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Bragi Ólafsson: The Pets

Bragi Ólafsson’s The Pets (2001) is the second release from Open Letter Books (Dubravka Ugrešić’s Nobody’s Home was the first) and their first piece of fiction. While it’s the first significant English translation for Ólafsson, he has been busying himself with poems, plays, short stories and novels since 1986, not to mention his stint as bass player for Icelandic band, The Sugarcubes, fronted by Björk.

At the beginning of The Pets, Emil Halldorsson, who has recently come into some money, returns home from a brief trip to London to stock up on CDs and duty free, to find his neighbour informing him that a man had visited earlier, saying he would return later. This sets up the opening chapters where we alternate between the story of Emil’s flight, and all the interesting characters one meets – and sometimes would rather not – in such circumstances, and the journey of this mysterious visitor, and the scrapes he gets into, as he prepares to visit Emil.

The mysterious visitor is Havard Knutsson, an old acquaintance (sort of) of Emil’s from many years before, when both were housesitting in London. When the knock comes at the door, Emil has just put some coffee on and is typing an email to his partner. Rather than answer the door, Emil peers out the window and is shocked to recognise Havard, who he believed was safely locked away in a Swedish institution. Not wanting to confront him, Emil’s reaction sets up the remainder of the novel:

I get down on my knees without even thinking, poke my head under the bed, and pull out a box of toys that belong to my son Halldor. I then lie down on the soft carpet, squeeze my body in under the bed, and pull the sheet down to the floor – to hide myself from the doorless entrance to the bedroom and from the window that faces the dim back garden.

Not one to be dissuaded by an unanswered door, Havard peers through the window, sees the coffee on, and breaks into Emil’s house, and turns it off. The signs are that Emil must have nipped out and can’t be long in coming back, so he decides to wait for him. As time drags by, Havard settles more into the house, playing Emil’s CDs, answering his telephone, and inviting his friends and some others from the opening chapters round for a party.

I suddenly realize very clearly the ridiculous position I am in and carry on thinking about the problems that one creates for oneself by getting to know various people. One shouldn’t let others into one’s life.

Being under the bed, with only a limited view of what’s going on in his, Emil’s narrative focuses more on the other senses. He overhears conversations and takes in smells, guessing at what’s happening or what people are talking about. Stuck in  such a position, Emil finds himself recalling the aforementioned time in London.

I had always known that Havard and I would never become very good friends but during the days we spent in London an unbridgeable rift had developed between us. I was the healthy one, the one who had interests and wanted to be constructive, even if just in terms of building a collection of CDs or books; Havard, on the other hand, didn’t seem to be interested in anything, unless it was forbidden or contained the highest percentage of alcohol.

The titular pets are crucial to the London backstory, a disastrous time that saw them meet their maker in comically inventive ways, with a little help from Havard. The lack of action in preventing such incidents mirror Emil’s current situation, revealing as he does a huge character flaw:

Why on earth don’t I do something? What is wrong with me? What reason do I have for lying here under my own bed while these two men…behave as if they are at home here; it seems as though they are at home, in my very own flat. The only reason I don’t do anything is because it is too late.

Emil’s lack of action, never being assertive, finds himself allowing others to take advantage of him. Never able to put his foot down, events transpire, and he’s left picking up the pieces in the aftermath.

While the opening chapters are necessary in setting up Havard’s bizarre party, there’s the sense that their sequence is drawn out. At one point Havard visits an old friend who later turns up at Emil’s, a thread that soon fizzles out with little contribution to the main story. That aside, the novel is a quite an enjoyable read once the main premise comes around and we are reduced to the narrow narrative from under Emil’s bed.

There’s nothing flashy in Ólafsson’s prose, his style straightforwardly recounting events and highlighting thoughts. Where he excels is in his comic setup. Most of the seeds introduced come together in this darkly comic novel to a snappy and funny conclusion, but, let it linger, and the underlying tragedy soon reveals itself.

February 16, 2009  2 Comments

Saul Bellow: Dangling Man

Try as I might, I’ve never connected with Saul Bellow’s prose. My first attempt was The Actual, his penultimate work, and his shortest. A few pages in and I was lost. Then, The Adventures Of Augie March, the novel that signalled his worth as a writer: after reading the opening page repeatedly, I knew I couldn’t continue through the whole book doing so, and abandoned it.

There’s something about Bellow, though, that makes me persist. It’s probably the perception of him as one of the best American writers, what with other writers citing him as their favourite. By not reading him, I’m surely missing out; in reading him, I’m more than likely missing the point. In order to grapple with the beast it seemed a logical idea to dismiss his better known novels as an introduction and to head back to the start, to Dangling Man (1944), under the impression that his earliest work may offer a way in to his style before it solidifies him as that great American writer.

Dangling Man is the journal of Joseph, a young man who resigned his job at a travel bureau seven months before, expecting to be drafted into the army, instead finding himself ‘dangling’ due to complications that he describes as “a sort of bureaucratic comedy trimmed out in red tape.” Rather than get a job for now – “As a 1A I could not get a suitable one, anyhow” – he opts for staying at home, living off his wife’s wage, rarely venturing out, and with little company other than his own thoughts, all jotted down.

In loneliness and bureaucracy, there are echoes of Kafka’s The Trial, and a Joseph caught up in it all confirms the nod. Bellow, however, is not so concerned with the situation of bureaucracy, instead using it as the springboard into a mildly philosophical story about destiny.

Six hundred years ago, a man was what he was born to be. Satan and the Church, representing God, did battle over him. He, by reason of his choice, partially decided the outcome. […] But, since, the stage has been reset and human beings only walk on it and, under this revision, we have, instead, history to answer to. We were important enough then for our souls to be fought over. Now, each of us is responsible for his own salvation, which is in his greatness. And that, that greatness, is the rock or hearts are abraded on.

Admittedly, as stories go, Dangling Man is short on incident, given that Joseph rarely leaves his room, but there are a number of great set pieces as the frustration of living within one’s mind – and Joseph’s mind, given his journal’s literary references and philosophial meanderings, is highly intelligent – takes its toll and cracks appear. It may not be a metamorphosis in the mould of Gregor Samsa, but the once easy-natured man he was has found himself prone to violent outbursts.

There is nothing to do but wait, or dangle, and grow more and more dispirited. It is perfectly clear to me that I am deteriorating, storing bitterness and spite which eats like acid at my endowment of generosity and good will.

In all his wanderings – physical and mental – Joseph’s problem is destiny. Unable to live up to the lofty expections of his making and “unwilling to admit that I do not know how to use my freedom” he not only seeks, but needs solace in the Army, where he need not think for himself. At the beginning, Joseph’s choice to keep a journal, in “an era of hardboiled-dom” is a seen as contrarian to the mores of society:

Do you have feelings? There are correct and incorrect ways of indicating them. Do you have an inner life? It is nobody’s business but your own. Do you have emotions? Strangle them.

The journey from individual thinker, an outcast from society, to one willing to strangle his own self is an interesting premise. Where one would expect – perhaps because it’s clichéd – to see someone fight for their individuality, Dangling Man talks of belonging. In reading it, and understanding it to a degree, and even quite enjoying bits of it, I find that I may just see the case for belonging myself – to those that praise him, that is.

February 10, 2009  14 Comments

John Steinbeck: To A God Unknown

Long ago I’d expressed an interest in reading the works of John Steinbeck in chronological order, starting with Cup Of Gold, his account of Sir Henry Morgan’s piratic life, and then immediately lost track of that aim. I’ve returned to it now, albeit with a slight ‘administrative’ error, in that I’ve come next to To A God Unknown (1933), rather than The Pastures Of Heaven, published the prior year.

Year of publication aside, To A God Unknown took Steinbeck the greatest number of years of any of his works to write, so if the year of publication doesn’t precede The Pastures Of Heaven, the idea certainly does. In fact, as Robert DeMott makes clear in his lengthy introduction, the novel has its origins in an unfinished play by one of his classmates, and over the years saw many drafts and titles as Steinbeck toiled to get it under wraps. It may not be the best of the books he wrote, but it was the one that, through the toil of writing it, made him as a writer.

The novel begins on the Wayne Farm in Vermont, where Joseph Wayne expresses to his father an interest in following the westering crowds and claiming himself some land. (“If I wait, the good land might all be taken.”) where it’s preferred that he stay home a while and find a wife.

“If you could wait a year,” the old man said at last, “a year or two is nothing when you’re thirty-five. If you could wait a year, not more than two surely, then I wouldn’t mind. You’re not the oldest, Joseph, but I’ve always thought of you as the one to have the blessing. Thomas and Burton are good men, good sons, but I’ve always intended the blessing for you, so you could take my place. I don’t know why. There’s something more strong in you than in your brothers, Joseph; more sure and inward.”

In a Joseph, with brothers, singled out by his father there’s an nod to the Joseph of Genesis (no coat of many colours, though), enhanced by the skill of interpreting symbols and later incidents pertaining to the land he settles. On reaching this new pasture, verdant and teeming with life, Steinbeck foreshadows Joseph’s path and gives a first real taste of his intuitive ability:

The past, his home and all the events of his childhood were being lost, and he knew he owed them the duty of memory. This land might possess all of him if he were not careful. To combat the land a little, he thought of his father, of the calm and peace, the strength and eternal rightness of his father, and then in his thought the difference ended and he knew there was no quarrel, for his father and this new land were one. Joseph was frightened then. “He’s dead,” he whispered to himself. “My father must be dead.”

With his father indeed dead, the remainder of his brothers uproot their families to join him and together they farm this new promised land, raising cattle, breeding pigs. Joseph takes a young wife, an educated schoolteacher, and it’s all happy families for a time. Tensions rise, however, as one of the brothers, Burton, confronts Joseph on his pagan beliefs, namely his attitude toward a large tree that looms over the farmhouse:

“My father is in that tree. My father is that tree! It is silly, but I want to believe it.”

Through Joseph Wayne, almost shamanlike in his understanding of the land, we follow an exploration of man’s relationship to nature, for better and for worse. In he good days the livestock breeds, the crops grow, and the rains come; in the bad days, the opposite, and the land dries. When, knowing the harshness of the land, sticks are upped and people move to pastures new, all that remains is Wayne, stubborn to the last, which leads to a wonderfully ambiguous conclusion that leaves open a number of possible readings.

At times the abundance of description can, though evocative, be laid on thick, and the dialogue comes across as wooden, but there are still moments when Wayne reflects on the world around him that raise the book above mere catalogue of events and add a further depth to what could otherwise be a flat character:

High up on tremendous peak, towering over the ranges and the valleys, the brain of the world was set, and the eyes that looked down on the earth’s body. The brain could not understand the life on its body. It lay inert, knowing vaguely that it could shake off the life, the towns, the little houses of the fields with earthquake fury. But the brain was drowsed and the mountains lay still, and the fields were peaceful on their rounded cliff that went down to the abyss. And thus it stood a million years, unchanging and quiet, and the world-brain in its peak lay close to sleep. The world-brain sorrowed a little, for it knew that some time it would have to move, and then the life would be shaken and destroyed and the long work of tillage would be gone, and the houses in the valley would crumble. The brain was sorry, but it could change nothing.

While To A God Unknown is a minor Steinbeck, it’s important in light of the works that would come later. In its California setting, the hardship of a devastated land, and Biblical allusions we are given a dress rehearsal of major Steinbeck novels. Apparently less than six hundred copies of the novel sold on its initial release. Dress rehearsals were never meant for the public anyway.

February 4, 2009  13 Comments

Ana María del Río: Carmen’s Rust

It’s thanks to a slurry of comments on Chilean literature in my review of Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo, that I come to Ana María del Río’s Carmen’s Rust (1986). The main recommendation was to read Diamela Eltit’s Sacred Cow, who, incidentally, provides an afterword to this slim volume, but nico’s comment that del Río was also “an important writer”, in light of Chile’s transition from dictatorship to democracy, piqued my interest.

In reading Carmen’s Rust, I was reminded of my experience reading Ismail Kadare’s Agamemnon’s Daugher, where much passed me by due to a lack of knowledge of the subject. Reading up on Enver Hoxha’s Albania solidified my appreciation of the book, so having read this novel once, it seemed right that I understand the subtexts, and return ready to spot the allusions to the Pinochet era. Where Agamemnon’s Daughter was quite explicit, Carmen’s Rust takes a more allegorical approach, namely Pinochet in a dress.

The novel distances itself from its contemporary regime, uncomfortably setting itself in the 1950s, during another dictatorship, represented by the confines of a huge house with seemingly endless rooms, and other nooks and crannies. At the beginning, the narrator’s Aunt Malva, having been abandoned by her husband, comes to live in the upstairs of the Grandmother’s house, where the matriarchs rule supreme and the great room is often opened for “celebrations that abounded with turkeys, truffles, wine, and senators.”

It took her a week to move in. We watched as she penetrated the house like a fateful tempest of black trunks and brown paper packages tied up with strong rope – ropes that were like invisible nooses being slipped over our little heads.

Others living in the house include Carlitos, Malva’s son, nicknamed President of the Republic; the eponymous Carmen, the narrator’s half-sister – same father, different mothers -; and Meche, the maid with a dictatorial streak not unlike her mistress’. That only covers those given, to some degree, free reign to move around as, in order to save face, this bourgeoisie household hides a few secrets of its own. Tucked away in a back room is Carmen’s mother, a woman of lower social standing, stolen away and “cloistered for life”. In another room is Uncle Ascanio – “that stupid dimwit, as Aunt Malva would say” – who has never worked, probably because he’s been mentally worn down to the point of lobotomy:

Uncle Ascanio lived in what he and Grandmother called his Bird Store. In reality, his room had all the trapping, as well as the smells, of a primitive henhouse. Apparently Uncle Ascanio began by collecting baby chicks in his room – future egg-layers – with the intention of raising them to lay eggs for sale. He was never able to convince them though; and later, his mother, never one to give up, and praying upon the family’s coat-of-arms, brought him eggs arranged in a multitude of purple cartons. But the capital quickly turned rancid because Uncle Ascanio never sold anything. He just filed his nails endlessly, staring straight ahead, mesmerized by everything, as though an invisible door were about to open.

The main focus of the novel is the days when the narrator and Carmen became dissidents within the house.  While the matriarchs would oversee their activities and try to control them in every way, to ensure their way of life continues as it always has been. Where there are cracks, these are papered over with fixes, but the rebellious nature of the young ones ultimately reveals them once more. Piano lessons, for example, by the best teacher in the region see the teacher seduced by the Carmen’s burgeoning sexuality, “his ceremonious kisses deposited in deep cavities – kisses that lasted longer than the silence of a domestic servant.”

Carmen’s attentions also extend to her half-brother, a relationship which blossoms through the novel, with repeated attempts to stamp it out from the powers that be.

To spice up our lives a little in that huge house, a few games would be left sitting on top of Grandmother’s green tablecloth just after lunch, although by that time we were already making overtures under the table – rolling up napkins and playing footsie.

The problem faced when living in such an atmosphere is the danger of being watched. Here, in the Grandmother’s house, eyes are everywhere and careless actions eventually lead to unjust punishments. The shock of the novel is the utter hopelessness of whichever path one takes through such rule. Where Carmen fails to be shaped and controlled by the regime, the narrator all too readily submits, leaving neither with a happy ending.

What’s good about Carmen’s Rust is how little the author has to offer to get her story across. Small details reveal larger implications and what goes unsaid tends to give away more than anything that can be said. The cover of the book, in declaring this economy, also makes note of the “searing humour”, which failed to materialise, although such humour is no doubt reserved for those better able to recognise the brutal absurdity of the novel’s situations.

In his heart, the narrator carries the memories of Carmen, a source of delight in bringing back those days, but also a painful reminder that he is no longer with her. (“She was my love, my only love, my ever-deepening, hellish sadness. She was everything to me.”). The psychological cost of having loved and lost remains with him, and in never letting her memory die out, he opens it up, airs it – to remember once more, to let it rust.

January 18, 2009  4 Comments

Luke Haines: Bad Vibes

For the past fifteen years Luke Haines has been producing a solid body of music in a number of different guises, the best known of which is the Auteurs. If you haven’t heard of him, it’s because his musical destiny is to forever sit on the periphery of the British music scene. There was a time, in the early days, however, where he sought success but saw the ascending star of his band cruelly bumped aside in favour of the musical phenomenon of the mid-nineties, Britpop.

Since then Haines’ career has been willfully contrarian, turning out radio friendly ditties about missing children, airplane accidents, and the rotten underbelly of British life, all served up with a dose of irony and venom. That he has taken that venom and placed it in a memoir, Bad Vibes (2009) is an exciting prospect, and its subtitle, Britpop and My Part in its Downfall, practically guarantees he won’t mince his words, given previous soundbites on the movement in the press.

Haines begins his memoir in his twenties (“when I was young and cruel”) and writes in an “‘in the moment transmission of my life’ style”, which leaves out the wisdom of hindsight and allows us to experience his life in the present tense. After a prologue dealing with a stage invading dwarf in Strasbourg during a 1993 gig, he glosses over the period from 1986, with first band the Servants, to 1991 where he sets about working on a solo project (“I am a cell of one. Great art must be created in isolation.”) which becomes the Auteurs and leads to them getting a leg up in the British music scene, the next year, thanks to support gigs for Suede. The first album, New Wave, would eventually lose to Suede’s eponymous debut by one vote in 1993’s Mercury Music Prize, an event which best pinpoints the change in direction his career would later take.

These early days come with much touring, a promotional aspect Haines could easily do without. Having toured the UK several times, he describes an acoustic tour of France (“a country where English rock groups traditionally sell jack shit”) where little is expected, but has a surprising outcome:

…something happens. The French press add two and two together and come up with 12. You see the album’s called New Wave – which translates as Nouvele Vague. The band is called the Auteurs. Auteur theory, Cahiers du cinéma, ah, it all makes sense, a band of English Francophiles. Hell, the singer’s name even means Luke Hatred.

Hot on the heels of this is comes the American tour, a farce that results in the sacking of both tour manager and support act, sees a mugging, involves playing a residency at a hummus restaurant, and the loss of an opening slot for the Kinks.

America then. Undoing of cocky Brit bands, heads swollen with the overblown praise of the NME. America can provide a sobering shot of reality.

While America may prove an undoing to Brit bands, it’s also America, or one American in particular, Haines cites as being the cause of a new musical style. With teenagers the world over in thrall to the grunge scene, notably Nirvana, he states that the suicide of Kurt Cobain changed the face of British music (“Not only did Kurt Cobain rudely kill himself, he went and left the bloody door open.”) by leaving the path clear to allow a new scene to blossom:

Say it under your breath, whisper it if you can bear to. Britpop. Now, if you can, dare to say it out loud: BRITPOP. The final insurrection of the twentieth century. The century of Dada, the Surrealists, Italian Futurism, Russian Futurism, The Rite Of Spring, Wyndham Lewis, Blast, William Burroughs, the Beats, Gene Vincent, Pablo Picasso, Johnny Kidd and the Pirates, Viennese Actionists, Nijinsky, the Merry Pranksters, Brian Clough, Aleister Crowley, Stanley Spencer, Kenneth Anger, the Stones, ‘King Tubby’, Jean Luc Goddard, Fritz Lang, Burton and Taylor, Andy Warhol Superstars, the Factory, Valerie Solanas, The Scum Manifesto, Kendo Nagasaki, the Red Army Faction, Ingmar Bergman, Karl Heinz Stockhausen, Chuck Berry, Timothy Leary, Lettrism, Alfred Hitchcock, the Situationalist International, Sly and the Family Stone, the Japanese Red Army, Lord Lucan, Gustav Metzger, Lou Reed, Big Youth, Teddy Boys, T. Rex, Howard Devoto, Bo Diddley, Performance, Colin Wilson, the Doors, Punk Rock, Poly Styrene, and now, the last great millenial hurrah, Britpop. Scream it from the pit of your fucking stomach till you can scream no more. Thought not.

Part of Haines’ disdain for the movement is that he’s often mentioned in the context of it, whether it be as a founding father or simply as its grumpy old man. One chapter is titled Adolf Hitler of Britpop. It’s something he aims to get straight and jumps into a short mock fairy tale that shapes his version of the truth. Haine’s truth, which he confesses is biased, is a riot, dismissing almost everyone and everything – Oasis (“derivative northern boors”), Blur (“habitual bandwagon jumpers”), and  The Verve (“Utterly hopeless”) and Sting (“God’s Own Nitwit”) – with few getting away with praise, sarcasm undetected. Another aspect is that the bands he’s regularly bundled with tend to lack an intellectual streak, as evidenced by their proficiency in lyrics that mean nothing and often don’t even make sense.

Much of the accounts are given over to aspects of touring and recording, with ever more deliberate attempts to get out of the former and ensure commercial failure in the latter. After breaking both ankles while touring the second Auteurs album, the bleakness of the third came is expressed with real passion, outdone only by the making of side project, Baader Meinhof, an album of songs about the German terror gang set to funky guitars and handclaps. Later recollections revolve around the forming of Black Box Recorder.

Haines’s style throughout is that sarcastic streak that is unmistakably British and his world view recognisable to those familiar with his lyrics. His lack of modesty is winning, especially when he refers to his own songs as things like “a fucking classic”, partly because we know just as well as he does that, well, it is, and because it never will be. Wry comments add to the humour that, while not “very, very funny” as David Peace announces on the cover, can defintely elicit a smile from nowhere.

Late November. ‘Lenny Valentino’ has a midweek chart position of 35. It’s highest actual chart position is 41. Pulp’s ‘Lipgloss’, released the same week, reaches 48. Small victories.

While Haines gets stuck in to the bands that blighted the British charts in the nineties, the biggest target is not so much Britpop as the author himself. By opening his mindset up to the way he treated people or relating the extent of his alcohol and drug abuse in the early days he effectively lays himself bare. Sadly, by holding back on hindsight, we tend to get little more of a write up of what happened rather than mature reflection. Early in the book Haines describes his running out on a record signing saying, “This for me stretches the relationship between fan and artist to breaking point, a relationship which I feel ends when the punter hands over their ackers in exchange for the CD.” and it’s perhaps this distance between artist and punter that he wishes to maintain by preventing his contemporary self from interfering with the Haines of old.

As the book focuses primarily on the period between 1992 and 1997, it misses out on the fourth Auteurs album which would come two years later, and never mentions the albums recorded under his own name. Indeed, after the slowburn wallowing in the first few years of the period, the memoir gets wrapped up worryingly fast and with acknowledged loose ends. Fans can only hope there are further accounts to be had covering the later years. But, rest assured, while the book is titled Bad Vibes, it emits nothing but the good sort.

January 11, 2009  9 Comments

Horace McCoy: They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

Midnight Classics, as far as I can tell, was an imprint of Serpent’s Tail reserved for publishing forgotten works of pulpy noir and psychedelic fiction. A number of titles were put out in the late 1990s, each boldy declaring that the book was ‘a Midnight Classic back in print’, and all written by authors long forgotten. Names like Gavin Lambert, Stewart Meyer, Rudolph Wurlitzer, and David Goodis. Another was Horace McCoy, probably the best known of the lot.

McCoy’s name has already appeared on booklit where, after a tentative treading of the toes in American noir, with James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice, it was suggested in the comments that next up should be McCoy’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1935). Never one to knock back a recommendation (although always one to never get round to reading it) I bumped it up the list, while all the other titles waiting their turn muttered and cursed under their breath.

With horses in the title, I’d long assumed, wrongly so, that the novel was a western of some description. Instead, the novel’s milieu is quite the reverse of the open range, and a new one on me, the claustrophobic world of the dance marathon. Popular in the 1920s and 1930s, these shindigs brought kids disillusioned by the Depression together to dance, for hours on end, chasing the carrot of prize money dangled before them.

One hundred and forty-four couples entered the marathon dance but sixty-one dropped out for the first week. The rules were you danced for an hour and fifty minutes, then you had a ten-minute rest period in which you could sleep if you wanted to. But in those ten minutes you also had to shave or bathe or get your feet fixed or whatever was necessary.

Although mostly flashbacks, the novel begins in the here and now, by outlining its outcome, that of the sentencing of Robert Syverton for the murder of Gloria Beatty. It’s clear to Syverton that the judge means to make an example of him, especially given that the best line of defense he has is that he was “only doing her a personal favour”:

The Prosecuting Attorney was wrong when he told the jury she died in agony, friendless, alone except for her brutal murderer, out there in that black night on the edge of the Pacific. He was as wrong as a man can be. She did not die in agony. She was relaxed and comfortable and she was smiling. It was the first time I had ever seen her smile. How could she have been in agony then? And she wasn’t friendless.

I was her very best friend. I was her only friend. So how could she have been friendless?

Robert and Gloria have come their separate ways to Hollywood, chasing the same dream. Opportunities, however, are few on the ground, and they enter the marathon dance:

‘Free food and free bed as long as you last and a thousand dollars if you win.’

‘The free food part of it sounds good,’ I said.

‘That’s not the big thing,’ she said. ‘A lot of producers and directors go to those marathon dances. There’s always the chance they might pick you out and give you a part in a picture…What do you say?’

‘Me?’ I said…’Oh, I don’t dance very well…’

‘You don’t have to. All you have to do is keep moving.’

During the dance tempers fray, exhaustion sets in, and the contestents find themselves exploited more and more in the name of entertainment. Robert dreams of being back outside, away from the confines of the ballroom, but in writing the desperate situation of this small dance McCoy holds up a mirror to the America of the time, where life itself is punishing and people try to scrape a living against all the odds. The whole narrative is studied with throwaway lines from Gloria, with nothing to live for, wishing she were dead.

‘It’s peculiar to me,’ she said, ‘that everybody pays so much attention to living and so little to dying. Why are these high-powered scientists always screwing around trying to prolong life instead of finding pleasant ways to end it? There must be a hell of a lot of people in the world like me – who want to die but haven’t got the guts – ‘

Even though we know the outcome, McCoy still manages to build up tension in his story. The continued sapping of the dancers’ will through exploitative tasks and the sheer exhaustion they feel builds up crests of conflict that see the dancers regularly whittled down. To this slow burn plot kindling is added, where chapters are preceded by snippets of the judge’s sentence, each in a typeface a little larger than before, serving well the build up of tension.

Loose on description, heavy on dialogue, the novel sets a fair pace, without being a marathon itself, and when its end comes the death of Gloria is treated unsentimentaly, as befits the hardboiled genre. The ending is powerful, for what it is, and I daresay it’s one that will stick in the mind for a long time to come, but there’s the feeling that there could have been more, that McCoy could perhaps have explored the existentialist nature of his narrator, if even just for a few pages here and there, just to get a little deeper inside Syverton’s head. At the same time, the casual enquiry of the book’s title, in context, carries all the weight needed, and it’s the unanswerable nature of the whydunnit that ensures the book’s durability.

January 7, 2009  10 Comments

Gilbert Adair: And Then There Was No One

Gilbert Adair, in the third of his Evadne Mount novels, changes tack and disposes with the cosy Christie model subverted successfully in The Act Of Roger Murgatroyd and less so in A Mysterious Affair Of Style, by opting to throw himself into the mix and tell the story of And Then There Was No One (2009) as a fictional memoir. Set in 2011, Adair has found himself at a literary festival in a Swiss town by the Reichenbach Falls, setting for Conan Doyle’s attempt at ridding himself of his popular detective character.

The influence of Sherlock Holmes plays as much a part in And Then There Was No One as that of Agatha Christie has for the triptych of Evadne Mount novels, and fans of Holmes may be interested to know that Adair reproduces, in full from his fictional new book of Sherlock Holmes stories, his take on The Giant Rat Of Sumatra, first mentioned in The Adventure Of The Sussex Vampire (cf The Casebook Of Sherlock Holmes) as “a story for which the world is not yet prepared”.

The reason for this change in the style of the novels comes late, but is worth mentioning, as Adair regularly talks about his novels, past, present, and in translation throughout:

For all my efforts to have the second novel ring as many changes on the first as was organically feasible within the generic conventions I was pastiching, there remained a stubbornly samey something about A Mysterious Affair of Style which long afterwards nagged at me. And not only at me. One reviewer, praising the book, had also expressed disappointment that I had taken an ‘if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t fix-it’ attitude to the first of the cycle, and I couldn’t help agreeing with him.

Like that novel, Adair begins by playing with the conventions of the murder mystery genre. Where the murder didn’t occur until late in A Mysterious Affair Of Style, the murder has long since been wrapped up here. The victim is Gustav Slavorigin,  a Booker Prize-winning author sent, after publishing a collection of incendiary anti-American essays, into hiding, Rushdie style, due to a contract on his head, courtesy of a rich Texan reactionary.

The prologue, seemingly extraneous to the mystery itself, fills in details that, to a first read, seem dry and dull, and in doing so recalls both the introduction to Eco’s The Name Of The Rose and the short foreword to Nabokov’s Lolita. This in itself is strange, given that Adair has mentioned in the past that Nabokov has “become something of an albatross about [his] neck”. The details of this chapter deal with the history of Slavorigin – his early days at university, with Adair, through the rise, fall, and infamy of his writing career. One notable book, and the reason Slavorigin is making a rare public pitstop, is his new thriller, A Reliable Narrator, which gives the game away without, if you catch my drift, doing so.

How to describe A Reliable Narrator? Its opening chapter resembles the concluding chapter of a whodunnit, one that just happens never actually to have been written. Thus the reader of Slavorigin’s book (I mean, the book which was written) cannot hope to comprehend the picturesque twists of this first-chapter denouement since, of the murder which has clearly taken place, the only detail to which he is made privy is the identity of the murderer, a murderer who has already been apprehended, charged, tried, found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment.

The idea of a reliable narrator is played around with too, as is Adair’s playful style. Personal views come into the fray, such  as calling the forty-five minutes of literary festivals “so much hassle for so little result” and his description of a book as being “a fat, virtuosically executed novel by one of that new breed of American wunderkinder who, I would be lying if I denied it, are positively bloated with talent but who are also just too fucking pleased with themselves.” As a fictional Adair, he’s able to get away with it, even if, with reference to Slavorigin’s book:

The first-person protagonist is no canonic unreliable narrator, such a tired old cliché of postmodernism now, but a perfectly reliable narrator, except that not a single soul is prepared to rely on him.

The usual alliteration, literary and cinematic in-jokes, and postmodern trickery are present and accounted for in And Then There Was No One. The unashamed use of puns (‘Google Gogol’, a delicatessen named ‘Salvador Deli’ and a few more Nabokovian references, ‘Son of Palefire’ and ‘Adair or Ardor’) adds to the fun, and I’d like to think that only Adair’s style, like a British eccentric, could get away with a metaphor like “the train tranquilly unzipped the country’s flies from Oxford to London”.

One of the more interesting ploys in the novel is how, as a memoir, Adair manages to introduce his sleuth, the Dowager Duchess of Crime, Evadne Mount, into real events. As the last novel was set in the 1940s and this novel is seventy years hence, and she should be the one dropping dead, he pulls it off well, and humorously, too, introducing her into a book that she should never be written, as per a Q&A session after his reading of The Giant Rat Of Sumatra:

‘You wrote two pastiches of Agatha Christie, The Act of Roger Murgatroyd and A Mysterious Affair of Style? Will there be a third?’ Me: ‘Absolutely not. I have had my fill of cardboard characters and preposterous plotlines. What I desire to write now is something more personal, a work of genuine depth and ambition.

Amongst the answers at that session there are some interesting insights that, if we believe the reliable narrator, into Adair that show And Then There Was No One as being that personal work, bringing with it a few questions of its own:

‘I read a book, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, Les Enfants terribles, Death in Venice, or whatever, I like it, I rewrite it. I am in short a pasticheur. Less by opportunism, though, than by superstition. I long ago discovered that I could embark on a new work of fiction only if its premise had already been legitimised by one of the writers in my personal Pantheon. Each of my novels is thus a palimpsest. Scrape away at its surface and you will find, underneath, another novel, usually a classic. I offer no apology for this.’

Apologies are not in order as Adair has produced his best novel since 1992’s The Death Of The Author. His funniest, too. It has more conceptual twists and turns than the labyrinth in Eco’s The Name Of The Rose, another novel that owes a debt to Sherlock Holmes, and probably why the Italian writer was also due to attend the same literary festival. In fact, in Eco’s essay, Travels In Hyperreality, he says that ‘once the “total fake” is admitted, in order to be enjoyed it must seem totally real’, and this is what Adair does with this novel, giving us a reliable narrator, so reliable that we can believe his every word, only to have the rug pulled out from under us, to see it for what it is, yet still believe.

January 4, 2009  2 Comments

booklit’s best of 2008

As the year ends with an unexpected reading slump, I know that I’m not going to get any new books written up before the end of the year, so feel that I can list my top ten reads for 2008.

Here are my picks from 2008’s reading, by year of inital publication. There’s no fixed criteria, other than that I enjoyed them or can’t get them out of my head – usually both.

  • Doctor Glas, Hjalmar Söderberg (1905)
  • A Swedish classic that lets us into the unreliable mind of the eponymous doctor revealing, through the entries in his diary, a love triangle that leads to murder and deals with a number of issues that today, over a hundred years on, are still remarkably relevant.

  • The Invention Of Morel, Adolfo Bioy Casares (1940)
  • A small slice of science fiction from Argentina, by a friend and collaborator of Jorge Luis Borges. Slight in page count, the book creates an intriguing mystery surrounding the strange inhabitants of an island the narrator, a fugitive from the law, has found himself on. For fans of the TV show Lost, this novel is a must-read, given the parallels in plot and its appearance in one episode.

  • The Catcher In The Rye, J.D. Salinger (1951)
  • The most famous novel from one of America’s most famous recluses. While I thought I may be late in discovering this novel, given that there was the underlying suspicion it’s best read at a more impressionable age, I was impressed by the strength of its narrator. Yes, he’s a whiny, spoilt brat, but it’s no reason not to enjoy the book.

  • Pedro Páramo, Juan Rulfo (1955)
  • A fascinating and concise story from one of the Spanish language’s greatest writers. Even though he published next to nothing, Rulfo dared to play with structure and, in doing so, ushered in magical realism. The novel is told in a series of fleeting whispers that are, with a first read, disorientating and bewildering; and, on rereading, amazingly coherent, despite a seemingly scattered approasch to tense, perspective, and chronology.

  • Goodbye, Columbus, Philip Roth (1959)
  • Having resolved to read the works of Philip Roth in order of publication, this first novel, more a novella, proved an enjoyable experience. An apprentice piece, to be sure, unhampered by Roth’s later alter-egos, but tightly structured and not without a fair share of emotion. It also comes with five short stories, a singular occurence in his fifty years of writing.

  • Terra Amata, J.M.G. Le Clézio (1968)
  • This year’s Nobel laureate, having been rushed back into print, had me fascinated from start to finish in this novel about a man looking back at his life and realising all that he missed within it. It can be a touch overpowering at times but the sensory overload it provides is certainly memorable and the experimental style makes me keen to read more.

  • Metropole, Ferenc Karinthy (1970)
  • A haunting novel, translated to English this year, that follows a linguist’s futile efforts to communicate with the people of a sprawling metropolis. Little reviewed at the time, it may yet take its place among the classics (Kafka’s The Trial and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four are suggested on the cover), and has recently been longlisted as one of Three Percent‘s Best Translated Books of 2008.

  • 1933 Was A Bad Year, John Fante (1985)
  • There is a punchy humour to Fante’s prose that makes him a joy to read and in 1933 Was A Bad Year, he shows it off to great effect. Set in Depression-era America, it follows one boy’s coming of age, having to choose between the harsh realities of life and chasing a dream.

  • The Mirror In The Well, Micheline Aharonian Marcom (2008)
  • On the surface, it may seem like a stream of consciousness where every second word is designed to shock and offend, but dig underneath its sordid surface and there emerges a story that has Biblical echoes as well as the birth of the United States through immigration.

There are some notable mentions, mostly those I read but didn’t get around to posting about. I’m sad to say that, of those books, two would easily slot into my top ten, ousting both Philip Roth’s Goodbye, Columbus and J.M.G. Le Clézio’s Terra Amata. These are Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, the latter even making a notional top three, alongside Adair’s The Death Of The Author and Söderberg’s Doctor Glas.

Now, with 2008 wrapped up, see you in 2009. Have a happy new year.

December 30, 2008  21 Comments

Juan Rulfo: Pedro Páramo

Although he wrote few works in his lifetime, namely a thin volume of short stories (The Burning Plain and Other Stories) and a single novel, the name of Juan Rulfo is well respected in Latin American letters. His novel, Pedro Páramo (1955) broke from the traditional realist novel and with its unique narrative ushered in magical realism, popularised in the Latin American Boom by the likes of Gabriel García Márquez and Carlos Fuentes.

Why he only wrote one novel – he died in 1986 – will perhaps remain unknown, however Susan Sontag, in her introduction, takes a guess, observing that “the point of a writer’s life is to produce a great book – a book which will last – and that is what Rulfo did.” A small body of work is of course no barrier to greatness, with Rulfo being named, following a poll conducted by Editorial Alfaguara, alongside Jorge Luis Borges as the best Spanish-language writer of the 20th Century.

It begins with the narrator, Juan Preciado, heading to his mother’s home town of Comala, because his father, Pedro Páramo, lives there. Long before, not long after their marriage, Pedro Páramo had sent Preciado’s mother away to live with her sister. Now, on her deathbed, she makes a final request: “Make him pay, son, for all those years he put us out of his mind.”

To his mother’s mind, Comala is a boon for nostalgia. In his head echoes of her memories stir, talking of “a beautiful view of a green plain tinged with the yellow of ripe corn” and “the savor of orange blossoms in the warmth of summer.” However, on the road down to the town, Preciado meets a man, claiming also to be a son of Pedro Páramo, who says,

“That town sits on the coals of the earth, at the very mouth of hell. They say that when people from there die and go to hell, they come back for a blanket.”

In Comala, things take a turn for the strange. Preciado meets a woman, Eduviges Dyada, who claims that she hasn’t had much time to prepare for him as his mother, despite dying a week before, had only just informed her of his trip. From here we begin to see just how far Rulfo’s novel meanders from the traditional structure as the narrative begins to play host to other, seemingly unrelated stories. Voices come and go, uncredited, and tenses change. Where first we were reading Preciado’s account, we find ourselves faced with a third person narrative.

More and more voices enter the fray, providing distilled snapshots, into a narrative that becomes disorientating. As the fragmented stories abound, they start to come together forming a patchwork that illustrates the people of Comala. Only, what makes it more interesting, is that they are all dead. All that remains is the essence of the people, each whispering their thoughts, secrets, and reliving moments over and over. Such is the force of all this trapped experience that when, halfway through the novel, Preciado announces his own death (“The murmuring killed me. I was trying to hold back my fear. But it kept building until I couldn’t contain it any longer. “) the book continues on, unraveling more and more.

“This town is filled with echoes. It’s like they were trapped behind the walls, or beneath the cobblestones. When you walk you feel like someone’s behind you, stepping on your footsteps. You hear rustlings. And people laughing. Laughter that sounds used up. And voices worn away by the years.”

The main thread of the novel is the titular, Pedro Páramo. “Living bile”, as the stranger Preciado meets at the start labels him.  Páramo is the son of a rancher who, after his father’s death, “flourished like a weed”. Considered a lost cause by his father, Páramo became an opportunist, stealing land from others and populating it through the rape of the woman working his land. Indeed,  Páramo’s marriage to Preciado’s mother only came about as she was his largest creditor – after the wedding properties were made out in both names.

Páramo’s story is the most linear within the novel, weaving in and out of his rise from hopeless child to vengeful old man. In creating such a vile character it’s easy to make him completely evil and deny him his humanity, and Rulfo ensure’s no moralising over the man’s actions here. In fact, to balance his ruthless nature we are regularly shown the unrequited love he feels for Susana San Juan, who even in marriage never loves him.

He had thought he knew her. But even when he found he didn’t, wasn’t it enough to know that she was the person he loved most on this earth? And – and this was what mattered most – that because of her he would leave this earth illuminated by the image that erased all other memories.

But what world was Susana San Juan living in? That was one of the things that Pedro Páramo would never know.

One of the biggest achievements Rulfo manages with Pedro Páramo is that such a slight volume can feel so epic. Years come and go in whispers, the story dancing back and forward between them. From the Mexican Revolution through the Cristiada we see lives lived and torn apart. As readers we are encouraged to fill in the blanks and join the dots of the story, a task that doesn’t come easily, thanks to the scattered narrative, the first time round, but is more than cemented with a second reading. There’s probably more in a third and fourth reading – who knows what in a fifth.

As one character, oblivious to their own revenant state, notes early on:

‘Nights around here are filled with ghosts. You should see all the spirits walking through the streets. As soon as it’s dark they begin to come out. No one likes to see them. There’s so many of them and so few of us that we don’t even make the effort to pray for them anymore, to help them out of their purgatory. We don’t have enough prayers to go around.’

You should see all the spirits walking through the streets. It’s a good thing novels are not prayers, as Pedro Páramo is one that needs to go around.

December 17, 2008  21 Comments

J.M.G. Le Clézio: Terra Amata

When Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio was named laureate for the 2008 Nobel Prize in Literature, I was like many others in wondering who? His standing in English speaking nations, save for a couple of low profile translations in the States, was practically non-existant. And this is an author who has published over forty books since his 1963 debut. It’s been a frustrating wait, then, for publishers in the UK to rush release some backlist titles into print. No doubt translators up and down the country are soldiering away at more of his works.

The citation of Le Clézio, by the Swedish Academy, described him as “author of new departures, poetic adventure and sensual ecstasy, explorer of a humanity beyond and below the reigning civilization”- a soup of intrigue, hinting at so much while retaining a cryptic aura. Having looked at the rereleased titles, Terra Amata (1968) seemed to best fit the citation. In fact, it doesn’t so much fit as describe it.

Terra Amata concerns itself with life on earth. It’s the story of Chancelade, looking at his unremarkable life and capturing all the detail and adventures he overlooked.

You’d never done playing all the games there were. A prisoner on the flat face of the earth, standing on your two legs with the sun beating down on your head and the rain falling drop by drop, you had all these extraordinary adventures without really knowing where you were going. A pawn – you were no more than a pawn on the giant chess-board, a disc that the expert invisible hand moved about in order to win the incomprehensible game.

The narrative drops by special points in Chancelade’s life, following from young boy to old man, then pushing beyond. We see the young Chancelade playing in the garden, God to a number of beetles. (“When the boy realized that he was the potato-bugs’ god, with absolute power of life and death over them, he decided to act.”) and teaching them a lesson. We experience his father’s death, follow his sexual development, witness him becoming a father, and ache with his old age.

Le Clézio’s delivery is a hyperreal tour de force, lush and dense, designed to obverload the senses. His focus is on the minute, regularly picking up on grains of sand, pebbles on beaches, and insects in their nests, inverting the microscopic worlds they inhabit to cosmic concerns. Questions of life and death occur, Chancelade occasionaly wrestling with his own mortality, echoes of which appear in the cigarettes he regularly smokes:

It was a perfect action, beautiful as a play. A tragic action. It had a beginning, when the spurting flame met the cigarette. A development, with unity of time, place and action. And when the cigarette was finished, the same hand that had lit it put it swiftly to death, crushing it against the side o the ashtray. And it was really rather as if you were dead yourself, extinguished, suffocated in your own ash, your inside quietly spilling out of your skin of torn paper.

What’s interesting about Le Clézio’s prose is that he is able to capture a new slant on looking at things. In life, everything is an adventure to be embraced full on. He sees objects strewn around as potential communiques between other entities – between men, animals, and the inanimate forces of nature. There’s a language in everything, and we see Chancelade explore this idea in some brief, yet tedious, episodes of Morse code, sign language, and a babelian stew of words.

While much is made of our time on earth, and how little we fully appreciate it, Le Clézio goes beyond humanity, exploring tens of thousands of years ahead to an enjoyable section in a museum, speculating about how we will be remembered, surprisingly quashing humankind’s achievements in favour of guesswork from archaeological digs, much like the conjecture about the real Terra Amata site in France.

Maldec man seems to have lived in communities, in tall concrete houses divided into rooms. His was essentially a working and fetishist civilization. Wars were frequent and deadly, as is proved by certain burial-places recently discovered. These wars were probably due to to racial or religious differences. The civiliation of Maldec man was also ritual, nationalist, and based on the family. It thus belongs to the polymorphic pre-desertic period, which lasted about 5,000 years. It may be that Maldec man was contemporary with the beginning of the great drought which occurred at that time and which caused his civilization to disappear.

Terra Amata, while living up to the aforementioned citation, is perhaps overlong. At just over two hundred pages, it easily feels like three or four hundred. The detail Le Clézio plunges into is often startling and wondrous, but there’s the feeling that he’s retreading the same ideas on occasion, just presenting them differently. There’s a metafictional thread running through the novel, especially evident in the prologue and epilogue, which brought to mind Calvino’s If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler, but doesn’t really bring much to the story itself.

Where Terra Amata succeeds is in holding up a candle to the possibilities of nature, to the potential of life. You may as well use it since you are going to lose it anyway, is the message. Big questions are asked, with no answers forthcoming. Who needs answer, though, when the possibilities are endless? So endless that…

… on the other side of infinity there may be a world just like this one only as if reflected in an enormous mirror: a world where light is black and ants are white and the earth is soft and the sea hard as a slab of marble. A world where the sun is a sooty dot in the sky and volcanoes belch torrents of muddy ice. A world in which you start by dying and end by being born, with the clock-hands all turning frantically backwards. And somewhere in the middle of a big town built downwards into the earth there lives a man perhaps with eyes that look inwards into his head. And perhaps this man has a strange name that can only be said by stopping speaking. Edalecnahc.

While Terra Amata can be reduced to two words – carpe diem – it works because it carries with it the force of infinite experiences. Le Clézio may be an “author of new departures” but he’s also the author of new arrivals on my book shelves.

December 7, 2008  6 Comments

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