Friday, 28 October 2011

Metaliterature welcomes guests from the US of A

Hey friendly American types! I don't know what it is but you guys seem to be hitting my webpage pretty chuffin' hard - one third more hits come from the USA than from the UK, and honestly, I can't count more than four Yankee Doodles as friends (two of them are from America's Hat so shouldn't count anyway). It may be because I am hard-wired into reading classic and not-so-classic American fiction that my reviews pop up on your search engines, and if that gets in the way of your browsing I can only apologize. However, if you like what you read, and want more, let me know. I'm keen to have a little feedback from anyone who may read regularly, or just pops by occasionally, or stumbled across this by accident. I don't care who you are, what you do, or why you're here, but I do want you to go away with a positive impression of the place, and will take steps to make it a bit more user friendly. Tweet or message me @TheMightyBuch or you can just post comments underneath. You're not getting my email address until I know you're not after me for something I reported about Jon Ronson's private view of his brother... 
Postscript -  I'm not all that great with HTML, so if you have technical or design advice, make it simple! I pretend to know way more than I actually do.


Love you all, and stay peaceful.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Scapegoat by Charlie Campbell

You can keep up with
Charlie on Twitter.
I have to be a little careful here for fear of treading on ground previously and better trodden upon by reviewers of deserved repute. By that I mean making it clear I've stolen the ideas of people paid to do this sort of thing and passing it off as my own. Francis WheenChristopher Bray and Frances Wilson have, in their own eminently imitable fashion, paid tribute to this entertaining Socratic examination of our tendency to offload guilt like an unwanted Christmas pullover on to the first likely charitable candidate, presented in a willowy thin volume of no little beauty. To this formidable array of talent I would be as an independent bookshop is to Amazon - of no concern, until I start stealing their copy for my own nefarious purposes. I know critics all meet up for gin slings and vol au vents at the Pigalle Club, so if one were to notice, then I'm certain all would quickly find out. And like Amazon crushing independent retailers, my fate would be sealed. In cement and dropped in the Thames.
So, I will mind-wipe their excellent reviews and pootle about with a few words of my own. 
I have much time for the digested read. In my fast-paced yet strangely work-shy world, I don't have time to read lengthy critiques of cultural folly. Indeed, the soundtrack to my life is infuriatingly up-tempo. It's quite tiring. So thank the lord I can read a thoroughly enjoyable potted history of the blame game in an afternoon without other interests suffering. Both whimsical and serious, Campbell does a great job of making us laugh at ourselves whilst gently highlighting the propensity for scapegoating in even the more enlightened of societies - here I might make a point of saying that in the Buddhist view sin and suffering are not synonymous - and that it is not confined to the dusty annals of history. I can't help but chuckle at the image of Lord Mandy being soundly thrashed by Tony Blair in his incarnation as the Labour whipping boy. And one cannot help but find the reports of trials of animals, flies and even swords bemusing from a contemporary perspective. What the book lacks, and this is likely deliberate so can't be a criticism as such, is more - more of everything! I want to read more about the witch trials (especially in Britain), about the biblical scapegoat, about the etymology of the word and about the Jungian concept of the Shadow. But there isn't any more to be had.
No blame can be attached to Mr Campbell. Frankly it's probably a bit rich to expect it all in one handy volume. In this case (and this is rare so mark it in your diary) I can only blame myself for expecting too much. What is here is rather good - fun, illuminating and well written, Scapegoat is definitely worthy of a Wheen review. Perhaps in paperback or later print runs we could get a list of further reading, you know, to keep us going. Feel free to blame the editor if it doesn't come to pass.

The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem

Dose (n): I've no
idea what it means
"Not all that crazy" was my rather insipid first impression of the previously imposing-looking Lethem. Quite what I had expected is now unclear, but there is an inkling of a memory of a semi-conscious association of the word fortress with the anticipation of a challenging read. Stupid me, I had completely missed the direct reference to Superman's arctic hideaway, and the pretty comprehensive blurb should have pointed out that in many respects this is a straight forward semi-autobiographical novel about growing up in Brooklyn. Straight forward except for the bits of Superman-esque flying, as well as invisibility, bestowed by the ring of a guy who lived on the roof tops of Brooklyn tenements and thought he could fly.
It's been a little while since I finished this, and perhaps that could explain why this review hasn't exactly exploded from the blocks. I recall wishing to drop what it was I was doing at any given point and go back to reading with a cup of tea or head down to my local Coffee #1 and take up valuable soft leather armchair space, but this may have been due to what it was I was doing rather than how rapt and enamored I was with this book. In fact, although I can clearly remember lots of character names, the plot, the twists, the rather odd super powers and so forth, I don't seem to have a strong emotional response to the book. I recall clearly feeling that his insights and portrayal of aspects of childhood resonated with my memory of childhood. That's good, right? I remember the comic book heroes of which he speaks, and can identify some if not all of the music he mentions as formative or at least important to the book. And yet... And yet...


So it's big (in scope) and captures accurately what it is to grow up in a place where you are so often on the outside looking in, and lots of blah blah blah. Christ, I'm just not that interested. Not in the book or in this review. I've read it, and am happy to have done so. Dylan as "genuine literary hero" though? I think Michael Chabon may have had a few drinks too many over a boozy lunch with Lethem's publicist. You probably should read it at some point, but on the patented GBD scale of "Should but can't be arsed" (1 being Did I see this on Richard & Judy? Never going to happen, 10 being Top of the pantheon but have you seen the size of if?) it might sneak in around 4 or 5, just behind [insert any Dickens here] but ahead of anything by Richard Ford.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Lost in the Funhouse by John Barth

Lost? I'm fucking clueless.
Reading John Barth makes me feel a mixture of ignorance and pride - ignorance because many of the references, devices, tropes (and on and on) he uses are beyond my comprehension (or current reading level), and pride because I know which ones are which. In his appended introduction (not the one from 1966 where he blithely waffles on about listening to certain stories as recordings which don't actually exists per se) he talks about the need to get more John Barth on to the reading lists of creative writing courses across the great continent of North America. This was his attempt to add Barth to Borges, to get himself mentioned in the same breath as others who subvert the comfortable illusions of tale and teller. 


Hence the scratching of head and puffing of cheeks and regular stoppages of reading for a cup of tea or to see what the weather is like outside.


Most short stories take it out of me; all that emotional investment only to have it stop short of resolution, or to end abruptly, or be generally and frustratingly unsatisfying. I love the idea (and keep buying them) but in the 15 minutes afforded me at lunch time to dive into a book (something at which I've become adept), it is endlessly discouraging to come back to a tale only for it to end, and be that irked that to start another in the time left to me is distasteful. I'm a sucker for the closed narrative loop - forgive the lack of correct discourse - with a starting point, a sense of impending dread as a crisis looms, the nadir of the crisis, the resolution and the happy ever after (as long as it doesn't drone on for pages and pages - eh Tolkien?). Kurt Vonnegut illustrates such narrative patterns very well in a You Tube clip I saw recently, linked here for your amusement. Short stories so rarely deliver. I read the door stop that is John Cheever's collected stories from beginning to end and died a little with every story. 


Anyway, on with the story, and Barth goes a bit further than is probably necessary with this collection of brain-bending post-modern complexity. Tales where the teller is possibly one of seven or eight characters (including one where a fictional authorial voice supposes the story he's writing contains a man who suspects his existence is due to the story the author is writing which contains... and so forth) and where at one point King Menelaus uses so many quotation marks to outline reported speech that one can't help feeling that time would be better spent writing down the value of Pi ad infinitum, serve only to prove what a genuinely clever fellow this Barth is and funny too, for genuine hilarity resides therein. For entertainments sake he does include what might be termed simpler narratives, based around a boy Ambrose and his unusual family, including one where he may or may not get stuck in a fun house - the text is ambiguous - but for the majority of the book, entertainment plays second or possibly even third fiddle (or doesn't play fiddle at all - instead uses Chinese pears to knock bottles onto glass chimes which shatter in a particular blah blah blah etc) to show just how fucking clever someone can be when he really puts his mind to it. Want more proof? It's possible that Barth uses the only instance of reported Martian speech in two consecutive stories, but doesn't even tell you about it! Heh? Heh? Oh, wait he does, in that incongruous end piece. I think this may just be a bit of a "fuck you" to those students who would inevitably look to outmanoeuvre their tutor in lectures or tutorials in a constant battle of wits, a pre-emptive strike against those cocky twats unavoidable in fee-paying universities.


Still, for all of that, I do feel a little weightier in the brain department for having persevered. I now know Helen of Troy was possibly made of clouds at some point, and that lots of Ancient Greeks were potentially pederasts or sodomites. Was that worth the effort? On reflection, etc ditto.

The In-Betweeners

Nobody Move by
Denis Johnson
Not everything I read makes it onto the pages of this blog. Indeed, of some books it pains me to say I may well be slightly embarrassed to admit having read them, being slightly superior and a somewhat jaded critic of the popular milieu. However, what sort of chronicler of intertextual flow would I be if I were to omit those texts that fill the void between the titles carefully chosen by me to illustrate what an esoteric and highly educated reader I am? 
Therefore, I've chosen to humble myself by exposing those little items of brain candy that I occassionally treat myself to, behind closed doors of course. Those shavings of Occam's Razor I call, The In-Betweeners.


These little beauties all occurred at various points between Lethem and Barth, but considering that I haven't as yet gotten to either, and that my desk is slowly disappearing below miscellaneous unanswered correspondence, dust, and thoughtlessly discarded clothing I decided it was better to get them out of the way and safely onto the shelves before they were lost permanently.
Walk On, ostensibly
by Ronnie Whelan
Beginning at the beginning was always my preference but as always, my preferences are less important than countless other considerations; in this instance they are subject to my own recollections as to what exactly these books were about, and with the passing of (no matter how little) time, these are already dim at best. So perhaps the most obvious one would be to start with Ronnie, yet another Red Ledge with a handful of tuppenies to chuck about from his life in the dressing room. As always, you'll not get a very objective viewpoint from me on the quality of erstwhile Liverpool footballers' biographies, but as it does appear in the In-Betweeners pages, perhaps you could come to an understanding of its relative merits from things left unsaid. Otherwise, it's another blisteringly brilliant piece of ghost-writing from Tom Conlon, pulling together the uncollected thoughts of the great Red utility player who was no friend of Jacky Charlton to be sure. Lots of rumbling emotional turmoil brought about by the well-documented traumas of the past, and a few undocumented traumas suffered at the hands of the incomparable Souey, former friend turned big bad boss, and similarly, one Kenneth Dalglish. Lots to recommend it there, and it's a quick and enjoyable read to boot.


The Stranger's Woes
by Max Frei
Max Frei's rather slapstick namesake is someone who was destined to wind me up from the beginning. He was a tosser in his former life (i.e. in this dimension) and unfortunately, due to this irreverent attitude and charmingly confused naivety, is received as a king in his new world, that of the city of Echo - literally, as he somehow wangles a claim to the throne of the dung-eating peoples of the so-called Barren Lands. Plus, for some reason Gollancz thought that a direct comparison to Harry Potter on the front cover would attract readers rather than repel them. If you were to think Sergei Lukyanenko without the ability to pull a variety of plot strands together then you wouldn't be far off. Nonetheless, for some reason I still cared enough to finish it, and perhaps that is Frei's triumph after all. 

Lastly (but conversely, the first of the bunch), comes Denis Johnson, another victim of apathy to this point, rapidly proving that my own preconceptions are wildly inaccurate and that I should stop judging books by their covers / by their sales representatives' opinions / by the fact that proof copies were handed out like sweets. Johnson is an accomplished writer of fast-paced hard-boiled thriller romps, or so it would seem from Nobody Moves. The plot just boots along unrelentingly and characters are developed in situ and as required - if you don't need to know something, it ain't made known. Shit starts happening, stuff gets done to people, there's some scary dude in a hat and a wild cat drunk Native American lady with a viscous streak and an unhealthy attachment to someone else's money. You want something to read that'll take your mind off your bunions and make your tea go cold, then Denis Johnson might just suit. I may just take a punt at that proof of Tree of Smoke that I've studiously ignored for 4 years...

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Eeeee Eee Eeee by Tao Lin

Bears like to put
blankets on moose
Having walked past Shoplifting from American Apparel (thanks to John Barth I've been reminded to italicize the names of complete works, among other things) for several months after it became a mainstay of the cult fiction display (hurrah for Bert!) of a local book chain, and dismissing it casually due to its self-confidently svelte appearance, I was finally convinced by a split-tongued straight-edger of the relative merits of Lin's oeuvre whilst he was chuckling his way through another, Richard Yates, and wondering aloud why Dakota Fanning wasn't being assaulted more often. At random, I poked blindly at the shelves around the letter L willing fate to procure a serendipitous gem and came up with a book the title of which I was unable to pronounce without some sort of context. That context is, less than quixotically, dolphins.
What Lin serves up as I was to find soon after is a tale of Karinthian (which is to say, Kafka-esque) absurdity populated by bears, moose, dolphins and hamsters who appear to dwell in various stratified metropolises beneath ours (Lin's) city. And there are aliens too, mostly vegetarian ones who are in with the President. However, wandering lost and alone through this bewildering landscape is Andrew, pizza delivery boy / man (can one with such a humbling occupation truly feel himself a man?) and self-professed musician - we never once hear him sing or play, only refer to singing or playing - who frustrated by not knowing what to think or feel at any given point (the book opens on him being fired by his manager but not caring to understand, which is never followed up on as his manager doesn't seem to know what to do either) turns to a variety of cinematic or literary references, mainly violent ones, to make sense of his ennui. The perfidious nature of his own understanding is exemplified by what turn out to be the penultimate few lines of the book - 
If [Ellen] came he would tell her he was afraid.
He felt a little lonely. He felt good.
This constant and unresolved self interogation is punctuated by random killing rampages, not to mention the aforementioned menagerie. Oh, and did I mention that a particularly depressed dolphin kills Elijah Wood on an island in a fit of self-hating homoeroticism? No? Read into that what you will. 
To cut a long and dangerously pointless recap slightly shorter, for I have many more unresolved resolutions to which to attend, a shortish story about the disengaged in society has been padded out with the degenerate bits perchance cut from the works of Lewis Carroll, but none of which feels wrong (in context you understand, as I hate dolphins; they're worse than Nazis) and all of which serves to underscore the increasing weight of unrest of those in the wrong quadrant of the inequality matrix (i.e. everyone in the west who doesn't earn enough to be safely ensconsed behind his arroyo blanco from the rest of us). Lin may be forcedly absurd but it suits his purpose, if he would agree that he has one. Plus, the dolphins don't come out too well either.