Thursday, 25 May 2017

Stoner by John Williams

... Helen and bright Paris, their faces
bitter with consequences.
I presume upon my readers that you might be of a similarly perverse frame of mind; a frame that nearly always shudders at the cynically mercenary and often seemingly arbitrary branding of novels as the greatest this or the most astounding that. Take, for example, Stoner. Writ large and highlighted with a bold red circle (calling to mind the eye and therefore certain to draw the focus of such) it declaims that this is, definitively, "THE GREATEST NOVEL YOU'VE NEVER READ" (the caps lock is theirs, (The Sunday Times, or Vintage? It's not clear (ooh, double and then TRIPLE parentheses! I am in heaven!) whose) not mine). Well, it put me right off for far longer than I care to think.

Now that I have read it, it is a lie (if it were not before), for I have read it. And I feel a bit of a shit because it is pretty great.

Pretty great.

We follow William Stoner from fictional birth to fictional grave in the fictional retelling of a fictional life, one strewn with small defeats and even smaller victories. Did I mention it's fiction? His life is not all that remarkable, given the conditions of similar protagonists in similar novels, in that he is embroiled in no major scandals (just a few minor ones), he works towards no great (sorry, enough of the greatness) or lofty ideals, and he makes no mark on the page of history. His upbringing is quiet, staid, closed, and his opening up to the world at large uneventful. He doesn't go off to war when it arrives in mainland Europe, and seeks no advancement in his position at the University where the parochial agricultural ambitions of his parents are frustrated by his burgeoning love of English Literature and where he slowly advances from pupil to professor.

Throughout, we are treated to a Hardy-esque omniscience from the narrator, who sees and describes with clarity and no little poetry the measure of Stoner's character: his acquiescence to the wills of others where his own will has no clear path; his wordless love and crushing sadness for his daughter and her eventual descent into alcoholism; his stubbornness when defeat follows defeat too closely; his dry, tearless sorrow for the death of his parents and his friend Dave Masters. It chronicles his long-suffering with compassion and dignity, and the ringing truth of the words make it almost beautiful, despite the suffering of its main character. In fact, if you consider Larkin's judgements of Hardy's prose work to be chiefly on the nature of suffering, then this is doubly Hardy-esque, given that Stoner experiences so little joy throughout the book–notable exceptions include watching his daughter watch him work, building his own bookcase, and in his forbidden but consummated love for a grad student, Katherine Driscoll, which he jettisons under duress. It also breaks a few of Elmore Leonard's rules, particularly about the writing of the weather, but those did serve to highlight Stoner's connections with nature and disconnect from his fellow man, woman, wife and child.

I, for one, can't chuffing stand Thomas Hardy's novels, no matter how many luminaries wax lyrical over his prose. I recall a seminar on Hardy in my own first year at University where a friend explained how absurd it would be for an all-knowing God (or Hardy in his role as narrator) to obsess over the lips of a milkmaid, and it stuck. I recall reading Tess of the D'Urbervilles with rancour in my heart and bile in my throat. Thankfully, this didn't occur to me until after I'd finished, but it does corrupt the novel's gloss a little, as did the raw red pimple on its skin before I began. But, you'll have heard you can't judge a book by its cover*,   just as you can't judge a book by the peccadillos of its reviewer, and in truth, I'm glad I finally got over my own prejudice. It is a fine novel, and I thoroughly enjoyed being made miserable by it.


*Likely also you'll have heard you don't start sentences with conjunctions. But screw that.

Friday, 19 May 2017

Open: An Autobiography by Andre Agassi

Hit harder. HIT HARDER.
There are not many people who could lay claim to knowing me who would look at this post and not wonder bemusedly what on earth possessed me to read the biography of a tennis player. Tennis, as anyone (i.e. everyone) knows, is a big bag of shite. Sure, it's one-on-one, mano-a-mano, an honourable battle. Sure, it's chuffing hard to play. Sure, it's hard, physical and mental exercise, pushing players' bodies to the very limit. But damn, is it ever boring as hell. And tennis players? Well, don't get me started.

In truth, I was caught out in a lie, by my boss, who told me it was great and I should read it. I paid lip service to the fact I thought he was interesting, given he hates tennis too (yeah, but he doesn't really hate tennis, does he? Yup). She said, great, I'll bring it in for you. And so I was stuck with it.

And I have to eat a little humble pie. It is quite an engaging read, and I found myself enjoying it, despite thinking Agassi is a bit of a whining dick, quick to play the victim card, and not really willing to go into the full horror of having a father determined to make at least one of his children into the world's greatest tennis player. I assume it was difficult. I assume he was terrified at least part of the time. I assume he had no choice. Boo hoo. I certainly enjoyed it more that I thought I would considering some of the pretty nasty reviews* it garnered back in '09 on publication. Yes, it was hard to believe in places: there's an extended passage about his money troubles when going on the road with his brother, but from that point on he's able to buy multiple houses and cars with nary a mention of cost. Yes, I was dismayed by his admission of the use of crystal meth and his subsequent lying about it–I seemed to have missed the original controversy–but then point out a celebrity who has not found succour in odd places from time to time. He says he's honest, 'open', and in parts, he is. He admits to some particular vanity that is risible (wearing a wig, putting lifts in his shoes at his wedding, not wearing underwear on court), and to some rather unsportsman-like throwing of matches when he just couldn't be arsed, but then I wonder at his view of himself, how he sees his life through his prism of otherworldly success (eight grand slams and $31 million in prize money, before sports endorsements). I would imagine that had he not had the collaborative support of his ghostwriter, not credited in the book except in an afterword where it is explained he wants no part of the credit (ostensibly because it's not his story, but also possible he literally wanted nothing to do with it, pulling an Alan Smithee), it would have been unintelligible too. So at least it has that in its favour.

But Moehringer highlights in an interesting NY Times article, 11 November 2009 something that I only realised in retrospect. He says of Agassi;

His memory was crystalline about matches but not about relationships. He hadn’t reached any conclusions about them and couldn’t make connections. 
Absolutely. Agassi knows nothing of himself and just can't put his relationships into context. They just happen–Brooke Shields, Barbara Streisand (Barbara Streisand?!)–and even his eventual happy-ever-after with Stefanie Graf is a bit lacking in introspection. It's framed in the 'she gets me, she gets tennis' context. Soul mates!

Of course, reading this back it seems I'm trying quite hard to put you off ever opening this book. Don't let me do that. It does have its merits, and is quite an unusual sport biography, with a level of English that belies Agassi's ninth grade education. It's entertaining in parts, it was quick to read, and I did sort of want to hear what he fucked up next. He fucked up a lot of things.

*For example, this evisceration in the Guardian, Sunday 1st November 2009: https://www.theguardian.com/sport/blog/2009/nov/01/andre-agassi-autobiography
Savage.

Monday, 15 May 2017

Wolf In White Van by John Darnielle

In the Trace, you know. You know to buy it
direct from Big Green Bookshop!
In a spontaneous act of Twitter altruism, (Twaltruism? Twittruism?), I deleted this and Darnielle's difficult second novel* from my Amazon wish list and ordered them from the Big Green Bookshop, an indie bookshop in Wood Green, London, whose co-owner Simon Key appears to be living one of my erstwhile dreams. He was once of Waterstone(')s, as was I. I once fanatsized of telling Waterstone(')s to fuck off and of opening my own independent bookshop. I clearly did not have the requisite fortitude to pursue my dream however, as one look at the business rates and shop rents in Cardiff city centre and I shut up and went back to work quietly and with no little abashment. Where was I? Oh yes, books. My choice was validated by Simon, who told me he really enjoyed Wolf In White Van.

And so did I. However, I wonder at my frame of mind when I read it. This may be a result of me having better things** to do than review books in a timely fashion, and thus leaving it weeks until I was at home, unwell and restlessly fidgety, to find the requisite motivation (boredom does wonderful things for my motivation) to get the job done. Because I can't remember how I felt when I was reading. 

There I was, only yesterday bemoaning Agassi for his lack of introspective powers, and here I am lacking the very same! 

So maybe some context and easily referenceable factual statements are in order. As you ALL will know, John Darnielle is the main force behind American indie folk band the Mountain Goats, and a stunning lyricist. This is his first novel proper (although he has written a 33 1/3 novella on Black Sabbath). In it, the narrator is Sean, a young man with, it's safe to say, some problems. He blasted his own face off with a rifle in his youth, and as a result, has thrown himself into the creation of his fevered imagination, what is essentially a role playing game, called Trace Italian***, managed entirely by post. Can you imagine? In this day and age! The game is managed with a file card system and players are given choices at each stage, with the idea that they make it across the desolate wastes of an end-of-world scenario America to The Trace Italian, a star-shaped city wherein the resolution of the game is to be found (if it exists). Unfortunately, for him and for the two players, two young people decided to follow his directions literally and interred themselves in the Kansas desert to survive a night out in the open; one died, one might as well have done so. 

Sean tells the story in as dispassionate a manner as he can, through veils of memory and often the pain of his own recovery. I recall his difficulties with his own recall, and one line which struck me as pertinent to my own experience of memory, something along the lines of 'was I even younger then than I supposed I was?' to paraphrase inexactly. And he tells without telling of the strange isolation he finds himself within, estranged from his parents who are unable to process his actions, both when he was seventeen and that led to the tragedy of his game-playing sweethearts, isolated from society for the way he looks. In one particularly interesting passage, he details a meeting outside a shop with some beer-drinking teenagers who are guilelessly fascinated by the damage to his face. Sean revels in the small and sympathetic interaction.

In truth, it is probably an incredibly moving novel, one filled with pathos, and a sad commentary on the barriers we erect and the ethereal bonds we make with others. In my memory, it flashed by without making much of an impact on me, although it nearly made me want to go out and buy some of the Robert E. Howard Conan novels. I will make a date to re-read it and will come back to you. 

*I have no idea if Universal Harvester is/was difficult–it's on the to-read shelves/pile. I just perpetuate literary myths for the fun of it.

**Not better, let me tell you...

***The title of the game, he tells us, is taken from a type of 16th-century fortification, the trace italienne, a star-shaped fortress designed to combat the use of cannonades by offering unrestricted defensive firing positions and which came to be the 16th-century ideal for the modern fortified city, in Italy at least.