Sunday, 28 February 2016

Escape Everything by Robert Wringham

Love laughs at locksmiths.
Okay, so, Unbound, yaddah yaddah amazeballs and so on. I love them, they love my money, everything is cool. Incidentally, go fund this novel by Paul Bassett Davies so I can read it sooner rather than later please. Thank you.

Robert Wringham, comedian, writer and editor of the magazine New Escapologist, lives a life of comparative leisure. Pootling about at the edges of the great machine that is Consumerism, he has fashioned for himself and his wife an existence that does not feed the beast, for the most part. He survives rather comfortably without feeling the need to anxiously obsess over television programmes, purchase a cup of coffee for more than the coffee bean picker is paid in a day, pay into a pension which the bank only uses to invest in the arms trade or ploughs into a hedge fund. And he is happy, or so he wishes us to believe. He is debt free, angst free, and has come up with a way for all of us to join him outside of the rat race by adhering to a few simple tenets, which I feel moved to reproduce for you here. Please note they are in no particular order:

  • Optimum health.
  • As much free time as possible.
  • A few dependable friendships.
  • An appreciation of our existing surroundings.
  • Sensual pleasure.
  • Purposeful and purposeless intellectual stimulation.
  • A satisfying creative output in which we have personal pride.
  • A clean and dignified living space.

Sounds amazingly simple, up to a point. How Wringham himself managed it was to first perform a life audit, identifying the things that were important, what he wanted, and firmly interrogating his own motives. In this manner, he curbed his excesses, cut his consumption, defeated the innate urge to compare and contrast with his neighbours' lives, and saved up enough money to quit his job and move to Canada, where he inhabits a Stoical and Epicurean life for part of the year joyfully adhering to his own rules and living free of fear. And that, simply put, is the message–live free of fear. The Machine as he calls it pulls you in with fear and ties you down with fear. Fear of appearing different, fear of not standing out, fear of debt and worry and insecurity and loneliness; they all contribute to the chains that keep you in your place inside the mechanism. Without fear you can have all the joy you want in your life. You may not have Sky Sports, but you can always go to the pub with friends to watch the game, and pubs also have beer. You may not have a flash motor, but walking is healthy and meditative and a joyful act in and of itself. Best of all, you may not have to work 92,000 hours over the course of your short and pitiable life and fall exhausted into an early grave. 

To balance the argument, it is worth noting that Wringham et femme don't and don't seem to want to have children. I can't see myself seriously devoting my days to leisure when there are school fees to pay and food to put on the table. But then I have found myself arguing vociferously with colleagues against the work at all costs mentality of Western life, advocating a more gentle and perhaps agrarian lifestyle over that of the daily commute and grind. I may have repeated, repeatedly, that even a small amount of work can stretch to fill the time that you are expected to be present, in your office or place of work, in the centre of your radius of action chained interminably to a desk or cubicle or cab or whatever. I may also have argued myself into a rationalisation of our team, which, if I'm honest, would likely see my expected presenteeism cut to 2.5 days from 5, and my purchasing power likewise. I frankly don't do a lot of work, or at least it doesn't feel like it. But I am required to be at my desk nonetheless.

So even if you, like me, can't jump from temp job to temp job at will, working only enough to cover food, reading material and idle intellectual dilettantism, you will probably find in this book enough sound, escapist wisdom, to take a good, long, hard look at your life and wonder what the fuck you're doing. What happens next is up to you.

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

The Mule by David Quantick

The rustic simpleton sidekick...
I had been waiting for this book for a while from the crowdfunding website Unbound. You know them; they get authors to pitch a book idea and then invite the public to support it, only publishing if it hits its targets. Perhaps because my tastes run to the bizarre, or because I'm seduced by quirks and weird conceits, lack of funding means I've lost the opportunity to read a couple of books I would have loved to have seen in print, but this isn't one of them. That is, this one made it. And if there's one thing I love about a book from Unbound, more than the fact that you get a useful pdf or Nook or Kindle e-version of it to download to your preferred reading device, more than the fact that this particular book is by a man whose writing I usually thoroughly enjoy, and who I found out fairly recently is only two (even arguably one) step removed from me*, is the simple, unreproducible and peculiar joy of hearing a brand new hardback book squeak, as if in barely contained excitement, the first time you open it. The glue binding stressed for the very first time; pages gently protesting new forces. Next to smelling a new book (or old book, or any book), it's my favourite thing. Delightfully, The Mule squeaked like a distressed shrew.

Thus far, touch wood, I have not been disappointed by what has followed, and thankfully (but unsurprisingly) Quantick preserves my remarkable run of picking winners. Jacky, the titular mule, is an appealing curmudgeon, a cynical, perhaps hubristic recluse, existing in and for a simple life, his only problems the translations of tricky passages from Europe's least respected authors, and antipathy for his mother's ageing dog. Into his life steps, inexplicably, a young, beautiful woman with a problem tailor made for his reluctantly inquisitive mind and particular skill set–an untranslatable book, which has, startlingly, pictures showing the young woman's own death. When she disappears, hours later, Jacky is drawn into a murder investigation and an unlikely partnership with a bizarre and dangerously unhinged writer as they race across Paris to uncover the truth. Of course, it all goes tits up.

It's hard to imagine the writer behind such critically acclaimed comedic successes as The Thick Of It and Veep penning a serious mystery novel, and as such I began the book looking for the punchline, for the next joke, pun, and if I'm honest, long sweary rant, to which I admit some partiality. It threatened in places (sadly, no sweary rants), but the comedy is rather more surreal or absurd, but no less enjoyable, deriving from the combined punctiliousness and gently derisory nature of the protagonist. His situation becomes more and more perilous and worrisome, and his one area of expertise, that of finding meaning in the obfuscated, fails singularly to support him in his quest until it is too late. In that respect, there is a little Dashiell Hammett to the character, and as Jonathan Coe mentions in a cover note, the plot veers into the semiotics and philosophy of language of Umberto Eco in a most diverting manner. Indeed, there is very little about this quirky and entertaining novel with which to find fault. So instead, I will rather sing its praises. It's a fun, diverting read, surprising and unusual, and, perhaps to top it all. features a cover with art from the redoubtable Moose Allain, cartoonist and Twitter ninja. As Jonathan Ames once wrote, what's not to love?


*Not that I'd make a thing of that, but as it stands he is married to a lovely lady with whom I went to University, and who attended the music quiz nights I ran jointly with another couple of chums (one of whom made me aware of this fact) and who played bass in the Cardiff band The Loves.

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Boyhood Island: My Struggle Volume 3 by Karl Ove Knausgaard

... lodged in my memory with a ring
as true as perfect pitch.
I'm halfway through what I assume to be Knausgaard's magnus opus, three books of six finished off, and I can't say I'm raring to go for book four. Normally, what I tend to do when I find a new author over whom to fawn and to laud to others as 'my new favourite writer', a term so threadbare from hyperbolic ill-use that the light of truth shines through it unencumbered and it means next to nothing, is that I go out and buy nearly everything they've written, devour the lot in an extended sitting, and then move on to the next false idol. This time, I'm struggling. Books one and two, I did consume, gluttonously, but now I find I'm full and have no appetite for more for the present. 

John Self recently tweeted a review from author and The Times contributor Melissa Katsoulis about book five, Some Rain Must Fall, in which she notes that Knausgaard himself makes reference to a novel as a 'giant dick, impressive at first sight but too big for the blood to create a fully functional erection,' unknowingly presaging his own work. I'm frankly surprised it took until 500 pages into the fifth instalment for her to make this analogy. Admittedly, being behind a Murdoch paywall I have no idea where she goes from this opening teaser paragraph, but I can guess–she has Knausgaard fatigue. 

Boyhood Island is a continuation of his unsparingly, brutally honest biography, this time covering his years spent on the southern Norwegian island of Tromøy (called Trauma in old Norwegian...), formative, school-going years, and is written as a sometimes free-flowing stream of inter-related memories.  Throughout, one is aware of the presentiment of doom (often humorous but always tragic) in pretty much everything he does–swimming with his father (he has a panic attack and his father is disgusted), buying sweets (some girls take them off him and he cries), finding an excuse to kiss his girlfriend (he near assaults her in his attempt to kiss for longer than his classmate and she dumps him). We learn more of the relationship between his father and mother, see more of the explosions of rage to which he and his brother Yngve are exposed by his father's jealously controlling nature, and we laugh (sort-of) through his first experiences of juvenile desire. It's all presented with the exaggerated importance that one feels about pretty much every situation as a child, and he does not stint with the embarrassing anecdotes. However, it borders on the excessive, has no real crisis point as he stumbles from tears to rapture and back again, and, on reading the final paragraph of the book, where he is about to leave his island life behind him for good, it made me pull up short and reconsider pretty much everything he'd written up to that point:
After the removal van had left and we got into the car ... it struck me with a huge sense of relief that I would never be returning, that everything I saw I was seeing for the final time ... Little did I know then that every detail of this landscape, and every single person living in it, would forever be lodged in my memory with a ring as true as perfect pitch.
I snorted aloud at reading that. I just can't believe him. Okay, admittedly this is sold in the UK as hyperreal fiction, but although he explains that he barely remembers his mother apart from the presence she lent to his home and her absence when she was away, the balance it brought to life with a monstrous father figure, he seems to wish the reader to believe that every instance in the book is burned, branded into his mind and is reproduced as true. I had cause this week to look at a photo of my classmates from 20 years ago, and I struggled to remember their names. There are so few memories I can recall clearly–the hot fever of measles, a fight I think I must have dreamt because I didn't lose, burping in someone's ear which caused him to vomit up his swiftly eaten packed of cherry menthol Tunes, something about kicking the guttering from the wall and being called into the Headmaster's office (where he had the three carved wooden monkeys on his desk)–that it's incredibly difficult for me to consider this eidetic recall without skepticism. Of course, he may have framed snatched memories in the context of his over-riding impressions of his youth, fictionalising his childhood, but it is never presented as such by him. He recalls each neighbours' names, their professions, the children with whom he plays, those who avoid him, those after whom he lusts. He can remember what he was wearing, what he said to his mother as she cooked, each album he listened to, and I can barely remember my best friends without help. 

In light of this, I've lost faith, I can't trust Knausgaard, and this unsettles me. I will have to find a different frame of reference in which to read book four, which will likely sit on my shelves for a good few months, and will be patient about following up with five and six. In fact, I have my doubts I will. Like with any well-written serial, the crises are never resolved, the action just keeps on building, and I always get sick of the journey at some point*. I wonder if I've reached this point of fatigue earlier than I expected.


*A notable exception being The West Wing, but then this was brilliantly written, and did eventually end, and it had it's own rhythm of terms of office and elections to keep the narrative oscillations whipping up and down.