Saturday, 30 March 2013

My Month in Books, March (Part Two)

13. J.M.G. Le Clézio — Terra Amata

Terra Amata is either a visionary masterpiece or cheap apocalyptic schlock—either way, the end product is a strange and wonderful mixture of Michael Bay and French existentialism. Chancelade is a perpetual boy traversing the stunningly evocative language of this novel. His surroundings shapeshift from sentence to sentence, allowing him occasional moments of beachside lucidity or ludic Oulipian antics, but mostly, he’s like a cyberpunk Scheherazade, caught in immense thickets of doom-laden prose, thundering out the page like a pulpit preacher seconds before a meteor impacts the earth like in the Permian period, drenching the world in one billion trillion tonnes of seething hot lava for over 80,000 years. A novel that runs entirely on opaque imagery and surreal lyricism isn’t an easy sell, but Le Clézio succeeds by speedballing his prose with urgency, lunacy, and a black we’re-all-going-to-die humour, otherwise known as “gallows.” I can’t think of a finer novel to get hanged from.

14. Hubert Selby Jr. — Waiting Period

Cubby’s swansong is a blackly comedic novel about a suicidal nerd who decides to off the bureaucrat that wronged him instead of taking his own life. By manipulating a strain of E-coli bacteria and furtively inserting it into his victim’s coke, he succeeds in his plan to dispense with the faceless desk vulture, and decides to increase his repertoire of sly E-coli murders like a nerdier Charles Bronson until the novel ends on a morally ambiguous note. Not unlike B.S. Johnson’s Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry, this last work from Selby fizzles with dark comic energy and his (now tired) stylistic run-ons and stream-con. As a bitter bow-out from the world of letters, and the world, Waiting Period triumphs, leaving pellets of pain in all unsuspecting do-goody readers.

15. James Wood — How Fiction Works

A verymost entertaining and informative book about books and how writers make them from words placed in different orders. Split into handy chapters but written as one lengthy essay with numerical subheadings, Wood teaches us things from Flaubert, James, Joyce, Foster Wallace and other masters and mistresses about how to identify bad writing from good, and how free indirect style is a thing of beauty when done right. Only trouble is his persistent disagreement with a William Gass quote that he milks for the whole book while soldering his argument into the pages. Never disagree with The Gass. Hauntings and such to be feared. I have nothing else to add. Regard the four stars and begone.

16. Sam Savage — The Cry of the Sloth

A quite outrageously dreadful literary satire, so cringe-inducingly lame one wonders whether the noble Coffee House Press has any credentials at all, outside publishing the mighty Sorrentino. Sam Savage has read and met Sorrentino, which makes this novel doubly painful since what transpires is a sanitised, whimsified Mulligan Stew, centred around small lit-mag publisher Andrew Whittaker whose failing mag Soap, along with other sub-comedic sitcommy disasters, precipitates a book-long nervous breakdown. The failure is tone. And approach. Written in a tiresome epistolary format (didn’t Sorrentino kill that off in MS?), the lightly comedic antics fail since the reader isn’t sure whether to pity or laugh at or root for Whittaker, and the bad writing samples suggest merely a laziness (hence the sloth title) but no delusional imagined talent like Antony Lamont, and frankly the humour in these samples (and the book) is so slight it effectively isn’t there at all. Abandoned on p213 with violent disappointment. More people have (and will) read this than Sorrentino’s masterpiece. Sad truth.

17. Steve Hely— How I Became a Famous Novelist

An uproarious assault on the sorts of manipulative middlebrow fictions that sit, with smug pastel or pastoral covers, on every highstreet booksellers’ bestsellers shelves and shift enough units to keep real writers impoverished for nine lifetimes. Next time you encounter someone talking up The Kite Runner or The Poisonwood Bible, slap them across the head with copies of Hely’s witty novel until the message is received that laziness in book choice kills. Bestsellers should come with warnings on their covers: IF YOU BUY THIS, SEVEN BETTER NOVELS WILL REMAIN UNPUBLISHED. In Hely’s comedy, satirical in a sitcommy way, a smart hack masters the lingo of the earnest southern novelist who toploads his books with clichés and lyrical descriptions until through a careful process of cronyist shimmying, he ends up making a moderate puddle of funds before he is cast adrift into the vast ocean of readerly contempt. Top-flight satire, if a little off-base and kooky sometimes, but bang on-message.

18. George Orwell — A Clergyman’s Daughter

Orwell sharpens his satiric knives in this early novel about Dorothy and her life of perpetual misery living in a backward petit bourgeois town. Capturing the pure hell of ill-bred country folk and hateful religious fustians, Orwell creates a sense of smothering hopelessness as his heroine finds herself among homeless hop-pickers, sweating for twelve hours in fields and sleeping in haylofts, and later working for starvation wages under a tyrannical crone who epitomises the penny-pinching meanness of a private school system whose only purpose is to keep kids stupefied and the parents paying the fees. Little about life in 1930s England is portrayed with nothing short of sputtering near-hectoring contempt as Dorothy elects to remains a perpetual virgin in her bleak, pointless existence of rubbing down eczema-addled old ladies and raising funds for an ever-collapsing church, trapped until death in a lonely, friendless, and godless universe of crushing isolation, disappointment, poverty, and fear. The past was a horrible place. Orwell hurts.

19. Kurt Vonnegut — Slaughterhouse-Five

Re-reading Kurt’s famous one for a third (or fourth?) time perhaps wasn’t the wisest move. Upon the third read, Billy Pilgrim’s antics have less of the time-hopping quirkiness and seem more cartoony, while Kurt’s prose comes across as simplistic to the point of patronising. From time to (un)time, his Dresden ramblings have the same sting as on the first read and his humanist humour, and his resigned peacenik stance still seems the best response to war horrors. His time on Tralfamadore also contains bubbles of loveliness and near-profundity, but often the prose (in regard to women) smells dated. As does the humour. Some books are best left buried in the past.

20. George Orwell — Nineteen Eighty-Four

So much to be ANGRY about! If you ever conquer your nagging self-hatred, there is a whole world of untamed FURY waiting to be discovered. People—rich ones, conceited ones, selfish ones, hateful ones, abusive ones, thick ones—everyone is a potential GEYSER of rage!

Fortunately, your self-hatred is strong for now, otherwise you would have to confront the wankers in suits who snubbed the homeless outside the bank, leaving downtrodden debtors to fit the bill; or the woman who strutted with self-regarding arrogance along the pavement; or the smirking busker who strummed crap indie covers outside the library who was probably a middle-class cock named Tim up from his country estate to slum it in a well-appointed Blackford flat while at uni before taking a managerial role in his father’s corporation; or the single mother whose only purpose in life was to push her spawn around by saying their names over and over in a shrill English accent until they erupted in bus-consuming screams; or the old men who stumbled out pubs and staggered to the betting shop, forever trapped in cycles of mindless gambling and alcohol consumption as though art, music, books didn’t exist and the world was one bronchitic catarrhy wheeze-cough; or the billboards for unfunny comedies with wax-faced gurning hasbeen multi-zillionaires; or the people who walked through life blissfully unaware of the contempt and indifference with which they were treated by the corporations that took their money to butcher penguins and pauperise small businesses and abuse starving children in third-world sweatshops so everything looked nice in the display window; or the perpetually corrupt chav-baiting governments that took backhanders from devil-fucking corporations that ruled the world by exploiting and bending the law to make their wallets fatter, dishing out lies whenever convenient to flatter the stakeholders’ greed; or the impudent people from all walks of life so bound up in their own petty needs and wants they would never think to lift a finger to help anyone, or who begrudged giving the tiniest morsel to charity because the self-pleasure impulse was so strong it inconvenienced them to have to dig into their pockets; or the people who filled themselves up with soulless entertainment like commercial pop music and defended their right to pollute the world with their tastes at the expense of suppressing all art with proper value with the capacity to move people in deep heart-shattering ways through hard-wrought artistry, not cheap sentiment; or an interminably dreary future of call centre dystopias where everyone is programmed to deliver peerless customer service and hawk tat for bonuses; or a world akin to ancient Egypt where the cat is venerated over all humans and more deserving of our attention than genocide, famine, war, drought, ecological disasters, and so on; or a world where INDIFFERENCE and GREED were so rampant there wasn’t even a good reason to drag one’s weary carcass out of bed in the morning to face it all again.

So many things to get ANGRY about! How do you even begin to cope with all that?!

21. Raymond Federman—Return to Manure

Almost all Federman is out of print or import-price in my country, except this novel(?) about his imaginative and real-life return to the French farm he worked on as a slave during WWII under the tyrannical hand of Lauzy. Over 190 pages, Federman (as narrator) details life shovelling manure and taking frequent beatings from his perverted boss, and rare moments of respite from the buxom farmer’s daughter (who may be an invention—like anything else in this novel[?]), while travelling with his partner Erica back to the farm to see what emotions it stirs up for use in his book. The ‘surfiction’ deployed in this novel is basically a subset of metafiction—Federman includes interruptions from the “reader” in rectangular boxes, and dialogues with his partner over the accuracy of his narration. The self-consciousness in here is deployed in a tender, bitter and hilarious prose style, with the line between memory and fiction wondrously blurred—clearly the book could be written in no other way for Federman. An excellent introduction to an author I will probably never read again unless those prices come down.

22. Alexander Theroux — Three Wogs

Alex’s first published thing (we’re on first-name terms now) is almost as bizarre as this review. Three Wogs is a politically incorrect triptych-novel set in late 1960s, with each protagonist representing a particular type of disagreeable racist, and Alex’s task is to flay their backward attitudes alive with his divinely satirical prose. In the first story ‘Mrs Proby Gets Hers,’ Alex lampoons stuck-up petit bourgeois spinsters to hilarious effect, capturing the absurd language of needless precision and trivial preciousness. Her encounter with a local Chinese tradesman ends badly during a Fu Manchu movie in a piece of odd mirroring. ‘Childe Roland’ is the longest and least successful of the three, covering the adventures of young thug and bus-cleaner Roland as he chats up local tarts and engages in a potentially violent dialogue with an Indian chap on a bus. The parody of soapbox bigotry is the funniest thing here, reminiscent of the pulpit hissings of President Greatracks in Darconville’s Cat. The last story ‘The Wife of God’ is the wittiest, reminiscent of Ronald Firbank and other pomposity-skewering wits. Taking on the arch sexual cowardice of the church, Alex’s prose reaches its most dazzling peak as the sexless vicar tries convincing his African choirmaster not to marry by threatening him with impossible karmasutric sexual feats. As first books go, Three Wogs is the weirdest I have read in yonks. Since Alex squeezes humour from cultural stereotypes and accents, the book will offend many. But clearly the focus of this book is to ridicule the attitudes of the period (Alex wrote the book during his stay in London) and at this task, he succeeds magniloquently. If Nabokov had written Up the Junction, this might’ve been the result.

23. Paul Fournel — Little Girls Breathe the Same Air as We Do

A dusty Oulipo book from the late seventies, extremely traditional in approach but often funny and moving. A collection of vignettes about various French schoolgirls and the tender coming-of-age moments that makes life so whimsical and cute, if you happen to be bourgeois. This author’s other English book Need For the Bike is an 2000+ page lipogram written in Latin about a lost lemon squeezer, featuring deleted Sappho fragments and a previously unwritten Harper Lee sequel, To Flog a Dead Mockingbird. In the year 2014, Paul will release a 9,000 volume series of books about how Mark Danielewski picks the fluff from his navel. Exciting things doth grow in the avant garden.

24. Terry Eagleton Literary Theory: An Introduction 

From Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory for Toddlers: An Introduction. Phenomenology: Tigger tells Pooh that he must distinguish between the phenomena and noumena of a pot of honey. That his intentionality towards the honey is narrowing his awareness of his surroundings, pushing him into a false structure of consciousness where the honey is both a perpetual fantasy and an instrument of real-life fixation. He tells Pooh he must separate his intentionalities to avoid becoming corrupted and driven by his desire for honey. Hermeneutics: Tigger tells Winnie that he must forget about honey and concentrate on the Heideggerian being-with of bear relatedness. He must suppress the empirical evidence around the existence and necessity of honey as a thing-in-itself and take an antipositivist approach to his own need for honey in a godless and indifferent universe. Reception Theory: Tigger tells Winnie that the only reason he is so popular as a character is that readers can “relate” to his being orange and craving frequent honey. Their life experiences have shown them that things with orange bears and honey are an essential part of the human condition, and require enshrinement in the literary pantheon for almost entirely no other reason. Structuralism: Tigger tells Pooh that his preoccupation with honey is part of larger woodland structure dating back to the stone age, and that “honey” has always been a signifier triggering hunger and savagery in the heart of orange bears, long before Milne gave them the consciousness to understand the signified of “honey” as a delicious bee-made product popularly served in pots. Semiotics: Tigger tells Pooh that honey is merely a symbol for part of a larger racial and class struggle among woodland beings. Across the woodland culture, the word “honey” can symbolise the tyrannous oppression of the orange bears over beavers or squirrels, or the totalitarian confiscation of honey among the lower orders. To bees, “honey” is understood as a priceless trading commodity frequently being plundered by cuddly pirates, whose struggle remains unacknowledged among the wider woodland populace. Post-structuralism: Tigger tells Pooh that honey that the destabilised meaning of his quest is more significant for the reader, whose quest for honey will loom even larger once Pooh’s quest is complete. But more importantly, “honey” is a binary opposition which also means “Jacuzzi,” so Pooh’s system of language is under severe scrutiny. Psychoanalysis: Tigger tells Pooh that his craving for honey is merely a way of screwing his mother and killing his father and venerating his very curly and unseen penis. (From p12, p54, p87, p99, p123, and p149)

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