Monday, 24 September 2012

***UTTER FILTH WARNING*** House of Holes by Nicholson Baker

My current favourite
is "Famished sluthole"
In order to truly do justice to this book, and the rather spiffy reputation of Mr Baker for clever and challenging fiction, I attempted to read several reviews, posted around the time of publication, in many British broadsheets of firm middle-groundedness and of some repute. This may or may not be a cardinal sin of lazy reviewers, but I was in need of inspiration, prior to beginning reading, to keep my focus, as from what I understood of Baker's latest "novel" (parenthesis may be clarified later) it could curdle a bishop's milk. 

Embarking on this tangent, you may expect that I found something unusual in my foraging. Indeed, the unexpected truffle among the mushrooms was the near constantly vituperative tone of most reviewers (the one exception - a rather entertaining piece in The Paris Review). Filth, pornography, and (sad to say I can't remember which review this was in, despite going in search of it a second time) a wank-book*, were just some of the surprising epithets cast about, some slanderous mud which, of course, was bound to stick to the mind of the consciously critical reader. "The dastardly swines!" thought I, champion of such cute verbose naughtiness as that of The Fermata, "How dare they sully my reading experience with such unfounded..." etc. [Damn, I bore myself sometimes - ed]. 

But, darn it all, they weren't wrong, reviewers and their epithets both. HoH is a series of rather daft sexual set-pieces with only a very confused framework of narrative continuity.

With the current outcry over literary filth - no names mentioned - one might understand the issues of the reviewers. The broadsheeters rightly point to the curious dream-like quality of the writing, the fleetingly fantastical situations and complete openness of all of the characters once they had arrived in the House of Holes (for the sake of context, HoH is a place where one's sexual fantasies are explored at an exorbitant cost and access to which is achieved via O-shaped portals hidden throughout the world - insert Freudian analysis here) including openness of thought, of speech, to suggestion and action, and suspension of disbelief, something I doubt Baker had any intention of creating in the reader. However, the action is all extremely explicit, sexually complicated (whilst emotionally straightforward) and blatant to the point of silliness, made all the more daft by, for me, the single redeeming feature of the book - the Viz-esque cornucopia of author-begotten sexual language. I have appended a list of some of the more entertaining metaphors, similes and imagery  to the end of this review, just for my own amusement and perhaps for your delectation. I can honestly say I have no idea what Baker is doing. I hasten to add "in writing this book" to that sentence. Ahem.

You could say I am disappointed, but then perhaps that's the point. I can imagine Baker thinking of his reader reading his arousing words with the avuncular bearded face of the author hovering in the background and engendering a confused mix of repulsion and lust and giggling to himself, schoolgirlishly, like John Barth might if he found a way to insinuate reported speech retold by a millionth narrator into yet another book about the Chesapeake Bay of his semi-retirement. Perhaps Baker is just being a dick for effect. Or perhaps this is catharsis of a sort, or counselling by the media, or artistic suicide by smut. I don't think I could second guess his motives, but I can enjoy the silliness, if I let the brain switch off. Give it a read if you want to draw your own conclusions, but I would advise against an overly public space.

As promised, some rude words over which to chuckle - I will let you translate yourselves:
Pornstarch
Bungee hole
Thumper bean
Peeny wanger
Blood-pulsing truncheoon
Slippery salope
Twisted shitter
Stiff fleshbone
Famished sluthole

*Hey, I found it! In an overly intelligent-sounding, but ultimately lackadaisical review in, that's right, you guessed it, The Guardian, James Lasden coins the limp phrase "Wank Book".

Thursday, 13 September 2012

The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever by Stephen Donaldson

Ouch. My wild magic hurts.
Every so often there comes along a book that is capable of devastation, one that wreaks emotional havoc and leaves strewn in its wake nothing but exhaustion, myopia and psychological ruin. I refer you to something like A Million Little Pieces by James Frey (back when it was biography and not fiction) or, for very different reasons, A La Recherche du Temps Perdu (which, at over a million words, is the very definition of an exhausting read). Both books have had, at different times, the same power to make me want to engulf any handy intoxicant and cry myself to sleep.

Picture then, if you will, not one novel, not even 7 (à la Marcel Proust), but 9 books of the most soul-crushing emotional turmoil imaginable. Admittedly I have yet to read books 7, 8 and 9, but after reading the second omnibus of Thomas Covenant, I think I’m due a break.

The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever sees the eponymous sceptic and leper thrust back into the service of The Land, an alternate reality where Covenant’s illness is held in check and where his wedding band, a remnant from a marriage ended by the onset of his condition, holds the key to unimaginable power. The Land is sick, Lord Foul’s Sunbane afflicting all life with its alternating droughts, deluges, pestilence and febrile fertility. The people he once knew are gone, 3000 years having passed since his last visit, in relative temporal terms, and those that remain make sacrifices of blood to ensure their survival. The Land is devastated, next to death. This time, however, following him across the divide is an equally disturbed doctor, named The Chosen and also Sun Sage, and whose presence is a matter of great concern to everyone, especially Covenant.

I read somewhere that Donaldson was fearful of writing a follow up to the first three books, and also the third story arc once number two was under the belt. In fact, this is what he said:
“I was afraid. At my first glimpse of The Last Chronicles, I knew that it would be astonishingly difficult to write... in order to accomplish that goal I'll have to go far beyond my known abilities, both as a story-teller and as a writer. The prospect terrified me.”
Before beginning The Last Chronicles... he also told his official website, 
“I'm not ready... I'm probably never going to be ready.” 
You may think he is talking about the commitment of time, the pitting of his abilities against an Herculean task, or proving to the world that the success of the first books was not just a fluke. I believe he is talking about mining the depths of the soul, re-visiting the dark places where Covenant’s irrational and disease-ridden impulses push up through his conscious will to corrupt his desire to help. It must be a terrifying experience, to submerge oneself in such a dark way of thinking, considering that reading what he writes is a challenging endeavour. Reading 1200 pages of it is like submitting to electro-shock. I can’t imagine what writing it must take out of him.

Even if it takes the reader to the dark recesses of the soul, and strips psychological flesh from psychological bones, as Covenant and co. stumble from one disaster to the next, crises building to the point of ultimate crisis, it has one major redeeming feature: it is damned fine writing. The spectre of hope is always tantalizingly out of reach, just over the next page, just past this latest tragedy, just one more day bathed in the evil glow of the Sunbane, until you think you can’t go on, but you do. The reader must mirror the trials and tribulations of Covenant to reach catharsis, pushing relentlessly through pages of terror and torment to realise the release of The Land from the grip of the Despiser. Donaldson demands an investment of time and emotion that I have yet to discover in another author, and it is a cost I am willing to pay (albeit with some time off between chronicles to recharge the brain with some light-hearted tom-foolery). In all seriousness, something you probably won’t expect from the pages of this review-type blog, if you have a few weeks to devote to something good, something great, something challenging, something brutal, something beautiful to read, then devote it to this series. 


Friday, 7 September 2012

The Case For Working With Your Hands... by Matthew Crawford


You know those books where, prior to reading them under the weight of readerly guilt for having to this point completely neglected them, you had avoided them as you expect, once the plunge has been taken and cover opened, to be confronted by a whimsical piece of nonsense, written whilst whiling away a few hours between gloating about how wonderful your life is to your dwindling stock of friends and sleeping with your ridiculously good-looking wife who also makes the world’s greatest vegan curry, and destined to annoy the shit out of you because you had the vain hope that maybe just this once it would be worthwhile and life-changing but are fully expecting to be seriously disappointed? That.

Sorry, did I just utilise a Twitter device?

A condemnation of my life.
Well, “That” in this case would be a gigantic fucking* lie. This book, scholarly in a slightly biased fashion, anecdotal in an entertaining and endearing manner, so so very interesting in a “Jesus Hindu Krishna I’ve wasted my life” sort-of-way, is the antithesis of those vapid arse-wipers. God damn it all to Hell if only I had access to this sort of advice when I rather short-sightedly decided that Law was the path to the most riches with the least amount of effort pre-GCSE choice, aged 13**. What Crawford manages, in a manner on reflection which is somewhat preachy, is to give sufficient evidence, calling on sources ancient, old, modern and post-modern, to prove (to me anyway, with my penchant for idleness) conclusively that work without a product is not work – it is containment.

Why else would someone like B&Q advertise with a slogan that presupposes pride in a job done, not necessarily well, but at least by oneself if not because effort for an end product, a tactile, every-fucker-can-see-it product that illustrates just how fucking hard you’ve had to work to get there? Information Management is just so much shit. Bertrand Russell said the definition of “work” (and I think he meant this pejoratively) was twofold: “first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth's surface relative to other matter; second, telling other people to do so.” Judging from this I would say he is of a similar position to Crawford, in so far as if your job fulfils the natural role in your life of producing something that makes you proud, that you can experience as a product of your labours, or that other people can enjoy and relate that enjoyment to you, then it does not count as work.

Oh fuck – if only I had been told all of this when I was a stupid, ignorant little dipshit by someone other than my mum, who, bless her, did tell me that a trade would always be in demand and that I should take up plumbing. At that tender age the spectre of rooting around in soil pipes was so abhorrent to me that the door closed forever (or nearly forever). Where would my life be now? I suspect that I would be living in a carved mahogany mansion overlooking the city I had built from the ground up with my bare hands, with grateful citizenry depositing offerings of fruit, bread and sexy young daughters at my doors daily.

All this distracting expostulating  with the way my life has turned out, at least on the work front, should not take away from the fact that this is a good book. Not brilliantly written, not easy to read (at first), and probably not well footnoted enough to pass as someone’s doctoral thesis, but very much an argument for a way of life that is so appealing to me that I have already stopped working very hard in my role as an administrator.

Anyone who raised an eyebrow just then, can leave now.

*A pre-emptive apology for all the swearing would normally appear here, but fuck you.

**In an aside worthy of getting myself a spousal kicking for my habitual “blame the fuck out of everyone except myself” whinging, I blame it on my parents’ obsession with L.A. Law.


Thursday, 6 September 2012

The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco

I was told this would be a catered event.

I have always held the snug and comforting illusion that Eco, being a rotund, avuncular European in my mind (and in reality, once I’d bothered to look him up, judging from a photo grabbed from Wikipedia – Eco is the ever so slightly less hirsute mammal on the right) was a properly cuddly old European Intellectual (capital I no less) who wrote comfortable fables of a suitably magical realism or historical fantasy bent. No doubt, the rather good but clearly inadequate cinematic version of The Name Of The Rose is partially to blame.

A cursory investigation however dredged up a host of worrying and confusing concepts and authors from the swamps of my lost and forgotten academic hinterland – post-modernism, semiotics, intertextuality, honkadori; Michel Foucault, Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cixous, Roland Barthes. When I purchased a signed copy of The Prague Cemetery from the lovely people at Rossiter Books (you can follow them on Twitter so you can) I believed I was in for a challenging but entertaining belt through some of History’s (capital H mind you) most interesting events.

Not so cuddly.
What I got, however, made me anxious. Here I was, thoroughly enjoying the surprise, arising from the forgotten love of word-play, the fact that I didn’t need to care about Foucault or Kristeva to “get it”, the fact that my history lessons hadn’t let me down so much so that I couldn’t put all of the players into proper context, and the fun of the double and sometimes triple narrative (how the author likes to play with the Quixotic ‘found’ manuscript ruse!), and yet I found myself all too often identifying with a protagonist who fears and detests Jews to the point that his “work” eventually ends up on the tables of every anti-Semite in the Western world. Am I therefore an anti-Semite? Is Eco? Am I right to castigate myself?

Of course not - although at times I had to remind myself. My anxieties, as I understand it, are the pragmatic response of the reader to the symbolism and its uses in the novel. My own cosy assumptions were ripped asunder by the power and irresistible force of Eco’s prose. And of course, ‘Captain’ Simone Simonini does not just hate the Jews – he also hates the Jesuits, followers of Garibaldi, women, Palladians, Free Masons, Russians, psychologists and mystics to name but a few. To have all of that hate and bile decanted and distilled into one character, a curious gourmand whose actions might disgust but whose life – and therefore in this context, writings - you can’t help but wish to be prolonged, is quite masterful. I can’t remember a moment when I wished that he would get on with it, or when I found myself skipping a few lines to get back to the action. I loved it, a strong sentiment indeed you might say, coming as it does from a man who vacillates between delight and disgust when there are too many distractions in a novel. Eco is awesome, and I am truly cowed by the complete erudition that must underscore his writing talents – not that I was on his playing field to start with. However, as my boss once said, “aim for the stars, young man, and you will surely hit your ceiling.”