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. 

Thursday, 29 November 2012

My Month in Books, Part One (Nov)

This month: several re-reads for pleasure and reappraisal. Some non-fiction meanderings, essays and the like, and back on-course on the avant-garde choo-choo.

1. Vladimir Nabokov — Pale Fire: A Poem in Four Cantos by John Shade

The 999-line poem ‘Pale Fire’ in Nabokov’s overpraised novel Pale Fire has never been taken seriously as a defining lyrical masterwork but more a ludic/parodic exercise in sly snark and icy affect. This enormous boxset from Gingko Press extracts the poem from the novel and presents the work in a rustic 50s style chapbook and a series of handwritten Shadean index cards. In a side panel of this black felt box (with illustrations by Jean Holabird) a second chapbook ‘Reflections’ presents two essays from Brian Boyd (Vlad biographer) and R.S. Gwynn (poet of note) who argue the case for the piece as an artistic marvel, and contextualise the affair in the shadow of Eliot and Frost and their delusions of canonical posterity. Yvor Winters (who?) is thought to have been the ‘inspiration’ for John Shade. An interesting deluxe item that, sales-wise would have benefited from including the Kinbote material, but aesthetically would have undercut the purpose. For hardcore Pale Fire or Nabokov nuts only.

2. Vladimir Nabokov — Pale Fire

Pale Fire presents a 999-line poem from murdered poet John Shade, followed by an unreliable commentary (and earlier intro) from his stalker and apparent chum Charles Kimbote. The commentator takes an arch tone to his union with shade, exaggerating and distorting his position in the poet’s life, and uses the space to expand on the history of his homeland Zembla in lieu of discussing the poem’s content. Upon a first reading I found the book something of an extended academic titterfest, albeit larded with the usual Nabokovian puzzles for militant close readers, and upon a second read, my opinion hasn’t changed much. The digressions on Zemblan kings and princes are (intentionally, but so what?) long-winded and dreary, and the line-by-line commentary, although amusing in places, doesn’t particularly dazzle except as a series of Vlad set-pieces, like a looser Pnin, albeit with more formal ingenuity. The poem isn’t supposed to be a spoof of bad poetry, according to Vlad biographer Brian Boyd in this boxset special edition. It ain’t half bad.

3. Laurence Sterne — The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

This edition from Visual Editions expands upon, or at least emphasises, the typographical fancies Sterne deployed for his maddening nine-book digressive epic. Combining black and red font effects (all the dashes and chapter titles are in red), with unique artistic stunts (the infamous black page is replaced by a strikethrough design, various font frolics are exaggerated in amusing ways, and one page includes a ‘moisture’ effect using semi-laminate bubbles over the text), the book isn’t perhaps as radical as it appears, but it mainlines some creativity into otherwise bland Penguin or OUP editions. Other effects include Slawkenbergius’s tale printed on a parchment-like gray background (in red font!), a folded page which has to be ‘closed’ to read the text on the other side, and an enhancement of Sterne’s barmy plotline squiggles that attempt to map a coherent path for the book. The edition is lacking in explanatory notes, meaning a new reader interested in keeping up with the Latin, Greek and French asides, or the avalanche of obscure references that come thicker and faster as the book—um, progresses?—digresses, will need to have a Penguin or OUP edition handy. (I read this constantly flipping back to the OUP ed for notes—eventually I gave up). Tristram Shandy, as you will discover, may be a book of digressions and wild goose chases, but it demands Zen-like concentration for both the scholasticism and the difficult 18thC English. I hope to prove a better reader on the second spin. Michael Winterbottom made the film with Steve Coogan.

4. Charles Dickens — The Mystery of Edwin Drood

An incomplete Dickens novel is like a half-finished jigsaw. How do you rate a half-finished jigsaw? This fragment, being Dickens, actually comprises about 1.5/3 of the intended work, but still isn’t enough to want to invest oneself emotionally and intellectually in the characters and plot happenings (for me, anyway). In this instance, it may be wiser to skip the book and head straight for the recent BBC adaptation (much as it pains me to recommend TV over text). Still: not without its usual charms and flourishes, howevs. Now I have reached the end of my serialised Dickens quest, let me now pointlessly rate the works from favourite to not:

Little Dorrit. Sumptuous, heartbreaking . . . not an unmemorable moment.
2—Our Mutual Friend. Melancholy, dark, haunting and murderous.
3—David Copperfield. The reason first-person narratives are no longer required.
4—Nicholas Nickleby. Extremely funny, rollicking picaresque-esque number.
5—A Tale of Two Cities. Exceptionally moving and bloodthirsty historical novel.
6—Oliver Twist. Captivating child protagonist, fabulously vicious twists.
7—The Pickwick Papers. Dickens does straight comedy to much merriment.
8—The Old Curiosity Shop. Scariest villain and cutest child fatality.
9—Bleak House. Complex, powerful and yes, a wee bit overlong in places(!)
10—Martin Chuzzlewit. His second best comedy, starring the brilliant Pecksniff.
11—Dombey and Son. Extremely tense, extremely meandering. But good.
12—Barnaby Rudge. Satire and history together in a messy, bloody epic, with parrots.
13—Great Expectations. Beautiful childhood reflections, less successful in adulthood.
14—Hard Times. Sublime character Gradgrind in choppy, hectoring effort.
15—The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Unfinished.

5. David David Katzman — A Greater Monster

A Greater Monster is an audacious, ambitious antinovel that takes the form (at a guess) of a continuous hallucinatory trip through the depths of the imagination. The unities of time are doused with fourteen pints of lexical petroleum. Linearity, plot logic and coherence are torched on the bonfire in favour of language that uses typographical innovation to mimic the helter-skelter loopiness of the unconscious. Language doesn’t escape the sousing—here, wordplay is permitted a little pas de deux before Katzman violently beats his words around the cursives with sticks. Starting in the past then switching into the future tense, the novel puts all its faith in the rhythmical wave of words: sentences are clipped and speedy, frantic and free. The image-driven and action-led surrealism is unrelenting and will test or polarise the readership.

To what extent the typographical stunts are entirely relevant to the Greater Aesthetic Purpose, or exist merely in and of themselves, is up for debate. But the range of artful deviations on here is delightful: snaking and spiralling sentences, first person pronouns exploding in your face, hands and busts reaching out the page, all sorts of kerning and spacing shenanigans, plus, most impressively, 75pp of beautiful black-paper illustrations. Katzman’s commitment to the book as both an evolver of language and a work of visual art shines through. Although
A Greater Monster (it seems) wants to be read linearly, it opens itself to random reading and the reader’s immersion in the delicious word-waves. Perfect for those seeking their next blast of brain-stretching oddness and loving wordbendery.

6. Gilbert Sorrentino — Little Casino

A short spectacular novel that forms part of an unofficial trilogy along with A Strange Commonplace and the posthumous The Abyss of Human Illusion we might label the “retirement” trilogy (GS having previously, and quietly, taught at Stanford until the late nineties). In a series of vignettes, Sorrentino dredges up the ghosts of his Brooklyn past for a typically sardonic, extra-specially perverse cockeyed slant at humanity and its failings. A warm-hearted and sometimes sentimental book, Little Casino is comfy in its artifice, with self-commentaries added to each chapter for further cranky or equally moving comments. Among the more amusing pieces is ‘Epistolary Associates’ where a woman criticises a letter sent by an ex-lover for not jolting her “into taking a fresh view of our relationship . . . your recollection of what we ‘had’ together seems, I’m afraid, rather flat.” The chapter concerning a vicious marital argument ‘The Tomato Episode’ is especially amusing when read by Sorrentino in this interview and podcast from the Lannan Foundation (sadly not filmed). The only video footage available of Sorrentino, seemingly, is him discussing Hubert Selby in the DVD It/ll Be Better Tomorrow.

7. Gilbert Sorrentino — Aberration of Starlight

Sorrentino’s sixth work of fiction plants an unexpected but apt quotation from Brian O’Nolan after the final page: “The meanest bloody thing in hell made this world.”

Aberration of Starlight
is one of Sorrentino’s most bitter, scathing and unflinching novels (and perhaps the closest he came to ‘realism’ in content only) in his hefty canon. Split between four characters—a son, his mother, her lover and a father—the book probes into the “psychopathology of everyday life” (Freud ref but also a short story by Gilb) with a series of structural scalpels and stylistic callipers. Making use of letters, fantasies, internal monologue, question-and-answer, dialogue and memory fragments (all this is on the blurb—don’t panic), Gilb summons up the burning contempt, sexual repression and overall heartbreak at the heart of this painfully “real family.” Billy, the “cockeyed” child, hopes that Tom, her mother’s philandering lover, will replace his absent father, while their poisonous old prick of a grandfather can’t stand to imagine his daughter as a sexual being or having his virility challenged by a younger man. The story is beautiful, painful, darkly humorous and melancholy. And tough, damn tough:

“He wasn’t prepared for her anger and spunk in talking back to him, and what did Bridget being sick all that time have to do with her letting this man be her escort, he’d like to know that, and could she tell him that? With a pair of high-heeled shoes meant for a girl of eighteen, not a mother who’d been married in the church at a high nuptial mass and in the eyes of God was
still married. She sailed right by that and tore into Helga, that backbiting dutchie she called her, can’t you see what’s as plain as the nose on your face? That sauerkraut-eater has, oh don’t deny it, she has grand plans for you, oh my, grand. Why, you talk about people, pardon me, the antiques here, think about Tom and me, Jesus, Mary and Joseph! Don’t you think they can all see that woman setting her cap for you? And she’d say anything to play up to you, anything she thinks you want to hear, by God, she’ll say it, in spades. He didn’t mean to—maybe he didn’t actually say it—but he forebade her to go out with that sly article and her face got as white as her shoes. She said she’d do as she damn well pleased! With a bleached blonde of a tramp he was seen, a whore! he said, and blushed. That’s the kind of man who’s taking you dancing! Worse than that greaseball of a husband of yours, and bejesus he doesn’t even have a bit of ass on him! By God, it’s one of the wonders of the world that the man can manage to sit down. She was holding the door open for him and wiping tears from her eyes. Oh Poppa, she said, what a spiteful thing to say, what a spiteful, mean thing to say to your own daughter.” (p192-3)

8. Hubert Selby Jr. — The Demon

The seventies were seemingly the most productive decade for Hubert Selby, whose short bibliography shows how torturously he composed his tortured (but never torturous) novels and stories. The Room was published in 1971, followed by The Demon in 1976 and Requiem For a Dream only two years(!) later. With his two masterpieces behind him—Requiem and Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964)—Selby’s work was extremely sporadic and, apparently, subpar. Publication dates suggest this novel occupied him for half a decade, despite Requiem being the superior work, but it’s by no means a patchy effort. The Demon is a “psychological drama” (as TV schedulers say) following the progress of sex-addicted Harry from his womanising years, his attempt to shimmy up the (unconvincing) corporate ladder, to his slow transformation into a serial killer. The prose is typically simple, using Selby’s familiar punctuation style and exhausting run-on sentences. He spends a little too long on the build-up for the climax to have the same devastating wrecking-ball-in-the-guts feeling as his two masterpieces. Arguably, Selby’s depiction of home life is far too cardboard to be wholly satisfying here. His strength as a writer was a profound understanding of what drives people to extremes and the tormented tangles we get ourselves into. (It is hinted that Harry could ‘free’ his demon by simply confessing all his nefarious acts—hmm, probably not, eh Hube?)

9. Flann O’Brien — Further Cutting From Cruiskeen Lawn

The Best of Myles is the only Myles na gCopaleen collection needed in one’s personal library, end of discussion, rubber-stamp it, commit it to posterity, do it and dust it. This edition and its non-Dalkey partner The Hair of the Dogma mop up morsels from the Cruiskeen Lawn columns that might be of some interest to the reader jonesing for historical Irish trivia or who can’t get enough of Myles’s hilarious but eventually tiresomely wacky voice. I can imagine how exciting flicking through The Irish Times and arriving at Myles’s column would have been circa 1940-1966—here, the effect is diluted through a surfeit of out-of-date material on Irish politics, topical debates and other parochial concerns or esoteric oddities. In other words, all the best material is in The Best of Myles. Clue’s in the name.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

A Sodding Update

Since graduating from the Napier MA (over a year ago now and STILL banging on about it!) I haven’t felt the need to maintain much of an online blog presence. Most of my online activities take place on Goodreads where I discuss what matters most to me—literature. Or, if you like, books. Discuss might not be the word. I write brief capsule reviews of the books I read and ten or so people ‘like’ my reviews without comment. If I feel like it, I leave inane comments on other people’s reviews. Still, I like it there.

My book group still meets on weekends, and the Ulysses meetup was extremely useful and laid-back. I sometimes feel inadequate as to how I dissect a text. I have strong urges to write extremely analytical closely-read essays on the books I read, but that would take up too much of my time, and who would care? I could spend over a fortnight writing one of those, all for the satisfaction of having autopsied the book so I briefly have “complete mastery” over it, only to forget the drivel I wrote in a few weeks. I did this for a spell between 2004-2007 with albums and made £300 on a reviewing site. Goodreads pays nada.

The best-friends-for-life writing-network-of-Napier-alumni thing hasn’t happened. Perhaps I was too naïve to assume people would want to start a collective for sharing and editing each other’s work with frequent meet-ups and so on . . . people do things, so I am told, in their lives, that make these things impossible. I did set up a semi-useful FB group which has already been forgotten about. My suspicion is people find publishers for their own work and forget to share, or think fuck it—I want to have the edge and don’t share on purpose. Does that sound embittered and envious of me? Possibly. I’m one of the few people who truffles for publishers and anthologies and then shares. I think people, especially writers, are inherently selfish and perhaps need to be to survive in this fucking horrible world. I don’t like it, but how many writers, upon winning a contest, will punch the air and say, in your face suckers! All of them? Writing is as predatory as any other business.

At the moment, I’m not writing with a commercial eye, I’m focusing on writing what I want to write. Arlene’s Atoms is, possibly, the closest to a mainstream thing I will produce. I recently sent the book, fatalistically, to a slew of small presses, skipping the big hitters. Realistically, if I have a small-press book, or maybe two or three in time, behind me, I will have more chance of being glanced at by the big fellas. So my hope is that one of the many fine small presses will pick it up. If they don’t, I will need to take up mainlining heroin into my knees. I think we were taught to be too ambitious at the Napier MA. Although the crushing futility of the endeavour of writing was repeatedly emphasised by David Bishop, I think I shouldn’t have been advised to sub to agents. It was a waste of time—I’m an unknown with no prizes under my belt. But what does that matter now?

I have a new novella on the go at the moment: the form and structure and content are cohering nicely. I write fairly quickly once these things are in place, so hopefully this will be finished early next year.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Letter to the Agent

Dear _____

I sent you my novel Sally’s Testament last month and received a complaint about the opening sentence: “Cities at night, I feel, contain men who cry in their sleep and then say Nothing.” Your complaint was that this sentence is the opening of Martin Amis’s 1995 novel, The Information. I would like to explain. My use of this sentence dates back to 1994 when my novel was originally a short story, ‘Cherries in Bloom.’ It appeared in New Fiction 8 in modified form: “Cherries at night, I believe, contain pips who cry in their sleep and then say Eat me!” When it came to composing my novel in 2010 I adapted portions of the above sentence for my own use, oblivious to this chance occurrence of the same line in Amis’s novel. I hope this clears up any error and you will reconsider my MS.

Yours obligingly,

Alice McCulloch