Saturday, 24 January 2015

The Headmaster's Wife by T. C. Greene

Way to make me feel like an arse.
I bought this on the recommendation of someone whose opinion I respect if not always agree with, and also as it was an Amazon daily deal I felt that 99p or whatever it cost was not too much to risk. I have become a little narrow in the field of what I choose to read and welcomed the digression offered. Subsequently, I feel a little hoodwinked. 

T.C. Greene’s previous book, Mirror Lake is one of those books that, as a former bookseller, I knew was there, would expect it to be propping up the centre of a table of multi-buy contemporary fiction, but had absolutely no desire to read whatsoever. They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but I disagree, given the time and effort spent by designers and publishers to ensure that any given book looks as similar as possible to the best-seller in any given genre. Mirror Lake enjoyed my ignorant prejudice for a good many months for this very reason. Of course, until I’d bought The Headmaster’s Wife I had no idea that the two Greenes were one and the same. To be fair, therefore, I went into the reading experience with a significant chip on the shoulder and a petulant unwillingness to be even-handed. However, this isn’t why I’m grumpy and feel conned. No, instead it’s because the author, after having penned this rather dull, predictable and irrelevant story about the headmaster of a Vermont public school and his wife (no enigma in the title), where the characters are lifeless, ungainly and with whom I felt almost no connection whatsoever, in language that even Twilight moms could cope with, slips into the acknowledgements that his 6-month old daughter died while he was writing it. Now I feel like a complete arse for saying it’s a load of rubbish with little to redeem it. It goes without saying that I am heartbroken for him, as the worst thing I can imagine would be for my son to die, to have to imagine all of the things that he would never see or do, and all the life experiences I’d miss out on sharing with him; but that’s no excuse to publish a book that I feel is quite so sub-par. He's not alone in the blame though, as it’s a poor show from his editorial team and publishers too. But if this is the standard of writing that paves the middle of the literary road, then I am at least justified in my ignorant prejudice and that contributes a shiny patina of smugness.

Monday, 5 January 2015

Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon

It's damn funny.
I had planned to read my backlog of Pynchon (before this point including Slow Learner, Against the Day, Inherent Vice and the yet-to-be procured Bleeding Edge) in chronological order – not that they must be so read, but rather that I wanted to mirror the writer’s own artistic trajectory with mine as a reader. As with other writers of great scope and ability, I need to pace Pynchons across my life as they take a lot out of me as a reader, but to be honest I’ve been looking for an excuse to skip the short stories and the hard-backed behemoth reminiscent of Mason & Dixon that is Against The Day and crack on with the reportedly more accessible Inherent Vice. Thankfully, the impending (and now actual) release of the Paul Anderson film did just that. Never one to be swept along in the wake of something I decided I had to read it now or forever be beholden to someone else’s artistic interpretation.

And, as reports suggest, it is by far the most accessible novel by Pynchon since Vineland, something which came as a relief given I still have cold sweats about Gravity’s Rainbow, which was my first introduction to Pynchon care of a blinkered, unforgiving and intense Post-Modern American Fiction lecturer at University. Essentially a stoner detective novel, garnering the film (not always favourable) comparisons to the Coen Brothers’ classic doper noir The Big Lebowksi, Inherent Vice takes its title from, as Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello’s lawyer-friend Sauncho Smilax* tells him, a marine insurance term meaning unavoidable harm (where insurers will refuse to insure cargoes of eggs for example due to the high likelihood of unavoidable damage during a sea crossing). Of course, being Pynchon, you can unravel that one as far as you wish to take it, particularly when our setting is California in the late 60s and early 70s, where surfers, dopers, hippies and activists jostle for elbow room with corrupt developers, cops on the take (or just taking out their innate brutality on the aforementioned categories), gangsters, dealers, and, so it would seems, dentists out to avoid paying tax. The plot begins with a surprise visit of Doc’s ex-girlfriend and wannabe actress Shasta Fey Hepworth, who then goes missing along with land developer Micky Wolfmann, her new beau, at least one Aryan Brotherhood Brother, his boyfriend, a motorbike gang member and a dentist, the last two we know at least get snuffed. Doc sets out to unravel the mystery fuelled or perhaps medicated by an astounding amount of marijuana, accompanying a motley assortment of beach bums, surf musicians, psychics, skip-tracers and slightly unhinged ladies of a variety of unwholesome endeavours and / or habits, and ends up face to face with a shadowy cabal of gun-running, heroin-smuggling, tax-dodging dentists, known only as The Golden Fang. Oh, and there’s a loan shark whose side-line business feeds the back story of Doc’s nemesis-cum-ally Lieutenant Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen.

I really – REALLY – hope the film is as funny as the novel. It has gags, puns, jokes, innuendo, the whole gamut of humorous prose, whilst also hanging together as a coherent if fragmented kidnap and conspiracy narrative. The cast is huge, as was to be expected, but I can’t recall a point where I thought “Now just who the jumping f**k is this bell-end?” as each inhabits a particular mote of dust in this singular crepuscular ray of blinding entertainment**. If I wanted to and didn’t have the horror of so doing, I could strip layer after layer from the writing which is a veritable palimpsest of meaningful stuff and intertextual reference. Thankfully some other thoughtful readers have already done it (in part) and you can add your two-penneth-worth at the PynchonWiki site. Frankly, I’m just glad I’ve had my first few proper belly laughs at a Thomas Pynchon novel in a long time. Time will tell if the film can live up to the novel, but on a first reading, it looks to be the novel most suited to a film adaptation, and in Paul Anderson I can only hope we’ve found the person to do it. And perhaps you’ll spot a sly cameo by the man himself somewhere, at a beach-front café or slinking by in the milky backgrounds. But probably not.


*Played by Benicio Del Toro in the Anderson version, and, so PynchonWiki tells us can be interpreted as a truth-telling spiny-thorned climbing plant. Again, unravel as far as you need.

**Actually, Scott, brother / cousin (?) of Doc is a character that might bear a snip or two. I don’t remember what he adds at all except that his band Beer plays on the bill with the Boards and a resurrected Coy Harlingen