The Discerning Nerd

Come in, sit down, quaff mead, enjoy. Stiff upper lip required.

Book 21: The Girl Who Would Speak for the Dead – Paul Elwork

This book is Paul Elwork’s debut and I managed to get it cheap despite it being relatively recent. I guess it wasn’t a big success for the publisher, because there were a lot of copies in that remainders store.

The best way I can describe this book is that it’s astounding that I can remember the purchasing of the book better than I can remember the book itself. After reading a few plot summaries, a little of it is coming back to me, and it’s at this point that I realise that the reason I don’t remember much is that there isn’t much to remember at all, because absolutely nothing happens.

It’s about a brother and a sister who live in this manor and have typical 1920’s posh kid adventures but are mostly bored. The sister, Emily, discovers that she can make loud cracking noises in her ankle with no discernible movement on her part and so her and her brother pretend that they are spirit mediums and can connect people with dead loved ones. Of course, it’s fine when you’re doing it with fellow fourteen year olds, but adults begin to become aware of it and given it’s post-war, there’s a lot of dead people left to take psychic stock of, and so they are forced into pretending that this person’s long-lost relative or whatever is actually speaking to them.

The moral issue here, whether it’s okay to pretend to be psychic if it makes someone grieving feel better, is interesting but it’s literally the whole point of a meandering, slow-paced plot. It throws somber, serious, it’s-all-fun-and-games-until-someone-lies-about-a-dead-dude at you for 350 pages without any tension or intrigue and then fizzles out with an ending that is not worth making it to the conclusion.

The only thing I can remember about the characters pre-researching is that Emily is cautious about the game and Michael, her twin brother, is up for fucking with the adults. I’ll leave it at that w/r/t characterisation.

I’m not asking for a crazy plot. Quiet plots are great, and this had the potential to be quite unnerving. However, the novel fails to give the reader much besides some quite nice prose, and that doesn’t fuel a plot that is a fucking slow burn. It’s a shame because the book could be interesting, and Elwork isn’t a bad writer. Give him a plot that doesn’t feel inconsequential and he will write a good book, I am sure of it. But The Girl Who Would Speak for the Dead is average at best, and not worth putting the time into.

Fiction: How Not to Be Useful In Any Way At All

I worked on this for hours last night, fine tuning it for review. I had eight copies printed out, stapled, ready to hand around the group. Everyone had their masterpieces as well, A4 sheets of paper, some plastic-sleeved, some dog-eared, most creased by being tossed about in their bags on the train; all accompanied by a big smile and a desire to astound.

The teacher, a bespectacled old man with cancerous looking moles on his bald scalp and a wispy sort of beard that grew in three-or-four-hair patches like lemongrass, asked me to hand my sheets around and for me to read it out.

My forehead started to glisten as I fretted the reading-out experience. I hated public speaking and even more so hated public reading. This thing that I had somehow fallen into, writing, this thing that I did primarily to amuse myself, stories designed with me as the only and incredibly devoted reader, was now being exposed to the public. I’d poured my heart and soul into this work, something I’d started long before I’d applied to be in this writing class, although I pretended that it was something fresh that I’d cooked up for the assignment. Reading it out was like holding my child out over a five storey drop and asking for the pedestrians below to catch it.

I began to edit in my head, right from the first sentence, substituting pronouns for names and names for pronouns if I felt I was being repetitive, but not making changes drastic enough to render the text which was handed around unfollowable. Out of the corner of my eye I could see the teacher’s placating nod, his soft eyes trying to comfort me. He’d seen people nervous before. It was ‘okay’. Some people in the workshop would close their eyes taking in the mellifluous sounds of the spoken word like it was a jazz club reading or something and my lungs felt like their capacity had shrunk by a good 90%, and my personal but fictionalised story about the death of my first wife was released into the wild.

Polite golf clapping followed the close of my first, albeit conclusive, chapter. The teacher sucked in a big breath and said, “Thank you very much. So guys, any comments for Alan?”

“I liked it,” one of the students said.

“So did I,” said another.

“Yes, I really like that one, it was good, yeah,” said a third.

“It had this sort of, you know, I liked the voice, that melancholy, you know, I think that was pretty good.”

“Yeah the voice was nice.”

“Oh yes, it was. Wonderful voice.”

“I did notice one thing, though,” the person who said they liked the voice first went on, “There was a spelling error on page three. I think you left an extra ‘o’ off the ‘to’.”

“But that could be a stylistic thing for the character,” someone said. “You know, he’s grieving, I mean, the last thing I’d be thinking if someone close to me died would be whether all my I’s were dotted and my T’s were crossed. At least that’s what I thought.”

Everyone chortled in learned agreeance.

“Maybe,” the voice-lover said, “But aside from that, it was very good.”

“Oh yes, very good.”

The teacher leaned back in his chair a bit causing it to creak. The chairs in the community college all looked from the 1970’s and were in serious need of replacement or, at the very least, some WD-40.

“Any other comments?” the teacher said. “Some constructive criticism perhaps?”

“Oh yes,” one student said, “I liked it, I liked it a lot, but I feel like I didn’t really get a sense of who the character was, I mean, we get don’t get a lot about his life besides his wife dying, I mean, this is a first chapter from a larger thing so you probably get to know the character a bit better as you go along, but a scene where he’s at the funeral for his dead wife doesn’t say very much to me, you know? I don’t know, maybe you could do something like that book, oh I can’t remember what it’s called, I forget the name, I’ll let you know what it is if I remember it, but he is writing about something similar and he handles it really well, I’ll email you. But other than that I liked it.”

“I liked it too.”

“Yeah, I liked it a lot. It reminds me of what I try and do, you know, that sadness thing, like, people at their worst moments, and it’s similar to my piece in that way, like that’s what I write about, although you’ll see that when we get to it, but yes, it was good, I liked it, I think it’s got a lot of potential.”

The teacher nodded understandingly. Everyone started collecting the sheets of printed out paper together, ready to hand back to me, and the teacher asked if there were any other comments and it was plain to see that nobody really felt like saying anything more, and the teacher thanked me for my story and asked another student to hand her piece out to everyone. My story came back to me and I leafed through the pile of sheets for the written commentary. Someone underlined the line: “Everybody felt black that day,” a line that made me cringe as I was reading aloud because it was so heavy-handed, and the underliner wrote “This is good!” with a smiley face next to it, and at the bottom of the page: “Keep going I would love to read more!” – the I in ‘going’ dotted with a love heart. Everybody had circled the to/too mistake or underlined it, but later on reassured me that the story was good and told me how much they liked it. Someone circled a little paragraph about how getting dressed in the suit for the funeral felt like a ritual of finality and wrote underneath it, “Oh I can really relate to this! Very good!”

By the end of class, through everybody’s workshopping I counted 71 verbal uses of the word ‘good’ or ‘like’ in the context of review; four instances of people who could really relate to the main character; two instances of people thinking the story was really interesting; five times they liked the voice of the piece (mine inclusive); one occasion of someone not understanding the ending but thinking it was really good anyway; seven times they corrected typos, once per student; two instances of someone mentioning Twilight; one person who wanted the author to put a nice quote1 at the top of the page to tie the story together; two times that the author was asked if their story was based on personal experience;2 three times asking the author what they meant by this line and then commenting that, once they understood, it was good; and, finally, seven times, on every single goddamn story, seven times where the teacher did not intervene in the pantomime of insipid comments and shitty feedback, not lending his supposed expertise to anything, letting the students do the work for him, sitting there nodding and earning his paycheck.

1 One of the city’s major newspapers has a Word of the Day column that aims to expand the vocabulary of the general public to try and counter the bad reputation it has for being tabloid and exploitative and the root of all political and social dumbing-down. That afternoon, when I was thumbing through it in the newsagency at the train station waiting to leave, I found out that the paper’s word of the day was ‘epigraph’ and so the student had made the criticism just to use the word in class to sound smart. By the way, the story which needed an epigraph was a dumb affair about a kid who went on an incomprehensible nostalgic rant triggered off by seeing a rusting and discarded pogo stick lying in New York’s Central Park. The voice was apparently really good and everyone liked it, except for the grammatical error on the first page where he said ‘he were jumping’ instead of ‘was jumping’, and the student explained that as being an editorial hangover from a previous draft where the main character remembered a bunch of kids jumping on pogo sticks instead of just one but thanked everyone anyway for the feedback.

2 Both times the answer to this was yes and caused an outpouring of emotion and self-aggrandising speeches, aimed more at a therapist than a class of writing students, each student having struggled through some tough times and serious shit, and who all coincidentally felt like writing was a way to cope with how awful the world was, a way to deal with said tough times and said serious shit, with all the requisite sniffles and deep emotional breaths to give themselves a little more steam to make it to the end, the ol’ tug at the heartstrings, my cynicism saying it was to score points with the geriatric tutor, although more likely it was a desperate need to fit into the mythological school of hard knocks that everyone seems to think writers graduate from, just because Edgar Allan Poe had  some bad days in his life.

Book 20: The Broom of the System

David Foster Wallace is one of my favourite writers, and has been for a long time. He’s a formative influence on my writing – one of those writers whose work I’d read and feel this aching desire to write like that. This was funnily enough the first time I’d read The Broom of the System; I was a more voracious consumer of his short story collections and various essays that appeared in magazine and subsequently float around the internet. I loved all of them. His writing is dense and powerful and demands your attention (the first time I read ‘The Depressed Person’ I had to sit under a blanket and think long and hard about my life).

And but so I came to The Broom of the System, pants off, primed and ready to go. I did not know that he widely derided this book later in his career, openly mocking it as the work of a young writer full of his own shit, desperately wanting to impress the reader with how clever he was. Indeed, compared to his later work, even Girl with Curious Hair, which appears in the hangover of this early DFW era, the book seems like this weird, odd-one-out novel that is hard to reconcile with what came later. There’s little of DFW’s knack for combining the base emotional truth with linguistic pyrotechnics. It’s a circus of language and Wittgenstein and postmodern games that ends up feeling hollow.

It’s the sort of experimental-ish novel that I can sit there and nod and ‘get it’. We can have a cup of tea and discuss Wittgenstein and chortle at the intensely cerebral jokes about language and the absurdity of people and the world but the end result compels you to say, ‘So what?’ It reminds me of a quotation about Lolita that claimed it was like a bodybuilder, muscles sculpted and puffed up for aesthetic purposes but devoid of substance.

The book is still enjoyable if precocious. It’s probably DFW’s most blatantly funny novel. There’s always humour in his writing but most of the time it’s a sideshow to tragedy or sadness or boredom – in this it is the dominant mode, from the nursing home escapees to a cockatiel who suddenly learns to speak and becomes a televangelist. A lot of DFW stylistic tics were around then: the use of transcript, the fragmented storytelling,long subordinate clause-laden sentences.

It is still an enjoyable novel, don’t get me wrong. It deserved to be published, and thank god it did, otherwise we might never have seen his later work. But reading it feels like we’re going through DFW’s dirty underwear here, or at the very least going through all his baby photos. It’s an immature work of a novelist who hadn’t yet found out what really mattered to him. He’d barely begun writing seriously when he wrote Broom of the System, and so he was still suffering from that awful problem which afflicted me and I know afflicted many other young writers just starting out on their literary journey: you write to impress, rather than writing something impressive.

1 No footnotes yet, though.

Book 19: Falling Man

Falling Man is Don Delillo’s response to 9/11, and it’s a fantastic antidote to the insipid Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. At its heart is an estranged marriage between Keith and Leanne, and this relationship is used to explore the emotional disaffection of New York in the period after the attacks. Keith is a businessman who works in the towers and manages to escape, zoned out of his mind, holding a briefcase that isn’t his own.

The incident is seen through the lens of typical Delillo themes: mass media, violence, self as defined through being part of a group or crowd. The novel is mostly an exercise in generating affect, to make the reader feel disillusioned, confused, unsure about things, to feel the aimless surrealism of the days after the attacks, and how that feeling hung over New York for a long time after the planes hit.

This is probably the best novel about the 9/11 attacks, although that’s not exactly the hardest thing in the world to do. Besides Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (which I won’t bang on about too much in this review suffice to say that I think it should’ve been titled Extremely Long and Incredibly Shit) there are few decent literary interpretations of it, at least that I’ve read. What did a better job for me at explaining the mood of that time were the talk show monologues that night. Look them up on YouTube, especially Jon Stewart’s. They’re all sombre, heartfelt outpourings of people genuinely shocked about what’s happened to their city. It’s an America realising that there are people out there who don’t like them and wish great harm on them, a realisation that they are not as secure as they once thought. You can see the ideological shift happening right there on your screen, the sense of enormity, the tragedy.

This was the second time that I’d read Falling Man. Both times I’ve torn through it, reading it in a day or two. It’s a book of bombardment, of images and emotions hitting you from every direction. There’s no real sense of plot, which makes sense when I sit down and think about what the book is trying to achieve, but it still disrupts my enjoyment of the novel. It doesn’t feel as tightly structured as Delillo’s other stories, which again, makes works as a literary strategy but in the end hampers me as a reader. I feel distanced from the novel as the relationships themselves are distant. That’s fine for me, I can deal with being positioned as an analytic, almost scientific observer of events, but there aren’t enough linguistic tricks to sustain the novel for me. After about 100 pages I’ve got the idea, I’m on board with it, but it keeps pulling the same trick for another 200 pages. It’s like if White Noise continued being plotless for the whole novel instead of just the first part – the toxic airborne event unifies the thematic strands and powers the reader’s engagement for the rest of the novel. The pursuit of the briefcase’s owner is possibly some attempt to introduce plot but it’s not strong enough.

Not to say that the book is bad. It’s more flawed than bad, with plenty of beautiful writing and interesting thoughts on what living in a post-terrorist world means. Now, on second reading, I knew that it wasn’t going to be a floaty, affect-centered story, and knowing that beforehand makes the novel a lot better, even if it doesn’t alleviate its issues entirely. I read it like I was looking into a time capsule, an experimental investigation into the mind of New York post-9/11, a concept that is a lot better thinking about it later on, over a cup of coffee, having digested the entire story.

It’s not my favourite Delillo novel. It’s got issues but it’s got enough good stuff in there to make it worth the time. There really isn’t a writer better equipped for deconstructing the event as Delillo, and it shows. All of his good qualities are there in the text, all of the stuff that makes him such a badass.

I can best describe it as Delillo telling Jonathan Safran Foer to go back to cutting lines out The Street of  Crocodiles in his bedroom, because the big boys want to play Xbox on the big TV. O’Doyle Rules.

Down the Rabbit Hole: Let’s Read Fifty Shades of Grey – Chapter 1

I am very good at masochism when it comes to reading books and watching movies. I’ve made it through the entirety of Twilight (and then Breaking Dawn once I heard how completely fucking crazy that book is, and oh God, it doesn’t disappoint). The most recent notch on my why-the-fuck-did-you-read-that belt was A Shore Thing, the first book that Snooki ‘wrote’, assuming she didn’t just vomit it out after an evening of spray tan and cocktails and juiceheads.

It’s been a long time between self-inflicted drinks for me, and I’ll be the first to admit that I get a perverse pleasure in reading terrible books. It’s a skill only suited for two jobs: managing a publishing house’s slush pile, and writing cynical shit on the internet. Time to do the latter.

I know very little about Fifty Shades of Grey, besides that it’s extremely popular and it’s born from the author’s Twilight fan-fiction. Unlike other pieces of fan-fiction related to Twilight, this one got picked up by a publisher after E L James rewrote the story with her own characters.

You know, I’d like to think that after Twilight and The Hunger Games, we’ve gotten past extremely terrible mass-market fiction. But obviously we haven’t, judging by the reaction this book got. I’m keeping myself blind going into this; I haven’t even read the blurb. I am going to write an entry for every chapter as I go through, chronicling one man’s trip into Twilight-inspired romance and all the dangers he faces. I am pre-disposed to hating this, but then again, if you’re reading this blog, you’re probably not drinking James’s lemonade anyway. You’re probably just here to see some mud being thrown.

Well, let the mud slinging begin…

Chapter 1

The book opens with a long monologue about how hard it is to keep control of your hair when you’ve slept on it when it’s wet. Because, as we all know, wet hair is a criminally unexplored  area as far as literary hooks go. We’re introduced to Anastasia Steele, a college student, and her current plight: driving to Seattle to interview a Mr. Grey for her friend Kate. Kate is the editor at the college newspaper and is sick, so Ana agrees to do the interview for he, despite having “final exams to cram for and one essay to finish and [she’s] working this afternoon…” – all of which, I thought, would be reasonable excuses to not drive to Seattle. Apparently everyone else who works on the newspaper have to wash their hair so Ana agrees to do it, an arrangement she spends plenty of time pissing and moaning about.

Ana describes herself as a “brown-haired girl with blue eyes too big for her face”, so already, it looks like she’s a sad panda with image issues, just the kind of character ripe for an Edward Cullen worship session. She travels to Seattle in Kate’s car (by the way, Kate is “articulate, strong, persuasive, argumentative, beautiful” – listing those adjectives like a kindergartner asked to describe their mum for a project) and arrives at Mr Grey’s building. She signs in at the front desk, the woman behind it being “a very attractive, groomed, blonde young woman” (I’m sensing a theme here), and takes another opportunity to grumble about her own choice of dress. She bitches about how she isn’t wearing the right clothes, she walks to the elevator and says she doesn’t fit in here, rides the elevator, and encounters another perfectly attractive woman (“confronted”, in fact).

As she waits in the meeting room, she looks out the window and says, I shit you not, “I was momentarily paralysed by the view. Wow.” Not fucking kidding. New York Times bestseller list, ladies and gentlemen. She’s nervous about the interview because Kate, being the 10/10 friend that she is, has seemingly given her absolutely no information about Mr Grey, and she starts complaining about how she isn’t comfortable with interviews. Why did she even agree! Was Kate that fucking starved of friends who would be up for it?

The third or fourth female Adonis walks in and Ana says, “What is it with all the immaculate blondes? It’s like Stepford here.” They have a conversation while she waits for Mr Grey. All we get is her being nervous and feeling inadequate about everything. Jesus Christ, Ana needs to chill the fuck out and smoke a bowl or something. A man walks out of Grey’s office (yes, he is attractive) and Ana is allowed to enter.

Holy shit, she falls over as she walks into the office. Oh you clumsy and quirky Anastacia! You’re so cute on the inside! She looks up at Grey while she’s on her hands and knees (just add water to that joke) and he helps her up. Aww. He is, surprise surprise, a perfect specimen. Grey eyes, of course. Ana starts setting up her equipment with the biggest set of hotness-induced butterfingers that the world has ever seen. She asks if she can record the interview and Mr Grey drops a mad neg on her by saying, “After you’ve taken so much trouble to set up the recorder, you ask me now?” Oh man, 10/10 swagfest, I bet he read Neil Strauss. Ana subsequently swoons.

The next few pages feature a long info-dump about Grey and his business, and despite Ana’s sly digs at him, you can tell that someone’s going to have to get out the Spray and Wipe and give the seat a good going over after she leaves.

She spazzes through the interview feeling light-headed:

“Why does he have such an unnerving effect on me? His overwhelming good looks maybe? The way his eyes blaze at me? The way he strokes his index finger against his lower lip? I wish he’d stop doing that.”

Christ, even this motherfucker’s teeth are perfect. The only negative thing she says about him is that he’s an arrogant control freak but even then you know that’s a turn on for her. Meanwhile Grey keeps giving her mixed signals and confusing vague statements about everything.

Then, after seemingly offending him, he offers her a job/mentions his internship program/I have no idea because he has to be mysterious and not say anything concrete. She wraps up the interview, Grey helps her out of the office, and then, hilariously, gives her her coat, claps both hands on her shoulders, pushes the elevator button and leans against the doorway being Mr Cool. They exchange one word farewells and Ana rides the elevator down, ending the chapter.

I’m not very impressed by Chapter 1, I have to say. It’s very Mills and Boon, which is probably why it got called Mummy Porn by the press. It’s like she took the insipid moaning of Bella Swann and put it into a character who has even less to complain about.

It might be a while before I can bring myself to do another chapter. In the meantime, I’m going to go sit near a copy of Infinite Jest just in case I caught something.

Book 18: Mao II

Don DeLillo is pretty cool. I’d give Don DeLillo a brofist in the street if I saw him. We’d nod in a spirit of literary camaraderie and then part ways, me carrying any signed material that I could gather from him.

Don DeLillo is a strange one. He’s incredibly prolific (even if they’re essentially about the same theme with different characters) and both well-respected and not, depending on who you talk to. I agree that he does tend to suffer a bit of the ‘babby’s first complex literature’ syndrome. I agree that he’ll write long, lyrical passages of images that amount to nothing more than a over-elaboration of what he stated three paragraphs ago (and for the cynical, three books ago). I agree that he’s been on a rather precipitous downward spiral over the last decade (I have not read any of the short story collection that he’s just released). But there’s still a grunt there, a literature that’s looking for something more than the commercialised depth that would qualify him for Oprah’s book club.

Mao II is about contemporary groupthink. The first scene features a mass cult wedding at Yankee Stadium and shows how the subject can give itself over to the madness of a crowd. You can feel the Orwellian evocations of that idea, (albeit without the totalitarian criticism, this book is more exploratory than didactic) the shadow of the Two Minutes Hate hang over the story. The book spends the rest of its time grappling with the question of how those crowds are shaped, and the conflict between the individual and the group.

Bill is the main character, a heavily private writer living the secluded hide-and-seek-world-championship sort of life that Pynchon and Salinger are known for. He is writing a book that he is deliberately not finishing, always changing things and moving stuff around so it has an excuse not to be published. He thinks that the book would lose its power if consumed by the masses, that the author in the work would be lost. Eventually he starts to come out of his seclusion, allowing a photographer to take his picture, and participating in lectures for a writer detained by terrorists in Beirut.

Reading the novel, the most interesting part to me was the way that DeLillo predicted the power of terrorism that was to come. Throughout, Bill says that the power to change the way people think no longer resides in the writer but the terrorist. Does art even matter anymore? Has ideology become the new art, and those battlegrounds such as the explosion of a suicide bomber the new canvas? The presience of the novel makes it feel fresh, as if it was written yesterday (even if the references to Ayatollah Khomeni’s funeral give the game away). It’s a very different analysis of terror than something like Falling Man, which can be viewed as a less conceptual and cultural analysis of terror, focusing instead on its implication on everyday lives.

It’s definitely one of the better DeLillo books that I’ve read, definitely the best of the ones that I’ve read this year (and if you look at the Book List on the top of the page, I’ve read quite a few. The man’s got a large oeuvre, come on). It’s a better book because it feels less like a thesis statement with barely a story attached, as a lot of his novels do. His critiques and analyses of the postmodern cultural identity are weaved through an interesting plot, and yes, there are the trademark DeLillo talking heads scenes, but they feel more in context, born from the characters and not as much DeLillo himself. That being said, I found it hard not to picture Bill looking exactly like DeLillo and no amount of description could change that.

I’d say this is actually quite a good starting point to DeLillo. Mao II or White Noise. Eat the finger food first before you tuck into the big seven course meal that is Underworld (which I will read some day, he says every day). Just make sure to be wearing your smoking jacket and monocle. If the postman comes to the door with a parcel, make sure you cry out, ‘Oh, I’ll be with you in just a minute, I must finish this chapter. Have you read DeLillo? Thought not.’ It’s all part of being one of those guys.

Book 17: Atonement

Atonement is one of those books that tried to grab me but its hand slipped away. It’s another book from this cheap book purchase period. I was currently 1-1 on the scoreboard, and after Atonement, I can only give the final score as 1.5-1.5; a half point being the most ambivalent score to give to a text I feel most ambivalent about.

I always give those British upper class stories a wide berth. Anything that involves dinners and kids who probably own their own pony and maids and “oh Mr Kensington, I do hope that you found your way here most favourably” and going for walks and insignificant problems that mean the world when all you do is drink tea and look down your nose all day and mansions and a grumpy patriarch who has a library with a leather chair and retiring to the living room for port.

Atonement is this story with a little more to make it interesting. Well, at least the first half is. It’s the story of a day in the life of the Tallis family that ends up being disastrous. One action causes a chain reaction that alters the course of everyone’s lives – the old narrative conceit of the seminal day or moment.

It becomes an exploration of writing, as Briony, the girl who causes the main calamitous event, tries to atone (hurr get it hurr) for what she did. And it’s all nice and well and good but holy shit does it take a long time to get there.

The story is split into three parts, the first of which is the most successful. I kept thinking of To the Lighthouse (and the reason I reread it later in the challenge), with everybody knowing different things and misinterpreting each other’s thoughts and minds. But really, dramatic irony is the only thing that comes out of this conceit, and making the reader shake their fist angrily at how unfair life can be sometimes oh man grumble grumble. The characters’s narrations hold this section together, and they generate an interesting enough story.

The second part lost it a bit for me. It was wonderfully written – Ian McEwan is always going to pump out good prose – but it’s a World War 2 story that doesn’t break any originality records. And even that I would be fine with as long as the war is brutal stuff felt attached to this wider theme across the four parts of the novel. But it hangs in the middle like Ian McEwan is saying “Hey this story took place around WW2 and one of the characters took part in the Miracle of Dunkirk”. Its convenient for plot as well, and for reflection, but doesn’t feel a part of the story to me.

The third part is Briony as an adult working in the nursing ward, having given up Cambridge study to take part in the war effort (hey guys I bet she is trying to ATONE for something eh eh eh eh eh seriously, its really fucking hard to talk about this book without using the word atone). This part works quite well, the nurse perspective of war is quite fresh and it feels more a part of things than the middle section. Briony looking after Luc, for those who want to read it, is a beautiful scene and probably the best in the book.

However, the ending to this section is a bit of a damp squib. I didn’t find it satisfying in the least, and I get how it works with the epilogue, but by the time that twist comes in, the course of the book has made me stop caring. Ian sure was clever, okay, next book. Spoiler warning (highlight to view): I thought what actually happened to them was far more interesting than what Briony wrote. Maybe I’m just not the romantic type. In the end, I felt ambivalent. There was enough here to make me at least want to read the book, but not enough to be wowed by it.

Book 16: De Niro’s Game

What a palette cleanser. After the travesty of the previous book, I sheepishly picked up one of the other novels I got for $5, and thankfully, it was a winner. De Niro’s game is the debut novel of Rawi Hage. It won a couple of prizes and for good reason. It’s an entertaining, fast and stark look at life in a Beirut savaged by civil war – the reality of living among perpetual death, the realities and choices you have to face.

It’s strange to describe a book like this as beautiful, a book where so much bad shit happens both on and off camera, but it’s the best adjective that comes to mind. There’s a brutal lyricism to the novel that goes across a lot of Middle Eastern novels and films (both in a good way and in a bad way – I’m looking at you, A Taste of Cherry. Gee Abbas Kiarostami, I love watching a melancholic man drive around for 90 minutes, thank you for making a movie just for me).

Bassam and George are two young men who take different paths when confronted with their war-torn city. They come up with a scheme to steal money from the poker machine parlour that George’s boss owns in order to fund their exodus from the country. As they accumulate the money, George decides to remain and join the militia, leaving his cousin to continue the work with Bassam. Looking for more and more ways to get money, Bassam finds himself getting entangled deeper into organised crime.

It’s an intense, fast paced plot, but the true star of the novel is the language. Hage turns these awful scenes of violence and despair into beauty. I’ve never seen a more beautiful depiction of hundreds of innocent people being killed in a bombing. Pretty good for a guy writing in his third language. Right from the beginning, the bombings feel routine, relegated to the background of the story, given as establishing the scene rather than being front and center. You feel desensitised to hundreds of people dying at once – and people wonder why war is the breeding ground of nihilism.

Bassam’s character is the main concern of the novel; an existential, gruff youth who is willing to commit as much violence as he has to in order to escape violence. A vicious cycle sort of thing. And none of this is stated – Bassam doesn’t have a ‘war is hell’ moment or speech. Hage never uses him to moralise the story. He lets the situation stand on its own, but you understand everything. The moral complexity of it is there on the page because Hage does a brilliant job of getting you to empathise with him. You get why he is doing it, you think hey, I’d probably do the same thing, and yet you’re also apprehensive about it, there’s something not quite right. That’s real writing, getting across complexity without ever drawing attention to it directly. It’s the point of using fiction rather than an essay to get your point across – to let your characters act and let the ideas shine through.

No, it isn’t as good as House of Leaves. It’s almost as good as Room, though (and Room doesn’t win by very much). So get on it, chumps and chumpettes. It’s one of the better five dollars that I’ve ever spent.

Book 15: Summer, Fireworks and My Corpse

This book is a complete pile of shit.

I knew this was going to happen at some point this year, although I am surprised it’s taken fifteen books. Maybe I just have a good eye for what I know I’m going to like. Thank god I only spent $5 on this in one of those clearance stores.

It’s an anthology of sorts, two novellas (even though the second long enough to just be called a novel, to be honest), broken up by a short story in the middle. They are J-Horror stories, centred around the kind of horror I enjoy: menace around the edges, psychological, unnerving, coiling of tension. J-Horror is often very good at achieving this (as well as inventing some pretty creative scenarios). These stories are not.

The titular story is by far the best of the three, a still mediocre short story about a child being pushed out of a tree, falling to her death, and the culprits’ attempts to hide the body. The story is told from the point of view of the corpse, an interesting conceit even if there’s not that much depth to it. The story is structured well and the plot chugs along its merry way towards a very, very telegraphed twist. Even though this story success or failure hinges on the twist, it still feels satisfying – predictability isn’t a problem if the journey towards it is, at least, entertaining.

The second story, ‘Yuko’, is a very bland and ineffectual version of a Gothic horror tale. The maid begins to suspect something strange with her eccentric master’s relationship with his wife after a regimented eating schedule changes (yeah, I know, it makes more sense in the context of the story) and she starts to investigate. It’s got the more-than-meets-the-eye thing going on, the hidden narratives, you cannot really know what’s the truth until the end, but the writing is so powerless than I couldn’t have given less of a shit by the end. The twist at the end changes the way you view everything, but I didn’t have the curiosity to re-assess how I viewed everything. It’s like the newspaper story that you skip after reading the headline, fleshed out to forty-odd pages.

‘Black Fairy Tale’, which comprises almost two-thirds of the book, was such a pain to read that if it was the first story, I wouldn’t have even bothered to read the whole thing, and you’d be reading a different Book 15 right now. If you want to read a story with the queen of terrible protagonists, this is it. It’s about a girl who loses her eye and her memory in an accident. When she gets a transplant, she starts seeing the memories from the eye’s former owner – from the slice of life, to the sinister. Eventually she travels to the home town of the eye’s owner to uncover the mysteries.

The only thing more annoying than Nami’s tactless parents and fellow students, who have absolutely no empathy for a girl who’s just had a really fucking terrible accident and continually remind her of how she’s not as good at anything since losing her goddamn memory (don’t try and explain it away as a cultural thing, being an awful human being goes across cultures), is Naiko herself. She is so spineless. Even in interior monologue she puts up with the crap everyone flings at her and then acts like a morose little bitch about it because it doesn’t change.  She is so goddamn passive I wanted to jump through the pages of the story, put both hands on her back and push until she finally got somewhere. We’re not even experiencing a story through a protagonist here; she’s a bland, featureless robot walking into a room and hearing other people talking and then printing out a little piece of paper reporting back on what Robot Naiko observed. If on the off chance a feminist academic is reading this, please do a critique of this story because I would love to see you get as mad as I did.

I wish I kept notes (given I read this nearly two months ago now), so I could list every single illogical decision she makes without some justification for it plot-wise. Christ, she doesn’t even react to the more… magical realist horrors in the novel (I still care enough about spoilers to avoid specifics) – she pretty much says, “Oh well,” and goes on as if she didn’t just see something really fucking weird. I get that you’re writing someone who’s more than a little disillusioned by the whole amnesia thing, but amnesia or not, seeing a monster makes most people go, “Oh shit, it’s a monster!”

The rest of the characters are made out of cardboard. It feels like every character exists in the story just to solve Nami’s plot problems or to drive her places. The plot has some pretty hilarious and obvious logical holes and the whole thing is just a big fat turd which now stinks up the sci fi/fantasy/horror part of my bookshelf. I cringe at the fact that I actually put up with this – I was already 140+ pages in by the time this shit parade really turned down Crap Street so I felt like I should at least finish it.

At least the paper feels absorbent enough that it might come in handy if I ever need to clean something.

Book 14: Rabbit, Run

Those orange Penguin books always get me. They look fucking sexy on your shelf and you can be sure that the book’s going to be at least halfway decent (I just hope in 30 years’ time we don’t have the orange Penguin edition of Hunger Games or Twilight just because they were a cultural phenomenon).

And that’s just what Rabbit, Run is. Decent. This is the first book by Updike that I’ve read. My previous experience with him is reading his reviews, and I find him pretty reliable on the no bullshit scale. And I can feel that same sense of no bullshit coming through in Rabbit, Run – the first book in the beloved Rabbit series (oh god writing the second half of that sentence has made me feel like a YA reader, kill me now please). And it’s… all right.

I remember finishing it and putting it down and actually saying, “Well, that was a book.” Indeed it was, a book that constantly runs around itself and gets lost. Rabbit Angstrom used to be a basketball mega-star in school, destined for big things. Now he’s older and in a (to him) shitty marriage. He has a freakout and takes a big drive, running away from the life that he feels has him trapped.

Then he turns around. He comes back to his old coach and has an extremely odd relationship with this woman named Ruth. Without going into it more for the sake of spoilers, the blurb of the novel has it right: he spends the whole book chasing his tail.

Updike is fucking impeccable as a prose stylist. Even with the huge blocks of dense paragraph, you feel like you’re walking through a writing wonderland with beautifully rhythmic sentences. And then you realise these sentences are about a grown man acting like a petulant little child, which makes you hope that one of the upcoming sentences will describe a fist colliding with the side of Rabbit’s face.

There’s anti-heroes, and believe me, I love a good anti-hero. But Rabbit isn’t one. He’s a character acting utterly irresponsibly for no reason besides being a selfish piece of shit. There’s lots of internal justification for why he does what he does, but I don’t buy any of it. I’m not sure if I’m meant to align with Rabbit or not. If I am, Updike did a bad job of it; if I’m not, I can appreciate his ability to look at how silly someone like Rabbit is, but I didn’t get hooked by his ironic magic tricks.

The plot does have some sense of direction; it moves at a good pace and has interesting events, but the whole to-and-fro that Rabbit creates/is caught up in starts to get a bit much. I don’t think I hate the story; I think it’s interesting from a detached literary perspective, but it didn’t grab me as a reader. Maybe I just blew my wad on Room and after that, anything but pure eye-affixing engagement was a disappointment.

I enjoyed it as far as watching a man on a path of self-destruction (and the destruction of those around him). I enjoyed the push and pull that drags Rabbit around the story. But the story ended up feeling hollow. I don’t know whether it was planned to be a series or not, and if that’s the explanation for it, but I think it’ll take an effort for me to read the next Rabbit novel. I’m still pumped for Witches of Eastwick though.