Thursday, 28 February 2013

My Month in Books, Feb (Part Two)

10. W.M. Spackman — An Armful of Warm Girl

A novel that fell out of an 1880s drawing room somewhere, from a man born in the wrong century. Doesn’t that title radiate? Doesn’t that title evoke an evening by the fire, cuddled up with your best lass, a plate of strong indigestible cheese on one table, a bottle of Iranian cognac on t’other? AAOWG is novel about the upper classes that doesn’t (seem) to be lampooning the upper classes, but a mere glimpse into the lives of these pampered doddering lunatics shows us a self-lampoon system is in operation. The narrator is an irascible former Princetonian and banker who phones up an old flame once his wife files for divorce. He has daughters and a feckless son and a young admirer to help him bumble thru the pages. Notable here is a pre-DFW use of the floating ellipses “ . . . ” technique for non-responses in two-way conversations (doubtful DFW read WMS—we know the man wasn’t that well-read) and a Gaddisian ear for dialogue. Otherwise, Spackman’s novel is an erudite drawing room comedy that both parodies and celebrates the anachronism of an erudite drawing comedy, especially those published in the late 1970s about the late 1950s. Bloody pre-ironic-post-premodernists! All his work minus poems and criticism is in this.

11. David Foster Wallace — Both Flesh and Not

Not quite up there with ASFTINDA or CTL in terms of sheer stuck-to-the-chair-then-flung-off-the-same-chair-in-squeeing-delight pleasure factor, but BFAN is arguably a more eclectic collection than either, treating us to one courtside tennis feature, one neurotic backstage tennis featurette, an unsurpassable academic-and-not reading of Wittgenstein’s Mistress, a deliciously snotty horn-tooting “we’ve arrived, ma!” for his then-emerging fiction contemps, something vague and unappetising about AIDS, a necessary evisceration of Terminator 2, several shavings on being-a-writer and Borges and writing Best Essay intros, a witty and high-level dissection of Math Melodramas, a nasty out-of-character satirical curiosity on “prose poets,” and pedantry from his wet-dream OED contributions. BFAN pretty much traverses the DFW cranium in a startling manner that (arguably) the other two collections miss given the length and content congruencies of the pieces in those respective pubs, and the inclusion of snippings from his private dictionary between each essay here adds to the swirl of facts and data that DFW made it his life’s work to deciderize in charming and unpretentious and intellectually robust ways for his contracted organs and readerships and eventual hardback readers.

12. Howard Jacobson —Whatever It Is, I Don’t Like It

When semi-successful novelists publish x number of well-reviewed books and have large enough public or media profiles, broadsheets offer them weekly or fortnightly columns which, depending on their popularity, can run for years and years and provide the novelists with an influx of extra income, saving them from the necessary lunge into teaching or humiliating copyediting work for conglomerate ghouls. This seems a more standard practice in Britain than America, where commissioned articles (i.e. essays or belle-lettrism) of greater intellectual substance for one-off fees seems to be the usual sideline for the novelist to the biennial-book-and-royalties norm that barely provides the writer with enough to fund his kids’ shoes. So you can see why the column would be a more tempting prospect for a novelist (who wants to write novels, damn you!), especially if he can treat the column with only 20% of the seriousness he treats his fiction. Howard Jacobson has been writing for The Independent since 1998, which explains why these pieces are all uniformly 3½ pages in length, and flit between comic musings, barroom chatter, opinionated blather and topical prattle, while although debonair and erudite and entertaining, pretty much ends up seeming like fish-and-chip fodder of the classiest calibre: fun but forgettable. The writer’s financial safety is the reader’s loss—same with Will Self. When will he stop titting about with these samey columns and write lengthy essays that befit his towering intellect? Same goes for HJ here.

13. Mark Z. Danielewski — House of Leaves

Everyone’s favourite stovepipe-hatted feline-loving formal innovator arrived in 2000AD with this quiet little novella starring Stretchy Font Man, Captain Kerning and Bendy Page Gurl. Since then he has published a version of Finnegans Wake you have to “drive” and a book of blank space. I read the whole thing minus the last 30pp or so of the ‘Whalestoe Letters’—a tedious ripoffering from ‘Diary of a Madman’ with the typography Gogol would have used had he been granted access to Doubleday’s photocopiers—and was mildly impressed. I couldn’t resist seeing how Zorro had used his visual effects to service the story, and certainly, these page-bending moments are responsible for the most powerful moments in the text. Otherwise, the excessive footnotes and cute metacommentaries from Truant are tolerable, but since they only serve to buffer the horror story, it all seems a glorious waste of time—a costly, risky, showy, noisy, messy, sticky waste of time, unlikely to blow the minds of ages sixteen and up. Four stars until I hit the yawny appendix material . . . overstays its welcome, so slips down to three.

14. Hubert Selby Jr. — The Willow Tree

To say HSJ mellowed in his old age is like saying Saddam Hussein became a tad less fond of fascism in his pre-hanging weeks. To mention Hussein in the same breath as Selby is heretical—one was a passionate moralist and Christian so devoted to his craft he fell into depressions and addictions and took up to a decade between works, the other is Hubert Selby Jr. (See what MJ did there? Priceless moments). The Willow Tree is a beautiful novel that uses an unapologetic sentimental tone, far closer to the Victorian double-Ds (Dickens and Dostoevsky) than anything written in 1998. Readers of earlier Selby novels will be pleased to note that the suffering and torment in this one starts on page one and ceases to relent until the final page, with the characters’ hysterical responses (fair responses, under the circumstances) cranked to what seems like the highest notch. Unlike in certain Dostoevsky novels, the weeping and lamenting isn’t unintentionally comic, but helps to create the epic push-and-pull of Love and Hate at the centre of the novel. This is a book about murderous burning hatred. About learning to forgive and love those who murder our families. A relationship forms between a Holocaust survivor living in a strange subterranean bachelor pad and a thirteen-year-old Bronx kid out to kill the gang who threw acid in his girlfriend’s face and drove her to suicide. That sort of thing. The tenderness that forms between the two in the midst of this seething pulsing hatred is at times devastating and makes the novel a success. Except Selby exaggerates their friendship (spontaneous laughter almost the moment the two meet), and uses clumsy German speech tics like ‘ya’ throughout, spoiling the integrity of this character somewhat. Also, at this point in his career the run-on sentence seems like a default stylistic tic, and loses the urgency it had in earlier novels. But who cares? This man is the Duke of Devastation.

15. Chris Ware — Building Stories

Beautiful box. Beautiful books and newspapers and foldout strips. An epic of the everyday. The graphic novel response to Ulysses, with all the humour and ebullience removed. Like B.S. Johnson’s book-in-a-box The Unfortunates, each of the separate components can be read in either order, and like that fine novel, each deal in part with loss and devastation and loneliness (and devastating loneliness). The protagonist of this novel is a miserable neurotic woman with an artificial shank whose entire life is an endless succession of shattered dreams and crushing disappointments and suicidal emptiness, with rare fleeting moments of delusional contentment torn apart by crippling self-doubt and self-loathing in a godless universe filled with nothing but cavernous darkness and sickening inevitability. Just like in real life! But with a way more sex! There are moments of heavy-hearted acceptance and way-it-is recognition that will upset and disturb most readers (me included), some of which are powerful and moving on a transcendent-power-of-art level, some of which are merely Radiohead B-sides. The relentless melancholy begins to diminish the impact of many of these moments, and the book fails on a deep human-heart level because it refuses to acknowledge the humour and resilience built into all people, despite the whimsical Best Bee sections. This character, clearly, is a chronic depressive—why doesn’t she see a doctor? But despite the downer, all in all—hats and trousers off to CW for such a bodacious undertaking. Now pass the Prozac-and-opium Pringles.

16. Lucy Ellmann Mimi

For a while there, Ellmann was the best womanist word-wielder I had ever read. I was tied to a patriarchal literary agenda that barely encompassed a non-comedic novel by a single woman. I liked Ellmann the most because she wrote unlike a woman—all righteous undainty bile-stirring and alarmist CAPS—and in her sixth novel she writes a man flawlessly like a woman. The title, and titular character, is an allusion to Puccini’s La Bohème, mentioned frequently and exhaustively throughout, and the novel is a camp paean to female emancipation that whips itself up into such a froth of comedic indignation it seems to start taking itself seriously, albeit in a trickily unserious way. Harrison is the narrator—an unmale male and plastic surgeon whose conscience about the male’s millennia upon millennia of female subjugation is awoken by a fast-talking funster who disappears halfway through the novel but leaves such an imprint on his male mind he dreams up the ‘Odalisque Manifesto,’ whose central thesis is to make women richer so they might run the world without the wars and hate and those things—all properties of the patriarchy formed post-prehistoric times after women were on their way to being the ascendant sex. Mimi falters since it is difficult to equate the voice of her protagonist to that of a male—Ellmann calls this a “wish-fulfilment” novel—but also since the comedy, plotting and pace are extremely uneven. Simply, the novel seems uncertain whether to take itself almost-seriously or whimsically-seriously, unlike her previous novels where the barbed and madcap antics helped strengthen the strong feminist subtext screeching below (and on) the surface. Dot means it. Mimi might. 

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.

Monday, 25 February 2013

In Defence of the Less Obvious

There’s this character. Let’s, in our whimsical mood, call him Jake Fitzwither. Jake works in an accounting firm in the daytime, but by night Jake slaughters humanities students with a tire iron. There are two novels about Jake quivering on the writer’s pen. The first is a detailed exploration as to why a human being would choose to spend his life as an accountant in a world of art and song and colour and interesting people. The second is about what makes Jake so keen to slaughter humanities students with that particular implement. It doesn’t take the entire marketing department of Random House to predict which novel will shift more units. The reader wants . . . bleakness! Murder!

But do they really?

Or do readers merely respond to what we (the writers) think they might like? If Dan Brown and his frogspawn started writing ponderous novels about the nature of being among ennui-stricken fishmongers, would the gullible public munch them down like putrid snacks, or would their specially-trained brains, sensing lack of page-turning plot and believable characters, hurl them across the room in outrage? I am waiting for that day when a populist writer attempts an arrogant epic on something so microscopic as a man who drops a box of cereal in SupaSave—stretched out for 900 pages.

It might change something. Liberate us from something. We need someone to save us from this emphasis on plot and character, people wanting characters “drawn from life,” meaning recognisable as characters who talk like characters in a novel.
Save us!
Set a precedent, you money-grubbing bastards! 
Humiliate yourselves so we may breathe!

Friday, 1 February 2013

Beeswax Magazine

My contributor copy of Beeswax Magazine Issue 7-8 arrived today (along with, charmingly coincidentally, my copy of Adam Thirlwell’s typographically berserk Kapow!). I have been looking forward to this publication, where my alphabetical lipogram From A to Z appears, for almost two years. Thanks to the very friendly editors for putting my extremely risky story into their magazine. Some images: