Monday, 20 June 2016

Acts Of The Assassins by Richard Beard

Currently reading...

Friday, 3 June 2016

The Development by John Barth

Awaiting review...

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Breakfast Of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut

Awaiting review...

Wednesday, 11 May 2016

The Petting Zoo by Jim Carroll

He did not believe himself, but he
believed in his mother's belief.
This review contains spoilers, so consider yourself warned.

I'd forgotten all about Jim Carroll. When I was between school and university in 1995, and the Di Caprio movie of Carroll's diaries came out, it was all my friends and peers were talking about. Perverse then as I am now, I refused to watch it; didn't get around to it until I was nearer thirty than twenty. But then I was mooching around on iTunes and it happened to recommend, given recent purchases of The Replacements and The Dead Milkmen, 'People Who Died' from the album Catholic Boy by The Jim Carroll Band, a song by the way which is both rocking and crushing, and I was pulled in by the Ramones-esque guitars, the crisp, punchy snare sound, and Carroll's hip, New York voice singing lyric poetry about friends who've died in the most terrible fashion, self-inflicted and accidental, all of whom were friends of his.

His iTunes biog mentioned being an author, and the pieces clicked. I was (partially) defeated in my cynicism, went straight out and bought a hard-back of The Petting Zoo (I still don't want to read about a child's addiction to heroin), and was delighted to find a forward by Patti Smith, and saddened to learn he'd died alone in New York on September 11th 2009, a date filled with enough suitable pathos to elicit an empathetic if metaphorical tear. I also learned he'd left the manuscript unfinished, and that his friends and editors and completed the task as sympathetically as they could. In retrospect, this might explain a few things.

His iTunes biog also mentions how difficult it often is for poets to translate their talents to writing music and to other genres, and how Jim Carroll is a notable success. On the basis of The Petting Zoo they are not wrong–there is poetry on every page, but balanced in parts by some passages of clunky philosophical extemporising. But the essential story is of a wunderkind whose mojo is stunted after what, on the surface, might look like a very incidental encounter with an art exhibition, who undertakes a period of deep introspection, considering the arc of his life's narrative and what drives him to create, from where his talents are drawn, and how art and life interact. But his search for a way back to art forces irrevocable changes in his life and on those around him, and his eventual obsession results in him freezing to death in his studio apartment during some extremely unseasonable weather, while being lectured by an immortal raven whose advice had helped bring Billy to both his zenith and nadir in quick succession.

I was desperate to love this book. I probably do. But it has its flaws. Billy Wolfram is my age or thereabouts, and speaks to many of my own anxieties, of many of everyone's anxieties I don't doubt. Carroll's prose is in parts amazing and otherworldly. However, his dialogue is occasionally heavy and unrealistic. Some of the passages where Billy replays conversations and experiences with his childhood friend Denny where both talk about the facts of creation (Denny is an artist too, a musician) are sometimes artificial, or at least feel like they might not fit, might not be quite what Carroll would have wanted to say–they're too indirect, feeling like someone who has an incomplete grasp of the matter and is working out what he's trying to say as he goes along. By contrast, many of the passages on Billy's expired Catholicism flow freely as if from a full well of experience and studied thought. His car journey from the hospital back to his flat, throughout which he holds a conversation with the pretty enlightened Hindu driver is both thought-provoking and made me smile broadly. The story about the veal and President Kennedy is teeth-grindingly realistic and awful (although I wonder at its power to completely over-shadow the rest of his life), but in some instances the supporting cast, Denny, Martha, former agent Max, feel a little less than fleshed out. Billy himself is occasionally incongruent, but then that might be by design rather than accident or omission.

Reading this all back to myself, I notice two things: firstly, that I desperately need an editor to knock my prose in to shape, and secondly that I'm coming over slightly ambivalent about this novel. I want to clear up that second point–this is good, and I like it quite a lot. I just wonder what shape it might have had he lived to complete it himself.

Friday, 6 May 2016

The Camera Killer by Thomas Glavinic

The whole area is cordoned off
and we're closing in.
I loved Night Work, Austrian Glavinic's own I am Legend, or maybe, more accurately, Last Man, given there aren't any vampires in it ('Neville, Neville!'). It was creepy as hell and completely unresolved, whilst being written straight, a little matter-of-fact, but cold and hard and sparse and brilliant! In fact, it put me in mind of Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut (of which more anon) in so far as it was as though the Creator had lifted away all of the automatons whom He'd charged with interacting with the protagonist, in His divine experiment, leaving only the one real person and no explanation. Maybe His funding ran out!

I can't remember if I came to Glavinic through fellow Austrian Thomas Bernhard or if it was the other way around, but either way I was eager to find other works of his translated from Austrian. At only 100 pages or so, I'd considered this a little too slim to be a good read so left it for last. In the end, I think I made a singular mistake–this is better (in a different way) to Carl Haffner's Love of the Draw, his chess novel.

Okay, so it's going to be hard to review this objectively without a massive hint of a spoiler. Anyone who doesn't want the surprise ruined look away now. Maybe go read my review of Indiana, Indiana instead.

Right. Here it is. I'm sure all the Eng Lit graduates out there took a look at The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie at some point. You'll all know where I'm going with this. That was in essence a confessional novel. So is this. Although in retrospect it's given away in the very first line–"I have been requested to commit everything to paper."–it isn't until the very last page or so that the mystery is resolved. Our narrator is telling the story of his holiday with friends over the Easter weekend, which is tarnished by the reporting of an horrendous double murder, of two local children no less, by a man who filmed the whole thing. In reality, he doesn't actually do any of the killing, instead forcing the children into acts of suicide by threatening the rest of their family with terrible suffering and death. Anyway, this spurs on the media to a suitable and far too familiar frenzy, with one German TV news channel even going so far as to broadcast an edited version of the tape to its viewers. All the while the four friends (narrator and partner, and his friend Heinrich and partner) try to have a normal, relaxing, Easter weekend, playing games, eating and drinking, enjoying a little teasing and competition and attempting to patch up their typically slowly dissolving thirty-something friendships.

As the weekend progresses and they become alternately obsessed and repulsed by the media storm, they discuss the moral and ethical situation, try to find distractions, but are always pulled back into the story. As the net around the killer slowly tightens, we suddenly realise that the police are heading to the very house in which they're all staying–THE KILLER IS ALREADY IN THE HOUSE etc.

What sets this trite little morsel apart, though, is the bald telling, the humourless, emotionless voice of the narrator. He's reporting, as objectively as possible, on the situation as it unfolds, on the discussions amongst the friends and the reactions of the neighbours and the wider public. It's dry but taut with suspense! And the ending, although telegraphed so soon in the novel, is a slap-your-head moment. HOW COULD I HAVE BEEN SO BLIND etc. It's an optical illusion that once you see it, it can't be unseen and you have no idea how you could have seen it any other way before.

Friday, 22 April 2016

Absolute Pandemonium by Brian Blessed

I can see a dwarf, Terry!
I can see a dwarf!
As soon as I began reading this, I immediately regretted buying the hardback and not the audio book. Blessed starts with an instruction on how to read this, his sixth book and the first in twenty-two years that hasn't been about mountain-climbing, and it's to imagine sitting opposite Brian and having him yell his life story at you as a series of long, rambling but gently themed anecdotes. Which as I understand it was how this was written–James Hogg, Blessed's ghost-writer, must be a brave man of renowned endurance.

And it certainly helps to have this framework in mind when you read it. With his sonorous bass-baritone booming in your mind's ear you can't help but chuckle when he describes punching Harold Pinter, who was 'in a heightened state of celebration,' down some stairs, or telling his co-stars on The Trojan Women that rather than make love he'd prefer a big shit. I can't help but imagine that hearing him boom these tall tales directly into my actual ear would add significant value to the experience. Nonetheless, it's still a humorous and enjoyable read, for all its faults. And there are a few. 

First off, it's hard not to judge a book like this by its cover, and large, easy-to-read font, and publication date. There is something tawdry about the cult of celebrity that spews forth these memoirs just in time for Super Thursday and the early-gifting phase of retail bookselling. This is one of those. Regardless of my respect for the man, his work (what little I've seen I've enjoyed), and his beard, it's hard not to feel that this is written for a particular market, for people who enjoy reading the serialised scandals in tabloid newspapers, the 'secret' feuds of zed-listers, the back-stage shenanigans of the rich and fabulous. What I'm trying to say, in a way which hides the fact I'm a fucking great snob, is that I'm a fucking great snob and look down on the people to whom this is marketed. Secondly, it's very conversational, in that he wanders off topic and repeats himself, which is okay, and I imagine adds to its charms for some, but it's also a very self-aware memoir, looking to justify itself and its style by self-reference, and that feels a little artificial.

But then what can I say? Blessed is a one-off. He's also an enduring and instantly recognisable figure, and captures the hearts of most people; who am I to criticise his decision to publish another memoir while he's riding some sort of zeitgeist?. Also, bearing in mind I have one of the great Jim'll Paint It's canvas prints of the man punching a polar bear in the face–"Right in the fucking face!" (sadly an anecdote that didn't make it into this book)–I'd look a right chump being anything other than grateful it exists.



Tuesday, 12 April 2016

Indiana, Indiana by Laird Hunt

I want you to promise me you
won't believe a word I just said.
I was wondering the other day how it was I became aware of Laird Hunt, this former UN Press Officer with the discomfiting habit of subverting the familiar. In literature as in life I am always amazed at the fine filagreed networks that connect random events and protagonists. Tracing back, not an easy task given my trend towards nostalgic diversions and an inability to concentrate, it seems Laird Hunt came via Percival Everett, who penned the introduction to my copy of The Impossibly, who followed from Ralph Ellison (in my timeline but perhaps also indirectly in a literary sense), in whom I became interested after reading Chester Himes, an author brought to my attention by a sales rep for Canongate, whose crime classics series I'd stumbled across by virtue of the unexpected presence of the word 'custard' in a Charles Willeford novel, Willeford having crossed my path previously in the form of Miami Blues, one of the litany of crime novels I read (and amazingly remember) during my teens when I'd exhausted the stock of Piers Anthony and Terry Pratchett novels at Milford Haven Library.

That's twenty-five years in the making. I fucking love the flow of intertextuality!

Regardless of how I got here, after reading one I was sorely tempted to go out and hoard every single Hunt novel I could, an urge to which only the high price (but exquisite quality) of the not-for-profit publishers Coffee House Press editions put a stop. But clearly not for long.

And so along came Indiana, Indiana, which is a disarmingly simple novel told in such a fashion as to leave you speechless. 'My thoughts were so loud I couldn't hear my mouth,' wrote Modest Mouse in The World at Large, and thus it went for me. Noah (cue thoughts of arks and safe harbour from the tempest) is old, and alone except for cats and a man called Max, and the ghost of his father. In fact, perhaps ghost is the wrong word, but in the absence of a better description it will do. For Noah is a man with gifts, or maybe a broken mind incapable of discerning truth from reality, and in this context the drama of his life is replayed across the pages. This nebulous and unnerving device should render what is presented as deeply unreliable, as Hunt strives to take what is familiar and render it surprising, twisting the traditional experiences of seeing and hearing and reading and squeezing out a different kind of beautiful truth. But in fact, what happens, in a manner which I trust will not ruin the surprises of the slow reveal, is that the reader immediately accepts that Noah's visions are the truth, are what he remembers and what did happen, from the burning down of the house he shared with his common law wife, to the discarded responsibilities of his postal route, the slow creeping death of his father and his experiences of love and loss, stretched out in silent eternity between the pinioning anchors of the letters he received and re-reads, perhaps only with his mind's eyes, from his wife in her asylum isolation. But even as Noah's blissful sanctuary was ripped from him by the forces of madness and a community wary of their shared oddness, Noah is able to retreat into his own ark, away from the cold waters of loneliness, insulated by his collections of letters and pictures, with his masks and cats and a jug of homemade wine, as he sits by the crackling fire in his shed and drifts along on the meandering currents of memory and forgetting. And it is stunningly done. There are tiny moments of appalling beauty in the writing, and they build up into an elegy of one man's existence in a small community in the centre of Indiana, in the heart of the country.