Thursday, 31 January 2013

My Month in Books, January (Part Two)

9. Ali Smith — Artful

An extended Smith short story, wrapped like bacon around the sausage of her illuminating Oxford lectures, makes up this debut non-fiction collection from the Best Living Scottish Novelist (caps mean cred). Her trope of using the second person to address an absent presence (in this case, Smith is the one being addressed, by her partner) returns, fortunately intermittent between the otherwise un-tampered-with content of her brief lectures. Not unlike Adam Thirlwell’s grandiose Miss Herbert in its weaving of narrative, opinion, fact and quotation, Smith’s book is in a minor, but no less resonant, key, and gambols with the usual passion for language present in her novels—her lectures, unsurprisingly, are riddled with quotations, as she barely suppresses her eagerness to share the marvels she has unearthed in her current literary explorations (in this case Oliver Twist, James’s The Golden Bowl and Katherine Mansfield). Missing from this is her stirring keynote speech at the Edinburgh Book Festival: an absence as heavy as the invisible You that haunts the first half of the story. Cover image of Aliki Vougiouklaki, apparently a Greek Monroe, in looks only.

10. William T. Vollmann — The Rainbow Stories

Loved the street-smart reportage-cum-fiction parts—a blast of surprising grit, candour and pulsing realism all too rare in this navelgazing era. ‘The White Knights’ and ‘Ladies and Red Lights’ is rich in powerful, electrifying vignettes as Vollmann restricts his prose to a splendidly unshowy, detached and oddly empathetic voice. Unfortunately, what follows failed to provoke any reaction from me other than befuddlement and boredom—one cod-Talmudic story, written in a zanily biblical style, and one mind-numbing historical tale about a Chinese Thug gang were endured in the hope of finer things. The awkward romance stories about frolicking yuppies, especially ‘Yellow Rose,’ are precisely the sort of late-eighties all-smart-and-rich-young-people-are-fascinating efforts that Goodreads users rightly treat with contempt, although as stories they are mildly entertaining. But the onslaught of ‘The Blue Yonder,’ a nigh-unreadable stream of codswallop, close to DFW at his most Mister Squishy-like—the prose gummed to death by an overworked, self-regarding flashiness that eliminates all reader involvement, settling instead for vague templates for characters like ‘The Other’ and ‘The Zombie’—pulls the book into the realm of insufferable opaque quasi-philosophical dribbling that does not merit my attention for 180 more pp. Stopped on p360. More Vollmann? TBD . . .

11. Camilo José Cela — The Family of Pascal Duarte

For fans of Spanish miserablism set in a heartless deterministic universe (i.e. this one), Pascal Duarte is the brief novel for you. Duarte’s confession, written from prison, is a beautiful recounting of a life of violent poverty and aimless murder, told in simple and frequently moving prose. Cela’s work is often concerned with the seemingly endless human capacity for violence and conflict and this short work leaves a powerful imprint on the reader with its moments of hair-raising cruelty and almost unbearable tenderness.

12. Alicia Borinsky — Dreams of the Abandoned Seducer

This “vaudeville novel” is precisely what one would expect from a female Argentine ex-pat literature professor based in Boston (at the time this book was published)—freewheeling and chaotic, joyfully flipping off the Aristotelian unities of time, wryly satirical and astringently feminist, Borinsky’s novel is a panoply of voices, surreal scenes, weird commentaries, Argentine chatter and patter, literary opacity in that dangerously meaningless MFA-graduate-style, Puigian homage and bitesize ferocity. Her style is wildly entertaining and unique but meaning is hard to decipher amid the prattle, snark and boogie-woogie, and as the “novel” (more like Lydia Davis’s vignettes) progresses, one can only appreciate the book for any surreal amusement that lingers in the brain. Four stars not three to Alicia Borinsky for being cool, largely unknown, and looking like Deborah Levy. And for moving from Buenos Aires to Boston.

13. Ignácio de Loyola Brandão — Anonymous Celebrity

Spare a thought in 2013, this horrible horrible time to be alive, for the satirist. To satirise the self-satirising effluence that passes for populist entertainment and the pathetic vanity of a self-deifying movie industry is no mean feat in an age comfortable in its metameta cage. Being born into a system that values success, usually financial, above everything else, into an essentially worthless and spoiled world of governments happy to toss art aside in favour of financial dominance and petty power, gives the writer a subject, but limited manoeuvrability in his approach. To merry heck with the leaders who close libraries, theatres and community centres in favour of opening more retail opportunities and call centres to slowly mind-melt the populace. Fuck these zoot-suited capitalist cockslingers with their pus-filled polyps for souls. Because the only respite from the failed system in this failed First World is through literature—not through the ideologues, rhetoricians or motivational yammerers, but through the wonderous drug of fiction. Anyway. This fantastically inventive satire comes blazing from the mind of a Brazilian powerhouse. A fame-dream fantasy gone fatal, the novel is rife with hilarious, ponderous, filthy and sharp reflections on the curse of ordinariness in a vapid and callous age, and contains some absolutely marvellous exploding fonts. Natty cover too.

14. Adolfo Bioy Casares — The Invention of Morel

Lacking in the satirical surrealism found in his later (and some say lesser) NYRB book Asleep in the Sun, unfortunately this one failed to sustain my attention despite forty pages of anticipatory eagerness. The narrator, nameless, mooches around an island spying on a gypsy woman and is evicted from her presence by bearded Frenchmen. Naturally, she is beautiful, naturally he falls in love with her, then something happens to do with photographs and people dying and I didn’t understand most of it, due to the absence of an interesting character or situation or compelling narrative style, and too much technical-contraption-waffle of the kind found in the most boring nouveau roman stuff.

15. Christopher Sorrentino — Sound on Sound

Chris Sorrentino’s debut novel, only and barely available in hardcover, continues the daring and exciting formal adventures found in his father Gilbert Sorrentino’s novels. Structured around five aspects of musical composition and recording, Sound on Sound concerns the hopeless rock band Hi-Fi and their inaugural divebar concert. Making use of Gilbert-approved techniques like detached descriptions (of photos), cryptic footnotes, hilarious parodies, lists, sardonic third-person narration and sly metafictive flourishes, Sorrentino dissects a generation of late-seventies brats posing as nihilists and riffs on the spurious self-mythologizing of rock musicians and the critics who participate. The novel can be read in any order, with the wonderful crankiness of ‘Solo’ and the Q&A format of ‘Vocals’ the most engaging chapters. Chris Sorrentino has an excellent website with an updated archive of his work (including essays on Gil).

16. Hubert Selby Jr. — The Room

Selby’s second novel is his attempt at a knockabout comedy—drunk vicars chatting up girls on the village green, various cream-heavy pastries being lobbed into the faces of pompous landowners, amusing misunderstandings between bachelors and the parents of honourable virgins. The Room’s republication as a Penguin Classic will kick-start that much-needed Benny Hill revival the world has been begging for. On second thoughts, I might have the wrong book. This one explores the tormented psyche of an unnamed convict as he seethes in his cell, planning his revenge against his arresting officers in elaborate civic action and courtroom scenes, and indulging in horrible canine torture sequences in bile-stirring graphic detail, in case anyone might mistake this man as the victim of a brutalizing regime of injustice. Selby’s most inventive book structurally and typographically, and a contender for his most shocking and hopeless (tough competition), The Room is a pitiful howl from a personal abyss (Selby’s?) most people won’t care to hear. More scattershot than the word-perfect masterpiece Last Exit to Brooklyn (Selby was writing without Sorrentino’s editorial guidance at this point), this is still a wrenching and necessary novel from an unflinching visceral realist—long before Bolaño made that sound sexy.

17. Rosalyn Drexler — Art Does (Not!) Exist

Hello, Rosalyn Drexler! Fascinating unknown cultural titan with an amazing career—former professional wrestler, pop-art painter, sculptor, playwright, screenwriter and, if that wasn’t enough (listening Gass?), avant-pop novelist, apparently still around, aged 85 and some months, last book in 2007. Hello! And now the bad news: most of her books are out of print. Paris Review Prizes, Guggenheim Fellowships, Emmy Awards, National Endowments—nope, not enough to keep a writer’s books in print in America. This one, published by FC2 in 1996, was so fresh and unique I mistook the writer for a younger, hungrier specimen—Drexler was in her seventieth year upon publication. A spiky, stabby satirical knife-parade, a loose-lipped and ditto-limbed formal frolic of her own, Art Does (Not!) Exist evokes the savagery of Lucy Ellmann with a dashette more danger and ALL CAPS. A tremendous primer for the Collected Works of Rosalyn Drexler, which you should all read immediately, if they get reprinted.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

My Month in Books, January (Part One)

1. Lydia Davis — Varieties of Disturbance

When Davis isn’t off winning MacArthur fellowships and whipping up essential translations of Proust and Flaubert she also writes almost-award-winning story collections of pulsating sharpness. To spend time in Varieties of Disturbance is to nestle down inside a superhuman mind in a continual state of ecstatic whirr and recline divinely on dark and comforting truths about the human condition. Like Ali Smith (who is better at novels) Davis favours micro-portraits, throwaway whimsies, vacation snapshots in favour of the throbbing gristle of the long form. The longer stories in this beatific collection are superior to those in Almost No Memory, where space squeezed out substance (the exception here, perhaps, being the near tedious ‘Helen and Vi’), but the stars are the thumbnails. If anyone can compress epics into the space of two charming sentences, it is Davis, whose daringly antithetical translation of The Way by Swann’s illustrates the mangled contrarian logic at play in her literary project, and especially this sumptuous selection. Essential.

2. The Review of Contemporary Fiction: William H. Gass: Vol. 24-3

This is a short but epic issue on Gass—mostly tributes from his confrères and underlings, with a few critical pokings for appearance’s sake. Robert Coover contributed an obscene (not by his standards) homage to Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife, Walter Abish a cut-and-paste collage of 50 sentences, John Barth a brief hail-to-the-chief, Mary Caponegro an ecstatic and near-stalkerish piece of pseudoscholarly Gass worship, Rikki Ducornet a beautiful illustration, Michael Eastman some adoring work-shots of The Maestro, and the others various bits and boobs, mostly comic, appreciative and Gass-struck. As they should be.

3. Stephen D. Gutierrez — Elements

A collection of street-smart (says this pompous ass) stories with a remarkable flair for rhythm and beat. The stories here perform cartwheels, handstands and sly somersaults, sparkle with incendiary slang, and grapple with their own unwriteableness. The suite ‘Elements’ pokes around in East Los Angeles Mexican-American life, alternating between disembodied narrators and unconcealed autobiographical riffs on Steven D. Gutierrez’s tortured existence. As the collection progresses, Gutierrez serves up self-lacerating rants about his Cornell MFA program and the dolts who won’t publish his work—candour that is both somehow universal and laughably selfish. ‘Afterword’ contains three long-ish pieces that are stronger when Gutierrez removes himself from the picture (his life is always tortured, despite his success at teaching and getting laid a lot, which he is keen to tell us), running on a manic energy and sweaty desperation. Because Gutierrez inserts himself into the work he casts something of a shadow—he simply isn’t that likeable, and his views on writing I find unnecessarily stifling (only writing when inspiration strikes or perfect sentences are hit upon). He also tells us of his hatred for A Sentimental Education. At that point he lost me. Good story writer, challenging book.

4. Robert Coover — The Adventures of Lucky Pierre

Two posits. 1. Coover as Moralist—chastising today’s sex-crazed kids in the internet-porn age, where adult relationships are trashed in favour of the old in-and-out performed in beds, sheds, lifts, rowboats, kayaks, cockpits and swimming pools in all manner of Karmasutric combinations until loins spurt and shoot and ooze and heave and moan with the nerve-tingling pleasure a morning bagel and publishing internship cannot provide. 2. Coover as Immoralist—sex as the one true pleasure in life, revelling in the unlimited possibilities of locking organs with an infinite number of sexual partners, a freedom granted in the imagination only, coming on sofas, mattresses, kittens, sugarcanes, Audis, lettuce and deckchairs, again and again until one’s sexual organs shrivel like fridge-bound salad and one’s caveperson impulse to rut becomes a spiritual thing. Which one? Both. I delighted in this novel’s relentless, perverted comic energy, at once stimulating and disturbing and humiliating and insane, and I also couldn’t wait for the overblown indulgent bag of pomo bullplop to come to a climax. Such is the Coover experience.

5. Dubravka Ugrešić — The Culture of Lies: Antipolitical Essays

I found myself trapped reading this book of essays on Serb-Croat pickles and peccadilloes. Plucking it idly from the library, based solely on my previous four sit-downs with Dubravka, I found the content not in my purview. And yet, her engaging voice kept me returning for more until—lo and behold!—all 288pp were completed, and I emerged 1% more knowledgeable about Balkan history (I have, of course, forgotten it all already). This is why reading is imperative for spongeheads like me: while we’re booking it we’re in possession of facts and opinions only a privileged few have access to. We are cranial conquistadors in our armchairs! For comment on the content, as ever, absent friend Chris has it covered and Harry has quotes in boldface, so you don’t forget, for the world is a sponge.

6. Alasdair Gray — Every Short Story, 1951-2012

Read and reviewed only for Tales Droll & Plausible, 131pp of new material. The stories range from the usual rambling nostalgia fare, i.e. ‘The Third Mister Glasgow’ and ‘Billy Semple,’ to contemporary satire, i.e. ‘Late Dinner,’ ‘Whisky and Water,’ and ‘ Gumbler’s Sheaf’ to relationship reflections, i.e. ‘Misogynist’ and ‘Maisie & Henry,’ to SF-infused oddness, i.e. ‘Goodbye Jimmy’ and ‘Voices in the Dark.’ Gray’s straightforward mannered style is present, as charming as ever, yet he remains to the end a mildly comic fantasist: no pathos or power has crept into his OAP writings, excepting perhaps the little frown that ends ‘Gumbler’s Sheaf.’ This enormous, unnecessarily bulky collection also includes a long story-by-story guide by Gray, with recycled autobiographical material from his many other books. My reviews of the other story collections are elsewhere, i.e. here: 1983, 1985, 1990, 1993, 2003. Possibly (but unlikely, mostly) Gray’s final-ever story for you, ‘Ending’:
Having beguiled with fiction until I had none left I resorted to facts, which also ran out. (p900)

7. Jonathan Franzen — Farther Away

Franzen’s second collection of non-fic trimmings is as strong as his first, albeit slacking on the long luscious literary essays that made How To Be Alone such a public event (remember, there were STREET PARTIES when that beast was published!), and too ornithological for five-star status. One man’s birdwatching is another man’s trainspotting and Franzen fills almost 90pp with enormous pieces on crested tits and other porn-flappers. Jeez. Otherwise, ‘On Autobiographical Fiction’ is a brilliant riff that could fill a monograph, ‘I Just Called to Say I Love You’ is a selfconsciously cranky anti-tech-abuse rant, and the title piece mixes Robinson Crusoe ruminations with beautiful reflections on his late mate DFW. His memorial service remarks are printed later, but ‘Farther Away’ is one of the most moving DFW encomiums since the deed. Otherwise, Franzen is in book weenie mode, talking up various lesser-known treats in GR-sized reviews (see my books-found-in-books shelf). A little too scrilla with filler, but otherwise a solid second album with no hint of sophomore slump.

8. John Barth — Giles Goat-Boy

I have emerged in a post-posttape daze, staggering about not sure what to think and whether to rate this old-skool postmo razzlematazzlical performance in the uppers or the lowers. The last Barth I read was Lost in the Funhouse, which I dismissed as dated experimental wankeroo (Barth was the keenest postmodder of the lot, and this collection reads like the marking of territory), and before then the excellent The Sot-Weed Factor (which bears no notable resemblance to Sorrentino’s 1983 novel Blue Pastoral) and the hairpulling Coming Soon!!! where Barth proves he can still run rings around Dave Eggers and all the bepermed whippersnappers now in their mid-forties (the fact Barth outlived DFW proves for him the funhouse was a goshdarn hoot).

Giles Goat-Boy is the most inventive, loopy, and acronym-heavy of the four, although it didn’t disprove my suspicion Barth’s work is trapped in the masculine mores of sixties academe. The first part, or “tape,” (the story is, implausibly, all spoken by GILES into tapes handed to Barth in the preface), is chock with ribald larks and a network of satirical plots and comic characters that keeps the story’s ventricles pulsing, although it soon becomes clear—beside the obvious “quest” narrative—making sense of the other strands is a pointless exercise. The second tape finds the novel more tedious for that lack of focus, although patient reading yields page-by-page rewards.

Mainly, for a book bursting with such erudition and evident metatextual heft and subtextual smartness, GG-B is the silliest, daftest novel I have read since the last JM Coetzee. Barth is the only writer I have read who writes about rape with a tittering comic jauntiness, and the three rapes of the dreadful female character Anastasia, and the overall pervy, creepy aura surrounding all references to sex, seems to be a constant in his work, and threatens him with the “dated humorists” pile alongside Elkin. It is unlikely I would recommend this to anyone except hardcore postmod Trekkies (who are the only people likely to read it anyway), but there are more ideas and innovative riffs on one page of this thing than a dozen other novels, so this is not an invitation to dismissal.

Monday, 7 January 2013

Less Reading, More Writing

The halcyon days of Quiddity are long over: my interest in blogging these days is all but nonexistent. I think even the most gregarious self-interested social networking lunatic has a snapping point: my blog has a backlog of snarky parodies, personal reflection and chatter on the act of writing to shame a dozen eager blogging beavers, so I am content to let it rot. You can tell my blog is lacking in spark as the last ten non-book-centred posts are about how little I blog.

So: this year, less bookage. It is entirely possible I have become tyrannised by reading in the hope of reading everything published ever, so it’s time to pull back and focus on staring down the blank pages.