Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Lights Out In Wonderland by D.B.C. Pierre

I will admit two things: 
'Our elegant place has become a level of hell.'
1) I have never willingly paid for a novel by DBC Pierre – the Booker winning Vernon God Little I received as an uncorrected proof (ditto the second, Ludmila's Broken English) from a sales rep trying desperately to generate interest in what he was concerned was a massive waste of an advance (how wrong he was); 
2) I haven't got a shiny clue what either of Pierre's first two novels are about, despite having read them both. Damning? Possibly. Equally likely it's some sort of degenerative disease of the brain.

This was the very last uncorrected proof copy I ever made off with from my life as a bookseller (that I still own that is), and in large part this was due to the fact that it had (and still has) a shiny embossed belly band which nicely obscures the title and author on an otherwise drab trade-format paperback. It also helped me overlook it for the best part of five years. There I go, judging books by covers again. So, for posterity, or to remind me about my worryingly high levels of casual prejudice, I've left the following rash judgement here, hastily typed during paragraph one of page one of chapter one of this novel:
I've just started reading this and already I suspect it'll have the Engleby effect on me.
Engleby, for the bored, is the eponymous character in a rather dreadful Sebastian Faulks novel which made me grumpy, fidgety and rather unpleasant to be around–more so that normal. Which in turn made me bilious and resentful of the book, and the bearded twat-faced author*. I suspected the same of this, based on the opening passage of the novel, which lays bare the premise of the entire book, related below.
There isn't a name for my situation. Firstly because I decided to kill myself. And then because of this idea: I don't have to do it immediately.
Whoosh – through a little door. It's a limbo. 
Unreliable narrator. Self-indulgent. Intent on deceiving himself and his audience. Instantly dislikable. Tick, tick, tick, tick. Bleugh.

To be fair, in this Pierre is remarkably consistent; but he also allows Gabriel small, believable steps along the path to self-discovery, by the end of which he may well have some modestly likeable characteristics, rather than simply a collection of irreverent personality tics, as effortlessly laid bare by Anna, stern and disapproving German love interest. Yup, despite endlessly repeating himself, in both actions and words, he does slowly grow on me, more through his interactions with the other characters than by any accidental revelations of hidden worth. And Pierre's prose style, swilling around the page like wine in a glass, has the legs of a fine vintage, softening what might otherwise have proven to be unpalatable. But I feel it's the supporting cast that steals the show, Smuts notwithstanding. The Germans particularly light up the novel with a little bit of gentle stereotyping, subverted by equally gentle humanising. Gabriel himself is caught out in some assumptions by Gerd, Anna and my favourite, Gottfried, the stone-faced Stasi man. Berlin has never sounded more attractive than when reflected by these lost bastions of a divided city and the girl of the future Berlin, on her way to the Galapagos Islands to visit Lonesome George and delayed only by distant filial responsibility into working for Uncle (?) Gerd at his kiosk in the massive and soon to be discontinued monument to the Third Reich, Berlin-Tempelhof Airport.

In Gabriel's exploration of vaguely confusing states of limbo, of his own competing motivations–self-destruction and enlightenment–we see some of the ambivalence at the heart of the human experience, and some of the snide diatribes against the current capitalist ethical model (which his epigraph invites the reader to change) are amusing, as are his theories of the relatively low level of ingenuity it takes to con the majority of people the majority of the time. There are also some genuinely funny set pieces. But the novel suffers from its form, of notes taken during the boozing and scheming, written in who knows what lucid moments between bottles of wine and snorts of cocaine and is lacking verisimilitude to a damaging degree. For all that, it is an entertaining read once my own peccadilloes are appropriately handicapped by some advance generosity, and I wouldn't let me talk you out of picking up a copy, which you can do by clicking on the little picture below.

*Odd - since re-reading my original review of Engleby, I notice I wasn't quite so vitriolic in the first instance and even seemed to grudgingly enjoy the novel. It seems then, that over time the Engleby effect strengthens to the point of acute psychological poisoning. What utter filth.


Wednesday, 19 August 2015

I Am Not Sidney Poitier by Percival Everett

I am also not Harry Belafonte.
I found Percival Everett through a typical, but at the time exciting, bookselling ploy of massively discounting select titles, in this instance to 99p, to add units and value to transactions at the till point. Thus Erasure was the first Everett novel I read. His smouldering anger and furious hilarity stuck me instantly, and although I can claim no kinship or even shared social or cultural experience, I decided I had found someone with whom I felt somewhat aligned. In typical gluttonous fashion I quickly picked up a shit-load of his other work, including two I've reviewed here: A History Of The African American People... and Damned If I DoI loved the Will Self-esque humour of 4-year-old Ralph in Glyph, the anger of Ralph Ellison added to the parodying of the publishing industry in Erasure, and the absurdity of Ted Street, headless and suicidal, in American Desert. It was something I realised I longed for in contemporary American fiction; a writer with clarity, using humour to unpick our interwoven assumptions, received and innate, about race, class, and accepted wisdom, but without resorting to slapstick. 

I Am Sidney Poitier is a return to form. I say return, and form, because I have a faulty understanding of the parabola of his work, coming in at the middle as I have, missing out on his earlier parody of the western, God's Country from 1994, and having read his first novel, Cutting Lisa in the middle of my own discovery. Nevertheless, what we find is a character named, implausibly, Not Sidney Poitier, by his 'crazy' mother for reasons unknown, a mother whose seemingly speculative investment in Ted Turner's media stocks turned them both into multi-millionaires, albeit secretly. Not only does Not Sidney share Mr Poitier's surname, he also shares his features, so much so as to lead to speculation concerning his parentage, all of which are vaguely dismissed by Mrs Poitier, who takes the secret to her early grave. Not Sidney is taken under the wing of Ted Turner himself, and so the story unfolds. He is arrested on an impromptu road trip through Georgia, for driving whilst being black, escapes chained to a 'cracker' who would rather drink moonshine with a blind hill-billy girl than start a new future in Atlanta, winds up solving a murder mystery in Smuteye, Alabama (so named because of the prevalence of a corn-blighting fungus which is harvested and eaten by the inhabitants - in Ted Turner's fictional opinion, not half bad, more like three quarters bad), and attends a black college only to be too black for the coffee-and-cream co-eds and their parents (that is of course until they learn he's filthy stinking rich). Throughout, each time Not Sidney closes his eyes he dreams of lives past, where he or maybe not he faces slavers, haters, and pernicious freedom. Not Sidney is defined by that which he is not - not white, not poor, not Sidney Poitier, not part of the mainstreaming culture (or lack thereof) - but remains sure of himself and succeeds in retaining the reader's sympathy despite (or maybe because of) occasional inclinations to indulge his animosity towards hypocrites. 

Bookslut references Kurt Vonnegut in her as always excellent review from a few years back, and I tend to agree with her, which only adds to my sense of spiritual homecoming when I read Everett. It is a brilliantly comic satire, particularly of the author himself who appears as a lecturer in the Philosophy of Nonsense, aptly spouting the same when asked for advice or help. Perhaps I lack the appropriate discourse to discuss the politics of race, but the sentiments of arbitrary prejudice and exclusion chime nonetheless. I love it when I read a novel that is so clearly bigger than me, that pushes my horizons that bit further out, and as a comedy of miscommunication, a clean, approachable story such as I've come to expect from the author, I can't recommend it enough.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

True Grit by Charles Portis

'Men will live like billy goats
if they are let alone.'
In my current mood of nostalgia for things and books past, I thought I'd return to a Charles Portis novel I read quite a few years back, one recently* 'rebooted' by the Coen brothers for cinematic audiences. The story, related by an octogenarian Mattie Ross, heroine of sorts of her own story, is of a 14-year-old Mattie hunting and attempting to bring to justice the murderer of her father, Frank Ross, with the help of dyspeptic, drunken and (middle-) ageing civil war criminal turned Federal Marshall Reuben J. 'Rooster' Cogburn. In a humourlessly delivered monologue, which is nonetheless very funny in and of itself, Mattie tells of her trials at the hands of horse dealers, lawmen, Rooster and the bandits and brigands to whom she wishes to bring the iron hand of justice. She also captures all the wry pragmatism of Rooster himself, and the slick bluster of Texan law man LaBoeuf (pronounced La Beef) who is in pursuit of her personal nemesis after he killed a senator because of an argument about a dog.

A simple premise, delivered simply, but highly effectively. What I found troublesome, probably shared by anyone who has watched the most recent of the two famous movie versions, is that I can only see Jeff Bridges when I think of Rooster Cogburn. And when I see Jeff Bridges, my mind wanders to The Dude. Gone is the gnarly gun-toting Rooster of the John Wayne film. Instead, it's The Dude in dress-up, which makes me not believe in him. To be fair, it was the same for Iron Man. Of course, this is in no way down to Charles Portis, whose character is equal parts billy goat (as Mattie observes) and killer. Furthermore, and also irksome, after reading Donna Tartt's introduction to this novel, something I might never have done if I had ever read her novels and therefore possessed no curiosity as to how she might sound in print, with her bons mots nicely italicised and her reminiscences about her own family reading traditions***, I began the novel with the sourness of rising bile in my throat, something which appears to have leeched out some of the pure pleasure of reading Portis purely for pleasure's sake. Still, with a surfeit of pleasure to be had in this novel, this is a small grumble in the face of overwhelming enjoyment. For the book is brilliant, well-deserving it's place on most critics' lists of 'great American novels'. Now, as I'm tired and clearly grumpy, I'll simply finish with this: if Charles Portis isn't a name you recognise, this would set you well on your way to finding a new favourite author. 


*Regular readers** will recognise the fluidity of my temporal referencing.

**This self- referential and -deprecating nonsense is starting to get old, don't you (I) think?

***And what sort of hypocrite would I be if I didn't mention that I subsequently gave my copy to my dad to read?

Thursday, 13 August 2015

Practical Demonkeeping by Christopher Moore

More demons please.
A number of years back, I believe (but cannot prove) that I read this book out of the Milford Haven library. I then found it in a second hand store in hardback whilst at university and read it again. Now, after an instance of maudlin self-pity, combined with wine (much wine) I ended up purchasing it again from a second-hand book store on line, along with Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and the late Terry Pratchett, an act which I forgot until one day on return from work I realised I couldn't open my front door because something was jammed underneath it, a something which turned out to be these very books. What a lovely surprise, although I immediately checked my browser history and bank account to check I'd not purchased a fold-up bicycle or second-hand city car on my credit card, both items which I've been pondering in the last few weeks. It turns out I hadn't.

So, to prevent further rambling, the point is that this might have the distinction of being the first book that I believe have read for pleasure more than twice. That deserves a hurrah for Mr Moore.

The fact that I couldn't remember much about it, other than there's a bloody great demon named Catch who likes to eat people, tied inextricably to a chap named Travis who doesn't age and also doesn't like it when Catch eats people, would therefore indicate either early onset dementia (not ruled out) or that the story is significantly less entertaining that the idea. 

Messieurs Gaiman and Moore will
be pleased to note they were very
capable doorstops
To be fair to Mr Moore, when I realised what was preventing access to my home, I felt a warm rush of excitement. I was genuinely pleased to see it, and that means somewhere in the grey matter a long filed memory had coughed quietly, startling the record-keeper into a surprised fart, making his colleagues turn round in disgust and tut noisily to each other. That can only be good. And when I finished it yesterday, in time to start watching Gillette Soccer Saturday with Jeff Stelling, I was feeling happy. I would have rather seen more of the supporting cast eaten, including but not exclusively Robert (drunken hubby of Jenny, grand-daughter to Amanda, a figure from Travis's past) whose past in photography is suspiciously similar to that credited to Mr Moore on his Wikipedia page and provides the answer to a thorny plot issue, and Rachel, coven leader of the Pagan Vegetarians For Peace and deserving of a worse fate than driving off into the sunset with eventual hero Augustus Brine and his pet Djinn, both of whom could also do with a bit of being eaten, if I'm honest. In fact, the book is deserving of more Catch and less everyone else. I guess I'm just drawn to the caustically sarcastic spawn of Satan.

Nonetheless, all of my positive feelings remain post-novel, and I have gained no new negative bias against the work of Mr Moore, so on balance, I would have to say that this is a very entertaining work of comic fantasy, maybe worth a seat at the table with Messieurs Gaiman and Pratchett, or at least Robert Rankin, of whom nothing later, at all. EVER. 


Wednesday, 12 August 2015

The 210th Day by Sōseki Natsume

"It may perhaps make sparks
in the centre of Tokyo..."
Many (many) years ago I came across I Am A Cat by Sōseki Netsuke (a bookseller's nightmare considering the occidental trend to westernise Japanese names and thus oft-times finding itself in both N and S on the shelves) in a manner I can no longer remember, and was instantly smitten by its insouciance and wit. I went about flogging it to every vacillating browser I could assault in a typical fit of smittenness. In fact, you can find a link to it just below this review, down there. Click on it. It's a great book and is cheaper if you choose to purchase it on Kindle. Take a look. Just down there. You'll love it, I promise. Go on. Ahh go on. Go on, go on go on etc.

So anyway, I also went about hoovering up all the English translations of his work I could find, as is my particular peccadillo, and to stare lovingly at them as I promised, but failed, to actually read any of them. Worryingly, when recently prompted to revisit the shelves by more Eastern wonderfulness, I realised that only two very slim volumes remained; My Individualism and the Philosophical Foundations of Literature (see below. Ah go on.) and this very short novella, The 210th Day. Where were the rest? Oh, ah. Um. Yes. I gave them all away. Whoops.

So, not in the mood for literary theory, I picked this one up, and got stuck in. Thirty-five minutes later, I was back at my shelves, looking for something else to read.


No that this was terrible. Far from it. It's just that, even with the enlightening introduction, it runs to barely 90 pages*. "A relatively minor work," warns Marvin Marcus in his introduction, and an étude of sorts.

What it is, basically, is a conversation, based on a similar experience the author had with his friend, in 1899, between two characters; one with a strong opinion on inequality in society, and the other fairly well to do and with a much more laissez-faire attitude about these things (but not about having to eat udon...). The two have agreed to climb Mount Aso, an active volcano, to take a look at the white hot rocks it is reputed to eject regularly, but unfortunately, have chosen the 210th day of the lunar calendar to do so, which is, ostensibly, typically associated with storms and typhoons. They fail to make it to the top, one of them losing his hat and the other falling into a lava channel, but back at the inn, fed and watered, our former tofu-seller, the social conscience of the dialogue, convinces his friend to try again, and there the story ends.

It's fun, if brief, and has some lovely moments of humour, particularly when the maid at the inn misunderstands their food order for half-boiled (i.e. soft-boiled) eggs, and brings four, two of which are boiled hard and two of which are raw. It also has a fairly standard dichotomy of views on the rich industrial barons and the workers on the shop floor, but explored in an entertaining fashion. As a literary experiment, I can't tell you if it was successful, but as a train station diversion, a waiting room book, it has enormous merit. 

*And I paid £10.99 for it.