Skip to main content

Books of Note

Universal Harvester by John Darnielle

Not surprisingly, like a lot of John Darnielle’s music, particularly those songs on the album The Sunset Tree (Pale Green Things springs to mind and is very much worth listening to), his writing only slowly reveals itself and its narrative direction. Not in any turgid or tedious fashion, but rather in an unhurried, gentler and more thoughtful way. Universal Harvester rolls gently along its path with only a few disconcerting and probably deliberate hiccups. It starts in Iowa in the 1990s with a young man, still living at home with his father but unable to leave because of the weight of his mother’s death, years before, in a car crash. The trauma tethers Jeremy and his father together like the gravitational pull of a dead star in a comfortable and predictable but numb orbit, but it’s never something that either of them can discuss openly.
Jeremy works at a VHS rental store, so we’re assuredly early-Worldwide Web era. His job is simple, repetitive, and keeps him and his father in entertai…

Mr Rinyo-Clacton's Offer by Russell Hoban

Shining golden goblets but
the wine is black water; that's all 
there is now and forever.
It’s been a while, yes, I know. I’ve been around. You still living out by the airport?

Back to books, and specifically the eighth work of the Hobanology, Mr Rinyo-Clacton’s Offer, ostensibly a novel of another Faustian pact, but in reality, more in tune with the perspective box of Samuel van Hoogstraaten, to the illusory calm of which narrator Jonathan Fitch flees in moments of disquiet. Fitch, having lost the love of his life Serafina due to her discovery of his serial infidelity, is slumped drunkenly, a discarded marionette, in Piccadilly Circus tube station. Into this blurred tableau walks the diabolic Mr Rinyo-Clacton, charming, mischievous, disgusting and compelling, who offers Fitch a million pounds for the pleasure of harvesting his life at the end of a year. Fitch accepts and the deal is sealed with some forced buggery.

The money proves nothing like the salve to his wounded soul that he wishes it were. Instead, he seeks out Serafina, only to find that she too has suffered the seductions of Rinyo-Clacton, and now both fear for their long-term health and well-being. Drawn together once more in mutual self-loathing and revulsion, they live unhappily ever after. Rinyo-Clacton’s own search for meaning ends abjectly, and life moves on.

Narrating passively, Fitch is discomfiting and unreliable, perhaps fearful of deeper human interactions, that fear which pushed him from the embrace of his soul-mate and into the arms of a succession of faceless women, he simply shrugs when Rinyo-Clacton shows the cracks in his (Neolithic pottery?) facade and asks for reassurance on Hungerford Bridge.

Seemingly dense with meaning and symbolism, which of course it is being Hoban, laced through with references to art, literature and history (both ancient and recent, lost and terribly current), but only on the surface, an illusion Hoban crafts like van Hoogstraaten with infinite care and attention, a tapestry only a centimetre thick stretched out over the dark ‘goneness’ of wasted existence. I can’t quite explain how affecting this book is, given nothing worse happens than a bit of sex, infidelity and some health-related anxiety, but at a slim 192 pages it feels dense and weighty, and very important. 

Comments

What Readers Are Reading

Hannah Green And Her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence by Michael Marshall Smith

I was sold this book by Simon at the Big Green Bookshop in return for the money it cost plus a small donation towards operating costs and postage. 

In truth, I'd forgotten it was on its way, and it was a fucking lovely surprise when it arrived at my desk in work, my letterbox at the time being a tad short on width and breadth and unlikely to admit a hardback plus packaging. I recall very much enjoying reading Michael Marshall Smith, and I also enjoyed re-reading him, recently, and I documented this here, here and here. This was a book for which I hadn't realised I'd been waiting for a long time. 

However, had I not the history and warm, cosy feelings safely tucked up in the nostalgia bank, I would probably not have picked this up, going solely on the cover. There's a clock, the silhouette of a small girl, and leaves, along with a colour contrast and meandering font which brought to mind something cringe-worthily reminiscent of Alexander McCall-Smith*, or the covers of Sc…

The Ocean At The End Of The Lane by Neil Gaiman

Before you start, read this disclaimer:
Fans of Neil Gaiman beware – I don’t tolerate you very well, despite counting myself amongst you. It’s nothing personal (about you – it’s very personal to me), and I believe it’s Neil’s own fault for being such a very good writer. Please read on through the fan-bashing to the bit about the book. Thank you.

Neil Gaiman is an annoyance to me. I really (REALLY) liked American Gods but found that as soon as I mentioned this fact to anyone, I got one of two responses: nose-turned-up snobbery of the most scornful sort, or sickeningly gushing über-fanaticism, if that isn’t tautological. I don’t know which is worse. The snobs I can dismiss as most will be operating within the conceit that Gaiman is fantasy and therefore unworthy of further study or consideration – they are very unlikely to have ready anything by the author. The fans, though, start dribbling on and on about the time they met him in Bath Waterstone’s or how much better he is than the Latin …

Kleinzeit by Russell Hoban

Kleinzeit–German for 'small time', not, as Kleinzeit himself would have us believe, 'hero'–is a sick man. With pains shooting from A to B, an acute hypotenuse, and something up with his diapason, he's dying from the disease of life. Hospital, heckling and arrogant, reassures him he'll soon be cured of it, forever. In the meantime, he's fired for writing a man pushing a barrow of rocks, falls in love with a ward sister, Sister, purchases a glockenspiel with which he busks in the underground, and despite 'heroic' attempts to discharge himself from the crowing, anthropomorphised institution, finds that Death keeps tricking him into relapses, in between which he discovers a sinister plot hatched by yellow A4 paper to enslave him and cuckold him with Word.

In an odd way, this short novel feels like an episode inside the head of Leonard Rossiter. A healthy man feels a mystery pain, checks himself into hospital and quickly unravels. But he also looks for a …

Our Ancestors by Italo Calvino

Now is as good a time as any I suppose to admit that I regularly confuse Italo Calvino with Umberto Eco and when struggling for the name of one of them, invariably come up with the name of the other. What value does this add to a review of either’s work? None whatsoever. I just thought it would pay to be honest up front, so that if I start talking about semiotics, the discourse of literary criticism, or beards, then you’ll know my train of thoughts has switched tracks and is heading for a bridge under construction.
Of course, reading the Wiki pages on the two of them (to make sure I was talking about the right fellow) I noticed with some dread that Our Ancestors is one of the best known works of the most translated contemporary Italian writer (at the time of his death) and here I am, trying to make sense of it in my own personal context. Well, I’m always going to be treading down some fool’s heels so why should I care if it’s actually most people? Indeed, Calvino mentions in his own i…