Monday, 31 December 2012

My Month in Books (Dec)

1. David Foster Wallace — The Broom of the System

Lord Wallace of Amherst’s debut novel is—pardon the obvious—an enormo-homage to the postmodernist ladies. I was surprised at the sheer Gaddisness of this one (narratorless dialogue, two interlocutors per section, frequently deployed throughout) and not so surprised at the Delilloian weirdness and Barthian frametalemaking. The structure seems intricate and impressive, although the plot is mostly linear—each alphabetical sub-chapter responds to events close to those in previous alphabetical sub-chapters, taking the sheen off the structural play. Dave’s voice arrived fully formed. His freewheeling comic imagination (which he wheeled a little too freely in the 400pp-too-long Infinite Jest) isn’t necessarily my favourite characteristic of dfwian prose, but he also lards the book with his trademark monologues (all his monologues here, and arguably in his other fictions, being put into the mouths of implausibly clever Wallace-alikes) which also serve as a conduit for the stories that account for the metafictive element of this not-very-metafictive novel. Not sure I was particularly swept up by The Broom in the end—the mostpart was wildly entertaining but the whole felt largely aimless, building to climaxes that never climaxed. But. But. Hey. Certainly one heck of a debut novel . . .

2. David Foster Wallace — This is Water

Better heard spoken for the full sting. A powerful speech but the message seems to be rather simple: don’t be a selfish asshat. Or is that a little reductive? Anyway—one star for the cash-in and four stars for the speech. Coming soon from Little, Brown in DVD & books: The Best Hesitant Pauses on KCRW’s Bookworm, The Ten Best Awkward Selfconscious Squirming Moments on Charlie Rose, and Half-Remembered Conversations Anyone Has Ever Had With DFW. Also available from the DFW Tacky Cash-in Emporium: DFW headbands. For that sweaty public reading! DFW scrunchies. For that 80s ponytail look! DFW spectacles. For staring into the soulful eyes of Wallace on Google! Etc and so forth.

3.  Pierre Siniac — The Collaborators

In this hilarious literary satire and noir (apparently), a hack writer is blackmailed into co-authoring his masterpiece with an obese hack publisher. The book hits the target in its literary satire and descriptions of the writing process—from the hack writer’s miserable plodding through his opus to the portrayal of publishers as drunks and critics as guttersniping egomaniacs. Written at the end of Siniac’s career, the novel has the recklessness of a writer past caring and shows a talented crime novelist at the peak of his plotting powers. A devilish and marvellously witty delight.

Appendix: Marcella’s review
Sorry, but this review is unacceptable, especially on a book that pokes such fun at writers, critics and—ironically—readers who do not (cannot) read. Let me suggest the following revisions:

“a author” = an author.

“Its satire and paraody that attempts to put mock importance on the litterati” = It’s a satire and a parody that attempts to put mock importance on the literati. Incorrect. It satirises the self-importance of the literati, it doesn’t place “mock importance” (what?) on them.

“I think a joke . . . literary terrorism is right.” = Extremely poor syntax. The meaning of this is too fuzzy to decipher.

“the book didn’t have a lot to say” = Were we reading different books? The book meticulously disassembles the writing process and cleverly sends up the publishing world from a book’s composition to being top of the bestseller lists. It has a large, loud voice with plenty to “say.”

“could have been a decent beach read” = This review is a parody. It must be. I promise I didn’t write it.

“the novel’s story could be told entertainingly in 250 pages” = Ah! So you are the master of crime fiction and not Siniac! Pray tell how all the threads so cunningly weaved together in those essential 489 pages could come together so well in such a miniscule space?

“None of the characters are particularly likeable” = Irrelevant. Not a valid criticism. The standard for all books is not “likeable characters” and a “pageturning plot.” These are not (k) constants.

“first 80% of the book could have been trimmed” = If you trimmed the “first 80%” you’d be left with 97.8 pages. So all you want is the “decent twist” and none of the masterful, hilarious satire, dialogue and hardboiled parody? Why can’t books cut all the extraneous crap and lead straight to their “decent twists?” Why do we need scene-setting or world-building when we could give the reader all the plot points and then leap straight to the end? Ridiculous!

4. Paul Verhaeghen — Omega Minor

Can’t stretch to five stars. Close. Paul Verhaeghen is a former Netherlander teaching in Atlanta as Associate Professor of Psychology at Georgia Tech (as of writing). An unlikely candidate to produce a megalithic masterwork—and he hasn’t, not really. He has produced an excellent, engaging and complex take on the Holocaust and Hiroshima intertwined with a pulp-ish thriller spiced with embarrassing but sincere erotic moments, full of eminently quotable material and staggeringly erudite digressions. I have long since abandoned summarising Dalkey books so if a plot breakdown ye be seeking—try Google or its tax-paying rival Alta Vista. Each narrator uses the same lyrical mode of narration and this can make the sudden POV changes harder to follow, but the style works for the most wrenching moments of the Holocaust survivor’s tale: where it matters. His skill at turning a strange, profound (or profound-sounding) phrase is seemingly endless, and although his language screams “EPIC!” it has a tenderness and gravity lacking in other books of its ilk—The Kindly Ones, for example. PV falters on romance and sex. His romance is forced Foer-like sentiment and his sex descriptions are too genital—all spurts and semen. Omega Minor, for those seeking an original take on the Holocaust or simply a work of labyrinthine lyricism, is rarely bland. A dazzling structural success? Perhaps. A triumph of plotting? Perhaps. A frequently witty, delicately horrendous opus par excellence? Oui.

5. William H. Gass — The World Within the Word

Imagine being the editor of a respectable literary publication (if it helps, quote FR Leavis and take up chronic alcoholism) and receiving a book review from William H. Gass. Not only has he written the best review of a marginal publication unworthy of his masterly talents that no mortal will ever read, he has also written a scholarly essay bursting with philosophical insight, twenty pages of sumptuous pedantic analysis, and a wonderfully rich encapsulation of the author whose work is being discussed. In short: you’ll have to cut off Gass’s nose to spite your publication’s face. Another rum? This collection from 1978 includes masterful essays on Malcolm Lowry, Colette, Gertrude Stein, and two on Proust. ‘The Doomed in Their Sinking’ is worth a special mention, containing moving (and rare) ruminations on his mother’s not-quite-suicide. Other essays here flex Gass’s academic muscles and occasionally lapse into that dense Gass-speak which can be overwhelming for inferior intellects (me): the piece on Freud and the later etymological-epistemological-ontological essays are outrageously erudite. But beautiful all the same. See:

“We must take our sentences seriously, which means we must understand them philosophically, and the odd thing is that the few who do, who take them with utter sober seriousness, the utter sober seriousness of right-wing parsons and political saviors, the owners of Pomeranians, are the liars who want to be believed, the novelists and poets, who know that the creatures they imagine have no other being than the sounding syllables which the reader will speak into his own weary and distracted head. There are no magic words. To say the words is magical enough.” (p337).

6. Alexander Theroux — Darconville’s Cat

A stupefying triumph of superhuman eloquence. A loved-up homage to the OED and Roget’s Thesaurus. A sacrificial offering to the Gods Rabelais, Sterne & Burton. A starry-eyed drooling hymn to amour, esp. with down-at-heel bimbos. A caustic and comic whirligig of varnished-to-perfection insults and Dickensian character-assassinations. A nuclear missile launched at the Southern United States. An enormous loving hug to all literature of significance pre-1800s. A novel bursting with prose so sublime, inventive, haunting and spiteful only quackshites would let it slip out of print. A novel to induce encomiums of stut-tut-tuttering adoration and spells of sp-sp-speechless drooling. A novel that makes you beg for more, and more, that makes you scream out in literary ecstasy for another 400, 600, 800, 1200 pages—more, more, more! That’s all I have to say, except the implied READ THIS. Holy bejesusing mercy, this is the real deal.

7. Stephen Burn — David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest: A Reader’s Guide

Intended for the general reader and not the Wallace scholar desperate to exhume every interred signifier from that most overindulged of overindulgent masterworks, Infinite Jest, Stephen Burn’s slight guide copes well with the restrictions imposed upon it by Continuum Books, whose embarrassing range of guides include books on such towering works as The Poisonwood Bible, Birdsong and Ian Rankin’s Black & Blue, for the love of G*tt. To be honest, this doesn’t help stir up my enthusiasm for a re-read of Infinite Jest (as intended)—it makes me more wary of the laboured satirical aspects of the novel and the relentlessness of Wallace’s (eventually tedious) style in the book (which is brilliant enough for a five-star rating but in danger of baccelerating into a four-star). Maybe one read is plenty?

8. Rikki Ducornet — The Fountains of Neptune

Indebted to Oliver Sacks’s sleeping-sickness favourite Awakenings (quote from him on the cover), the third of Ducornet’s elemental teratology takes place in a surreal underwater landscape populated by salty, tale-spinning eccentrics. Despite the lyrical opening chapter, the inventive stream of surreal images and tangents, and the wildly comedic dialogue, I couldn’t follow The Fountains of Neptune along its rocky, circuitous paths without a sense of magical ennui gradually setting in. The relentless fantasia of this submarine dreamworld untethers the novel to any greater purpose, any sense of narrative progression or moments of clarity, and although Ducornet’s writing is as lyrical and crazy as always, I couldn’t immerse myself in this world as I could in her other brackish tale, Phosphor in Dreamland. Reluctantly dropped on p178 with a disappointed sigh.

9. William Gaddis — A Frolic of His Own

J. Franzen says about A Frolic of His Own that “its only aesthetic weakness, really, is that much of it is repetitive, incoherent, and insanely boring.” Repetitive? No but listen there are about 600 pages here of unstylised dialogue where the protagonists use the same phrases ad nauseam and run-on sentences like we do in life what else did you say, Franzen? Incoherent? No but listen there is a plot here, a satirical plot about lawsuits and an avaricious professor and listen did you remember to peel the potatoes? what was I saying about the incoherent plot? it might be incoherent but that doesn’t mean the legal satire isn’t in the best absurdist tradition because it is and although like Franzen I don’t see . . . hang on whose voice is transmitting now, is this Franzen speaking? How about insanely boring? No but listen you can’t have a near 600pp novel written almost entirely in dialogue no sprouts for me thanks I hate the things without a few lags . . . well the last 200 pages are sort of one long lag and the momentum of the first 400 with its whirling-dervish satire is cancelled and replaced with well incoherence is the word but listen Gaddis is a pioneer of the free-floating narratorless narrative no but there is a narrator, like a camera lens he pops up to narrate in unusual ways, as I said like a camera describing certain movements the characters are making mostly the protagonist groping his floozie . . . but I said I didn’t want sprouts weren’t you oh never mind I’ll take them anyway no but listen Franzen was wrong because this isn’t a waste of time it simply isn’t a particularly successful novel. Did he finish it? Who is he? Franzen? No, MJ. No. Bailed on p526. Wimp. At least Franzen a real man got to the end no thanks I don’t want anymore Gaddis I mean gravy, I said I don’t want anymore gravy.

10. Aleksandar Hemon — Best European Fiction 2012

All year long the Dalkey Archive sends its minions roaming across Europe for the Best Fiction, peeping under kettles in Prague, sifting under barstools in Utrecht, raiding towerblocks in Bristol for the Truly Best Words on Paper. Not really. The logistics of screening all mildly avant-garde writers in every European nation to find the edgiest freshest morsels are mindbending—who reads work in the original languages before translations are commissioned? how are untranslated writers read in the first place? how many writers in each nation are read before entrants are chosen, and who translates those writers so Aleksandar Hemon can read them? More likely countries elect entrants via word-of-mouth or emails sent to John O’Brien by cultural attachés, limiting the amount of truly audacious stories that make their way into these anthologies. And sadly, the word that came to mind with this collection was tame. Inventive, distinctive, but hardly bursting with writers urgently in need of my readerly attention. If anything the pseudopoetical literariness of many of these pieces sees Europe only catching up with the work McSweeney’s was turning out at the start of the millennium. Otherwise, seasonally entertaining.

11. Nicholas Mosley — Hopeful Monsters

The final instalment (but first in the chronological sequence) of Mosley’s Catastrophe Practice series is also the 89-year-old Baron and Baronet’s masterwork. Chris has written one of those perfect reviews where no more need be said about the book, suffice to say I found Mosley’s stylistic tics often repetitive and his structuring not 100% lucid, hence the withering four stars. On the whole, I agree with Chris’s summary and regret that my take on this sweeping panorama of early 20thC thought is only one paltry paragraph. A splendiferous intellectual triumph and a tender-hearted romance epic for adults. The perfect literary end to 2012.

12. Nescio Amsterdam Stories

Nine stories from an underappreciated Dutch scribe with a melancholic and tender sensibility. Early works ‘The Freeloader’ and ‘Young Titans’ were the most affecting for me, with later pieces ‘Little Poet’ and ‘Insula Dei’ a little too scattershot in approach to be wholly satisfying. The remaining stories are slight sketches or incomplete fragments. A fittingly gloomy but hopeful end to 2012.  

Books of the Year:

Jan: Jacques Roubaud — The Form of a City Changes Faster, Alas, Than the Human Heart
Feb: David Foster Wallace The Pale King
Mar: John Updike Rabbit, Run
Apr:  Nicola Barker Darkmans
May: William H. Gass The Tunnel
Jun: Felipe Alfau — Chromos
Jul: Emmanuel Bove — My Friends
Aug: James Joyce Ulysses
Sep: Charles Dickens Little Dorrit
Oct: Ralph Ellison — Invisible Man 
Nov: Fernando Del Paso Palinuro of Mexico 
Dec: Alexander Theroux — Darconville’s Cat 

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