Thursday, 28 March 2013

My Month in Books, March (Part One)

1. Alexander Theroux — The Grammar of Rock: Art and Artlessness in 20th Century Pop Lyrics

Pure peevish pleasure. Theroux’s book doesn’t profess to be an authoritative or academic treatise on the pop musics—it doesn’t profess to be anything—but a loose and conversational tirade, a digressive breakless essay, unfurling like one all-night performance at a far-out punk dive. It simulates what “hanging” with Theroux might be like minus the slight stutter and Boston accent. Readers sensitive to his brand of scimitar-sharp satire, and his sometimes undeniably cruel and unnecessary pokes, will not find a friend in this book. Those willing to excuse (or indulge) his virtuoso outpouring of disdain and score-setting (and the emphasis here is on the grammatical boners in pop, not the victories), will find delight in his neurotic nitpickery, his self-confessed obsession over the sloppiness of lyric writers who have ruined many a song for him. Focusing mostly on music from the 40s-60s, Theroux’s book is a whirlpool of literary, cinematic, cultural, historical and philosophical references, astounding in their range and esoterica and hipness (about five mentions of Family Guy—who saw that coming?) Since the book takes this loose form some of the song titles appear to be wrong or misattributed in places, and the book is riddled with missing brackets, inverted commas and dropped Ts due to poor (or no) proofreading from FG. But the breadth of insult, reference and quotation is surprising and entertaining—Theroux is no fustian or anachronist (his professing a love for The Fall now has me signed up as a Theroux completist)—and makes Grammar of Rock a must-read for the eagle-eared audiophile and soggy-hearted misanthrope.

2. Alasdair Gray — Poor Things

The book that turned me on to frame tales, unreliable narrators, authors-as-editors, found documents, pastiche and parody, emotionally stimulating artwork, the novel an a objet d’art, run-on sentences, paratextual palaver, and metafiction-with-a-heart is as marvellous on the third read as it was on the first. Gray’s novel presents two unreliable accounts of Bella Baxter’s life—the first a Frankenstein and Victorian horror pastiche told in the form of a (fictional?) autobio of “public health officier” Archibald McCandless, the second a brief corrective letter from Bella Baxter denouncing his entire book (¾ of Poor Things) as a complete fabrication. Gray never wrote characters as vivid and wondrous as the ear-splitting mutant Baxter, the gambling Don Juan Wedderburn, and the liberated feminist Bella in his other books, and Poor Things finds him perfecting the balance of postmodern playfulness, artistic perfection and multi-layered parody and historical insight present in his other books, but nowhere as coherent, moving, hilarious, sly and cunning as in this masterpiece. I rank this as the peak of Gray’s literary achievements, below Lanark and 1982 Janine which show their age now, and recommend to all who find the above list of qualities paramount to their textual tantalisation.

3. George Orwell — Animal Farm

It is almost as if George dislikes Stalin and his cronies! I mean who among us has never set up a group on the basis of democratic voting and then decided strong autocratic leadership is better, plus more comfy and lovely, for us? I mean who can honestly say we inhabit a nation where equality, at any time in history, ever existed or ever worked for less than a delusional four weeks? Equality is one of those concepts— like the Bogey Man or Bill Withers—that sounds nice in principle but doesn’t quite cut the vinegar. Far better to have a strong leader. I have decided, since no one has challenged me as I write this review, to become that leader and have Paul Bryant, Manny, NR, Ali, Geoff Wilt, all the Seans, Megha, Mike, Ian Graye, and everyone else better than me, placed in pens until further notice, where their only reading material will be wall-to-wall MJ Nicholls reviews until they learn how to do it properly. Upon their release, they will realise no other reading material comes close to the wit and beauty of MJ Nicholls reviews, and they will no longer challenge me for likes and fawning groupies or the pantwetting adoration and erotic submission of auto-likers and serial review-skimmers. And it is all down to Orwell’s book. Thanks George!

4. Karrie Fransman — The House That Groaned

For fans of grotesque Steadmanesque drawings and corporeal Selfian humour, Fransman’s GN debut will produce squeamish laughs from the darkest nodes of your oesophagus. Like Chris Ware’s Building Stories in that the book takes place in a tenement building and shows the lives of various inhabitants therein and the history of the building itself, House That Groaned is less concerned with hitting universal notes of loneliness and sadness and more concerned with squeezing laughs from a man who dates the disfigured, an obese socialite who stages bacchanalian food orgies, a m-to-f transsexual who is gored through a coffeetable moments before humping her true love, and a landlady who shapeshifts into cabinets and sofas. For a debut work (endorsed, inexplicably, by Nic Roeg who made Don’t Look Now—an uncle or something?) this is the product of a dangerous comic mind verging on the sadistic, but grotesque nihilism always has a place in the world because sometimes the human race ain’t worth redeeming. Especially when grownups use non-words like ‘ain’t’ in reviews and expect to get away with it. Liked this.

5. Posy Simmonds— Gemma Bovery

I read this for a light Sunday evening pleasure. In the UK we have dramas about country doctors or midwives on Sunday TV, followed by two-hour detective shows with cuddly folk like Steven Fry, to reassure us the world is a kind and fuzzy place and set us up for the Monday hell. This is my non-televisual equivalent—light-hearted comedy, with a fleck of extremely tame drama, among the unrepentant middle-classes, with bags of Frenchisms and Madame Bovary references. It is a fine alternative to drowning in self-loathing and beer, which so many books make me want to do of late. And hey, did you know Stephen M wrote a brilliant review of my book? Like that instead!

6. Gilbert Sorrentino — Odd Number

The first novel in Sorrentino’s challenging Pack of Lies trilogy is a detective story, except it isn’t clear what, if any, crime has been committed, or by whom. Split into three narratives, the book resembles Pinget’s The Inquisitory in its approach in that an unnamed inquisitor grills an unnamed observer about random events that have taken place—in this case at a party, where avant-garde deadbeats from Sorrentino’s earlier novels are discussing making a movie about the very party they are attending. The first narrator speaks in hesitant fragments, rendered with tabulations between breaths or interruptions, the second provides a more comprehensive version of events in long breakless paragraphs, and the third is a mere list-making machine who only gets ten pages to get things straight. Reading like the aftermath of Coover’s Gerald’s Party, the novel is a frustrating exercise in deliberate obfuscation and relentless intertextual gossiping to the point the reader cries out for some semblance of order—but a Sorrentino novel isn’t the place for trivial pettiforgeries like order or clarity, oh no. It is a place for white slips with lace trimmings and ice-blue panties and Henri Kink’s new opus, Imaginary Quaaludes of Arterial Thongs. One of Gil’s most ruthlessly indulgent books and the basis, so it seems, for his son Christopher’s stylistically similar Sound on Sound.

7. Charles Burns — The Hive

The second instalment in the Burns trilogy contains more expletive-spitting bald green alien workers, worrying 23rd-floor breeding wards populated with pretty waifs, sexy sickly teeny relationship plots with cleverly crowbarred nudity and Patti Smith references, worrying fever-dream-flashback things with various alien squid-like creatures bursting through chests, extremely veiny moribund death-bed dads, something about romantic novels and kinky photographs, the return of the cash-strapped mini-sumo-wrestler squashed-testicle-mutant, and evil sushi with toothy wormy beings sprouting from its nutritious insides. Diverting but far too brief to get all hysterical about, esp. with an absent conclusion. Charles Burns discusses on Bookworm.

8. Isaac Bashevis Singer — Enemies: A Love Story

This novel achieves a remarkable feat in that it makes a love quadrangle among four ex-pat holocaust survivors seem both traumatic and sexy, rather than traumatic and even more traumatic. Herman is the (un)fortunate bigamist caught between his faithful peasant wife Yadwiga and runaway soul Masha as he struggles to adapt to his life of wartime memories and apparent freedom while ghostwriting Talmudic materials for a rabbi, despite having hurled God in the bucket—sort of. Later in the novel, his presumed-dead wife Tamara turns up to complete the quadrangle, making Herman’s struggle for sanity, stability, identity, whatever, even grizzlier. Singer’s novel is melancholy, tender, powerful and extremely entertaining and touches upon a fascinating historical milieu unfamiliar to this reader. Sensational prose.

9. Harold Brodkey — The Runaway Soul

Brodkey’s lifelong opus, largely forgotten for obvious reasons, is a contender for the most solipsistic, inward-looking 835pp novel since Bill Vollmann’s nine-volume Reflections on My Eyebrows. Brodkey, who published a story collection in 1958 and no books in the 60s or 70s or most-of-the-80s until Stories in an Almost Classical Mode in 1988, by remaining a New Yorker man his entire life, made himself a human dartboard by holding back this novel until 1991. Because TRS was savaged by everyone except forgotten novelist D.M. Thomas (famous for his pretentious erotica in the 80s). The novel is narrated by Brodkey stand-in Wiley and dwells largely on his adolescence in the Midwestern region and his monstrous and marvellous sister Nonie.

My position is that I simultaneously loathe and adore this novel, usually within the same sentence, and my assumption is that Brodkey knew his prose would meet with outright hostility, but forged ahead in his artistic vision to create a work replete with such a painstaking and psychopathically obsessive Proust-in-therapy micro-dissection of his childhood, no one could deny, nor appreciate, his particular brand of sectionable genius. The opening parts of TRS are the most arresting—the beautiful rhythms of the lightning storm scene with Nonie, and the writing on this character in general, are positively Gassian—but the prose falls into a strange discursive mode, stripped of musicality and liveliness, lapsing into dense thickets of dashes and ellipses and fragmented phrases, almost as if the narrator is speaking aloud to his snoozing therapist on the page. This becomes the default mode for TRS, and I spent over a month desperate to recapture the amazement of the first 200pp, but the amazement eluded me.

Simply, I agree with some of Brodkey’s nemeses who accused TRS of arrogance, pretentiousness, repetition and self-obsession. It drips from almost every page, but that doesn’t cancel out the moments of thunderous intelligence, the tantric eroticism (one sex scene lasts over 80pp and one canoodling scene 50pp), the fabulously vivid family descriptions, and the scenes with brattish babe Nonie, equal only to Cora in Janice Galloway’s All Made Up in the evil sister stakes. And the style, once tolerated, does contain moments of illumination and beauty beneath the babbling indulgence. As unsatisfying as it is on the whole, TRS does capture the particulars of (an) adolescence with a meticulous psychological insight and heavyhearted attention to detail. At times, it feels like writing this physically pains Brodkey, and that melancholy lifts up and weighs down his ill-fated opus.

10. Alexander Theroux — The Primary Colours

These impressive “essays,” also titled All the Shit I Know About Three Colours in One Long Luscious List, finds Theroux in fact-gathering mode, compiling a remarkable range of information on beautiful blue, yucky yellow and romping red. Each page contains upwards of nine facts that can be supped on slowly like a delicious latte from your friendly tax-dodging conglomerate milky libation provider, or hurled into the gub like a fast-food product from your local beef and spud dispenser. Digging into his bottomless well of factoids from art and real life—books, painters, films, music, pop-culture, folklore, religion, history-in-general—Theroux once again demonstrates his reputation as the most underappreciated superbrain in American letters. A passionate pleasure and almost entirely free from verbose insults . . . but not quite! I like the colour blue.

11. Gore Vidal — Point to Point Navigation

Disappointerissimo. This memoir is meant to cover Gore’s life from 1968-2006, but unlike its predecessor Palimpsest, fails to offer an entertaining and comprehensive account of the Great Wit’s activities during these four pregnant decades. First off, the chapters are unpardonably bitesize—lacking in detail and conversational digressionism familiar to Gorehounds—and second off, Gore discusses his childhood at length (heard it!) and, seemingly, whatever interests him at the moment of writing. The non-linear sprawl that worked so well in Palimpsest here is simply unfocused and far too casually anecdotal. The bitesize approach leaves many chapters feeling like responses to questions posed by interviewers, as Gore freestyles long or short answers depending on what pops up in the memory hole, and although we itch ourselves impatiently for facts-presented-chronologically, we lap it up like the snivelling Gorehounds we is. R.I.P.

12. Javier Marías — Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me

Marvellous. Loved the serpentine sentences with their astonishing thought-within-thought, near-metaphysical poetic lilt, preference for the cosy comma over the sloppy semicolon, their use of not-oft-seen things like reported speech (and thought!) within parentheses, or another character’s dialogue(!), repeated phrases (“dark back of time” about six times) and callback to earlier passages and quotations to elevate the plot matter to something loftier than the obvious. Mike is right—Marías, aside from being Spain’s premier James Belushi impersonator, is an origamist. But where is that elusive fifth star, ye cry? Despite my love for these sentences, not every one was lusciously lickingly lovely—plenty felt like stylistic run-ons, not unlike Hubert Selby deploying his punctuationless style merely as a formality in later books like The Willow Tree, and left this asthmatic reader gasping for that most arcane of necessities, a paragraph break. Meanderingness also experienced in the middle portion of the novel regarding the hero’s ex-lover, but the novel builds towards a stupendously bendy climax, where Marías delights in scrunching one’s brain into various cubist swans and other pond creatures, and all is happy again.

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