Monday, 17 December 2012

My Year in Abandoned Books

It’s been a terrific year for reading on the whole, but some books drove me to despair and had to be abandoned for sanity’s sake. I also kept a sampled shelf on Goodreads for books I read parts of (usually up to the first thirty pages) before returning them to the shelf. Note: If I drop an unusual name from time to time, I’m referring to a Goodreads friend.

1. Roberto Bolaño — By Night in Chile

Oh shut up, Roberto. SHUT. UP. What is this cobblers? Why do you want me to read the rambling deathbed memoir of a Chilean priest who can’t let a sentence end and couldn’t find a paragraph break in a tower of cassocks? Why don’t you establish this character as an actual character? Why did you write a list of scenes or incidents that might be used in future novels instead of, to quote The Guardian—“a beautifully written analysis of Chilean literary life?” It gives me no pleasure to play devil’s advocate in a glistening ocean of five-star reviews, but I threw in the towel one-third through this petite cowfart in the Roberto canon. His work is better when it’s longer, i.e. 2666. Clearly.

2. Brigid Brophy — In Transit: A Heroi-Cyclic Novel

Let’s face it, heroi-cyclic novels aren’t my speed. As with most Dalkeys, the blurb sounds like the greatest book experience ever: “a transsexual adventure . . . with an unrelenting stream of puns, word games, metafictional moments and surreal situations (lesbian revolution in the baggage area).” YES! And the book begins with sentences like:

No more can you detect your personality and its decisions in the course of being created by your experience. You know only that you ingest the present tense and excrete it as a narrative in the past. History is in the shit tense. You have left it behind you. Fiction is piss: a stream of past events but not behind you, because they never really happened.

YES! But then sentences pop up like:

I am incensed (I swing my savage indignation at you: aspersions ad te: bad on you: ego absolvere te nolo) by the cinemorgan design of twentieth-century cathedrals, all of which look as though they had risen out of the ground in a play of coloured-icecream lighting (but Fool-stop the organist has broken the mechanism which should, and would it would, cause them to sink down again).

Er, come again? And these sentences, basically, are the narrative, i.e. egghead Irish absurdism of the incomprehensible variety. Sorry, Brigid. You seemed like a super lady, a real counterculture battleaxe.

3. Haruki Murakami — Norwegian Wood

Question: How much Norwegian Wood would a Norwegian woodchuck chuck if a Norwegian woodchuck could chuck Norwegian Wood? Answer: The same amount as a Swedish woodchuck. So I read 160 pages of this novel. Then I hit a four-day Reader’s Block (also precipitated by problems in my personal life, but I’ll save those for Oprah) and read nothing. I called a librarian and explained the problem. She suggested I undergo an intense course of Murakami Avoidance Therapy (MAT), whereby I put down all Murakamis I am reading at that moment and read writers who are not Murakami. And you know what, I was cured! Those librarians know what they are talking about . . . even if they can’t string a sentence together. So I put Murakami down. It was a relief. Because those first 160 pages were so inconsequential and drab, so unremarkable and airy, I felt like I was walking through an airport terminal at 4AM on a Prozac-laden soporific in my slippers . . . walking towards the bookstore where Murakami’s Norwegian Wood sits on the bestseller list, to be read by people-too-busy-to-read-books who think this is the cutting edge of contemporary literature, and in translation too, so twice as chic and clever, despite nothing happening except a dull student who thinks he’s Holden Caulfield hanging out with a bland-but-mysterious possible lover, then a clichéd playboy who introduces him to casual sex, then another girl who almost shakes the novel back into life but no, zzzzzzzzzzzzz. And the translator sort of loves the phrase sort of . . . people are sort of people and kind of humans, but are more insert-faux-poetic-description here, or perhaps sort of human after all, no? So thanks, librarian! MAT has saved me from four more hours of mediocrity! Hug a librarian tomorrow!

4. Laura Marney — Nobody Loves a Ginger Baby

As they say, “I wanted so badly to like this novel”—a familiar kiss of death—but in the end I did not. Firstly, the author is a family friend (not my family, my betrothed’s), teacher at the CW programme up the road, and the novel takes place where I live now. These mean nothing in artistic terms, but the title raises a chuckle and the blurb suggests a Celtic Lucy Ellmann. But no. The prose is spunky, filthy, feisty, but does nothing for me. The plot is thin. Daphne is dumped by her depressive boyfriend and mopes in an eccentric way, while her neighbour Pierce is a dosser/artist who trades banter and likes shagging women. Daphne teaches down-and-out Glaswegians in a college. Meh. The prose is written in a very accessible style, I suspect largely so local people will pick up the books. For me the comedy got a little tiresome (stretched across the whole novel) and there wasn’t that emotional link you’d expect with the heroine. Shame. I respect comic novels immensely (I’m trying to get one published ferchristsake) and know how tough it is to keep the reader’s attention outside the gags. So respect to the author, maybe this humour simply isn’t my thing.

5. Joy Williams — The Quick and the Dead

I tried 50pp of this novel but couldn’t find much to cling to. I think Mariel nails it in her review: the characters speak as if they were in a novel where everyone speaks as if they’re in a novel. I also found the prose heavy with those carefully crafted profound-sounding sentences where the author imparts profound sentiments in profound-sounding prose, where they reader is asked to step back and say, woah . . . heavy! This sounds churlish. I know. I loved some of these sentences but there was no emotional or intellectual connective tissue for me, i.e. the characters were ideologic constructs not people, and the profound sentiments built into the prose around them seemed to be searching for revelations about corporeal suffering or a deep internal trauma. So I needed to be closer to these people, I needed some semblance of reality to cling to. Instead I was being invited into a surreal Limbo not entirely unlike Flann O’Brien’s cyclical Hell in The Third Policeman—from what I inferred, the book will go on to paint a broader canvas of death and spirituality, only without the bicycles. But I only managed 50pp. The humour wasn’t something I responded too either. Plus only yesterday I read a novel with precocious children at the centre. Two in a row is tough. Apologies to Mariel.

6. Thomas Pynchon — Gravity’s Rainbow

I tried sixty-nine pages for the purposes of the Group Read (a Group Read of Gravity’s Rainbow on Goodreads—a GR of GR on GR, or GR3) but tentatively closed the novel thenceforth. My first thought (I am an intellectual) was WTF?! This has over twenty five-star ratings on the first page?! Then I had to concede I simply don’t like Pynchon’s writing style, period. William raised this point in his review of The Tunnel—you’re helpless against an author’s crystalline prose if you simply can’t stomach his particular talent for arranging squiggles. My problem with the first sixty-nine pages? I found his style awkwardly literary, stuffed with showboating passages of verbose insulation (as though caulking the enormous fucker)—I felt the style basically worked against the efficiency of the sentences, i.e. he seems to be taking unnecessarily circuitous routes to describe whatever acronym-riddled antics were happening (as far as I could make out, sub-Catch-22 shenanigans mixed with equally dated black humour) so the reader has to unpeel each little Pychonian prawn as though inside lies some twinkling epithet of significance. Also, the point of view shifts from the ice-cold third-person narrator to the internal states of the dozen or so interchangeable characters with equally stupid names for no particular reason I could fathom for those sixty-nine pages. I was impressed by various passages but I couldn’t commit to another 834 pages . . . there simply wasn’t enough cohering for me in the style, and books that warm up around page 467 are not my bag. I tried The Crying of Lot 49 earlier this year and found the dude such a postmodern relic. I mean, Foster Wallace can do this standing on his head but also offers a devastating emotional wallop into the bargain. William H. Gass writes funnier bawdy limericks and songs too. Anyway. I’m sure he’s brilliant but I really don’t care, I have other boyfriends.

7. Pierre Choderlos de Laclos — Dangerous Liaisons

If I were the sort of boner who ran a creative writing night class I might level that grievous accusation at this Gallic favourite—how it “tells” everything and doesn’t “show.” And if you were a frightfully witty sort, you may reply: “Duh. It’s written in letters.” And such a Daria-strength comeback would be entirely appropriate: this is an epistolary novel where effusive aristocrats compose long-winded letters about their schemes and feelings and dire circumstances, with little for the reader to cling to except the inevitable moral corruptions as promised in the blurb and the flashy period prose. I slightly recoil. The epistolary form is so frightfully dull. Regardless how many naïve virgins may lose their maidenhead to unscrupulous bounders. This stream of melodramatic back-and-forth plot-explaining missives lacked any real narrative drive for me, as bitchily funny as the two corrupt lovers were on occasion. I got enough from 100pp or so. Enough for me. You don’t need to finish everything you read, right? I mean I don’t get all obsessive about these things. (Er . . . much). And I suppose you won’t ever catch me reading the unabridged Clarissa (according to this novel’s preface the characters in Clarissa would have to have spent eight hours per day composing their letters for the timeframe to work). Yowza. Cheeses. Wow-wee. Etcetera. By the way the movie version of this is terrific, featuring the hammy delights of a youngish John Malkovich and the nubile breasts of a younger Uma Thurman. Perfick.

8. Randall Jarrell — Pictures from an Institution

A smug self-involved novel written for the wine-quaffing elite so they might titter around their canapés at the bons mot expressed about a footnote in the revised Oxford edition of The Iliad. The narrator is a pompous New York scenester and the novel reminiscent of all those moments when you’re watching a Woody Allen film and it’s going all right, then suddenly you have this overwhelming urge to kill all the privileged neurotic whining nuisances gobbling up all the caviar before you. Maybe it’s a class thing. I was raised in Compton, Edinburgh where we don’t tolerate books of such a dated self-regarding nature, boyee. A parting warning: be suspicious of all books that subtitle themselves ‘comedies.’ Usually the wish is father to the thought, dear homey.

9. Ann Quin — Tripticks

No. Not at the moment. No thanks. I read B.S. Johnson’s corpus. I read Gilbert Sorrentino’s corpus. I read choice cuts from the butcher’s slab of postmodernism. I have limits. I cannot read this surrealistic cut-up who-the-fuck-is-narrating-this parade of amusing but aimless and tiresome non sequiturs for more than forty pages. I don’t care how cool it sounds. Or if the novel is a masterpiece of “pre-punk aesthetics” that helped out Kathy Acker. Or if there are groovy illustrations. Not at the moment. No. Freaking. Thanks. I have a several hundred orphanages of unloved strange fiction to read. I can’t love them all. I am not Mother Theresa. For one, I don’t think contraception is the Devil’s Business. Second, my middle name is not Gonxha. Call me a wet fish. But that’s the lowdown. I cannot commit right now. I am sure I will marry at some point and speedily divorce, leaving my X-wives strewn across American highways and a semi-drowned poodle in tow. But not now. These paragraphs with their lists and sentence fragments and surreal (don’t you cringe at that word?) imagery do not have a place in my literary purview. No. P.S. I once recommended Aberration of Starlight to Knig-o-lass to growls of disapproval. This is her revenge. Thanks. I’ll return this one by express mail.

10. Frank Kuppner — The Intelligent Observation of Naked Women

I suspect this quest to find poets that turn me on will take a while, so for now I’m switching to anthologies over individual chapbooks and volumes. I liked Kuppner’s novel Life on a Dead Planet so picked this up arbitrarily, and while I like many of the individual stanzas here, these long poems were too opaque, too obsessed with voyeuristic observation and speculation and dreamy poeticising (handy for a poet) of extremely opaque, not specific enough, not clear, see-through, transparent, not focused enough things and people, except maybe in the poem ‘An Old-Guide Book to Prague,’ to interest me. Plus despite Kuppner’s amusing titles the poems themselves aren’t particularly funny, mainly ponderous and dry, or funny in that too-subtle-to-be-funny way.

11. Thomas Hardy — Far From the Madding Crowd

Oy vey, oy vey, Hardy. I see plenty of five-star ratings from GR friends here, possibly a default classic rating (think of the reproach rating Hamlet less than five stars! they’d hunt you down!). But this one is plodding and banal. What were you people thinking? This is Hardy’s first lengthy novel following Under the Greenwood Tree, transitioning between pastoral vignettes and the proper-plot-and-everything of The Mayor of Casterbridge. Both of those books work as the former takes the vignette approach without being exhaustive, the latter has Hardy’s first extremely tense, compelling plot. This combines lengthy pastoral peregrinations (I admit obscure farming practices, rural gossip and astronomy lessons aren’t my bag in novels) with a somewhat thin plot about a proud, supposedly gorgeous farmowner teasing two lovestruck suitors. Weak soup, this novel. Give me a delicious chunky beef stew with a freshly baked baguette, please Thomas. They shouldn’t teach this in (English) schools. Hardy’s later work is far superior to this middling wiffle. Anyway, got to p130. (Also I think Tamara Drewe was a riff on this novel. That was fun).

12. Truman Capote — Summer Crossing

Capote’s buried first novel. I couldn’t make it into the second half since there doesn’t appear to be a story here, an interesting character, or any particular reason to keep reading another long comma-infested, mid-clause-POV-shifting sentence of upper-class Manhattanite banality. Authors suppress books for a reason. When will publishers learn?

13. Steven Moore — The Novel: An Alternate History: Beginnings to 1600

It seems I wasn’t as interested in learning about the Medieval Arthurian novel or the Spanish Renaissance novel as I thought I was. Strange that. Despite Moore’s uproarious and fiery introduction and a terrifically engaging voice (written in a snarky, then later trying-to-hard-to-amuse comic mode), this book seems to find itself bogged down in not-that-interesting and extremely-precise-to-trainspotter-levels of detail. 

Description after description of the plots of dull religious tracts that might qualify as atrocious novels that in extremely slight ways predict the formal innovations of later writers . . . and on and on through more worrying sexual asides and secular digs to another tenuous connection between Thomas Pynchon and a parchment scroll carved in a llama’s bollocks that predates the postmodern structures of Gaddis and Barth and so on and so on. OK. Not that bad. But not particularly convincing as a history of The Novel. I understand canon-forming is always pointless and works like this shake up the orthodoxy somewhat. Moore does sweat to hold the general reader’s attention (and he did, up to p200) but . . . no. Thanks. It does start to read like A Complete History of Everything Ever Written Down, as Jason says. 40pp on the Arthurian ‘novel?’ Nope. But. Looking forward to Vol 2—more my scene.

14. James Baldwin — Another Country

200pp read. Fed up. Fed and up. Enough of this popular-classic pootling. I am planning a triumphant return to the brave and beautiful borders of the avant-garde. I will be raiding the archives of the following pioneers: Soft Skull, Dzanc Books, Green Integer, Coffee House Press, David R. Godine, NYRB, New Directions, FC2 and—all together now!—Dalkey Archive. I cordially invite you to leave the names of any daring experimental fiction presses that have escaped my attention in the comment box, and help me to shape a reading list of past and present adventures in innovation. Baldwin was a bore.

15. Stanley Elkin — Mrs. Ted Bliss

It is hard to be too disparaging about this novel, seeing Stanley Elkin wrote it in the last few years of his life, probably in the fleeting moments when his crippling multiple sclerosis let up long enough so he could type or handwrite. It is an heroic act that in his last years he chose to power through and work rather than let this horrible wasting illness vegetize him—a man of restless spirits and comic energy. Still, we separate the work from its writer and its composition. Mrs. Ted Bliss is not a good novel. Despite quotes from heavyweights Kurt Vonnegut, Saul Bellow and Michiko Kakutani and the fact it won National Book Critics Circle Award in 1995, it barely scrapes a pass. I managed 160pp before shutdown. Reasons? Bland prose lacking all the linguistic showmanship Elkin is famous for. A tired and unamusing plot centred around an old woman whose past is explored in long tedious expository patches. The novel has no sense of pace, no lively characters, no real structure . . . seemingly not much life. Given Elkin’s circumstances this seems pretty sad.

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