Monday, 31 December 2012

My Month in Books (Dec)

1. David Foster Wallace — The Broom of the System

Lord Wallace of Amherst’s debut novel is—pardon the obvious—an enormo-homage to the postmodernist ladies. I was surprised at the sheer Gaddisness of this one (narratorless dialogue, two interlocutors per section, frequently deployed throughout) and not so surprised at the Delilloian weirdness and Barthian frametalemaking. The structure seems intricate and impressive, although the plot is mostly linear—each alphabetical sub-chapter responds to events close to those in previous alphabetical sub-chapters, taking the sheen off the structural play. Dave’s voice arrived fully formed. His freewheeling comic imagination (which he wheeled a little too freely in the 400pp-too-long Infinite Jest) isn’t necessarily my favourite characteristic of dfwian prose, but he also lards the book with his trademark monologues (all his monologues here, and arguably in his other fictions, being put into the mouths of implausibly clever Wallace-alikes) which also serve as a conduit for the stories that account for the metafictive element of this not-very-metafictive novel. Not sure I was particularly swept up by The Broom in the end—the mostpart was wildly entertaining but the whole felt largely aimless, building to climaxes that never climaxed. But. But. Hey. Certainly one heck of a debut novel . . .

2. David Foster Wallace — This is Water

Better heard spoken for the full sting. A powerful speech but the message seems to be rather simple: don’t be a selfish asshat. Or is that a little reductive? Anyway—one star for the cash-in and four stars for the speech. Coming soon from Little, Brown in DVD & books: The Best Hesitant Pauses on KCRW’s Bookworm, The Ten Best Awkward Selfconscious Squirming Moments on Charlie Rose, and Half-Remembered Conversations Anyone Has Ever Had With DFW. Also available from the DFW Tacky Cash-in Emporium: DFW headbands. For that sweaty public reading! DFW scrunchies. For that 80s ponytail look! DFW spectacles. For staring into the soulful eyes of Wallace on Google! Etc and so forth.

3.  Pierre Siniac — The Collaborators

In this hilarious literary satire and noir (apparently), a hack writer is blackmailed into co-authoring his masterpiece with an obese hack publisher. The book hits the target in its literary satire and descriptions of the writing process—from the hack writer’s miserable plodding through his opus to the portrayal of publishers as drunks and critics as guttersniping egomaniacs. Written at the end of Siniac’s career, the novel has the recklessness of a writer past caring and shows a talented crime novelist at the peak of his plotting powers. A devilish and marvellously witty delight.

Appendix: Marcella’s review
Sorry, but this review is unacceptable, especially on a book that pokes such fun at writers, critics and—ironically—readers who do not (cannot) read. Let me suggest the following revisions:

“a author” = an author.

“Its satire and paraody that attempts to put mock importance on the litterati” = It’s a satire and a parody that attempts to put mock importance on the literati. Incorrect. It satirises the self-importance of the literati, it doesn’t place “mock importance” (what?) on them.

“I think a joke . . . literary terrorism is right.” = Extremely poor syntax. The meaning of this is too fuzzy to decipher.

“the book didn’t have a lot to say” = Were we reading different books? The book meticulously disassembles the writing process and cleverly sends up the publishing world from a book’s composition to being top of the bestseller lists. It has a large, loud voice with plenty to “say.”

“could have been a decent beach read” = This review is a parody. It must be. I promise I didn’t write it.

“the novel’s story could be told entertainingly in 250 pages” = Ah! So you are the master of crime fiction and not Siniac! Pray tell how all the threads so cunningly weaved together in those essential 489 pages could come together so well in such a miniscule space?

“None of the characters are particularly likeable” = Irrelevant. Not a valid criticism. The standard for all books is not “likeable characters” and a “pageturning plot.” These are not (k) constants.

“first 80% of the book could have been trimmed” = If you trimmed the “first 80%” you’d be left with 97.8 pages. So all you want is the “decent twist” and none of the masterful, hilarious satire, dialogue and hardboiled parody? Why can’t books cut all the extraneous crap and lead straight to their “decent twists?” Why do we need scene-setting or world-building when we could give the reader all the plot points and then leap straight to the end? Ridiculous!

4. Paul Verhaeghen — Omega Minor

Can’t stretch to five stars. Close. Paul Verhaeghen is a former Netherlander teaching in Atlanta as Associate Professor of Psychology at Georgia Tech (as of writing). An unlikely candidate to produce a megalithic masterwork—and he hasn’t, not really. He has produced an excellent, engaging and complex take on the Holocaust and Hiroshima intertwined with a pulp-ish thriller spiced with embarrassing but sincere erotic moments, full of eminently quotable material and staggeringly erudite digressions. I have long since abandoned summarising Dalkey books so if a plot breakdown ye be seeking—try Google or its tax-paying rival Alta Vista. Each narrator uses the same lyrical mode of narration and this can make the sudden POV changes harder to follow, but the style works for the most wrenching moments of the Holocaust survivor’s tale: where it matters. His skill at turning a strange, profound (or profound-sounding) phrase is seemingly endless, and although his language screams “EPIC!” it has a tenderness and gravity lacking in other books of its ilk—The Kindly Ones, for example. PV falters on romance and sex. His romance is forced Foer-like sentiment and his sex descriptions are too genital—all spurts and semen. Omega Minor, for those seeking an original take on the Holocaust or simply a work of labyrinthine lyricism, is rarely bland. A dazzling structural success? Perhaps. A triumph of plotting? Perhaps. A frequently witty, delicately horrendous opus par excellence? Oui.

5. William H. Gass — The World Within the Word

Imagine being the editor of a respectable literary publication (if it helps, quote FR Leavis and take up chronic alcoholism) and receiving a book review from William H. Gass. Not only has he written the best review of a marginal publication unworthy of his masterly talents that no mortal will ever read, he has also written a scholarly essay bursting with philosophical insight, twenty pages of sumptuous pedantic analysis, and a wonderfully rich encapsulation of the author whose work is being discussed. In short: you’ll have to cut off Gass’s nose to spite your publication’s face. Another rum? This collection from 1978 includes masterful essays on Malcolm Lowry, Colette, Gertrude Stein, and two on Proust. ‘The Doomed in Their Sinking’ is worth a special mention, containing moving (and rare) ruminations on his mother’s not-quite-suicide. Other essays here flex Gass’s academic muscles and occasionally lapse into that dense Gass-speak which can be overwhelming for inferior intellects (me): the piece on Freud and the later etymological-epistemological-ontological essays are outrageously erudite. But beautiful all the same. See:

“We must take our sentences seriously, which means we must understand them philosophically, and the odd thing is that the few who do, who take them with utter sober seriousness, the utter sober seriousness of right-wing parsons and political saviors, the owners of Pomeranians, are the liars who want to be believed, the novelists and poets, who know that the creatures they imagine have no other being than the sounding syllables which the reader will speak into his own weary and distracted head. There are no magic words. To say the words is magical enough.” (p337).

6. Alexander Theroux — Darconville’s Cat

A stupefying triumph of superhuman eloquence. A loved-up homage to the OED and Roget’s Thesaurus. A sacrificial offering to the Gods Rabelais, Sterne & Burton. A starry-eyed drooling hymn to amour, esp. with down-at-heel bimbos. A caustic and comic whirligig of varnished-to-perfection insults and Dickensian character-assassinations. A nuclear missile launched at the Southern United States. An enormous loving hug to all literature of significance pre-1800s. A novel bursting with prose so sublime, inventive, haunting and spiteful only quackshites would let it slip out of print. A novel to induce encomiums of stut-tut-tuttering adoration and spells of sp-sp-speechless drooling. A novel that makes you beg for more, and more, that makes you scream out in literary ecstasy for another 400, 600, 800, 1200 pages—more, more, more! That’s all I have to say, except the implied READ THIS. Holy bejesusing mercy, this is the real deal.

7. Stephen Burn — David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest: A Reader’s Guide

Intended for the general reader and not the Wallace scholar desperate to exhume every interred signifier from that most overindulged of overindulgent masterworks, Infinite Jest, Stephen Burn’s slight guide copes well with the restrictions imposed upon it by Continuum Books, whose embarrassing range of guides include books on such towering works as The Poisonwood Bible, Birdsong and Ian Rankin’s Black & Blue, for the love of G*tt. To be honest, this doesn’t help stir up my enthusiasm for a re-read of Infinite Jest (as intended)—it makes me more wary of the laboured satirical aspects of the novel and the relentlessness of Wallace’s (eventually tedious) style in the book (which is brilliant enough for a five-star rating but in danger of baccelerating into a four-star). Maybe one read is plenty?

8. Rikki Ducornet — The Fountains of Neptune

Indebted to Oliver Sacks’s sleeping-sickness favourite Awakenings (quote from him on the cover), the third of Ducornet’s elemental teratology takes place in a surreal underwater landscape populated by salty, tale-spinning eccentrics. Despite the lyrical opening chapter, the inventive stream of surreal images and tangents, and the wildly comedic dialogue, I couldn’t follow The Fountains of Neptune along its rocky, circuitous paths without a sense of magical ennui gradually setting in. The relentless fantasia of this submarine dreamworld untethers the novel to any greater purpose, any sense of narrative progression or moments of clarity, and although Ducornet’s writing is as lyrical and crazy as always, I couldn’t immerse myself in this world as I could in her other brackish tale, Phosphor in Dreamland. Reluctantly dropped on p178 with a disappointed sigh.

9. William Gaddis — A Frolic of His Own

J. Franzen says about A Frolic of His Own that “its only aesthetic weakness, really, is that much of it is repetitive, incoherent, and insanely boring.” Repetitive? No but listen there are about 600 pages here of unstylised dialogue where the protagonists use the same phrases ad nauseam and run-on sentences like we do in life what else did you say, Franzen? Incoherent? No but listen there is a plot here, a satirical plot about lawsuits and an avaricious professor and listen did you remember to peel the potatoes? what was I saying about the incoherent plot? it might be incoherent but that doesn’t mean the legal satire isn’t in the best absurdist tradition because it is and although like Franzen I don’t see . . . hang on whose voice is transmitting now, is this Franzen speaking? How about insanely boring? No but listen you can’t have a near 600pp novel written almost entirely in dialogue no sprouts for me thanks I hate the things without a few lags . . . well the last 200 pages are sort of one long lag and the momentum of the first 400 with its whirling-dervish satire is cancelled and replaced with well incoherence is the word but listen Gaddis is a pioneer of the free-floating narratorless narrative no but there is a narrator, like a camera lens he pops up to narrate in unusual ways, as I said like a camera describing certain movements the characters are making mostly the protagonist groping his floozie . . . but I said I didn’t want sprouts weren’t you oh never mind I’ll take them anyway no but listen Franzen was wrong because this isn’t a waste of time it simply isn’t a particularly successful novel. Did he finish it? Who is he? Franzen? No, MJ. No. Bailed on p526. Wimp. At least Franzen a real man got to the end no thanks I don’t want anymore Gaddis I mean gravy, I said I don’t want anymore gravy.

10. Aleksandar Hemon — Best European Fiction 2012

All year long the Dalkey Archive sends its minions roaming across Europe for the Best Fiction, peeping under kettles in Prague, sifting under barstools in Utrecht, raiding towerblocks in Bristol for the Truly Best Words on Paper. Not really. The logistics of screening all mildly avant-garde writers in every European nation to find the edgiest freshest morsels are mindbending—who reads work in the original languages before translations are commissioned? how are untranslated writers read in the first place? how many writers in each nation are read before entrants are chosen, and who translates those writers so Aleksandar Hemon can read them? More likely countries elect entrants via word-of-mouth or emails sent to John O’Brien by cultural attachés, limiting the amount of truly audacious stories that make their way into these anthologies. And sadly, the word that came to mind with this collection was tame. Inventive, distinctive, but hardly bursting with writers urgently in need of my readerly attention. If anything the pseudopoetical literariness of many of these pieces sees Europe only catching up with the work McSweeney’s was turning out at the start of the millennium. Otherwise, seasonally entertaining.

11. Nicholas Mosley — Hopeful Monsters

The final instalment (but first in the chronological sequence) of Mosley’s Catastrophe Practice series is also the 89-year-old Baron and Baronet’s masterwork. Chris has written one of those perfect reviews where no more need be said about the book, suffice to say I found Mosley’s stylistic tics often repetitive and his structuring not 100% lucid, hence the withering four stars. On the whole, I agree with Chris’s summary and regret that my take on this sweeping panorama of early 20thC thought is only one paltry paragraph. A splendiferous intellectual triumph and a tender-hearted romance epic for adults. The perfect literary end to 2012.

12. Nescio Amsterdam Stories

Nine stories from an underappreciated Dutch scribe with a melancholic and tender sensibility. Early works ‘The Freeloader’ and ‘Young Titans’ were the most affecting for me, with later pieces ‘Little Poet’ and ‘Insula Dei’ a little too scattershot in approach to be wholly satisfying. The remaining stories are slight sketches or incomplete fragments. A fittingly gloomy but hopeful end to 2012.  

Books of the Year:

Jan: Jacques Roubaud — The Form of a City Changes Faster, Alas, Than the Human Heart
Feb: David Foster Wallace The Pale King
Mar: John Updike Rabbit, Run
Apr:  Nicola Barker Darkmans
May: William H. Gass The Tunnel
Jun: Felipe Alfau — Chromos
Jul: Emmanuel Bove — My Friends
Aug: James Joyce Ulysses
Sep: Charles Dickens Little Dorrit
Oct: Ralph Ellison — Invisible Man 
Nov: Fernando Del Paso Palinuro of Mexico 
Dec: Alexander Theroux — Darconville’s Cat 

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

My Year in Stories

The first quarter of the year was devoted to completing Arlene’s Atoms, my fingers-crossed-first-official-novel-with-a-proper-publisher-with-a-proper-desk-and-everything. The submission process was slow but steady—after sending the novel to agents and picking up the rejections from the sorting office, I sent sample chapters to promising smaller-but-more-suitable publishers. I spent the mid-part of the year working on an experimental novella, The State I Am In, a form of fictional autobiography that takes its title from the Belle & Sebastian song. More recently, I’ve been working on a second novella called My Body of Work which uses the collage technique I deployed in three extremely pleasurable-to-write pieces (one below) published in delicious venues. Busy? Yes. But not enough. “I could always have written more!” cries the dying writer.

My short fiction output this year is naturally shorter than 2011, and most of these stories were written that year and published in this one. I lost track of when each story was published.

The longest story of the year, at 7000 words, was Maybe Tomorrow at the online zine Blue Lake Review. The story was an attempt to grapple on a somewhat serious level with social alienation, loneliness and depression while using various playful techniques to lift the story from the doldrums. Four socially alienated characters attend a bogus therapy group where they are asked to draw up new routines for each other and made to abide by them. The story pays a slight homage to Gilbert Sorrentino and BS Johnson with the typographical fancies and close third-person narration while trying to break away from those postmodern influences to touch upon something more genuinely melancholy. The zine was unable to reproduce the tables I had in the story, making the fourth part harder to navigate.

A Disquisition on the Erogenous Impulse in Prose Narratives was published in April at Martian Lit. One of three collage pieces, these stories were an attempt to cope with my spiralling distraction levels while writing and the audience’s limited attention spans with short fiction from unknowns on the internet. (I’m still convinced no one reads short fiction from unknowns on the internet apart from friends of the unknownsI have no friends, hence no readers). I felt my disaffection with character, plotline and story could be resolved by choosing an unusual theme and constructing mini-stories, self-commenting attention-seeking bits, snatches of dialogue, satire and other areas of strength for me. Time will tell as I complete my current project which exhausts this technique.

The Four Seasons of Michael Michael at Laptop Lit is written in a series of internal monologues. It was an attempt to tell the story of one man, Michael Michael, a toff going insane in his country estate, entirely from the perspectives of his afflicted family. The Wonderfully Fecund World of the Hendersons at Piker Press was inspired by the protagonist in Harry Mathews’s The Journalist who becomes obsessed with composing every miniscule detail of his day in his journal at the expense of his sanity. The story has novel potential as there can be an unlimited number of narrators and contradicting plotlines.

New Zealand magazine OneTitle, now defunct, published Writing For Carol. This story addresses my crisis about writing for an unknown, unseen and (in the case of obscure writers) nonexistent audience. For whom are we writing? People like us? Just us? Does our work reach the sort of people we want? My protagonist in this story tries tailoring all his fiction to meet one person’s needs, finding more pleasure in the act of writing when his work leads him to actually connect with this one person for real, in the flesh. Imagine such a thing!

My only print publications in 2011 were The Little Book of Nothing—a story from last year republished in the Writings on the Wall anthology, and an edited version of The Drunk & the Godly in Octavius Magazine. (Now an e-book only—grr! Full text sans edits, here). My favourite publication, which I’ve yet to see, is the Oulipo homage From A to Z published in Beeswax Magazine. The first section is an alphabetical lipogram and the second an alphabet-shaped backwards lipogram (the text takes the shape of the alphabet, omitting each letter being described). My faith in pointless constraints and innovative batshittery remains unbroken!

As an experiment this year, I self-published my first polished and, uh, serious novel A Postmodern Belch. I wasn’t doing it properly, tirelessly virally promoting my novel on the social networks and so on, because I don’t have any influential friends (except Horst). I did inform my chums on Goodreads, and some of them kindly bought copies, others reviewed the book in return for a pdf edition. The book’s page is full of splendid parody reviews written in the spirit of the book, which was more delightful than making money, in a way. A small way. If by any chance you are criminally insane and want to buy a copy—here! (Seriously, I had more fun writing the book than anything else, I hope that shows).

Here’s to 2013!

Monday, 17 December 2012

My Year in Abandoned Books

It’s been a terrific year for reading on the whole, but some books drove me to despair and had to be abandoned for sanity’s sake. I also kept a sampled shelf on Goodreads for books I read parts of (usually up to the first thirty pages) before returning them to the shelf. Note: If I drop an unusual name from time to time, I’m referring to a Goodreads friend.

1. Roberto Bolaño — By Night in Chile

Oh shut up, Roberto. SHUT. UP. What is this cobblers? Why do you want me to read the rambling deathbed memoir of a Chilean priest who can’t let a sentence end and couldn’t find a paragraph break in a tower of cassocks? Why don’t you establish this character as an actual character? Why did you write a list of scenes or incidents that might be used in future novels instead of, to quote The Guardian—“a beautifully written analysis of Chilean literary life?” It gives me no pleasure to play devil’s advocate in a glistening ocean of five-star reviews, but I threw in the towel one-third through this petite cowfart in the Roberto canon. His work is better when it’s longer, i.e. 2666. Clearly.

2. Brigid Brophy — In Transit: A Heroi-Cyclic Novel

Let’s face it, heroi-cyclic novels aren’t my speed. As with most Dalkeys, the blurb sounds like the greatest book experience ever: “a transsexual adventure . . . with an unrelenting stream of puns, word games, metafictional moments and surreal situations (lesbian revolution in the baggage area).” YES! And the book begins with sentences like:

No more can you detect your personality and its decisions in the course of being created by your experience. You know only that you ingest the present tense and excrete it as a narrative in the past. History is in the shit tense. You have left it behind you. Fiction is piss: a stream of past events but not behind you, because they never really happened.

YES! But then sentences pop up like:

I am incensed (I swing my savage indignation at you: aspersions ad te: bad on you: ego absolvere te nolo) by the cinemorgan design of twentieth-century cathedrals, all of which look as though they had risen out of the ground in a play of coloured-icecream lighting (but Fool-stop the organist has broken the mechanism which should, and would it would, cause them to sink down again).

Er, come again? And these sentences, basically, are the narrative, i.e. egghead Irish absurdism of the incomprehensible variety. Sorry, Brigid. You seemed like a super lady, a real counterculture battleaxe.

3. Haruki Murakami — Norwegian Wood

Question: How much Norwegian Wood would a Norwegian woodchuck chuck if a Norwegian woodchuck could chuck Norwegian Wood? Answer: The same amount as a Swedish woodchuck. So I read 160 pages of this novel. Then I hit a four-day Reader’s Block (also precipitated by problems in my personal life, but I’ll save those for Oprah) and read nothing. I called a librarian and explained the problem. She suggested I undergo an intense course of Murakami Avoidance Therapy (MAT), whereby I put down all Murakamis I am reading at that moment and read writers who are not Murakami. And you know what, I was cured! Those librarians know what they are talking about . . . even if they can’t string a sentence together. So I put Murakami down. It was a relief. Because those first 160 pages were so inconsequential and drab, so unremarkable and airy, I felt like I was walking through an airport terminal at 4AM on a Prozac-laden soporific in my slippers . . . walking towards the bookstore where Murakami’s Norwegian Wood sits on the bestseller list, to be read by people-too-busy-to-read-books who think this is the cutting edge of contemporary literature, and in translation too, so twice as chic and clever, despite nothing happening except a dull student who thinks he’s Holden Caulfield hanging out with a bland-but-mysterious possible lover, then a clichéd playboy who introduces him to casual sex, then another girl who almost shakes the novel back into life but no, zzzzzzzzzzzzz. And the translator sort of loves the phrase sort of . . . people are sort of people and kind of humans, but are more insert-faux-poetic-description here, or perhaps sort of human after all, no? So thanks, librarian! MAT has saved me from four more hours of mediocrity! Hug a librarian tomorrow!

4. Laura Marney — Nobody Loves a Ginger Baby

As they say, “I wanted so badly to like this novel”—a familiar kiss of death—but in the end I did not. Firstly, the author is a family friend (not my family, my betrothed’s), teacher at the CW programme up the road, and the novel takes place where I live now. These mean nothing in artistic terms, but the title raises a chuckle and the blurb suggests a Celtic Lucy Ellmann. But no. The prose is spunky, filthy, feisty, but does nothing for me. The plot is thin. Daphne is dumped by her depressive boyfriend and mopes in an eccentric way, while her neighbour Pierce is a dosser/artist who trades banter and likes shagging women. Daphne teaches down-and-out Glaswegians in a college. Meh. The prose is written in a very accessible style, I suspect largely so local people will pick up the books. For me the comedy got a little tiresome (stretched across the whole novel) and there wasn’t that emotional link you’d expect with the heroine. Shame. I respect comic novels immensely (I’m trying to get one published ferchristsake) and know how tough it is to keep the reader’s attention outside the gags. So respect to the author, maybe this humour simply isn’t my thing.

5. Joy Williams — The Quick and the Dead

I tried 50pp of this novel but couldn’t find much to cling to. I think Mariel nails it in her review: the characters speak as if they were in a novel where everyone speaks as if they’re in a novel. I also found the prose heavy with those carefully crafted profound-sounding sentences where the author imparts profound sentiments in profound-sounding prose, where they reader is asked to step back and say, woah . . . heavy! This sounds churlish. I know. I loved some of these sentences but there was no emotional or intellectual connective tissue for me, i.e. the characters were ideologic constructs not people, and the profound sentiments built into the prose around them seemed to be searching for revelations about corporeal suffering or a deep internal trauma. So I needed to be closer to these people, I needed some semblance of reality to cling to. Instead I was being invited into a surreal Limbo not entirely unlike Flann O’Brien’s cyclical Hell in The Third Policeman—from what I inferred, the book will go on to paint a broader canvas of death and spirituality, only without the bicycles. But I only managed 50pp. The humour wasn’t something I responded too either. Plus only yesterday I read a novel with precocious children at the centre. Two in a row is tough. Apologies to Mariel.

6. Thomas Pynchon — Gravity’s Rainbow

I tried sixty-nine pages for the purposes of the Group Read (a Group Read of Gravity’s Rainbow on Goodreads—a GR of GR on GR, or GR3) but tentatively closed the novel thenceforth. My first thought (I am an intellectual) was WTF?! This has over twenty five-star ratings on the first page?! Then I had to concede I simply don’t like Pynchon’s writing style, period. William raised this point in his review of The Tunnel—you’re helpless against an author’s crystalline prose if you simply can’t stomach his particular talent for arranging squiggles. My problem with the first sixty-nine pages? I found his style awkwardly literary, stuffed with showboating passages of verbose insulation (as though caulking the enormous fucker)—I felt the style basically worked against the efficiency of the sentences, i.e. he seems to be taking unnecessarily circuitous routes to describe whatever acronym-riddled antics were happening (as far as I could make out, sub-Catch-22 shenanigans mixed with equally dated black humour) so the reader has to unpeel each little Pychonian prawn as though inside lies some twinkling epithet of significance. Also, the point of view shifts from the ice-cold third-person narrator to the internal states of the dozen or so interchangeable characters with equally stupid names for no particular reason I could fathom for those sixty-nine pages. I was impressed by various passages but I couldn’t commit to another 834 pages . . . there simply wasn’t enough cohering for me in the style, and books that warm up around page 467 are not my bag. I tried The Crying of Lot 49 earlier this year and found the dude such a postmodern relic. I mean, Foster Wallace can do this standing on his head but also offers a devastating emotional wallop into the bargain. William H. Gass writes funnier bawdy limericks and songs too. Anyway. I’m sure he’s brilliant but I really don’t care, I have other boyfriends.

7. Pierre Choderlos de Laclos — Dangerous Liaisons

If I were the sort of boner who ran a creative writing night class I might level that grievous accusation at this Gallic favourite—how it “tells” everything and doesn’t “show.” And if you were a frightfully witty sort, you may reply: “Duh. It’s written in letters.” And such a Daria-strength comeback would be entirely appropriate: this is an epistolary novel where effusive aristocrats compose long-winded letters about their schemes and feelings and dire circumstances, with little for the reader to cling to except the inevitable moral corruptions as promised in the blurb and the flashy period prose. I slightly recoil. The epistolary form is so frightfully dull. Regardless how many naïve virgins may lose their maidenhead to unscrupulous bounders. This stream of melodramatic back-and-forth plot-explaining missives lacked any real narrative drive for me, as bitchily funny as the two corrupt lovers were on occasion. I got enough from 100pp or so. Enough for me. You don’t need to finish everything you read, right? I mean I don’t get all obsessive about these things. (Er . . . much). And I suppose you won’t ever catch me reading the unabridged Clarissa (according to this novel’s preface the characters in Clarissa would have to have spent eight hours per day composing their letters for the timeframe to work). Yowza. Cheeses. Wow-wee. Etcetera. By the way the movie version of this is terrific, featuring the hammy delights of a youngish John Malkovich and the nubile breasts of a younger Uma Thurman. Perfick.

8. Randall Jarrell — Pictures from an Institution

A smug self-involved novel written for the wine-quaffing elite so they might titter around their canapés at the bons mot expressed about a footnote in the revised Oxford edition of The Iliad. The narrator is a pompous New York scenester and the novel reminiscent of all those moments when you’re watching a Woody Allen film and it’s going all right, then suddenly you have this overwhelming urge to kill all the privileged neurotic whining nuisances gobbling up all the caviar before you. Maybe it’s a class thing. I was raised in Compton, Edinburgh where we don’t tolerate books of such a dated self-regarding nature, boyee. A parting warning: be suspicious of all books that subtitle themselves ‘comedies.’ Usually the wish is father to the thought, dear homey.

9. Ann Quin — Tripticks

No. Not at the moment. No thanks. I read B.S. Johnson’s corpus. I read Gilbert Sorrentino’s corpus. I read choice cuts from the butcher’s slab of postmodernism. I have limits. I cannot read this surrealistic cut-up who-the-fuck-is-narrating-this parade of amusing but aimless and tiresome non sequiturs for more than forty pages. I don’t care how cool it sounds. Or if the novel is a masterpiece of “pre-punk aesthetics” that helped out Kathy Acker. Or if there are groovy illustrations. Not at the moment. No. Freaking. Thanks. I have a several hundred orphanages of unloved strange fiction to read. I can’t love them all. I am not Mother Theresa. For one, I don’t think contraception is the Devil’s Business. Second, my middle name is not Gonxha. Call me a wet fish. But that’s the lowdown. I cannot commit right now. I am sure I will marry at some point and speedily divorce, leaving my X-wives strewn across American highways and a semi-drowned poodle in tow. But not now. These paragraphs with their lists and sentence fragments and surreal (don’t you cringe at that word?) imagery do not have a place in my literary purview. No. P.S. I once recommended Aberration of Starlight to Knig-o-lass to growls of disapproval. This is her revenge. Thanks. I’ll return this one by express mail.

10. Frank Kuppner — The Intelligent Observation of Naked Women

I suspect this quest to find poets that turn me on will take a while, so for now I’m switching to anthologies over individual chapbooks and volumes. I liked Kuppner’s novel Life on a Dead Planet so picked this up arbitrarily, and while I like many of the individual stanzas here, these long poems were too opaque, too obsessed with voyeuristic observation and speculation and dreamy poeticising (handy for a poet) of extremely opaque, not specific enough, not clear, see-through, transparent, not focused enough things and people, except maybe in the poem ‘An Old-Guide Book to Prague,’ to interest me. Plus despite Kuppner’s amusing titles the poems themselves aren’t particularly funny, mainly ponderous and dry, or funny in that too-subtle-to-be-funny way.

11. Thomas Hardy — Far From the Madding Crowd

Oy vey, oy vey, Hardy. I see plenty of five-star ratings from GR friends here, possibly a default classic rating (think of the reproach rating Hamlet less than five stars! they’d hunt you down!). But this one is plodding and banal. What were you people thinking? This is Hardy’s first lengthy novel following Under the Greenwood Tree, transitioning between pastoral vignettes and the proper-plot-and-everything of The Mayor of Casterbridge. Both of those books work as the former takes the vignette approach without being exhaustive, the latter has Hardy’s first extremely tense, compelling plot. This combines lengthy pastoral peregrinations (I admit obscure farming practices, rural gossip and astronomy lessons aren’t my bag in novels) with a somewhat thin plot about a proud, supposedly gorgeous farmowner teasing two lovestruck suitors. Weak soup, this novel. Give me a delicious chunky beef stew with a freshly baked baguette, please Thomas. They shouldn’t teach this in (English) schools. Hardy’s later work is far superior to this middling wiffle. Anyway, got to p130. (Also I think Tamara Drewe was a riff on this novel. That was fun).

12. Truman Capote — Summer Crossing

Capote’s buried first novel. I couldn’t make it into the second half since there doesn’t appear to be a story here, an interesting character, or any particular reason to keep reading another long comma-infested, mid-clause-POV-shifting sentence of upper-class Manhattanite banality. Authors suppress books for a reason. When will publishers learn?

13. Steven Moore — The Novel: An Alternate History: Beginnings to 1600

It seems I wasn’t as interested in learning about the Medieval Arthurian novel or the Spanish Renaissance novel as I thought I was. Strange that. Despite Moore’s uproarious and fiery introduction and a terrifically engaging voice (written in a snarky, then later trying-to-hard-to-amuse comic mode), this book seems to find itself bogged down in not-that-interesting and extremely-precise-to-trainspotter-levels of detail. 

Description after description of the plots of dull religious tracts that might qualify as atrocious novels that in extremely slight ways predict the formal innovations of later writers . . . and on and on through more worrying sexual asides and secular digs to another tenuous connection between Thomas Pynchon and a parchment scroll carved in a llama’s bollocks that predates the postmodern structures of Gaddis and Barth and so on and so on. OK. Not that bad. But not particularly convincing as a history of The Novel. I understand canon-forming is always pointless and works like this shake up the orthodoxy somewhat. Moore does sweat to hold the general reader’s attention (and he did, up to p200) but . . . no. Thanks. It does start to read like A Complete History of Everything Ever Written Down, as Jason says. 40pp on the Arthurian ‘novel?’ Nope. But. Looking forward to Vol 2—more my scene.

14. James Baldwin — Another Country

200pp read. Fed up. Fed and up. Enough of this popular-classic pootling. I am planning a triumphant return to the brave and beautiful borders of the avant-garde. I will be raiding the archives of the following pioneers: Soft Skull, Dzanc Books, Green Integer, Coffee House Press, David R. Godine, NYRB, New Directions, FC2 and—all together now!—Dalkey Archive. I cordially invite you to leave the names of any daring experimental fiction presses that have escaped my attention in the comment box, and help me to shape a reading list of past and present adventures in innovation. Baldwin was a bore.

15. Stanley Elkin — Mrs. Ted Bliss

It is hard to be too disparaging about this novel, seeing Stanley Elkin wrote it in the last few years of his life, probably in the fleeting moments when his crippling multiple sclerosis let up long enough so he could type or handwrite. It is an heroic act that in his last years he chose to power through and work rather than let this horrible wasting illness vegetize him—a man of restless spirits and comic energy. Still, we separate the work from its writer and its composition. Mrs. Ted Bliss is not a good novel. Despite quotes from heavyweights Kurt Vonnegut, Saul Bellow and Michiko Kakutani and the fact it won National Book Critics Circle Award in 1995, it barely scrapes a pass. I managed 160pp before shutdown. Reasons? Bland prose lacking all the linguistic showmanship Elkin is famous for. A tired and unamusing plot centred around an old woman whose past is explored in long tedious expository patches. The novel has no sense of pace, no lively characters, no real structure . . . seemingly not much life. Given Elkin’s circumstances this seems pretty sad.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Attention Novelists!

Test 1

Have you written a dreary middlebrow novel set in a part of India, the Orient, or a sundrenched third-world nation? Is your novel about postcolonial struggles and skirmishes faced by impoverished nations during a specific period in history? Does your novel dwell upon the emotional turmoil at the root of a persecuted community, and does it focus on a stoic native whose trials are shown at their most heartbreaking and humourless? Well done! Your novel will be popular with middle-aged divorcées and airheaded beach readers who want the covers of their novels to reflect the places in which they skim them. Your novel probably looks like this:

Test 2

Have you written a shameless, tearjerking piece of third-world issuetainment after a moving trip to Nigeria in an attempt to “spread the message” to readers around the world about suffering, poverty, and the first-world’s indifference to famine, drought and oppression? Was your intention originally to donate all profits to charities, but now that you’ve written the novel, you need the money to pay for your mortgage and car insurance? Is your book told from a child’s point of view in insultingly simple prose that approximates how a Nigerian would speak, since you didn’t attempt to transcribe dialect during your trip, you simply made concerned faces and wept in your hotel room? Well done! Your novel will be bought at airports and remain unread for months until the reader has the guts to skim a few pages before he puts it down for being too depressing. Your novel probably looks like this:

Test 3

Have you written a sentimental, nostalgic novel romanticising the past in a dreary Irish, Scottish or Northern English ex-mining town? Is your novel stuffed with lazily specific references to things that happened in the past so people think you are “evoking” a certain place in time wonderfully, rather than simply ransacking your own bland childhood cynically for profit? Does your novel have extremely tame romantic scenes and po-faced attempts to depict the bigotry and racism at the heart of these backward communities in the form of hokey “literary” metaphors and stand-alone paragraph-sentences? Well done! Your novel will sell like spangles to the over-sixties market, desperate to redeem their miserable childhoods by misremembering every bad thing that happened to them as a good thing that didn’t happen to them. Your novel looks like:

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Reply From Nicola Barker

Look MJ

Do I really want to read about a writer (WHO IS ALWAYS THE FUCKING AUTHOR) struggling to write a novel (WHICH IS ALWAYS THE FUCKING BOOK THE AUTHOR IS WRITING) then overcoming his block through some tedious personal contrivance (ALWAYS BASED ON THE AUTHOR’S BORING LIFE) and publishing the book to nationwide acclaim (EMBARRASSING WISHFUL THINKING)? The problem with a hall of mirrors is the reflection being infinitised has to be something beautiful. The infinite recursion of a man tugging his Thomas does not good literature make. So please. I am telling you this for you own wellbeing. DO NOT WRITE ABOUT A WRITER WRITING ABOUT A WRITER WRITING ABOUT A WRITER, AD INFINITUM. No one will want to read the sluice of spunk splattered on your feeble mirrors. Do what I do. Write whimsical and emotional narratives about whimsical Londoners. Better than tugging your tugboat forevermore. I say this wishing you love and prosperity,


Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Letter to Lydia Millet

Hey Lydia!

Come on, what do you say to a bit of modern-day metafiction? Do you really believe it breathed its last breath thirty years ago? Or can metafictive novels set in Scotland really find readers in an indifferent marketplace? All right, I know you’re rolling your eyes! But let me pitch some ideas to you. Check out these pearls of originality:

1) A writer struggling to write his novel falls in love then writes his novel
2) A writer struggling to write his novel has an affair with a teenage girl then writes his novel
3) A writer struggling to write his novel visits a foreign country, sleeps with a prostitute, takes LSD and writes his novel
4) A writer struggling to write his novel writes his novel after four years of torturous re-writing
5) A writer struggling to write his novel abandons writing his novel and takes a job in a call centre and spends his life forever fielding questions about the novel he one day planned to write
6) A writer struggling to write his novel writes a haiku instead
7) A writer struggling to write his novel escapes the novel and writes the novel the author-scriptor is writing
8) A writer struggling to write his novel eats his own his head then publishes the resultant turds
9) A writer struggling to write his novel moves into Mulligan Stew, steals Antony Lamont’s Sur-fictional opus, moves back into the original novel and publishes Lamont’s novel to complete critical ignorance

Let’s team up. Light some firecrackers of invention.


Sunday, 9 December 2012

Reply From Chuck Palahniuk

Dear MJ,

Received your letter via Patrick. There are several things a man can do to attract a woman. I present a series of options for perusal in the following numerically partitioned sentences. 1) Kidnap. All you need for this is a car and a popular secluded late-night environs. Prowl lanes and nooks for bait. Once you have kidnapped your selected woman she will hate and fear you: the best qualities for a woman to have in any relationship. 2) Wear Down. Works best with friends. Wear a female friend down over a series of years by constantly telling them you like them and they won’t find anyone as devoted to them as you, and eventually they will ditch the dream of a proper man and take up with you out of desperation. 3) Subliminal Self-Advertising. Stalk your prey, and on their daily route, flash brief adverts of your brilliance at opportune moments. Signs saying MJ IS GREAT! YOU SHOULD MARRY MJ! every few yards. After a month or so she will fall into your arms. You can resuscitate her herbally. I hope these tips have been helpful. Good luck with the being you thing.



Friday, 7 December 2012

Letter to Bret Easton Ellis

Dear Patrick,

I read your novel American Psycho the other week and I must protest. Firstly, Genesis’s shining moment is the single ‘I Can’t Dance’—a beautiful admission of terpsichorean ineptitude that most unpopular white males can sympathise with—not the early prog LPs like Foxtrot et al. But I write today with a more practical request in mind. I cannot pick up chicks, Patrick! I think the problem lies in my appearance. I am a wearer of spectacles and as we know, ladies dislike eyewear on a male because she sees a self-loathing nerd and not a fertile future husband. What they like are muscular jowls and handsome cheekbones! So what I have done, Patrick, is I have injected my cheeks with botox and padded the resulting balloon-like bloats with polystyrene. My complexion resembles the actor and human man Mickey Rourke, whose physique was once described as a condom filled with macadamia nuts, and sculpted my cheekbones to resemble ski slopes. Currently, in my encephalitic state, I am finding it difficult moving in and out of rooms, my head now resembling the posterior of a rhino in terms of girth and heft. Since ladies are so obliging to you when you pick them up on the street and pay them (they even let you eviscerate them with coat hangers!), I was hoping for some tips, my good friend?



Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Reply From JT Leroy

Dear MJ/Paul,

Hey man, thanks for writing to me. (You can tell I’m an American since I start my letters with hey man which all Americans use in their formal correspondence to denote their Yankeeism ha ha ha pulling yer leg man). I love that you love me! Thank you for reading my little bookies! I wrote them on napkins and on the floor. But look, Paul. I think you’re a mixed-up kid. I think you need guidance. Don’t be writing that metafiction shit man. That stuff was old hat in the eighties. Imagine what it is now! It’s a decaying chapeau. It’s a mouldy bowler, man. Stop it. I don’t read modern stuff since I once read a Paul Auster novel and thought what the hell is this man, is the dude on artichokes and cough syrup or something what the fiddle? If you were here, I’d teach you all the things you need to know about the piddle-widdle and the prostate. So get on a plane! I live in Brooklyn, which being a Scot you will know is one street somewhere at the bottom of New York, near the scuzzy bit where the blacks live but sort of near the posh bit where the yuppie hipsters live. We all consume Ritz crackers and Chablis. In the meantime, I have attached a scan of my left nipple to amuse your cousins. My latest book—This Squeezy Bottle Looks Somewhat Phallic—is coming out next March, be sure to buy four copies.

Til then,

J T Leroy

Monday, 3 December 2012

Letter to JT Leroy

Dear J T Leroy,

I am your biggest fandangle. I love how you wrote those two books about child abuse under a fake name. I love how you paid a boring Brooklyn writer to pretend to be you to make the shitty shit more real. When I was a child I too hung around trailer park hookers and helped perform fellatio on beer-sodden belliferous brutes. (I didn’t really, but hey!) I like how your books are written at a level children can understand and from the POV of kids, because if there’s one thing we need more of as readers it’s whimsical child-abuse novels written for children but read by adults and written under fake names. I love you! MJ is not my real name, my real one is Paul Robertson. I come from the small Highland town of Nairn where porridge powers pylons and our only entertainment is the Village Yoyo, which gets passed sequentially among all the residents. It isn’t my shot until next March! I am so bored I could cut myself! I write what the kids call metafiction but no one wants to read me. Do you think I should start blowing truckers on the side? I know my way around a ladycave but I have never patted a pal’s protuberance before, sober or otherwise. Perhaps you can show me with diagrams what to do in that area? I would probably die for you, but I’m not 100% on that.



Sunday, 2 December 2012

A Tadpolish Memoir

When I was teenager I was ludicrously shy. I was the son and heir of a shyness that was criminally vulgar. My all-conquering shyness kept Morrissey in gold-plated ormolu swans for eight years. Any contact with human beings made me mumble in horror and scuttle off to lurk in dark corners. But I developed this automatic writing technique in school to ease my mounting stress whenever teachers were poaching victims to answer questions, perform presentations or generally humiliate. I would start out composing a piece of surrealist free-association prose, usually violently satirical. As the teachers (or pupils or other humans) closed in around me, my prose would lapse into soothing gibberish. Sometimes I wrote a stream of pretty sounding words (I was a rabid sesquipedalian in my teens)—zeugmatic, antediluvian, milquetoast, mugwump. Luscious lovely words! Sometimes language broke down into neologisms or gibberish—boobleplop, artycary, frumpalerp, etc. Nervy, throbbing syllables. I came to associate collapsed language with an inner space where I went to hide from the imagined humiliations of interacting with others. Once I escaped the imprisonment of my inner conscious (over a four-year period known as The Torture Years), I always used nonsense writing as a means of getting through difficult situations—where others might doodle, for example, I would write Joycean Jabberwocky. Still do, usually on the phone. So this book, to me, is The Little Book of Calm. Except it isn’t little, and it makes people shit themselves. Me? I love this magnificent beast. Unless you suffer from similar deep-seated psychological wounds that threaten to gradually consume your entire adult life, don’t read this monstrous thing.

Friday, 30 November 2012

My Month in Books, Part Two (Nov)

10. Adam Thirlwell — Miss Herbert

Miss Herbert: A book of novels, romances and their translators, containing ten languages, set on four continents and accompanied by maps, portraits, squiggles and illustrations—titled The Delighted States in the United States—is a digressive meditation on literary style, translation and avant-garde genealogy. The (English) title refers to Juliet Herbert, the English governess of Flaubert’s niece, Caroline. Her womanly charms were admired by Gustave—“at the table my eyes follow the gentle slope of her breast”—and she helped him complete an English translation of Madame Bovary, a “masterpiece” that was lost by Herbert when she returned to England. The book, Thirlwell states: “ . . . is my version of Nabokov’s ideal novel—which is not really a novel. It has recurring characters; with a theme, and variations; and this theme has its recurring motifs. It just has no plot, no fiction, and no finale. It is a description of a milky way, an aurora borealis.” Split into five “volumes” with a series of “books” separating each short “chapter” (essay), Thirlwell’s beautifully designed and visually stunning mini-tome is a charming ramble through Flaubert, Sterne, Nabokov, Joyce, Kafka, Gombrowicz and Proust, filled with marvellous and often contradictory musings on the problems of translation and retaining style, plus delicious literary trivia, as if Markson had written proper paragraphs. (My favourite morsel being that Nabokov delivered his 1937 lecture on style to Joyce and the Hungarian football team). Clearly, this book should be picked up and devoured by, more or less, everyone on my GR friend list, even if you find Thirlwell’s sentences a little too staccato. [This version also includes Thirlwell’s translation, from the original French, of Nabokov’s ‘Mademoiselle O’ and the original text, rather unnecessarily].

11. Petros Abatzoglou — What Does Mrs. Freeman Want?

From the reviews: “wonderful little page-turner” and “sweet and funny book.” This does not sound like the Dalkey Archive, and yet, the book formally fits the bill despite its unfortunate “readable” quality. The narrator, also named Petros Abatzoglou (see!), recounts the marriage of Mr & Mrs Freeman, from its teacher/student beginnings through its tortured sexual lows to its better-late-than-never mutual love and understanding. What makes the style curious is the narrator is “speaking” the story to a paramour who is frequently addressed in the second person and never talks back (us readers?) and peppers his narration with chatty asides and comments on his beachside shenanigans. One wonders if the novel is an exercise in cunning subtlety, or simply a loose, chilled-out (very Greek?) approach to the art of fiction. Either way it’s over in an hour and thirty and Kay Cicellis is the translator.

12. Ivan Turgenev — Fathers and Sons

Tremendous. Forget the patchy, barely coherent A Hero of Our Time. This is your pre-Tolstoy, pre-Dostoevsky (almost—excusing a decade or two) Russian masterpiece. Do you want to be a nihilist with a casual interest in botany and medicine? Do you sneer at aristocratic values but have the hots for a milf with a vassal-soaked estate? Do you treat your father’s house like a hotel, and only pay fleeting three-year visits, during which you torment your poor mother and her servants? Do you want to snog your best friend’s father’s girlfriend because you like her cute bastard? Then, my nonfriends, Bazarov is the bloke for you. Richard Freeborn’s translation makes use of British slang for the chummy moments, i.e. “mate,” which is arguably better than “dude,” but only by a whisper. Apart from that, the excellence of Ivan’s best one shines through. These gimps on the cover are piggishly apt.

13. Declan Kiberd — Ulysses and Us: The Art of Everyday Living

Hey, pleb! Ever fancied reading the second hardest masterwork by James Joyce, but felt too damn plebeian to do so? Has it ever occurred to you, as you sit in your disreputable alehouse quaffing toxic hemlocks to escape the hell of your nine-to-five backbreaking manual occupation, that a 933pp novel about a cuddly Jewish-Irishman and his quirks is the solution to the pain of being born poor, dumb and drunk? Maybe you haven’t read a book since school, and even then, you only skim-read the first two pages, you lardy ignoramus? Perhaps you think, in your infinite plebitude, James Joyce is a runner-up on The X-Factor? Oh, you silly proletariat fool! Come hither, does Declan Kiberd have a book for you! In fact—no he doesn’t. He has a book for us clever people who have already read Ulysses. A book written especially so us eggheads can feel better about our elitist tendencies and continue to plough our self-regarding furrows by pretending we are reading a text written for the Everyman rather than Everyman-in-a-Thousand. See what I did there? Or are you too busy rolling around in your own vomit to notice? Kiberd’s book is at its most engaging when moving section by section, although overall it reads more like a brilliant riff on his most beloved book rather than a coherent reading of Ulysses for the plebs. Nice try, though.

14. Gore Vidal — Palimpsest: A Memoir

This memoir covers the first forty years of the Vidal saga, alighting on his blind senator Grandpa, savage alcoholic mother, childhood sweetheart, licentious sex life, and endless hobnobbery with the most prominent actors and politicians of the period as he mosies up the Hollywood ladder and cosies up with Kennedys. Written in the sumptuously arch manner familiar to anyone who has seen a Vidal clip on YouTube, the memoir establishes a warm if prickly tone, and treats the reader as an intelligent confidant(e) for the duration. Vidal’s life was far from “tough” in the street sense, but it wasn’t without personal and financial trials. Far from being drip-fed millions since birth, Gore’s father was a Scrooge and his mother a vengeful rival who delighted in his failures. Since he moved in a world where homosexuality was not the lynching offence it was to the lower orders (in the 40s), he was able to enjoy full sexual freedom and promiscuity, despite the predictable condemnation of The City and the Pillar that forced him to work for a decade in theatre, film and TV, where he made enough to become the leisurely aesthete he aimed to be (i.e. to achieve complete artistic freedom, rather than a wanton lust for money—though Vidal was clearly used to a expensive lifestyle and eager to maintain this). Apart from some rather bland material towards the end on Jackie & Jack Kennedy, who seem to be deeply uninteresting figures on the whole, this is a swinging memoir of an outstanding life that will induce fits of envious knuckle-biting and book punching. But that’s our problem.

15. William H. Gass — Finding a Form

Gass is my new loverboy. You can have near nonagenarian loverboys, right? In ‘Pulitzer: The People’s Prize’ Gass performs sober seppuku upon this embarrassing quasi-literary, crowd-pleasing “prize,” bestowed upon nonbooks no one can remember a month later. ‘A Failing Grade for the Present Tense’ explores the popularity of this limited tense choice among creative writing students, and offers suggestions as to more multifarious tenses for those trapped in the terminal now. ‘Finding a Form’ and ‘A Fiesta for the Form’ are some of Gass’s most exuberant and musical essays (and this man can swing), bursting with energy and vitality and loving paeans to the Latin-American hipster scene, where the novel has been quietly evolving of late. Among the authors profiled include Robert Walser (a moving portrait of the reluctant artist as a strange man) and Ezra Pound (an hilarious portrait of the fascist as a scissors-and-paste man). His pieces on autobiography and the origins of the avant-garde also serve up long sittings of simply divine, blistering writing. No one approaches words on the page with the same attention to the musicality of each syllable, the sibilance of letters within words, the alliterative bounce of words off words, the assonant resonance of vowels and their bowels. This stuff matters, and Gass makes it sing as he flexes his almost extraterrestrial intellect in the philosophical digressions and deep-probing explorations of the worlds within words. The only hiccups in reading are caused by the essays flying at times over my head. Otherwise: nineteen of the hundred greatest essays ever written by a human. The other eighty-one essays are, unsurprisingly, by Gass too. Read Gass, dammit!

16. Ali Smith — The Reader

Ali Smith’s selection of “favourite” writing (within budget, pending permissions, circa 2006, mostly 20thC) is an eclectic, if sometimes disappointingly tame, rodeo of rompers and criers. Let’s use the mixtape analogy, shall we? When we compile mixtapes, we commonly fill them with our favourite tunes of the moment, ongoing all-time musical obsessions, and whatever obscure Throbbing Gristle B-sides are currently filling our ears. Ali has filled this book with canonical all-timers (Angela Carter, Muriel Spark, Joy Williams, George Mackay Brown), some present-day loves (Maggie O’Farrell, Nicola Barker, Lydia Davis), and a bursting bag of B-sides (too numerous to mention). By focusing on the B-sides she keeps the adventurous reader both delighted and infuriated (one minute it’s William Carlos Williams, the next an excerpt from Louise Brookes’s autobio, then onto Alasdair Gray and an obscure WWII historian called Armando).

17. Adolfo Bioy Casares — Asleep in the Sun

Despite the back cover revealing the entire plot, this surreal anthropomorphic bodyswap novel contains as much wit as that other canine comedy, Mikhail Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog. Lucio, in a series of implausible “letters” written from a mental asylum, narrates his tale of wife-fixing gone awry. Sending his wife Diana off to be “cured” of her undesirable traits, upon her return he finds a docile impostor inhabiting her body, and a dog in possession of her soul. Eager, in his bumbling way, to find answers, Lucio finds himself the victim of the sinister asylum doctors, rendered in the creepiest B-movie tradition. A diverting slice of unusualness for a lazy weekend with a fine, fine moral: don’t send you wife off to the nuthouse if she nags at you too much.

18. Fernando Del Paso Palinuro of Mexico

Del Paso favours the maximal form—Palinuro of Mexico and News From the Empire are sprawling imaginative playgrounds, concerned with the seemingly limitless possibilities of the human mind to transcend anything with everything. In Palinuro of Mexico Del Paso has created a magical, surreal, artificial and dreamlike narrative. The titular character is, at times, both narrator and subject (sometimes he narrates about himself in the third person)—a medical student in passionate love with his cousin Estefania. Ostensibly, this is a novel about the body—in love, in pain, in all its staggering medical complexity—and the irresponsible people responsible for keeping it ticking. Ostensibly, this is about a lovedrunk incestuous romance between sex-mad cousins. Ostensibly, this novel is a “state of the nation” piece about the decline of Mexico. Ostensibly, this is a form-breaking metafictive wonderland with nods to Sorrentino’s satire, Bolaño’s breathless run-on sentences, Sterne’s incomplete encyclopaedism, Rabelais’s delirious vulgarity, Ducornet’s tempestuous romances. Ostensibly, this is an enormous strutting vulture larded with medical terminology, literary references, nonsensical internal monologues that run for up to ten pages sans paragraph breaks. Ostensibly, this is that all-too-rare bird—a freewheeling uninhibited masterwork in pursuance of pure readerly pleasure, of that Gassian wonder of the word. Ostensibly, it is all these things, and a million more you can think up if you do the decent thing and read this exasperating Mexican supernova tomorrow. A thin line between love and hate, perhaps . . . but love will prevail in the end. I promise.  

19. Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky Memories of the Future

Coming up, Knig-o-lass will teach us how to pronounce this writer’s cumbersome surname. In the meantime, here’s seven fantastical stories. ‘Quadraturin’ is a slice of Russian absurdism qua Gogol. ‘The Bookmark’ is an early, essentially metafictional story about storytellers losing control of their characters and other opaque meanderings. ‘Someone Else’s Theme’ continues the literary satire, spliced with a fantastical layer that makes the story impossible to pin to one thing . . . halfway into certain pages it seems the story has morphed into another entirely. ‘The Branch Line’ and ‘Red Snow’ are entirely fantastical dream-narratives with shades of Bulgakovian magic, closer to surrealism in style. ‘The 13th Category of Reason’ is irresistible black comedy. ‘Memories of the Future’ transports the time-machine yarn to Stalinist Russia in an extremely detailed SF number that predates the nouveau roman’s contraptive exactitude. Joanne Turnbull (translator) preserves the wordplay and unusual snakiness of his sentences, making this septet an uneven but quiet delight.