuck-ups and social climbers. No sagging secondary plots like in Dombey and Son. Deeply moving passages on the passing of time, memory, penitence, friendship and naïve love (Dora is a female Peter Pan). High-class comedy a-go-go. An enriching experience. Your soul glows reading this. You want more from a book? Geddouttahere. Time for that veggie burger. Open til nine and never over capacity.

2. Agnes Owens — Bad Attitudes

Is it wrong to have a mental sweepstake as to which of my favourite elderly writers will pop their clogs first? Yes. But I have such a mental sweepstake at present and I can’t stop it. The four principals in the running were Gore Vidal (86), William H. Gass (88), Agnes Owens (86), and Alasdair Gray (77). Gore Vidal passed away last Tuesday, so as penance for this cruel mental sweepstake, I will read another of his novels this month. This isn’t much penance, because I was going to anyway, but hey ho. I have an unfortunate relationship with my favourite writers—usually I discover their work only a few years after their deaths. Gilbert Sorrentino, died 2006. I started reading him in 2009. Kurt Vonnegut, died 2007. I started (seriously) reading him in 2009. David Foster Wallace, died 2008. I started in 2010. Now there are the unfortunate cases when I’ve discovered writers, eagerly anticipate their work, and they silently pass away. Gilbert Adair, died 2011. I read all his novels in 2010. J.G Ballard, died 2009. I started to read him in 2008. I got into Christopher Hitchens a few months into his cancer diagnosis. Now, Mr. Vidal. I wish my favourite writers would stop dying. When I read Agnes Owens, for example, there’s a tension that this writer, who doesn’t live too far from me, might be expiring as I read her work. When I read William H Gass, I wonder will this be the last one I read while Gass is still alive? Should I read more Gass while he’s alive? If I complete the canon in the writers’ lifetime, is that somehow more psychically satisfying for both reader and writer? These are the questions. These two novellas are Owens’s last. But not her last fictions, yet.

3. Jane Bussmann — The Worst Date Ever

Jane Bussmann has contributed to some of the most challenging comedies of recent times—Chris Morris’s Brass Eye and Jam, along with other seminals The Friday Night Armistice and South Park. So it’s no surprise this book—blandly packaged as a screwball comedy—has the same unflinching bite and relentless bad-taste assault of her other handiworks. What the blurb doesn’t make clear is that this is a screwball comedy about Ugandan atrocities, particularly those by Joseph Kony—a charming lunatic responsible for the kidnap, enslavement, habitual rape, torture and murder of over 20,000 Ugandan girls. Yes, har har. Bussmann’s ‘inciting incident’ (as they say) is a crusade to quit her career as a showbiz hack in LA and her crush on hunky African Affairs director John Prendergast (clearly her attraction to this man is a narrative fabrication) and an attempt to become a Useful Person by reporting on the horrors for a UK broadsheet. The result is a mix of Candide and Mr Bean. An extremely funny, inappropriate, necessary book. Just don’t read it under a depression. Bussmann’s humour lifts no spirits, she only reinforces the pointless, cruel absurdity of existence, and there’s stuff in here so howlingly sick and unfair, you'll no doubt forget you were supposed to be laughing. But Bussmann’s real agenda is merely to get this story out to a wider audience, why not use comedy? The absolute bloodyminded brass of this woman is staggering. P.S. If you live in the UK and dislike Ugandan torture you might want to pass this petition on to your MP via this portal.

4. M. Hunter Hayes — Understanding Will Self

An entertaining rip through the Will Self canon. Half scholarly, half straightforward discussion and analysis. Will Self is the most prolific author in Britain at the moment. His ability to produce high quality work in ludicrously short amounts of time is nonpareil. How the Dead Live was partly written in a three-week fury in the Orkney Islands. Cock & Bull was written in another three-week fury in Spain (under the heroin influence). The man’s output is growing exponentially as I write this. By the time you read this, he will probably have written another 100 articles, a story collection and two novels. Is all this work worth reading? Nope. Is it always interesting and amusing and erudite and stuffed with deliciously recondite words like epiphenomenal or imbroglio? Yep. This short book makes a strong case for Self as a part-time postmoderist and metafictionist, his body of work as a roman-fleuve (one long work when all the novels/stories are stitched together, like Proust), and his intertextual cleverness. The Self style is highly musical, word-greedy and clinically inclined. Read him. Start with Cock & Bull.

5. The Thick of It: The Missing DoSAC Files

I will treat this review simply as a place to promote Armando Iannucci’s The Thick of It, In the Loop, and the recent American remake Veep. There. Go watch them. This ‘missing file’ contains various snippets pertaining to the employees of most incompetent government department in the world, DoSac. Based on Labour’s recent decline into gibbering drooling madness, this is a mixture of gov-speak satire, ritual abuse from Malcolm Tucker, and fun extras from the BBC series. It is somewhat depressing we’ve come to expect incompetence and hypocrisy from our governments and that governments basically conform to our expectations, as though moulding themselves into the bastardy shapes we expect. No one in this country who isn’t rich likes the Prime Minister. Depressing. Fortunately, this collection of foul-mouthed missives provides erudite respite from one’s boiling rage. If there’s one thing you can rely on in Britain it’s savage mockery and contempt for our leaders.

6. Armando Iannucci — The Audacity of Hype

Iannucci’s book collects ‘columns’ he wrote for UK papers The Observer and The Telegraph between 2002-8. The focus here is on maximum silliness and exhaustive surreal humour over humorous articles. The silliness usually takes the form of lists and made-up panel show rounds—clearly Iannucci needed an outlet for this stuff since leaving The 99p Challenge and Charm Offensive (Radio 4 panel shows)—so the collection overall becomes tiresome and tends toward bathroom reading. His ‘proper’ articles are actually quite insightful and hilarious in their own right—more would have been welcome! Anywho, this is still better than most ‘humour’ books made in this country. While we’re here, here are my proposals for ten humour books Michael O’Mara might wish to publish:

1) World’s Funniest Teacosies
2) World’s Dumbest Mental Defectives
3) Spain’s Weirdest Paella Enthusiasts
4) Luxembourg’s Wackiest Hillocks
5) Kathleen Hanna’s Hairiest Militant Feminist Friends
6) Nicole Ritchie’s Cutest Poodle Turds
7) Michael O’Mara’s Smuggest Smirks At Getting Rich Pedalling Cheap Toilet Books
8) Bosnia-Herzegovina’s Craziest Ankle Socks
9) Elaine Kraf’s Oddest Bicycle Pump Retailer Polaroids
10) World’s Funniest Guide to Pulping ‘World’s Funniest Guide’ Books

(£111,999 advance, please).

7. Elaine Kraf — The Princess of 72nd Street

Another sparkling little novel plucked from 1970s small-press obscurity into latter-day small-press obscurity. The paradox with Dalkey reprints is that the books no one has ever heard of remain books no one has ever heard of . . . the difference being Dalkey keep them in print in the hope one day, some unshaven Scottish misanthrope might read them and plead for a wider readership for them on Goodreads. Has that been successful so far? Of the 110+ Dalkey books I’ve read, how many have gone viral on GR, passing from user to user with shrieks of admiration and clucks of wonderment? Um, none. Although my GR friends have read writers like Sorrentino, Queneau and Dowell and so on entirely of their own initiative, so who needs the middle-man? This short (and small-fonted) novel is a melancholy trip inside the claustrophic mind of an artist having a nervous breakdown or suffering from long-term manic-depression with hallucinatory spells. She retreats into her mind, creates an alter ego Esmeralda and turns her breakdowns or episodes into “radiances” where she imagines herself as the “Princess” of her neighbourhood. This destructive behaviour sends her into the arms of various self-obsessed male suitors, oblivious to her mental problems who use her for their own artistic, neurotic purposes. Since her suitors can’t see beyond themselves to the Princess’s pain, she remains trapped in her condition until a final, tragic episode binds them to her forever. A lyrical, funny novel, highly original with a scorching feminist undertone. Tell your friends.

8. Harry Blamires — The New Bloomsday Book: A Guide Through Ulysses

Essential for the Ulysses neophyte, like me. Don’t attempt Ulysses without reading this alongside. Some people, understandably, won’t read books that require additional explanatory texts—Shakespeare, we all know, can be completely incomprehensible without the side-by-side notes, and no fun or spoiled when rendered in updated English—but this essential précis illuminates and 100% enhances one’s pleasure from the Ulysses experience. Fact. Most attention is paid to the extremely difficult chapters—Oxen of the Sun, Circe and Eumaeus—and often the summation barely matches up to the text, but The New Bloomsday Book is entirely necessary to comprehend the subtle, esoteric parody skillz Joyce is laying down (esp. in Oxen, perhaps the hardest overall chapter). Sadly, the book is out of print or merely expensive. An updated Idiot’s Guide is needed. Perhaps all us Ulysses lovers on GR can come together and write one? (And whittle it down to under 2000 pages?)

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Letter to the Agent

Sent to Andrea Messent at Darren and Associates:

Dear Darren & Associates,

It is with some regret that I sit down to write this correspondence. I understand your reluctance to read voluminous missives so I will keep this missive as unchunky as my e-pen allows.

On Sep 4th 2010 I sent to your agency, via recorded delivery, my novel When Bees Attack. I sent this following a verbal agreement between myself and your agent Cariller Cray when I met her at a catered affair for Bernard Share’s eightieth birthday. We had a thoroughly encouraging conversation about the passion for knowledge common to fellows in the academic arena—the “epistemology of the heart,” to quote my own phrase. At the climax of this discussion I mentioned in passing my sexually provocative novel When Bees Attack about a retired Oxford professor who opens a bee sanctuary on the Norfolk coast. Ms Cray was deeply impressed at the breadth of my apian knowledge and offered to read my manuscript with a view to representation by your agency. 

I received no response for six months save for a Tower Bridge postcard sent by Cariller with “we cannot use” scribbled in (what appeared to be) child’s crayon. Upon a closer inspection with my nose, I did indeed ascertain this message to have been written in crayon. I sent a polite enquiry letter a week later, asking for a more formal response to my manuscript. The following week I received my returned manuscript, each page covered in crayon marks, with large blood-red scrawlings of ‘HA HA HA’ in the margins. I sent yet another polite enquiry. A week later I received a single page of foolscap with the same scrawlings—‘HA HA HA’—across the page. This is not professional conduct. I am a patient man and I do not appreciate being treated in such a bizarre manner.

All I seek is confirmation that my novel, When Bees Attack, has been read by your agency, and whether representation is possible on the strength of the material submitted.

Yours truly,

William Mason



Dear Terence,

I’m think you may have got our Agency confused as there is no Darren or Cariller Cray working here!
Best wishes,


Sunday, 26 August 2012

Will Self @ Bookfest

Will Self, 9.30 at RBS Main Theatre, Charlotte Square Gardens, Edinburgh Bookfest Aug 25 2012

In conversation with Stuart Kelly—author of the bibliophile’s wet dream, The Book of Lost Books—Will Self was loose, witty and cerebral. His latest novel Umbrella was showcased in two furious readings with Self assuming the voice of his Cockney protagonist, a woman struck down with mental disorder encephalitis lethargica, teasing the audience with the book’s daring stylistic experiment, his apparent “paean to modernism.” Self was, as usual, acerbic and willing to dérive on any topic thrown his way, batting away comparisons with Joyce and Woolf in Umbrella’s subtle shifts between protagonists and time periods, trouncing the conventional novel’s reliance on metaphor and simile to render the experience of being inside a human brain. For a moment he invited us to share the consciousnesses of everyone around us, which might have been a fun experiment, if a little messy. One questioner picked up on Dylan lyrics inserted into the text—it seems Self has made cunning use of popular song in the novel in an attempt to dodge the copyrighters—so it’ll be interesting to see how far the line of influence has extended, and how successfully he managed to sidestep this legal hindrance of the novelist’s art. A terrific evening, especially for Stuart Kelly, who was described as a “prim spinster” during the course of Self’s improvised comedic spoutings. And finally, my sister shook Mr. Self’s hand on the way out. Nice chap.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Writers, Cornered

As 2012 cluck-skips along like a limp chicken on a treadmill, four million writers ponder the inevitable question: Why bother attempting to publish? Should we, whose novels remain unpublished and unloved, rise up and seize control of the means of production ourselves, abolish all agents, publishers and booksellers? The brief answer: no, we shouldn’t. Writers can’t be trusted to play nicely, we’d only publish ourselves and our friends. The answer to our current dilemma is simple—three and a half million of us need to fall on our swords. 

We need to cull more writers. The more writers in existence, the more page-turning mediocrities clogging up the marketplace. As writers, we have only one task—to innovate, to present old ideas in all-new makeup and backless ballgowns, to fool critics into thinking we can “steer the novel in exciting new directions” in an age where the novel has undergone such feats of contortion it’ll probably never walk again.

I would fall on my sword happily, if I weren’t part of the small mass of shipwrecked Crusoes, signalling desperate, never-seen-before signs from my desert island in attempts to escape my prison of isolation. I may be twice as redundant as the well-trained prose-makers who assemble novels like IKEA cabinets—the populace would rather have a thumping good read over a detailed analysis of the songs of Kathleen Hanna set in a postapocalyptic ski resort, written in Danish iambs—but at least on my deathbed I can look back on a lifetime raging against the mediocre. Epitaph: AT LEAST HE WASN’T FUCKING BORING.

Friday, 24 August 2012

Little Coffin Boy

[A story whose attempted publication would take up too much of the writer’s precious reading time].

The 1985 hardback edition of Gilbert Sorrentino’s Odd Number wiggled into the library, sweat dripping down his pages, dampness on his spine. He’d shimmied up nine whole stairs to the first level, to the children’s section, and was tuckered. Before him sat row upon row of beautiful children—some worn and battered down the ages, others barely glimpsed at all. He stretched his jacket, ruffled his opening chapters, and proceeded to the first shelf: orphans. His thesis was on the role of the orphan in contemporary humanity, or something like that, he’d still to finalise the focus. Orphans had always fascinated him, especially the rickety, squat urchins of Victorian London. 

Wiggling past the modern orphans with their fat cheeks, Burberry caps and mean mouths, and the pre-war tykes with their grubby faces and cute Cockney tongues, he soon arrived at orphans of the 1800s—a surprisingly poor selection for his needs. He inspected several intriguing specimens: one toothless girl with bloody elbows and a torn rag skirt who said “maw, maw” over and over, and a naked boy with lashes down his back whose eyes rolled up into his skull in haunting intimations of death.

But the 1985 hardback edition of Gilbert Sorrentino’s Odd Number was delighted when his front cover alighted on a proud-looking child in a top hat, braces and dirt-free trousers. His shiny skin, manicured nails and polished brogues seemed an unusual fit for an orphan. “My parents were kidnapped and executed by defectors to Queen Victoria,” he said. “I was held hostage in our estate and taunted by the cowardly killers. They dressed me like a Lord and named me Little Coffin Boy. They forced me to construct my own coffin by cannibalising my father’s precious Edwardian dining table, then lie down inside while they drove a sword through my heart.”

The hardback ruffled its final chapters ferociously, shocked. “I closed my eyes, awaiting my excruciating death. Then a fortuitous occurrence saved me from this cruel fate. Our maid Helena discovered the bodies of my poor mother and father hanging from the chandelier, and gave a bloodcurdling shriek. ‘Murderers!’ she screamed. I tried to save her by sitting up in my coffin and shouting ‘Run!’ but I could no longer move. The executors chased Helena into the bedroom and I chose that moment to make my escape. Helena pled for her life, then screamed as the bastards drove their swords through her flesh. My heart was burning. I felt as though Hell had opened up around me, and the devil himself was waiting behind the front door. I escaped.

“My legs took me into town where I hid for three days behind bordellos and public houses. I shed copious tears for my parents, and came close to taking my own life. I decided, on the fourth day, to sneak into the National Library and install myself as an orphan in their archives. I wanted the world to know my story, and for the memory of my parents, and the shame of these cowardly murderers to be remembered forever.”

A shudder ran down the hardback’s spine. His preface fluttered. He could base his entire thesis around this remarkable orphan, it was quite a story. He closed his pages around the orphan’s foot and led him to the checkout, where the cute 1981 paperback edition of Joyce Carol Oates’s Bellefleur curled her fortieth page at him by way of flirting. The afternoon was looking up! Perhaps he’d have her barcode by the end of the week?


I climbed down off the shelf and followed the 1985 hardback Odd Number to the checkout, his car, then back to his depressing study with its one anglepoise lamp and series of sharpened pencils lined up along a ring-stained desk. Third sucker this week. What makes these old hardbacks so gullible? I mean, there’s no adventure anymore, no risk. You sit there with all those whining orphan saps for hours on end, then some dapper dust jacket runs his deckle edges along your thigh, looking for some titillation, or some PhD student, groping for originality, listens to a purple sob story. Then boom! In two hours, I have them on the floor, devouring their contents from cover to cover.

A new challenge is what I need. So that’s why I’m playing it cool for now. See, when the book brings his friends around for a glass of toner or whatever these brainiacs drink, I can make my move and take down three or four at a time. An orgy of dusty hardbacks! I wait on his desk as he clamps me for further information. I find it hard to suppress a smile. “I miss my mother most of all, she gave me her warm milk every night.” He curls his 110th page in confusion. I love fooling these fools with my sincerity.

Time passes. I grow restless feeding him this bullshit when I can pin him down and read him at any second. It occurs to me that this hardback probably doesn’t have friends. The moment comes at last—it happens after I spin an exhausting historical yarn about my father’s lineage. As he’s scribbling some notes, I leap off the desk and pin him to the floor, forcing open his cover. Usually the hardbacks protest at this point, forcing their cardboard covers shut, but I’m strong. This one doesn’t move at all. Doesn’t twitch. “Read me,” he says. “I don’t mind, read me if you like.”

I loosen my grip. “You aren’t smart enough to fool me. No one wants to be read by force.” He winks his tenth. “I’m different. No one reads me. No one wants me. I don’t mind being read like this. Please read me.” I back off completely—never like this, never. This is too strange. “No, you’re warped. There’s something wrong with you.” He claps his pages together in protest. “No, honestly. I want to be read. Please read me.” I leap off the table, nab a few pencils, and ditch the old pervert. “No way. I’m out of here. Creep.” And I leave, ignoring the light flapping of his pages as I go.


He lay there, rocking on his spine, the wan lamplight vulgar on his cover. For hours he abused his pages—scrunching and unscrunching and tearing out the last blank page. It hurt. Little Coffin Boy had reduced him, a twenty-six-year-old hardback, to pulp with his deceit and refusal to read his pages. What good was his thesis now? When more popular hardbacks, like the 1973 edition of Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions were producing papers on German soldiers, or door-to-door salesmen, or Nobel prize winners—in vogue humans. He might as well forget the whole thing. Give up.

A dark night lay ahead. He wiggled to the bestseller neighbourhood, gazing with envy at the Dan Browns and Jeffrey Archers in their mansions, living the good life and getting read day in, day out by adoring humans, while complex souls like him festered in hovels. For an hour, he considered hurling himself into the Discount Bin River, where tired old books go to end their print run before their time. He pictured all  the humans who recoil from his covers. Who demand being returned to their libraries rather than glance upon his unpopular words. He dangled over the river’s edge. It was over.

There was something about the way that hardback pleaded with me. It was eerie. I felt some connection between us . . . something beneath the pages. You don’t bullshit books for ten years without picking up some understanding of a novel’s secret rifflings. I don’t know, it was like I passed up the chance for a new sensation. I’ve never read a book who’s wanted to be read by force before. Wouldn’t that be a change from the same-old same-old—I might discover a ‘forced’ consensual reading makes me feel new things.

I double-back to the hardback’s place. He’s not there. Perhaps this is a trap, and he’s seeking a Police Procedural Manual to ensnare me? I like the danger. Coming close to capture. It’s exciting for sure. Ambling through the streets, past the paperback mansions, I spot him dangling over the Discount Bin River’s edge. Am I too late? I call his name. “1985 hardback edition of Gilbert Sorrentino’s Odd Number! Wait!”

The 1985 hardback edition of Gilbert Sorrentino’s Odd Number leapt up onto its corners in surprise—so the Coffin Boy had returned to humiliate him further? “No use,” he said. “I’m obsolete.” The Coffin Boy held onto the bridge’s ledge, panting. “Wait . . . I want to read you.” A little curl from the hardback. “No use. I won’t be fooled.” He shakes his head. “I mean it. Spread your covers. Let me read you, I want to.”

And so the hardback opened up, letting Little Coffin Boy devour his dusty contents. A long evening began. At first the reader’s eyes glazed over, struggling to follow the unusual formatting. Then the first titter came with a look of perplexity and amusement. He hastily turned the pages, with even more bemused expressions as he progressed. Soon he reached the end. “That was one of the most strange and unique reading experiences I’ve ever had,” Little Coffin Boy said. “Thank you for reading me,” the 1985 hardback edition of Gilbert Sorrentino’s Odd Number said. “I wish more people would.”
And the Coffin Boy toddled off back to his library, buzzed at the new sensation. The hardback closed his covers and was never read again. His thesis in orphans was published in April 2012, two weeks before he went out of print.

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Style vs. Content Symposium

After a slipshod introduction from Nathan Englander, a nervous babbling sort of chairman, Ali Smith delivered a fifteen-minute keynote speech, published here in its imperial whole. Citing Nicola Barker’s Clear: A Transparent Novel as an example of the ecstatic, multivocal style at the forefront of semi-popular semi-experimental fiction, she went on to deliver an impassioned address for the service of the word over the limitations of readers and the ruthlessness of the marketplace. The debate veered between illuminating but isolated self-commentaries, attempts to restructure the debate as it went on, and occasional back-and-forth banter between opposing tribes. Highlights included namedrops for Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style, Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine, and David Foster Wallace—lowlights included Jackie Kay citing Faulker and Toni Morrison as “trailblazers.”

China Mieville criticised “beautifully put but bloodless and anodyne” prose. A cheer went up for “writers who write for other writers,” but the economic realities of elite backslapping cliques were disputed by a Danish lady and a snotty American who defined the writer’s task as “to ejaculate and bleed on the page,” his advice being “keep writing and you probably will eat” . . . the word ‘probably’ in relation to starvation hardly promising. ALAN GIBBONS WAS EXTREMELY LOUD AND VERY ANGRY. A bookseller made the head-slapping point that Fifty Shades of Grey “gets the reader reading”—which is unbelievable, specious bullshit as readers will only move towards different types of trash. Some student who was “slogging through Middlemarch” took the microphone and made the embarrassing observation that certain Victorian literature was the EL James of its day . . . sigh.

Englander was an appalling chairman, simply dictating who spoke next rather than stirring up or controlling the debate. The conversation lapsed into tedium pretty quickly. Ali Smith kept quiet after her speech, but her mere presence was pure liquid brilliance.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Please Release Me

I Touched the Salt Shaker Morrissey Touched When He Ate at the Same Restaurant as Me, by Daniel R. Mann

When Daniel R. Mann first heard The Smiths as a teenager, Morrissey spoke to him, and millions of other people, personally. Daniel pursued this personal, intimate relationship with millions of other people at countless concerts and interviews in television studios, stadiums, and platforms where Morrissey might formally appear. He wrote intimate personal letters to his hero in which he emphasised how Morrissey was singing for him and him alone, no one else, how Moz’s music had been written as the specific soundtrack to his (Daniel’s) life.

After three decades of this hero worship, Daniel decided to take this intimate relationship to the next level and follow his hero around—from his home in Los Angeles to his formal concerts and appearances—in the hope his hero might acknowledge this personal spiritual unique connection with Daniel R. Mann and become his friend and soul mate and lover. The closest Daniel managed was to touch the salt shaker Morrissey had used when Daniel had followed Morrissey to a restaurant in Sherman Oaks. “The waitress had removed the salt shaker by the time I got to the table, but I brushed up against her and my pinkie definitely connected with the salt shaker. It wasn’t the glass his companion was drinking from as some people said. It was definitely Moz’s salt shaker. Definitely,” says Daniel

This is his remarkable story.

Out now in hardback from Kooky Stalker Books, £45.90.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Book Bites Man

My latest book, working title The State I Am In (a fake book in the same-titled Belle & Sebastian song), is a fictional autobiography with three narrative strands: one representing my spurious past, one a fantasy present, the other an imagined future. I arrived at a point in my writing where all attempts to write about issues meaningful to me via fictional constructs (i.e. characters), were leading back to me—me wanting to write directly about me. But, because I still wanted to write fiction with characters and plots and everything, I decided to make myself the subject, the source material. The hairy nub of the matter. So inside each (mostly fictitious) narrative are morsels of truth from my own life, smuggled indecorously, or hideously obvious. The reader’s task (if they wish) is to piece together a portrait of the author (me) from the information imparted. The three narratives can also be read for their own merits if the reader is spectacularly disinterested in me. Here’s some logic.

By putting all my neuroses into the novel, by remorselessly parodying myself so no aspect of my personality goes unmocked, I exhaust all self-criticism until I am completely purged of all indulgent solipsistic nonsense, freed at last into a world of happiness and self-love. The tragedy of the novel is that this doesn’t happen. Or something like that. This is an ex post facto spin I have put on the idea but makes sense to me as the sort of berserk subconscious motive I might have for writing this book. I simply want to mess around with the notion of the autobiographical novel—how a writer’s best work is based on personal experience, how readers attempt to relate certain details to the writer’s own personal history, how we can never completely disappear ourselves, Barthes-like, from the text and must be culpable for every ruddy word.  So far, I have completed two thirds of the first draft between May and August.

Arlene’s Atoms, my completely complete novel, my heartiest attempt at a mildly ambitious, mildly mainstream breakout novel, has been sent to six potential agents: had turn-downs from one (Conville & Walsh), waiting for the others. Once the MS is turned down from all six (one won’t correspond, I have to assume a no), I’ll scope out other possible UK agents, then will send the MS directly to big-publisher slush piles (i.e. into the vast blackness of space), then small-press slush piles (at least the suggestion of a response!), then I’ll give up. Not writing. But shopping the novel for the foreseeable future. If this book doesn’t get published I don’t hold much hope for getting another one out there.

Monday, 20 August 2012

Graceless Notes

Lydia Lunch:  Queen of Siam (1980)

This is a perfect hide-under-the-covers, sneer-at-the-world album, with a touch of vampish seduction and careless cool for added (dis)pleasure. Lazy, slinky songs ‘Mechanical Flattery’ and ‘Tied & Twist’ make dark thoughts and misanthropic poses into normal sane responses to our dank world. ‘Gloomy Sunday’ is a love song to quietus. Almost uplifting in its soft-voiced sultriness. Lunch is the sort of singer who likes to seduce and poison the listener. ‘Spooky’ and ‘Los Banditos’ are deceptive come-ons into her realm of the blood-drenched erotic. No one comes out alive, but everyone certainly comes. ‘Lady Scarface’ is a snot-nosed little performance of beguiling cast-iron witchery. In case the listener should feel too cosy, ear-splitting big band numbers ‘A Cruise to the Moon’ and ‘Knives in the Drain’ keep the arrogant gothic poses at full snarl. ‘Carnival Fat Man’ and ‘Blood of Tin’ were written to insult and terrify the listener. As was, presumably, the entire album. A moody, minor classic.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

Man Bites Book

Proposed titles for Jonathan Coe’s new book (or, entries on this year’s Booker longlist):

The Salty Persistence of Malchester Puddleduck
The Tenuous Windmill of Alain de Loofah
The Groovy Kinesis of Bob Forthright
The Lubricious Purdah of Julian Fink
The Glottal Fortune of Zebediah Small
The Vulval Clavichord of Xerxes Ripwinkle
The Dynamic Furtwängler of Paul Starling
The Yogic Putrescence of Alison Shirtsmith
The Cocksure Bobblehat of Lydia Policy
The Dying Dingbat of Derek the Dingbat
The Fizzling Munificence of A.G.P. Archimedes
The Supernumerary Wiffle of Sir Nigel Piddlemiddle

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Writers, Cornered

TOOT TOUT: This is a new regular blog feature. TOOT.

I used to think one idea was as valid as another. If I could turn the tale of a blind ice-cream vendor in Compton into a heartbreaking tragicomic Pushcart-bagging poetic marvel, why not write that tale, instead of the more personal tale of the bespectacled perpetual self-deprecator (named M.J. Nicholls) with a sideline in self-lacerating quips and blanket denunciations of all that is beautiful and worthwhile on this earth? Why not let the poor man on the street have a voice over the narcissistic misanthrope with bad skin, eyesight, and diction? Or, what makes one idea catch fire and burn bright over another? My answer: chance. The illogical whims of a semiliterate and indifferent book-hating public.

Clearly, the Great British public can’t be trusted to read decent books. The Great British public want sensationalist slurry, to be part of the same amorphous univoice all parroting the words: “Good read. Page-turner. I like what I like.” There is no point exploring ideas a reader might like, since the reader is an imbecile who likes memes, snowball fights and Tony Parsons. The only solution is to explore the one thing on a writer’s mind. That one thing being the question: HOW CAN I MAKE PEOPLE LOVE ME AND MY WRITING? All writing tends towards solipsism. Why pretend?

My solution. All protagonists shouldn’t merely be autobiographical. They should be you. Just make yourself the protagonist. Just make yourself the protagonist who writes a really amazing book that catches the zeitgeist and becomes a bestseller and becomes Radio 4 Book of the Week, etc. Content doesn’t matter. Why not live out your unrealisable dream through your manuscript, instead of trying to write a manuscript that allows you to live out your unrealisable dream? Isn’t it more pleasurable (and logical) to enter that dream daily, to indulge and embellish and cavort in the sparkle of your own delusions, rather than clinging desperately to the possibility you may one day be published?

Relax! You don’t need to write that masterpiece! Simply write yourself into a dream and stay there. It’s the only way.