Monday, 14 February 2011

In the meantime...

Mirrorball by Mary Gaitskill.

http://pantheon.knopfdoubleday.com/2009/04/22/featured-short-story-mirrorball-by-mary-gaitskill/

Friday, 26 November 2010

This blog is now...

seriously on hiatus. Fo' reals. I've got a novel to write...

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

David Bell vs. The Lamberts

Back! 'The Corrections' demands a re-reading. I remember it being brilliant & compelling and want to figure out why. Anyone up for joining in, that's fantastic, though I'm cool to go it alone...

EDIT: Nothing is happening here because I re-read 'the Corrections', then read Don DeLillo's first novel 'Americana'. Now I'm re-reading 'Americana'. It's fascinating...almost talismanic. DeLillo's writing is so straightforward and simple and yet epic. Its meanings are as infinite as your imagination can make them... (except when DeLillo starts ranting about how technology's 'storms of passion and static' have made us all dumb. That's just classic DeLillo technoparanoia).

It's probably rare these days to compare some rusty 1971 debut novel favourably to Franzen's more recent masterpiece (at least, the one that stands in this place until his newest opus arrives forthwith), but I came across it, on a bookshelf otherwise rammed full of socialist tracts and grim postmodern theory, at just the right time, and that's what made the difference. It suits my itchy, dissatisfied soul; it suits the music i'm listening to, the places that pull me. It resonates on a far deeper level. 'The Corrections' made me both laugh and cry a lot. It seemed to lay out exactly what was going on in reality, and that was great. Addictive enough for 500+ pages. But when it was over, I was happy to leave its characters there in freeze-frame. I didn't have any burning questions about 'em. They didn't stay with me. They were brilliantly depicted but by the end, 'The Corrections' is overexposure. I couldn't stand another thought of the Lamberts. Their reality had closed in on me enough, I felt I knew every corner of it, and that it wasn't taking me anywhere other than a brilliantly expert vision of conventional tragicomic catharsis.

And so, to the Jodorowskian 'Americana'. The reality you can slip into whilst reading one novel might be truthful and accurate for someone else, and beautifully rendered, so you can temporarily inhabit it enough to care about it tremendously - but it's not going to last, because it's several shades away from what you understand is what is invisibly going on; your own deeper reality. Then you come across a novel - or music - that articulates it better; one that tells you far more, more subtly, about those things you weren't conscious of but knew you were looking for. 'Americana' is that novel, at least right now. It's a rare novel that I put down and there's no music I can find to listen to that can possibly reach the place the novel has taken me.
'
(to be continued....if I have the time - with high falutin' references to Mario Vargas Llosa's wonderful 'Letters to a Young Novelist')...

Sunday, 31 January 2010

hiatus

The blog's going on hiatus - I have other priorities and kind of need all the time I can get right now for them, so I'm dropping the stuff that's not necessary. China Mieville's 'The City & The City' was, however, faithfully polished off this morning and it's a satisfying novel – but time and more interesting comments elude me right now. I could talk about its staggering inventiveness, but surfing around on the net, I seem to be the only person who thinks the Beszel/Ul Qoma superimposition is explicable by quantum theory anyway (and thus is tantalizingly clever)...and I haven’t got the time to geek out over this more cos it would take ages.

So there ya go. I love writing about novels I'm reading but right now need to dedicate the small amount of free time I have to other creative endeavours. Thanks to Rav, Doug, Lettie, Chin, Kat, Phil and everyone who's contributing but on the whole, I can't whip up enough permanent collective or personal time or interest to be as devoted as I'd like. innit x




Monday, 30 November 2009

'The End of Mr Y' - Scarlett Thomas


The question on everyone's lips in Brown's broken Britain is "is Scarlett Thomas's 'The End of Mr Y' worth reading? Well, is it?" It’s a good ‘un. Pertinent. You can't walk into a bookshop without a 3 for 2 offer featuring 'Mr Y' waving its arms around at you. Making it my personal mission to answer it, I read all 506 pages of ‘Mr Y’ ages ago and then absconded from my self-imposed citizenly duties by going and hiding in a basement in the former German Democratic Republic for a month. I can only apologise.

Anyway, now I'm back and the novel has turned to dust in my 'undermind' (whatever that is), it's time to give it what for. And then gratuitously mention Saul Bellow.

Evidence in favour of the novel being good: Scarlett Thomas is the only British female novelist currently writing thrillers that mix Derrida with sadomasochism, time-travel, the nature of reality, alternate universes, subatomic theory, being chased by CIA agents and a 'gimmick symbol' (Birkbeck elderly word-nerd slang) of a cursed book that promises all who read it will die.

Evidence of so-what-ness: Um...I kinda think the DABC is under a curse of its own, cos since Junot Diaz' 'The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao' everything else we’ve read has seemed rather mundane in comparison. 'Mr Y's' no exception.

Evidence of equivocating diplomacy, a return to warm fuzzy book reviewery: There's much to love in ‘Mr Y’, very much indeed. For one thing, Scarlett Thomas is cool. She can write all the elements of thriller (she used to write murder mysteries) and yet she is a proper brain. Lots of the novel is just her main character, Ariel Manto, a sexy Scarlett surrogate (i'm fairly sure) who is doing a PhD in thought experiments, thinking about or having conversations about things like phenomenology, the substance of thought & matter, the debate over the wave function collapse in quantum theory, the last universal common ancestor and all sorts of other awesome shit. And she does it deftly. You don't feel you're reading some textbook or being lectured to. The words 'penetration' and 'oblivion' are mentioned too often for that. So, props for that. Big props, in all possible quantum worlds.

Also, as briefly mentioned, the fact it's a page-turning thriller is also to the book's credit, though i've read a far better one in that respect recently which made this look messy and poorly paced in comparison (the better one being John Burdett's 'Bangkok 8' - now that man can write a cracking thriller). I can't be bothered to go into detail about 'Mr Y's' plot, it’s too complicated, but it involves an alternate dimension called the Troposphere (whose streets are described like really bad CGI) and some alchemical steampunk freakery called Pedesis, which is a means of inhabiting other people's minds discovered by a fictional Victorian dude who may or may not be a surrogate of, and whose ideas are implied to be fictionalised versions of Thomas Lumas', the Victorian dude Ariel Manto is doing her PhD on. And, breathe…

About halfway through all this turns from steampunk to being basically set inside a computer game. This was never gonna be a winner for me - steampunk bores me (inevitable consequence of being weaned on the-future-is-awesome-ness of The Jetsons & Girl from Tomorrow) - and the computer game thing; well, it's alright. It's clever & different. It’s pretty out there. I admire Thomas for trying to pull it off. But 'Y' is a lengthy bastard, and it dragged, only getting going on p180 when they discuss metaphysics over apricots. The plot, cool as it should have been, didn't hold much magic, though the real reviewers loved it ('daring', 'elegantly constructed', etc) so i guess that's a failure of imagination on my part. I just think trying to incorporate time-travel and mind-travel into a cursed Victorian book being read for a PhD thesis by a girl whose personality is most clearly defined by eating lots of lentils and being freezing (which hit close to home, but still), a love story with a post-nervous breakdown, priesthood escapee Jonny Greenwood lookalike theologian, being chased in more than one universe by two random CIA dudes, an AWOL PhD supervisor, a mouse god who likes coffee, and homeopathy as the key to entering other peoples' minds...it's a lot to cram in.

And also, it wasn't quite funny enough. Obviously, this matters most. 500 pages of mind-stretching thriller goes down a lot smoother with a few jokes. Me and jokes are Danny & Sandy in the summertime. Give me jokes. It was casually written, which obvs was great yeah, and by the end of it I felt like Ariel Manto was a friend – but a Shirley Manson from Garbage type, one who was all attitude and mythologies about her own fucked-upness and grey days and cigarettes. Fine, but have a few jokes. And finally...since I'm bitching, it was well-written but not amazingly so. For a heavily promoted bit of hot new literary fiction, it was no 'Oscar Wao'. *licks cover of OW*. I think Junot Diaz has raised the bar a little too much right now; I may need to revert to Saul Bellow to feel comforted again (see end...).

So, while I applaud Scarlett Thomas's awesome boldness in writing about big, weird, ideas, and going Matrix on us, and am mighty glad she's doing it (cos there arent many other women being published as mainstream literary fiction who break down Heidegger in the middle of an on-the-run-from-the-CIA-with-the-love-of-my-life plot point), I was not nearly enchanted enough. It was ambitious but baggy and inelegant. Out of curiosity, I'll read PopCo and her forthcoming new book, but something's missing for me. I admire it, but I'm far from enamoured.

Straight after' Y', I started reading Saul Bellow's 'Humboldt's Gift'... I'm loving this shit. Dude's the Bellow, he's on another level, but he's overlooked by way too many people these days and that's a dumb move. Every page is funny, sharp as hell, self-deprecating, wicked. As William said when I got off the plane in Berlin and slapped him around the face with my gorgeous reading material, it's like 'Herzog' but funnier. And 'Herzog' is, of course, a great book. All 'Humboldt's Gift' is about is sex, hot women, divorce, Chicago mobsters, money, vanity and belligerent men. And what Bellow can get away with in that loose and steamy frame is incredible. I'm not going to draw any comparisons or do down 'The End of Mr Y' any more - the latter's existence is a good thing. If i happen to find it lacking in narrative drive and enchantment...well, you should still try it out. you can borrow my copy. it's definitely a beautiful-looking book and you'll feel like the coolest kid on the Tube. (i tried to put images here but they came out way too big). Whereas the cover of Humboldt's Gift looks like some Pigeon Street brawl/Beryl Cook painting and will make you feel like you're reading a cheap romance. And if you end up loving ‘Mr Y’, we’re doing ‘PopCo’ together. You can tell me what I’m missing.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

The Millions' best of the century

Over-enthusiastically premature, but over on The Millions blog they whipped together a panel of keenos and asked them to vote for the best 20 books of the 21st century so far. It's a good list. The Corrections at No.1? Didn't realise it was that popular, though I wouldn't disagree. Good to see the lad David Mitchell representing too. The only other Brits in there - Ian McEwan, for Atonement? Shit, no. And has anyone read Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go? Hmm. Anyway, two DABC-recommended books made the list, so at least we're not reading total crap -- Junot Diaz' spectacular Oscar Wao and Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude, which we're reading next month, or the month after, or something. I didn't even realise it was highly-rated, I just liked the front cover, so that's cool.



The List
#20: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
#19: American Genius, A Comedy by Lynne Tillman
#18: Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link
#17: The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem
#16: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
#15: Varieties of Disturbance by Lydia Davis
#14: Atonement by Ian McEwan
#13: Mortals by Norman Rush
#12: Twilight of the Superheroes by Deborah Eisenberg
#11: The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
#10: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
#9: Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro
#8: Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson
#7: Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald
#6: The Road by Cormac McCarthy
#5: Pastoralia by George Saunders
#4: 2666 by Roberto Bolaño
#3: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
#2: The Known World by Edward P. Jones
#1: The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

Monday, 24 August 2009

'What straight middle-aged brother has not attempted to regenerate himself through the alchemy of young pussy?'

Wao! So, recently we’ve been talking about why we read less fiction than when we were younger. Gone are the days I did nothing but read Thomas Hardy hour upon hour - even day after day - without end. Our collective reasons for reading less were things like ‘not enough time’, ‘who needs books? This is a golden era of television, you fool’, ‘books are too heavy’ (?) and unsurprisingly, ‘the internet’. We put the above inferred causes to scientific testing and the results were clear - turns out the internet is the chief culprit. We’re jumped-up monkeys with ADHD is all. Can’t focus on a book no longer. We’re neurologically doomed. But - take heart - it’s not our fault.

Last week, an article was published in Slate which said the reason we’re so internet-addled is because receiving an email, or finding a cool new website, etc, feels like getting some sort of abstract reward - we're hardwired to think that deposits in our inboxes are things we want - so our dopamine circuit goes nuts when it happens. This reward-seeking behaviour is why we spend so much time online. In contrast, novels don’t offer the same sweet punch of satisfaction. In this theory’s favour, I can verify that when I received this email in my yahoo inbox yesterday, from HOVEROUND:GET YOUR FREEDOM BACK WITH A POWER WHEELCHAIR, Eli! my dopamine circuits went absolutely mental.

Having said that, I don’t think the promise of power wheelchairs etc are the only reason for us slacking off on novel-reading. A lot of people I know think novels are just serious and boring and didactic. Yeah, a lot of novels are. But not all. Not every novelist is Charles Dickens or Samuel Richardson. As I'll now try to prove...(Though if there are any hardcore non-fictioneers out there, state your case!)

Anyway, due to the above two factors, it's been an uphill slog to find a novel awesome enough a significant number of DABC’ers will put down the internet for and read. You had young adult fiction, eloquent perverts and obese godheads thrown you way, and you were like, piss off, you schmuck, I’m too busy getting dopamine fixes updating my Facebook status. Yeah, me too. But then Junot Diaz came along to save the day… his ‘The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao’ was, I don’t think it’s too hubristic to say, the DABC’s breakout novel. Here’s why: I spoke to four whole people who’d read it! And I proslyetised it to thirteen more who said they would! If Trujillo can capture one nation under a narrative, imagine what the DABC could do. But enough about fascist fantasies. What was the difference? Why did 'Wao' work?

Many reasons. First, unlike the massive miserabilist mountain of boo hoo me novels sitting beside it in every bookshop, it was fun. It really was. It was as funny, i dunno, Arrested Development (don't chew me out on this one, it's late and anything - of a certain calibre - will do). Yet it wa horrifically tragic too, so it won on both counts. Most people can sell you only one or the other, tragedy or comedy. Demonstrating the two are indivisible was a fine, and brave (because it‘s so difficult to pull off) thing to do. I wasn’t expecting to be played like that - in fact, I didn‘t know what to expect from the whole novel.

All I knew when I started 'Wao' was that it was a Pulitzer-winning, 11-years-in-the-making story about a fat Dominican science fiction geek. Ahh, my naievety. Once you get into it, horizons expand infinitely. No spoilers here, just props. First, there’s the dictatorship. The anchoring in a part of 20th century history I - I don’t know about you (pl.) - knew nothing about. Nothing about the Trujillo Era - about, as Diaz puts it, ’the asphyxiation of a whole generation of young Dominicans’…or that Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina was ‘the Dictatingest Dictator who ever Dictated’. So that was an excellent wake-up call...being eye-deep in a dictatorship I'd not even known about before was absolutely fascinating.

And then there’s the immigrant stories, the opening out from Oscar’s nerdery, the ’moronic inferno’ that is his school, etc, to the backstory of his family, and before you know it you’re in the Cabral vortex, and it’s not only Oscar and Lolita whose lives we give a shit about, it’s Belicia and then Abelard, and La Inca too. Didn’t see any of that coming, nor the way the chronology would weave from past to present and keep us guessing. So impressive. It takes chops to encompass so much so smoothly.

Excuse the lack of coherence here - it's late and there's so much to discuss in 'Wao' that things are
gonna get tangential at some point. Which is why it's already time for some homegrown reader
reception theory. Specifically, the theory of self-identification - which is totally obvious, I guess - that the reason we read/watch/anticipate & enjoy certain things is because they tell us about who we think we are or who we’d like to be. This worked with 'Wao'...at least, I thought so. I saw so many people I know kaleidoscoping around in Oscar, Lola and Yunior's personalities that I enjoyed reading about their lives best of all. There’s a little bit of most of us in each of them…and there’s pleasure in reading about the lives of *very* distant alter-egos. It's not only about the nascent narcissism of self-identification though. Diaz also says something in a ’Narrative’ magazine interview about compassion, which is the other side of self-identification - to feel interested in these characters, you can come at it on the level that you, too, have lived in a dorm room with someone totally different to you, and at some point you've felt like an outsider, or you can try to understand how and why each of these people feels vulnerable, tough, confused, scared, and then shit goes down for them and you feel engaged, completely absorbed, when it happens…that’s having compassion. Then there’s the semi-alien world of Beli which requires even more compassion. And…fuck…Abelard. Diaz asks a lot of a good reader. More than can be broken down by this lame identification-compassion spectrum which is actually bullshit and I renounce right now. To sum up: it’s not boring.

Okay - anyone reading this far gets a reward, cos this is the internets! Let's talk about pum pum! Cos one of life’s most intriguing contrasts gets a going over - the world that revolves, as Diaz says so sweetly above, around the alchemy of pussy (such a phrase!). At Rutgers, you’ve got the pum pum mad player Yunior (thanks Jake, btw), and soppy fantasist Oscar rooming together in a dysfunctional but bittersweet bromance. You get the contrast between El hyper-masculismo and the boy who has to be begged to stop writing his space opera trilogy so he can do something about his weight and maybe, just maybe, get laid. And this is so sad and funny. Add to this Yunior’s spastic inability to get it together with the awesome, ferocious and beautiful Lola, and he digs himself into unforeseen depths of sad. It gets tragic. Cos Yunior is cool. I kind of admired him. He gets the girls, and he…um…you know, gets the girls. Well done him. And then I read something Diaz said in ’Narrative’ magazine about Yunior:

“Yunior looks at Oscar and sees a person who can expose himself, be himself, be vulnerable, often too vulnerable. Yunior doesn’t have any of that. He always wears a mask and is incapable of taking it off.”

That’s why he can’t get his shit together and man up for Lola. She got to him and he couldn‘t deal. Sad. So you get the hyper masculine unable to man up and be vulnerable, and you get the soppiest boy in the world unable to man up and be cool. (Note to certain men: don’t be Yuniors. Man up. Note to all men: Don‘t be Oscars either. Unless you want).

Um…where was I? Oh yeah. That the novel is jokes. Cos Diaz also said (somewhere…I forget where) how much fun it was to write the Yunior/Oscar banter. The man for whom its always pum pum o’clock and his pathetically uncopacetic roommate. I hoovered this up. It’s like Peep Show, but with a New Jersey accent, a Dominican swagger, and a way more nerdy David Mitchell, if that‘s possible. Here’s Yunior:

(p.173) “Did I try to help him with his girl situation? Share some of my playerly wisdom? Of course I did.

Problem was, when it came to the mujeres my roommate was like no-one on the planet. On the one hand, he had the worst case of no-toto-it is I’d ever seen. The last person to even come close was this poor Salvadoran kid I knew in high school who was burned all over his face, couldn’t get no girls ever because he looked like the Phantom of the Opera. Well: Oscar had it worse than him. At least Jeffrey could claim an honest medical condition. What could Oscar claim? That it was Sauron’s fault? Dude weighed 307 pounds, for fuck’s sake! Talked like a Star Trek computer! The real irony was that you never met a kid who wanted a girl so fucking bad. I mean, shit, I thought I was into females, but no-one, and I mean no-one, was into them the way Oscar was. To him, they were the beginning and the end, the Alpha and the Omega, the DC and the Marvel…Developed crushes out of nothing…Not that any of these shits ever came to anything. How could they? Oscar’s idea of G was to talk about role-playing games! How fucking crazy is that? (My favourite was the day on the E bus when he informed some hot morena, If you were in my game I would give you an eighteen Charisma!)”

Like John B. mentioned, you could see that Yunior’s voice might get wearing. But I really liked it. I like boys to be all urbandictionary.com. And if you tire of Yunior, you get the other stories - which there’s no time to go into detail here, but someone else, if you want to talk about them, please do - the stories which make the novel truly epic - Belicia’s and Abelard‘s. Man, I think I read 'Wao' too quickly the first time because when I finished, I was like, ‘amazing, but too much happens’. Then I read it again. Slowly. Not only then can you savour the language (Diaz is a worship-worthy wordsmith), you’ll also realise, as the Holman pointed out, how he creates lives by giving you the details you don’t expect - not the burn or the rapes, but, say, the story of Jack Pujols. The gangster. The boardwalk boy. The relationships that mattered and that taught the characters how to love and hate and forgive. And that they were fuku’d. This is really strong stuff. And it all culminates in Oscar finally, maybe, possibly, getting some (no giveaways here - read the novel)…but then history and myth come crashing down and fuku shit up. So you get what happened on the edges of lives, the fringe stories, and then you get like this meteor plummeting down into the middle of it all. Repeatedly.

Chin wanted to discuss the use of sci-fi and comics in the novel. Maybe this would start with Diaz’s explicit parallel of the Antilles with the kind of burnt-out apocalyptic chaos you’d find in sci-fi dystopias. I can see it’s a great reflection…the ruined cities, the paranoid citizenry, the maniac overlord. My only tiny problem with how this mirror of sci-fi chaos was spun out, notwithstanding some really funny invocations of the Fantastic Four at crucially tragic moments, was that some of it seemed to be obvious. As in, many SF tropes are so disappointingly binary in the first place that lassoing them into metaphor for the story (eg. ‘The Darkness’, ‘the phantom zone’, 'the immortals', 'the apotheosis’) doesn’t do much in the way of illumination. I felt they were flat, rather than expansive, metaphors. (although I have aped such usage here cos i'm lazy, i mean, meta). In 'Wao', though, it’s still beautifully done. It’s original and makes brilliant sense - why not parallel the Trujillo regime with leg-shaking, awe-inspiring, cosmic fear-inducing sci-fi/comic tropes? People thought Trujillo was superhuman (a ‘cosmic force’) anyway. And the curse, the fuku, is always a great story thing. Who doesn't get off on a good curse? Actually, pre-empting this criticism, Diaz said in an interview in good old Slate:

(page 2)"No one can write a straightforward political novel about the Trujillato and capture its phantasmagorical power. That's another reason I had to go hard-core nerd. Because without curses and alien mongooses and Sauron and Darkseid, the Trujillato cannot be accessed, eludes our "modern" minds. We need these fictional lenses, otherwise It we cannot see."

Dunno if you'd agree with that. Up for debate.

So...it’s been rumoured Diaz gets about 100 emails a month, all written (poor fucker) in Yunior-style, saying ‘please share the secrets of writerly success, yo’…to which Diaz replies: ‘Accept that it‘s a tough road to choose. Good luck’. (I paraphrase. Okay, I invent. Never mind). What he's doing is light years beyond making a tough choice, though. It's not perfect, but for a first novel it's peerless right now (or not?). Whether it will become part of an early 21st century canon and go the distance is something I’d love to discuss. Will it slip through our fingers? I think Diaz is a phenomenal writer. It was only when I stopped zooming through the story and started paying attention to its construction, to the elegance of the way its layers fell on one another, and to its words and how funny and perfectly chosen they were before I realised quite how amazing it was. As a still-alienated lit-otaku, I have a feeling what I just said - about the words -will pass some people by, but that doesn’t matter. That's just me being obsessed by one particular form of communication. It's nothing. As long as people read 'Wao' and enjoy it then we don’t need to give a monkeys about the intricacies of each others‘ opinions.

Except that’s the point. So please, please read and get involved! Get intricate!