Monday, 31 October 2011

To Forfar on a Silver Salver

My boyfriend bought me a new pen. I wrote him the following sentences on a sheet of A4:

  1. David, I love you. I love you, and I love your pen. I love the ink that flows from this pen. I love the ink that flows from you. Darling . . . you are delicious.
  2. I wish we could go far far away, to Forfar. If Forfar is far enough for you, we should go far far to Forfar.
  3. Sometimes I want to cut up my heart and serve you slices on a silver salver. You could eat slivers from the salver, slivers from the silver salver, slivers of my beating heart, beating inside you.

We went to see Robbie Williams that night. Then we went to see Gary Barlow. Then we saw Adele, Rihanna, Kelis, Pink and James Blunt in a rolling revue show. I kissed David so hard I fell down his throat and made a nest in his stomach. Inside, I ate some leftover chicken madras and peas from last night’s dinner. I love David!

Some say love is a difficult word to say. I say it to David four times a second. I creep up behind him, leap onto his shoulders and shout: “I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, darling David!” Relationships fail because not enough people buy their lovers pens and scream in their faces how much love is bursting inside their love-stuffed hearts.

David, David, David, David—love is all we need! Let me write another sentence for you, in loving italics:

When I was a little boy, I was afraid of the boogie man. I later learned the boogie man was only my uncle, and all he wanted was my ass for the night. As I obliged Uncle Boogie, I thought about this little kid I knew, only two years old. His father beat him every night and sent him down the pit nine hours a day, shovelling coal in the scorching heat. I looked deep into that boy’s eyes, and all I saw was fear and misery. When the boy turned four, he stabbed his father in the face and took over the house. I thought: what a positive message! What if we all went around stabbing evil people in the face?! Wouldn’t that make the world such a happier, lovelier place? I thought of your mother, David, the old witch blocking our love, and I stabbed her, David, I stabbed her in the neck, because she put up a fight and I couldn’t get her in the face. But happiness is ours, David! At last we can live in our house of endless love (if your dad helps bury the body).

Sunday, 30 October 2011

My Month in Novels (Oct)

1. Ali Smith — There but for the

I hate to resort to crude Americanisms, but Ali Smith is the motherfucking BOMB. Her latest novel, circa October 2011, shares a structure all but identical to The Accidental—four sections with little one-two-page prefaces—but also shares its masterful grasp over narrative voice, language, style, humour, and subtly heartbreaking strangeness.

The title refers to the first word in a significant phrase deployed in each section of the novel. For example, in the first part ‘There I was’ is used when the character Anna is speaking to someone about journalism (which can be summed up in six words: I was there, there I was), and later ‘The fact is’ is used by precocious child Brooke for her little book of facts. These words and their significance within the narrative allude to the book’s questions of representation and presentation, both in a literary sense, and in broader notions of reality.

The novel’s four strands revolve around an opaque stranger named Miles who attends a dinner party and locks himself inside his host’s spare room, thenceforth refusing to budge. The reasons behind Miles’s motivation are never made clear, and the event is merely a pull for the four protagonists, each rendered in a breathtaking close third-person style that demonstrates the truly balletic skill Smith has with language. At the heart of this book—and it seems a lot of her work—is a fascination with storytelling itself and how language distorts and enriches our understanding of life in equal measures, and how baffling and wonderful words can be, whether their meanings are monstrous or delightful.

The novel plays elaborate games with chronology in frequent bracketed sections (the structural design of which eludes me) but There but for the is another lovingly designed work of art, bordering on masterpiece, from my newly crowned Favourite Ever Scottish Writer.

2. Ali Smith — Hotel World

Another astonishing piece of work from Ms. Smith. Is there anything this writer can’t do? I have domestic duties and a rumbling stomach at present, so this review might be brief, and gushing. But here goes.

I love Ali Smith. I love Ali Smith because she moves me, and being a man, I’m not supposed to be moved by books. I’m supposed to be stirred by the raging masculinity of men in battle: the sound of gunfire in the crisp Vienna air as heads rain down upon the blood-soaked streets. But no. This pink-covered novel moved me to bits, and I am proud of the fact.

Split into six sections marked by a separate tense, Hotel World uses a corporate hotel and the accidental death of Sara Wilby as a pull for its five characters, establishing a style and structure used in her later novels The Accidental and There but for the. Each section varies in rhythm, style and narrative position, opening with Sara’s ghost conversing with her corpse to get the scoop on her death. Crouching in a dumbwaiter (a lift shaft for tea trolleys), Sara plummeted to a horrible death aged twenty.

Entangled in this tale is the predicament of homeless woman Else who plots to steal money from Sara’s sister Clare, crouched outside the hotel in a state of incoherent grief. She is invited in by Lisa (third character who later is stricken with a debilitating disease) and then hounded by the unpleasant Penny (fourth character: a journo seeking a scoop in Else). Each section immerses the reader deeply in these characters’ worlds, each drawn to this grim hotel with their own motives, problems, tenuous links to life.

Most staggering of all, however, is the internal monologue from Clare, a stream-of-consciousness outpouring and the most bone-shudderingly effective representation of grief I have read. The moment the mist clears and we realise Clare is throwing objects down the hotel’s dumbwaiter to determine the duration of her sister’s fall, our hearts break like Sara’s brittle bones.

Outrageously good. Books are rarely as skilful nowadays. Smith is a singular talent.

3. Ali Smith — Girl Meets Boy

Another day, another terrific novel from Ali Smith. I have resolved to gobble up her canon in the most heroic time possible, like an overweight man backing a lorryload of curries and waffles into his ecstatic gob. In Glasgow we have a meal called the Everything & More, which is enough food for an entire Ethiopian village in a bucket. Battered.

This delightful story frames the myth of Iphis (woman disguises her daughter as a man, daughter turns into a man later on) within a tale of sexual identity and social injustice in contemporary Inverness. Flicking between sisters Imogen and Anthea, Imogen is a young go-getting business type working for Pure Water while Anthea is her younger sister who falls in love with the mannish girl Robin.

In no time at all, Anthea is spray-painting Inverness with radical slogans and Imogen is learning about the darker side of global commerce (as if there’s a light side). Imogen’s sections use internal monologue and more parentheses than is healthy in one novel, while Anthea’s sections are in more straightforward first-person. This is certainly a lighter work from Smith, despite the polemic at the heart of the text, but it’s still better than you, me, them and us.

4. Ali Smith — Like

Like is the blossoming talent of Ali Smith splurged into one long rambling debut novel. This is a novel from a writer who doesn’t hold out much hope of writing a second. Over three decades’ worth of glorious descriptions and metaphors and ornate language festoon this funsize monster, nothing like her subsequent novels in the slightest.

Split into two parts, the first concerns Amy, a former scholastic prodigy who, despite being a lesbian, has a child, and despite being a scholar, has forgotten how to read. The second concerns Aisling (Ash) who lives in Inverness and spends all her energy pursuing the student Amy, whose hauteur and priggishness she finds irresistible.

The language is the most compelling facet of the story, as these aren’t characters we are set up to “like”—in fact, they are selfish and often unbearable people—but Smith is a hypnotic and tireless writer, and pulls the reader into her strange, semi-autobiographical tale like a pro. Certainly not one for those new to Smith, but putty for the fan.

5. Ali Smith — The First Person & Other Stories

A ragbag of tales here, ranging from the directly emotional (‘True Short Story’ and the title piece), to the intellectually playful (‘Fidelio and Bess’ and ‘Astute Fiery Luxurious’) to the downright hilarious and strange (‘The Child’ and ‘No Exit’). When I first read Ali Smith I was unimpressed (hence my two-rating of Other Stories) and narked at her constant inclusion of the reader as a character—most of the first-person stories replace a character name with ‘you,’ which I found a contrived ploy at times, then quite repetitive. This technique is still present here, but its purpose is a little clearer, more intimate. Plus I have built up a resistance to it, having read the previous collection.

Smith’s shorts are the opposite of her novels: stripped-down language, conversational, loose syntax, a lazy feel. Clearly these are mere deceptions, for deeper down her work subverts old story forms and has a more postmodern aesthetic, and moments of warmth and radiance rise from the page regardless of how many cockamamie dialogues we’re being drawn into. Still: I can’t help the feeling I won’t fully embrace her shorts as I did her novels. Here’s hoping.

6. Ali Smith — Free Love & Other Stories

OK, the Ali Smith marathon is over. Please mop up your drool, pull up your pants, and sod off home. It's been real. This book is her first story collection, a little more straightforwardly literary than her other works. Most of the stories here are excellent, others found me yawning and itchy. But I have been reading A LOT. And most of that has been Ali Smith. My bum (and head) hurts.

7. André Gide — The Immoralist

My foray into Frenchies continues with this peculiar, off-the-scale subtle novel about forbidden pleasures. The pleasures in question are young lads and loosing one’s morals. Michel starts out as a bedridden lump, unsure about his wife but sure about young Tunisian visitors. As his health improves, he tends to his vast acreage of land and resumes his academic work, growing fonder of his doormat missus, as well as power and cheating farmers. As we slump towards the final third, his wife becomes the bedridden lump and he sneaks out for illicit pleasures as she degenerates. Sometimes he feels guilty, but mostly he’s haughty and prone to exclamatory remarks. Odd. Queer. I liked it.

8. François Mauriac — The Knot of Vipers

An embittered old turd writes a mad, furious letter to his wife, whom he hates with a vengeance, which becomes a lengthier journal to his family, whom he hates with an even bigger vengeance. Because he hates them so darned much, he spends his every waking hour planning to diddle them out their inheritance, while they fret about how much their Grandpa hates them and is planning to diddle them out their inheritance. At certain rare moments, the Grandpa takes a break from his hatred and tries out affection and tenderness, but then goes back to pure spitefulness until the last twenty pages, when he almost repents before dropping dead at his desk. Well . . . at least the title is an absolute blinder.

My edition had handwritten notes inside, where the user underlined words he or she didn’t know. For extra likes, who can tell me the meaning of (no cheating): jejune, daguerreotype, heliotrope, evanescent, bier, filial

9. Madame de LaFayette — The Princesse de Clèves

A little too far back into French literary history for me. This is one of the earliest French “novels,” inasmuch as it tells historical events with inaccuracies. These inaccuracies form the “fiction” part of what is ostensibly an historical account of events at court over a century earlier. Madame de LaFayette might not even be the author/chronicler of this tale! What intrigue! What potential for interpretation! The prose is what one might call “prehensile” and the story what one might call “shit.” Kidding. I hate pouring scorn over influential works. This is best left to students of French literature and other trainspotters. Bonus features include The Comtesse de Tende, The Princesse de Montpensier, and outtakes from M. de Nemours’s zany final speech.

10. Jacques Jouet — Mountain R

Oulipo with teeth. Part of Jouet’s la République roman series—a series unavailable in English, though two other Jouet books are out from Dalkey—this is an inventive satire of a corrupt Republican who elects to erect a public mountain for his own delusional purposes. Recent parallels in UK politics include Boris Johnson’s proposed “Tower of Boris” for the 2012 Olympics, and Edinburgh council spending £8m on a tram system.

Insert your country’s insane fund-spunking here. The novel is told from three POVs in a ‘before-during-after’ structure, and the cosy satire gives way into something more sinister, inverting our opinion of these funny, strange characters. Clever, Swiftian and swift.

11. Émile Zola — The Drinking Den

Whenever I think I had a rough upbringing I read a book like this and realise I am a fluffed little pillow of good fortune. I was raised in a council tenement in a backwater semi-village in Central Scotland amid a backdrop of Protestant activism and spinster gossiping. But compared to Zola’s Paris in L’Assommoir, I was mollycoddled in a warm nook of familial love and warmth.

So: Gervaise is hardworking laundress whose life is blown to smithereens by rotten good-for-nothing beer-sodden bastard men. Men are responsible for taking her life and flushing it down the sad Parisian cludgie, along with a family of unfeeling guttersnipe witches who make you want to pound their faces in with soldering irons. Oh, poor Gervaise!

Zola’s style pioneers the close third-person, later taken to blistering heights of anal acuity in Joyce’s ‘The Dead.’ The translator Robin Buss strikes a good balance between modern slang while retaining a sense of the original French dialect and mode of speech. To translate a book that uses archaic working-class slang and keep it both authentic and readable is no mean feat. So forgive little slips like ‘getting laid’ that creep in there.

I haven’t been as stupefied by a work of hysterical genius since the hectoring morality of Tolstoy’s Resurrection or the brutal sadism of Hubert Selby’s ‘Tralala.’ Think twice about that extra beer before bed.

12. Honoré de Balzac — Eugénie Grandet

A heartclenching pain-turner of a classic, a perfect manifesto for choosing love over money. The French do desolation and hopelessness so well! Must be the heat. In certain respects, Eugénie gets off lightly. She steals a kiss with her cousin before her bastard father packs him off to the Indies to get rich off slave plantations, and stays a virgin her whole life for that one moment of stolen love. Nowadays, anyone marrying their cousin would be hounded out the hamlet, Daily Mails flung at their backs, ruined forever in their hometowns. The relationship would buckle under the weight of this shame, and the couple would fall apart, doomed to shoot smack in tower blocks to numb the pain. Having said that, I have been sleeping with my sister on and off since I was thirteen, and no one’s ever ostracised me. Huh! Strange world! The novel is excellent, though takes thirty-odd pages to properly kick into gear.

13. Théophile Gautier — Mademoiselle de Maupin

More people should know about this pioneering feminist lovestruck poetical drivelling masterpiece. Your plot antics are bare: a poet looking for his perfect Venus encounters hurdles in his search, finding no luck in the pink-cheeked Rosette whom he diddles for five months out of kindness. When he claps eyes on the girlish man Theodore (who happens to be a woman, but ssshhh) he finds his Venus par excellence and goes stark raving mad like all melodramatic romantic poets who want to mainline beauty into their veins. Theodore is a woman kicking against the limitations of her gender, outclassing all the men with her horsing and fencing prowess, beating off Rosette who also topples arse-over-head-over-elbows in love with her. But this novel is not about the banalities of upper-class debauchery, it’s about the excess. The irresistible ravings of this eloquent romantic, his glorious tracts on beauty, love and the sensual world. This novel is like caressing the buttocks of a Greek odalisque while having wine skooshed into one’s parched throat. It is a sublime, delicious concoction and so pulsatingly erotic, the pages throb in one’s palms like the quivering want of a girded loin before the fast release of orgasm. Find it.

14. Jacques Roubaud — The Princess Hoppy or The Tale of the Labrador

For such a gifted mathematician, linguist, historian and poet, Jacques Roubaud is a cute wee daftie. This novel delights in wordplay, maths problems, storytelling tropes, subverting the reader-writer relationship with callisthenic nonsense prose whose games and riddles are either deeply imbedded, or one great confidence trick. Mr Roubaud is an accomplished prose-poet and Oulipo legend whose Hortense novels might pigeonhole him as a postmodern prankster. But his genius runs deeper. See, for instance, his latest book, Mathématique.

15. Gustave Flaubert — A Sentimental Education

An exhausting thrill-ride through the zany world of womanising socialite Frédéric, or—for the first 300 pages, at least—wannabe womanising socialite Frédéric. Because Frédéric can’t make it happen with his mate Arnoux’s missus, nor his mate Arnoux’s mistress, and this frustration is the bane of his existence as he falls in and out of money, society and love. Against the backdrop of the 1848 Paris uprising this novel heaves with ornate descriptive grandeur, political commentary and violence, a frenetic comic energy, and more love triangles than the HMS Hefner in Bermuda. A classic that delights, frustrates, amuses and teases in equal measure—what more could you ask for? Sex? Well, there’s no sex. You have sex on the brain, you do. Take a cold shower.

16. Warren F. Motte — Fables of the Novel: French Fiction Since 1990

Ten academic essays on contemporary French fiction, grouped together through their formal hijinks and language games, and how each text constitutes a “fable” of the novel form. Among the books in English translation are Onitsha by J.M.G. Clézio, The Crab Nebula by Eric Chevillard, Slander by Linda Lê, Mountain R by Jacques Jouet, Television by Jean-Phillipe Toussaint, and The Lecture by Lydie Salvayre. Other books from the four remaining writers are available too, those writers being Eric Laurrent, Marie NDiaye, Jean Echenoz and Christian Osler. The essays are lively and light on academic verbiage, but the book feels less like a unified manifesto, more a series of separate papers from journals tied together with this “fable” connection, which didn’t convince me!

17. Jacques Roubaud — Hortense in Exile

More cartwheeling absurdism from Oulipo’s lesser-known genius. Hortense is back and so are her breasts, buttocks, and her watchful cat Alexandre Vladimirovitch. In the previous novel she married Prince Gormanskoï or some other irrelevant plot detail, and here she finds herself caught up in a production of Hatmel as her honour is threatened by the clone Whortense. As ever, wordplay, digression, authorial intrusion, lunatic antics of a nonsense nature and high-wire Oulipo games are all served on a platter of complete mayhem. At times the technique does feel like breaking out the postmodern bag o’ tricks—there’s nothing here we couldn’t find in Queneau, Share, O’Brien or Sorrentino—and novel-long absurdism only stretches so far. Still: Jacques has some more “serious” books in English translation, among them the exquisite poem-photo montage Some Thing Black, and these novels are a testament to the comic spirit of the French avant-garde. Delightful.

18. Geoff Dyer — Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It

Geoff takes various shirts, various drugs, and various girls, to various locations around the world, intellectualising as he goes, sometimes having impish larks along the way, sometimes having nervous breakdowns, sometimes having sex with black women. At first, I was amused at this bourgeois intellect mincing around like a Club 18-30 member, then I found his antics a little drab, indulgent and flâneurish. At first his laid-back prose reads like a treat, but lapses at midpoint into a meandering and pedestrian snooze. I think the essays could use more thematic focus, and less obsessive personal detail, quite a whack of which paints Geoff as a tosspot. But all in all . . . a nice airport read.

19. Émile Zola — Germinal

This novel is about as grim and horrendous as literature gets. Instead of ranting about the history of human suffering at various pitches of bowel-plopping rage, let me take a more facetious route. Let me instead discuss various mining experiences lived out on the Sega Mega Drive. Remember Mega Bomberman? Those who do will remember the mine level.

This level was pivotal in the game, since here a remote-controlled power-up was available which was crucial for facing down the final boss, whose beardy metamorphoses proved impossible without both a back-up life and a self-detonator. The problem was using the detonator hastily, as an ill-timed whack of the C button would invariably blow up the hero, who had a hard enough time dodging bombs. The mining level itself involved negotiating the terrain on a little blue cart and threats from crazed red baddies, stumbling around the scorching hellhole with startled eyes, running into bombs like kamikaze hearts.

Then there was Lava Reef Zone, on Sonic & Knuckles. The presence of fire and darkness usually indicated the impending doom of Robotnik and his enormous egg-shaped earth-conquering moustachiopod. Since the introduction of fire-proof TVs, leaping onto scorching lava wasn’t a great concern for Sonic. This level involved spinning down into an underground mine, where giant crushers and ledges threatened his pretty blue head.

And there was Scrap Brain Zone. A factory filled with trap-flaps, flame pipes and crushers, its backdrop a bleak brown silhouette of chimneys and skyscrapers. The foes being caterpillars who died by careful bops to the head and little bomb-men in metal helmets who blew up when you ran past. The challenges were all mechanical—spinning ledges, squishing ledges, vanishing ledges. A holy wine cup with black grapes shooting electricity from both sides, razors looming over sluggish conveyor belts. Some of the most terrifying moments of my childhood happened on this level. Fact.

But about Germinal? Imagine the amount of times Sonic gets crushed by gamers the world over, then transfer that to human lives, and you have the sorry state of 1800s French mining. For more info read my forthcoming book Zola the Hedgehog: When Rocks Fall on Top of People.

20. Marguerite Duras — Moderato Cantabile

A slim, seductive novel, sort of a nouveau roman version of Brief Encounter. Anne Desbaresdes meets Chauvin after a shooting heard at her son’s piano lesson, where she sits in with the haughty Mademoiselle Giraud, urging her stubborn son to play a Diabelli sontana moderato cantabile (moderately and singingly). We later learn Anne is a drunk and is desperately in love with Chauvin, but nothing is ever said—only the poetic, slippery prose helps make the subtext clear, and the ending quietly heartbreaking. The wiki page on this book is oddly detailed.

21. Propser Mérimée — A Slight Misunderstanding

At first, swept up in the author’s charming and sardonic style, this seemed a promising short in the Gautierian mould, before lapsing into melodrama and a typically hysterical ending. The author is best known for the short story Carmen, based on the highly successful opera and TV series starring Julie Delpy as a mushroom.

Book of the Month: Ali Smith — There but for the

Thursday, 27 October 2011

A Series of Unfocused Paragraphs on the Problem of Bastard Readers

Let’s forgive our readers. Forgive them deeply, in the most pious Christian sense of the word. They put up with so much venal wicked bastardy from us these days. Frankly, they’re saints. But beware, because they’re also watching us closely, meat cleavers in hand.

Because we’re desperate. We’re desperate to push the boundaries, take it to the edge, get way out there, touch with our ice-cold fingers the tips of the ORIGINAL. So we write and write, read and read, sucking up as much “daring new” fiction as possible before we retire at our blank screens, hitting whatever keys our fingers land on. We call this “writing.”

And we’re struggling. Writers still cling to their grand old notions: Franzenean epics placing the reader right at the moral heart of our nation, wrestling with our collective struggle as people. Nonsense. In a world that caters to the individual—we who are the most unique cogs in this collective of individuals—does a book have the right to represent a people? Because now, we’re so choosy, we simply will not tolerate a book that does not speak to us, directly, us, INSERT NAME HERE. We are not a people anymore, we are a person. We are me, me, and not forgetting me! We pick up our books, open them and hear: “Hello, Tim! How are you? You’ll love this for the first forty pages, then find the middle part a little meh, then leave it on your desk for two months.”

So let’s cut to the chase. What do you WANT? Reader? Come on! What? You don’t know? You have too much choice, you’re scared? You want someone to choose for you? You want believable characters, gripping plots, happy endings? When asked, most readers who aren’t writers, i.e. the people who don’t read us, crave these things like food.

This positions us, writers on the margins, in the shadowy wilderness of journals and websites (however formidable and intelligent), in an awkward place. See, we’re never sure who we’re writing for. When we discover a new form (let’s say, for argument’s sake, a new form exists) and we craft a story that embeds its meaning in its design—structure, style, shifts narrative position—where is that elusive reader, that deep close reader we have wet dreams about, who comes to unravel our story for us? Sure, we might pretend we’re writing for the disillusioned, the lonely, the hopeless, but do our audiences even exist?

I have come to accept, whenever I conduct an experiment with form, I am writing solely for the pleasure of discovery, for my own gratification and amusement, then after this, writers. Sure, I might sneak in a non-writer from time to time, but writers are my core audience. And since so many readers now read Catcher in the Rye, start a blog and write at varying levels of automatic competence, the world is splitting down two lines: those who read and write, and those who don’t.

So because our audience are writers, this puts avant-garde fiction in pole position. Our readers are one step ahead. They’ve read the writing blogs. They know about split infinitives and framing devices. While we’ve been sitting in our dens, dreaming up intricate labyrinths of complexity, they’ve been reading Stephen King’s On Writing. There’s no room for slackness, because if we drop our game, the reader will rise up and hack us to pieces.

This is a call for experimentation through fear. Smash up the tedious orthodoxies of literary acceptability, because someone is right behind you, waiting to smash up your tedious orthodoxies. There has never been a crazier, scarier time to go absolutely crazy on paper, to do ANYTHING. Take your imagination to the wildest stops imaginable. But please, be clever about it. This brave new world accepts no imitations.

This post originally appeared on this blog, but three days later it was a guest blog at Barge Press, i.e. here.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Reason V. Reader

Reason: You can’t read that book in one afternoon, there’s like 300 pages with endnotes.

Reader: No, honestly, it’ll only take a few hours.

Reason: See, that didn’t take a few hours.

Reader: It’s only three o’clock in the morning. What’s next?

Reason: Bed.

Reader: What about that new Jacques Roubaud?

Reason: You do realise a book addiction can only lead to ruin? It’s the most time-consuming antisocial addiction imaginable. It’s worse than heroin since you can’t share a book like you can a needle.

Reader: What do you mean "you" can't? And two people can’t delight in the same book?

Reason: No. People read what they like, they don’t like you foisting your reads on them.

Reader: That might be true, but if there aren’t any speedy readers in the world, how do all the books get read?

Reason: You need to prioritise which books to read and which to not. Read.

Reader: But if I don’t read Madame Bovary based on the fact millions of people, for the last century-and-a-half, have read it, I’m missing out on some mighty fine literature, no?

Reason: Yes.

Reader: And I frequently read unknown books to make look smarter and more educateded.

Reason: On your own again.

Reader: Yep. Me and me, we make a good team.

Reason: Uh-huh.

Reader: Look, the alternative is wasting my time watching some dribble on the ewetoobs, or clicking like a madman on the interwebs, or writing a story that goes nowhere. Reading focusizes me.

Reason: How about friends?

Reader: I’m working on that. I’ve moved to Glasgow, I need time. And no, I haven’t joined book groups or anything.

Reason: Too busy reading?

Reader: I hate you.Justify Full

Reason: And I you.

Reader: Get out.

Reason: . . .

Reader: Good. Now where’s that Jacques Roubaud?

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Reason V. Writer

Reason Says: Although I love writing and I am sufficiently talented at this pursuit, the time will come when I need to work in Clarks.

Writer Says: There is nothing more important than words on paper (or screens). Civilisation would not be civilisation without the ordered assemblage of thoughts turned into words turned into books. Clarks can go and stick a pound of sausages up its rump.

Reason Says: There is no money in writing unless you are a superhuman talent with a criminal work ethic.

Writer Says: Money is the reason we inhabit a boring capitalist hellhole where poo-scoopers have a higher income than visionary artists. I would rather starve in a garret scraping the final bean from the tin than compromise my integrity by writing corporate bullshit.

Reason Says: You are young. See if you say that in five years’ time.

Writer Says: In five years’ time I will have starved to death through lack of income from my writing. I win.

Reason Says: You are not good enough, plain and simple. The benchmark for professional publication is too high, and you won’t ever reach that benchmark through lack of talent or skill.

Writer Says: Fuck off.

Reason Says: Life is too precious to be thrown away writing books no one will ever read.

Writer Says: Life is not precious. This is why people read books.

Reason Says: Why do people need to read novels anymore when they have round-the-clock access to online games, programmes, music?

Writer Says: All of the above are nothing without good writing. People read novels because the other forms offer little intellectual engagement or lead to unsatisfiable cravings for more entertainment that result in brain meltdowns.

Reason Says: What would make you stop writing?

Writer Says: A nuclear explosion. Or similar.

Reason Says: Society thinks you’re an idiot.

Writer Says: Society is beneath my dignity.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Willie the Imp

Excerpt from Willie the Imp: When a Welsh Child Goes Bad, available from all good retailers, and Amazon:

I was born on the factory floor at the Volvo plant in West Cardiff. My father, the factory manager, sadly lamented the mechanisation of mass car production. He lamented it so much, he kept on all the workers as cleaners, helpers and life organisers. That’s why, when my mother went into labour, my father said: “Never mind the hospital. Let’s give the workers a chance to shine.” My poor long-suffering mother wasn’t in a position to argue—she screamed, so I am told—but the decision was made. I was delivered by former employee C27, known then as Michael Hansworth.

My mother, although affectionate, found it handy to leave me in the workers’ hands most days to dodge the business of changing nappies. She would visit me in the mornings and before bed (I slept on the conveyor belt, which soothed me to sleep for ten whole years), and kiss me on the forehead. My surrogate mothers were Irene, Claire, Nancy and Erika and my fathers were Ray, Bill, Tom, Nigel, Rick and Michael. I spent very little time with my real parents but got to know my surrogates very well. When I turned ten the factory went bankrupt. I had to move in with my real parents.

They worked hard to recreate my living conditions: setting up a conveyor belt in my room and dressing up as the old gang. They were more affectionate towards me than before, but I disliked such exaggerated clinginess. It didn’t work. I walked out the house on my eleventh birthday and never looked back. I moved into an orphanage where I made friends with a green-eyed skater and a shy bookworm. Together we formed a debt collecting trio. I was the hard nut whose task was to break the debtor’s kneecaps. Tim, the skater, had the loudest voice so did the talking. Al, the bookworm, did the books.

We loaned money to our fellow orphans at a staggering rate of APR. In a few weeks, we cornered the debtors one by one in the showers. I broke James Wilson’s kneecaps while Tim shouted: “We want our money by five o’clock or next time, we do your face. Rat on us and you’re dead.” Unfortunately, James was rushed to hospital and we never got our £100. He made a full recovery and gave our names to no one. We tried a new tack.

We dropped a £10 note outside the bookie’s. We’d follow whoever picked it up to their house. A week later, when the interest rose, we’d pay them a visit. The technique worked well. We used balaclavas to disguise ourselves and netted £500 in total. Our business folded one afternoon when we followed a man to my parents’ old house: my father! Tim violently insisted we press on and Al nodded. So, I broke my father’s kneecaps and robbed his wallet. My conscience took a hammering at that point. I decided to quit. The other two failed as a duo: neither could bring themselves to break the kneecaps.


TO READ MORE: Willie the Imp: When a Welsh Child Goes Bad, £19.99 Hardback, out Oct 32

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Tale of the Improperly Bolstered Mathematics College

The mathematicians gathered around the largest collection of floral wallpaper in the United States. Some were impressed, others not so. David, a mathematician, remarked: “These belligerent pinks and staccato mauves speak of a dangerous neo-liberalist agenda.” Another mathematician, Simon, was less critical: “It’s heartening to see so many posies on one low-slung summer décolletage.” The group all headed outside.

Having seen the wallpaper, the mathematicians were unsure how best to expend the remaining hours of their trip. One man, Filbert (a mathematician) suggested: “We could convene to an eatery for the hearty consumption of burgers?” No one responded to this suggestion and Filbert faded from the narrative. “How about we found our own college right here on the steps of this museum?” David said. He was the mathematician who earlier criticised the pinks and mauves. A roar of happiness swept through the crowd. The roar spread like a Mexican wave, with the far left side roaring first and the far right side roaring last. Some of the far-left roars outlasted some far-right roars, showing individual ebullience at varying durations and pitches.

The mathematicians divided into groups to source tools and raw materials. Four calculus experts went into the forest for wood. A few all-rounders located a hardware store and bought nails, hammers and extra 2x4 if required. The others sketched up the blueprints and worked out the specifics of construction. Early the next morning the college was erected. Misfortune occurred when Simon (who earlier praised the posies) commented: “We appear to have blocked the entrance to the museum.” Another voice, that of a mathematician, said: “Our college is also aslant. We should have used the existing staircase as our foundations instead of balancing our building on the annexe of the museum.” This comment was unpopular. The man faded.

To solve the problem, the mathematicians erected a supporting beam extending from the museum steps to the dangling wall of the college. This prevented the college from capsizing backwards down the museum steps when students gathered at the precarious end. One mathematician remarked: “It is a shame the mathematician who noticed this aberration has faded. We should have provided a more positive response to his comment.” The mathematicians removed their cravats and cried for the faded man.

A few hours later, mathematics students filed into the mathematics college. The museum went bankrupt that afternoon and the curators, enraged at their loss, cut the freshly erected support beams. The college slid down the museum steps and zipped down the street at quite a speed. Inside, the mathematicians were too engrossed in teaching mathematics and the students too engrossed in learning mathematics to notice their college’s new mobile state. The structure came to rest in a pond, where thanks to the excellent rain-seal roofing work, no water seeped in through the windows or doors.

When the mathematics was complete, the students and mathematicians swam to the surface. One mathematician remarked: “Clearly, vandals towed our college and lowered it into the pond.” A collective hiss of disapproval passed among the mathematicians: a low hiss that started on the far-right side this time, passing to the far-left. “It is truly appalling how vulnerable mathematicians are in this town,” a mathematician added. No one liked this remark so he faded. The mathematicians walked home.

On their way home, the museum curators cornered them in an alleyway and blew them into a large number of pieces. The last dying mathematician counted 2,928 pieces.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

More Books! They're Horrible!

Here are the latest three instalments in my 4,727,727-book series Intimidation Through Tedium—a series of memoirs so excruciatingly dull, from the rubble we can rebuild contemporary literature. All titles available from your friendly Romanian bookseller:

Friday, 7 October 2011

Obsessive, Anal, Insane, or Just Human?

Someone on the internets pointed out that I might be a wee bit obsessive. This was in response to my recent discovery of Ali Smith, author of Hotel World and The Accidental. I read her latest book last weekend and loved it so much I resolved to read her entire canon at once. I drew up a list of her books and got Laura (the woman I live with) to fetch them from the Glasgow Uni Library. Luckily, or unluckily, they had all her books in stock.

So I set about reading them, one per day. On top of this, I had to write 1000 words of my novel per day, eat at designated times and go outside to fetch utilities. It seemed a little challenging but I like the discipline and sense of accomplishment that follows such an undertaking. So I performed this heroic reading task, omitting one book of short stories through exhaustion. Q: Does this count as obsessive, or merely an act of readerly love?

Then it occurred to me: I’ve been carrying out this sort of obsessive, pointless behaviour all my life. It also occurred to me I probably share these afflictions with other beings. So in the spirit of sharing it might help to catalogue some of this obsessive/anal behaviour. I think there’s a marked difference between anal and obsessive. Who knows where I stand. For example:

  1. I used to make collage cassette tapes, mixing music with sound effects and radio clips. If a noise, cut-in or sound was not perfect I would erase this microsecond of sound and record it again and again. No one listened to these tapes but me.
  2. When I was a video game addict, I always had to complete games in the most perfect way possible. In the case of Crash Bandicoot, this involved resetting the console whenever I fell down a pit and lost my shot for the perfect score and gems.
  3. When playing someone a song I love, they must listen to it in silence, and may not speak until the final seconds of the running time are up, even with songs that fade out.
  4. Until recently, I could never give up on a book, even if I hated it from the beginning. I persisted in the belief that my own weakness as a reader was at fault, and at some point the story would captivate me, and readerly heaven would dawn.
  5. Books with heavily creased spines stick out on one side. I have to sandwich them so tight in the bookcase, I can pull the stuck-out side in line so it becomes as straight as the other books. I also have lists of which books have problem spines and a list of which books to replace with brand new hardback editions.

I have also—through Laura’s doing—been sucked back into watching popular comedy drama Due South. This childhood favourite is so irresistible to me, I’ve had to set aside a spare our or two to catch up on old episodes among the reading and writing. So to cut a long story short, I haven’t left the flat much. I’m sure Glasgow’s nice. I’ve yet to find out.