Wednesday, 27 February 2013

My Month in Books, Feb (Part One)

1. Adam Thirlwell — Kapow!

Adam Thirlwell, while bearing an unfortunate resemblance to Pete Doherty of disgraced noughties flashes-in-the-pan The Libertines, is single-handedly evolving the digressive novelistic-essay thing with a little help from his boutique publishing friends. Kapow! is a short novel on the Arab Spring told from multiple viewpoints (including the [unstated] author’s own) that sprawls and runs and dangles off and on the page, spinning off into anecdotal tangents, irrelevant sidenotes, clever-clever asides in all manner of crazy zigzag typography, pictured here. As stated in several broadsheet reviews, the extra text functions largely in the manner of footnotes, as clauses cast from their sentences are fated to hang off the page like so much authorial snot, and seems to add little to the meaning—essential for anything as typographically outlandish as this. Fortunately, Thirlwell drops little clues and winks throughout, or self-consciously refers to his technique, as the digressive sprawl and various subplots gather momentum, and the novel is a complete delight to read, whose more serious purpose beneath the “cartoon” of his approach should become clear upon multiple readings. Thirlwell as a novelist seems to flounder in the conventional form, if The Escape is anything to go by, but captivates when innovating as in the wonderful Miss Herbert. Here’s to further innovations from him. Only complaint here is the length—such a hypertextual feast should exhaust itself for at least 700 pages. Then again, that’s a lot of folding and typesetting. Kapow!

2. Kei Miller — The Last Warner Woman

A short novel about a Jamaican leper colony and the “warner” (seer) who worked there before leaving for England, where she was institutionalised after a bad arranged marriage. I read this for tedious personal reasons and didn’t expect from the cover to be won over. The storytelling style is largely simple, the tone emotionally literary in a mainstream way, and although the slight meta element kept me interested (the narrator is a writer writing the book we’re reading who becomes embroiled in the revelations), I was too stubborn and stony-hearted to be moved. As a rule, I don’t read books to trigger emotional responses, I read for more arrogant motives of intellectual stimulation and textual pleasure in-and-of-itself. And to have all my prejudices, fears and resentments about the world confirmed, of course. The Last Warner Woman is best left to more emotionally mature adults than myself, on whom it was wasted.

3. Charles Dickens — A Christmas Carol & Other Christmas Books

Five Christmas novellas from 1843-1848, Dickens’s Xmas-crazy period (followed by the rest of his career), ranging from the oft-forgotten title piece (who reads that anymore?) to the four others read religiously in homes from Puerto Rico to Portsmouth (or have I mixed that up?). ‘The Chimes’ is the grittiest of these moralistic, blatantly sentimental novellas, with its imagined descent into degradation and squalor if the protag refuses to cherish Xmas, and ‘The Cricket on the Hearth’ is the most comical and famous for its six-page opening section where a cricket out-chirps a kettle. ‘The Battle of Life’ is pure melodrama and probably the most dated, unessential Dickens out there, closely followed by the near incoherent ‘The Haunted Man.’ But the best of these novellas (the first three) are quintessentially Dickensian and fine amusement for uncynical Xmas reading—complete anathemas to this day and age, but worthwhile bonuses once the novels from Pickwick to Our Mutual Friend have been completed.

4. George Saunders — Tenth of December

My second foray into Saunders after a lukewarm response to Pastoralia was an unprecedented success. His writing has sharpened its teeth and mellowed its heart and toned down its comedic chutzpah and the results are staggering pieces like ‘Escape From Spiderhead,’ a short moral parable that builds to a slow, devastating climax, ‘The Semplica Girl Diaries,’ a long moral parable that unfurls creepier revelations and a deeper-rooted sadness with each page, and ‘Home,’ a medium-sized moral parable that simmers, snorts and saddens. There are traces of his previous opaque absurdity and multi-perspective obfuscation, such as in the title piece, or the opening story ‘Victory Lap’—there are numerous stories in here that don’t particularly stick in the mind two hours later—but the prose is tighter than before, each sentence sandblasted into shorthand and the dialogue always has a trace of titter on its tongue, expertly balancing the silly with the murderously serious. Good (if unhurried) things lie ahead for Mr. Saunders. Hear him chatter on Bookworm.

5. Affinity Konar — The Illustrated Version of Things

Not sure about this one. The insatiable nitpicker in me wants to castigate this novel for consisting mainly of nice sentences, each striving in some way to escape cliché to an often strained degree, but then what is Proust, what is Gass but a succession of nice sentences striving against cliché? But the dialogue too limits itself to tidily arranged comedic zingers and quirky lines in an attempt to build its own linguistic logic within its own internal logic, and this utterly dislodged notions of character and story for me, leaving only the language tangoing with itself around the implausible narrator and her surreal (ir)reality. The opening sentence is a keeper:
 
But the ringing keeps on so I pick it up and a couple breaths cripple by on the other end—because I’m staggered out on my grandparents’ bed and my grandparents, they’re in this too, they’ve got me, there in the middle, and we’re all laid out because it’s morning now, but still we haven’t slept and the three of us, we’re all dressed up, and what could be different about us, besides the fact that I’m eighteen and they’re in their eighties, is they go to bed in their shoes, but I’ve given up on all that, all that outrunning at any given moment and while I’m on the phone there’s this dumb flopping mutter that I shout through, because I know who it is and even if the caller has never been shown affection this is no excuse. p9    

Other sentences (many, many) pop up in the text that made me pause, unsure whether I was digging it or not. Regard: 

Her scent was pillow fight and full of scorch, it flamed midair and queened over sheets. p81 

Sounds nice! Original word use and placement in the sentences, but what does “pillow fight” actually say about her scent—she smelled of light domestic frolics? She radiated mischief of the feathery variety, she smelled of sweat and fabric conditioner? And what about “full of scorch” on the scent stakes? She smelled hot and dry, or like a raging conflagration? She emanated a strong carbon monoxide aura alongside the musk of pillow-centred horseplay? See, these nice phrases don’t nail character or create layers of meaning, they obfuscate in a way that seems counter to what they try to achieve. 

The x-ray technician was frightening since she could see right through me. p86 

Ha. But meaningless.  

She was strung with tinsel atop her gams, had a laugh as spinnable as a carnival ride I once threw up on. p88 

Second problem. The narrator is an eighteen-year-old wastrel with (as is hinted) a hidden intellect who (wow!) even attends the library at one point, chasing and running after her family, and skirling (it seems) into criminal insanity. The bouncy comic word spinnery in these sentences runs contra to the character and everything that happens to her in the book. I have no problem with characters drawn entirely from awesome words, but the tone of her prose is one constantly strumming a melancholy note mid-giggle, so the occasional un-worked-over phrase might have brought us closer.
I tell him about all the cleaning jobs I ever had—the hospital, the arcade, the tasselled shakery of limberous women. I tell him that making things cleaner by getting dirty is all I’ve ever been good for. p92
Hear that little ZING! in the last sentence? Do we like “tasselled shakery” or its follow-up, “limberous women?” Yes. We do, we do. But do we? Do we like these sentences in-and-of-themselves, or do we like individual phrases within them but not as wholes? Assholes? You mean me? Correct.

We’re the ones with the privilege of falling open so our wants writhe like germs in season. p106
 
Sorry, but now we’re into pretentious college poetry territory.
 
Basically, it didn’t captivate me. If you liked the above sentences, this is the novel for you.

6. Charles Burns — X’ed Out

Looking forward to a few more GNs in 2013. Not looking forward to attempting reviews of these GNs. Other than “nice ink-work” and “clever panel structure” I have little to offer to the burgeoning field of GN criticism. This first in a trilogy contains nice ink-work and clever panel structure. And worm-like alien things that live in omelettes. And postironic Tintin parallels.

7. Paul West — The Very Rich Hours of Count Von Stauffenberg

Among the very few “good Nazis” recorded in history, alongside Oskar Schindler and . . . Oskar Schindler, Count Von Stauffenberg (whose bomb plot almost killed Hitler in 1944) is often overlooked despite the internal conflict his failed scheme created among the high-ranking maniacs, whose Führer fanaticism had by this point become so ingrained that had the Nazis prevailed, Hitler’s systematic erasure of all human feeling in favour of psychopathic butchery would now be the norm for every babe born in the land, IST ZAT CLEAR??? Despite Stauffenberg’s motives for the bomb plot—whether from Christian compassion or differing ideologies—any attempt to whack The Devil Himself should earn him a permanent slot in our memories. Paul West’s novel is a first-person beyond-the-grave retelling of the Count’s story, rendered in lilting and poetic prose, not always nuanced to the 1940s German ear, but an elegant enough approximation. Not quite as evocative of evil as a doorstop like The Kindly Ones, West’s book shrouds its inevitable horrors in detached and ice-cool descriptions, no less effective for their matter-of-factness. Slow pacing in the first half is remedied when the bomb erupts and Hitler, for want of a better phrase, “does a mental.” Top-rank historical writing from this prodigious talent.

8. Graham Rawle — The Card

Rawle’s follow-up to the stunning Woman’s World is a more conventional comic novel about loveable card collector Riley who has been looking for the nineteenth in a series of Mission: Impossible cards since his childhood in the 1960s. Flash forward to 1997, where Riley discovers a series of cards that might embroil him a plot to assassinate Princess Diana and meets a woman who might be his ticket back into social normality, and you got the recipe for an oddball mystery romp. Rawle’s whimsical tale contains illustrated pictures of the playing cards and arty marginalia and reads more breezily than the surprising Woman’s World but is no less beguiling despite the absence of painstaking collage wowee. US release seems unlikely for a book crawling with UK celeb references from the 1970s, and the humour might be too parochial to travel. But Rawle’s other opus is indispensible.

9. Bruce Robinson — The Peculiar Memories of Thomas Penman

This debut (and only) novel from the actor and screenwriter begins as a scatological black comedy, the titular Thomas a tortured figure unable to stay his bowels in class and relentless in pursuit of his dying grandfather’s porn stash. As the book meanders along the tone of smirking nihilism adapts to encompass Thomas’s compassion for his grandfather and acquires a bulbously implausible first-love story of unapologetic purpleness, alongside the stuff about strapping rockets to crabs and launching them at the city centre. It soon unfurls as a warped riff on David Copperfield—namedropped several times—with Thomas filling in for Bruce Robinson as David did for Dickens. So a semi-authentic künstlerroman with Dickens parallels is the flavour. Like DC, TP is raised among gits (in his case rotten slobs and violent nutters) and finds solace in his plastic-perfect lover (Gwendolyn, filling in for Little Emily), and the novel ends with almost-dramatic parentage revelations (like in almost every other Dickens novel). An uneven but smart act of homage, memory, disturbing comedy and shameless sentiment.

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