December 30, 2007

Roddy Doyle: The Snapper

Posted in Doyle Roddy at 1:31 pm by John Self

After Saul Bellow, whom I always find a struggle, I fancied something easy to read in that dead time between Christmas and New Year. I enjoyed Roddy Doyle’s Paula Spencer some months ago, and I’m due to read A Star Called Henry for a book group next year, so thought I might go back in time to his Barrytown trilogy, and read the second book, The Snapper (1990).

The Snapper

In this, Doyle is still to some extent in embryonic form as a writer: there is less depth to the story than in the Paula Spencer books, but his ability to conjure a character almost exclusively from dialogue is fully present. No characters are described by appearance: it’s all in the voice. And even though the only character whose mind we get to see into at any length is Sharon Rabbitte, who announces her pregnancy at the start of the book (“- You’re wha’?, said Jimmy Rabbitte Sr.”), others such as Sharon’s father and the father of her child appear in full colour.

Doyle’s subject, as with the other Barrytown trilogy titles, The Commitments and The Van, is the working class Rabbitte family. Most of the plot development takes place through fast paced dialogue, both funny and sensitive, such as this exchange where the Rabbitte parents, Jimmy Sr and Veronica, casually resume marital relations:

He was restless now and it wasn’t even half seven yet. He said it before he knew he was going to.

– I suppose a ride’s ou’ of the question.

– Hang on till I get this line done, said Veronica.

– Are yeh serious?

– I suppose so.

– Fuckin’ great, said Jimmy Sr. — It’s not even dark yet. You’re not messin’ now?

– No. Just let me finish this.

Jimmy Sr stood up.

– I’ll brush me teeth, he said.

– That’ll be nice, said Veronica.

All this works best, of course, when you read it in a Dublin accent, though for some odd reason I had to struggle to stop my internal voice from slipping into Liverpudlian.

Doyle never patronises his characters, but he doesn’t romanticise their lives either. There is a good deal of solid banter with Jimmy Sr and his mates Bimbo, Paddy and Bertie down the pub, and these secondary characters occasionally come to life too, even when just the Del Boy-style vehicle for a joke about a glut of calculators. Oddly, The Snapper made me laugh less than either his prior novel The Commitments, or his later books.

When Sharon discloses her pregnancy, there’s little conflict within the family (“Sure, that’s wha’ we were put down here for. To have snappers”), and the main engine of the plot is her relationship, or lack of it, with the father of her child. It is an all-encompassing performance: we are permitted to feel empathy even for the seedy middle-aged lothario who keeps Sharon’s panties in his pocket. Doyle expands into some impressively grim description when Sharon’s memories go back to the night in question, and her interior monologues in retrospect seem like stretching exercises for his later work. As with the book overall, they’re good, but you know he’s got more in him.

December 27, 2007

Saul Bellow: Seize the Day

Posted in Bellow Saul, Penguin Modern Classics at 1:19 pm by John Self

For the second leg of my attempt to read Saul Bellow’s novels – or, as I’ve read several already, should I say to enjoy Saul Bellow’s novels – in fact, as I’m not that ambitious, make that to get Saul Bellow’s novels – I thought I would go for one that’s even thinner than Dangling Man. Well it is Christmas. Seize the Day (1956) was Bellow’s fourth novel, coming immediately after his breakthrough book The Adventures of Augie March. It’s regarded as representative of his output, but in a bite-sized (118 pages) portion. So let’s get stuck in.

Seize the Day

In fact I have read it before, a few years ago, but in the time-honoured tradition, I no longer had a single thought in my head about it, other than “not as bad as Herzog.” Herzog is often regarded as Bellow’s masterpiece, so that shows how much weight you should place on the following.

The difficulty with Seize the Day, as with so many books whose reputations precede them, is the conflict between expectation and experience. I would surely have enjoyed it more without any anticipation that this would be a life-changing read. As it is, I was stuck there halfway between following the novel in my own way, and waiting for the greatness to hit me. It didn’t in any obvious way, so I went out and looked for it. Looking for greatness in Bellow by forensically examining the pages is a little like cutting open a human body to search for the soul. It is everywhere and nowhere.

There are some fine nuggets which indicate the failure status of our hero, Tommy Wilhelm, right from the start: in the third sentence, we learn that “he had once been an actor – no, not quite, an extra.” And “early in the nineteen-thirties, because of his striking looks, he had very briefly been considered star material, and he had gone to Hollywood.” Just how briefly, we soon see:

Hollywood was his own idea, too. He used to pretend that it had all been the doing of a certain talent scout named Maurice Venice. But the scout had never made him a definite offer of a studio connection. He had approached him, but the results of the screen test had not been good. After the test Wilhelm took the initiative and pressed Maurice Venice until he got him to say, “Well, I suppose you might make it out there.” On the strength of this Wilhelm had left college and had gone to California.

One thing the talent scout does volunteer is that he marks Wilhelm down as “the type that loses the girl.” Some people this might discourage. But Wilhelm is his own creation in other ways too: his real name, Wilky Adler, was abandoned, leading to the first fissure in a strained relationship with his father. Nonetheless even his father, Dr Adler, feels the need to cover up for Wilhelm’s inadequacies, describing him to a friend as a “sales executive” with an income “up in the five figures somewhere.”

Despite his troubles, Wilhelm almost laughed. Why, that bounding old hypocrite. He knew the sales executive was no more. For many weeks there had been no executive, no sales, no income. But how we love looking fine in the eyes of the world! … It’s Dad, thought Wilhelm, who is the salesman. He’s selling me. He should have gone on the road.

“Despite his troubles” indeed, because Wilhelm has not had them to seek. He is separated and his wife refuses to give him a divorce, while “giving him the works” by leeching as much of his irregular income as she can. He is living in a hotel and cannot pay his bill. His path through life, begun when he abandoned college to avoid “the narrow life of the average,” has become a dead end, or worse, a maze of possibilities, none of them very tempting. He wants freedom from his mistakes, his past and his self:

His spirit, the peculiar burden of his existence lay upon him like an accretion, a load, a lump. In any moment of quiet, when sheer fatigue prevented him from struggling, he was apt to feel this mysterious weight, this growth or collection of nameless things which it was the business of his life to carry about.

At the same time Wilhelm doubts whether he can ever be free: “Don’t talk to me about being free. A rich man may be free on an income of a million net. A poor man may be free because nobody cares what he does. But a fellow in my position has to sweat it out until he drops dead.” And his way of trying to get to be a rich man – while heading quite surely in the other direction – is to invest in … lard futures (a touch of comic genius from Bellow), at the behest of a philosophising adviser called Dr Tamkin (“I deal in facts. Facts always are sensational. I’ll say that a second time. Facts always! are sensational”). Tamkin – is he really a doctor? – is a man of “vain mustache” and “deceiver’s brown eyes.” As with Wilhelm himself and Dr Adler, Bellow’s portrayal of Tamkin is perfect and memorable, simply because he emphasises enough to make his character stick in the mind without overwriting.

Wilhelm, at a low ebb (“trouble rusts out the system”), places his trust in Dr Tamkin and his easy ways with an aphorism.

The past is no good to us. The future is full of anxiety. Only the present is real – the here-and-now. Seize the day.

But Wilhelm learns that lard futures are also full of anxiety, and on the single day when the story is set, a day when “willing or not, he would take a good close look at the truth,” he finds that the future can go down as well as up, and that on the subject of losers, Nick Berry may have been a little simplistic.

So once again I find myself unable to engage on any meaningful level with the text of a Saul Bellow novel. The act of splurging my first impressions here, however, has at least raised the book in my estimation, and made me understand that there is much, much further for me to go with this man. If Wilhelm is right in saying that “maybe the making of mistakes expressed the very purpose of his life and the essence of his being here,” then the decision to have a further crack at Saul Bellow no longer seems to me quite the mistake it did just a short time ago.

December 23, 2007

Ali Smith: Girl Meets Boy

Posted in Smith Ali at 12:08 am by John Self

Ali Smith is a writer who tends to polarise opinion. Her last novel, The Accidental, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2005, but I didn’t meet anyone else who liked it. I wasn’t sure I did myself to begin with, and part of my liking for it is probably a defensive reaction against violent criticism of what is, at the very least, an interesting and ambitious work that deserves credit for that. Her earlier novel Hotel World was no more conventional, a collection of stream-of-consciousness voices which angered one Amazon reader for not being a sufficiently accurate representation of life in a hotel; which is a little like the Victoria Wood character who didn’t like Fawlty Towers because it was supposed to be set in Torquay, but “could have been anywhere, frankly.”

Girl Meets Boy

For her next trick then, Smith has written Girl Meets Boy, a novella in the Canongate Myths series. The story she has chosen to update (or “remix” according to the blurb) is the story of Iphis from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. I haven’t read Ovid since school and I don’t think I got as far as Iphis in Ted Hughes’ celebrated interpretation of the tales, so fortunately Smith gives us a primer midway through, though a sneak preview – if that’s the word for a story written two thousand years ago – is available here.

It’s about what tabloids would once have called gender-bending, and so the title not only recalls classic love stories, but has another primary meaning in the character of Robin, who is neither and both: girl-meets-boy. The story is narrated by two sisters, Anthea and Imogen (‘Midge’). Anthea falls in love with Robin who is protesting against Pure, the water company she works for.

My head, something happened to its insides. It was as if a storm at sea happened, but only for a moment, and only on the inside of my head. My ribcage, something definitely happened there. It was as if it unknotted itself from itself, like the hull of a ship hitting rock, giving way, and the ship that I was opened wide inside me and in came the ocean.

He was the most beautiful boy I had ever seen in my life.

But he really looked like a girl.

She was the most beautiful boy I had ever seen in my life.

This leads Midge to worry, in a parenthetic stream of consciousness, that “(Oh my God my sister is a GAY.) (I am not upset. I am not upset. I am not upset. I am not upset.)” She has to field awkward questions from her unreconstructed friends, Norman and Dominic, two-dimensional homophobic lads. Not that this sets them apart from other elements of the book. Politically Smith seems to feel that every reader has the right not to be confused by shades of grey, and so we have the capitalist-bastard water company executive -

Small body of irate ethnics in one of our Indian sub-interests factioning against our planned filter-dam two-thirds completed and soon to power four Pure labs in the area. They say: our dam blocks their access to fresh water and ruins their crops. We say: they’re ethnic troublemakers who are trying to involve us in a despicable religious war. Use the word terrorism if necessary. Got it?

- and Robin herself is an anarchic ‘breath of fresh air’/’pain in the arse’ akin to Amber from The Accidental, addressing well-worn issues through spray-painting statistics about male-female inequality in public places. All this reminded me of the critic who accused Martin Amis of dealing in “banalities delivered with tremendous force,” which attack Amis sought to de-barb by adopting it as his own credo (“that’s fine by me”). Smith’s issues are not subtle, and little is left under the surface, but there is something nonetheless loving about the way she presents it.

She is at her best when returning from the political to the personal, and the descriptions of love and sex in Girl Meets Boy are poetic and invigorating, and the opening pages of the final section, incorporating literary nods and winks (“Ness I said Ness I will Ness”), humorous contemporary references (“A male-voice choir from the Inverness Police Force sang a beautiful arrangement of songs from Gilbert and Sullivan. Then the Inverness Constabulary female-voice choir sang an equally beautiful choral arrangement of Don’t Cha (Wish Your Girlfriend Was Hot Like Me)”), and a litany of free-association -

…we got married. I mean we here came the bride. I mean we walked down the aisle. I mean we step we gailied, on we went, we Mendelssohned, we epithalamioned, we raised high the roofbeams, carpenters, for there was no other bride, o bridegroom, like her. We crowned each other with the garlands of flowers. We stamped on the wine-glasses wrapped in the linen. We jumped the broomsticks. We lit the candles. We crossed the sticks.

- that is sure to become a source for readings at weddings and partnership ceremonies in years to come.

Smith also wastes no opportunities to reflect her themes of sexuality and equality, and the motifs of the original myth, everywhere she can in her story, so the whole has a pleasing completeness to it. She even finds time to bring back the topic of myths themselves and the “responsibility” of creating a myth. It’s a story which revels in being light-hearted and serious-minded at the same time, and for the most part manages to pull it off by force of charm alone.

December 19, 2007

Philip Roth: The Anatomy Lesson

Posted in Roth Philip at 9:03 am by John Self

(This is the third book in the Zuckerman series. See also The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman Unbound, The Prague Orgy and Exit Ghost.)

There’s a common view that for a writer to write about writing is a mark of failure, or at least boring. Who wants to read that stuff? Well, I do. My take is that if I get pleasure out of great writing, then writing about writing must double the delight; or square it. Others, I know, feel the sum is actually a subtraction, and that they cancel one another out. Where my heart swells, theirs sinks. All this is by way of prelude to The Anatomy Lesson (1983), a book about writing and its effect on the writer even more intense than the earlier volumes, The Ghost Writer and Zuckerman Unbound. And it’s a blast and a breeze.

The Anatomy Lesson

It is 1973 and Nathan Zuckerman is in pain. Not existential or metaphysical pain – though, that too – but the real thing, riddled with “a hot line of pain that ran forward behind his right ear into his neck, then branched downward beneath the scapula like a menorah held bottom side up.” He is “jangling with pain each time [a] cab took a pothole.” He’s a prisoner of it, unable to write, unable to get up, unable to do anything but lay down on his ‘playmat’ and watch the trials of Richard Nixon sideways.

Through his prism glasses he followed our President’s chicanery – the dummy gestures, the satanic sweating, the screwy dazzling lies. He almost felt for him, the only other American he saw daily who seemed to be in as much trouble as he was.

He also distracts himself from the pain by engaging with one of his four women in an activity suited to such a cunning linguist, back down there on the playmat (“step right up, sit right down”). It is perhaps this, or something related to it, which has brought him here: Zuckerman feels the pain is a symptom or rebound of his writing against him, particularly the lewd novel Carnovsky which so incensed his family. “Saddled with fifteen pounds of head”, its weight presses down on him: his head, having brought him to success, is now bringing him down. He tries therapy, medication, special pillows and electric shocks:

Six times a day he gave himself a low voltage shock for five minutes. And six times a day he waited for the pain to go away – actually he waited for it to go away a hundred times a day. Having waited long enough, he then took Valium or aspirin or Butazolidin or Percodan or Robaxin; at five in the evening he said the hell with it and began taking the vodka. And as tens of millions of Russians have known for hundreds of years, that is the best pain suppressor of all.

Then again, pain is just pain, and if Zuckerman can’t blame it on his writing, he can’t reverse that and rely on it to provide him with subject matter either: he “understood just how little one can depend upon human suffering to produce ennobling effects.” And Zuckerman is just Zuckerman: still he is amazed at how people – from family to literary professors – can confuse him with his character Carnovsky in his most famous book (an analogue for Roth’s own Portnoy’s Complaint).

From what he’d read of the reviews in the feminist press, he could expect a picture of himself up in the post office, alongside the mugshot of a Marquis de Sade, once the militants took Washington and began guillotining the top thousand misogynists in the arts.

This of course is doubly clever because Roth has been saddled for most of his career with comparisons to his narrators and characters (“There’s nothing more wearing than having to go around pretending to be the author of one’s own books – except pretending not to be”). Here, as with the other Zuckermans, he simultaneously invites the comparison and repels it, throwing the reader into a complex system of mirrors where Roth is and isn’t Zuckerman, who is and isn’t Carnovsky. Roth is the only writer I know who can pull off such postmodern games without indulging in textual trickery too: the book looks like a solid story but it is riddled with trapdoors.

On top of this, Zuckerman adopts a persona within the story. Incensed by accusations of anti-semitism from critic Milton Appel, who had “unleashed an attack upon Zuckerman’s career that made Macduff’s assault upon Macbeth look almost lackadaisical,” Zuckerman delights in calling himself Milton Appel when conversing with strangers, creating a new character for the critic as a pornographer. No-one can sustain a rant like Roth, and Zuckerman’s monologues as ‘Appel’ the porn baron are among the comic highlights of the book, poking fun at, among other things, Roth’s own supposed misogyny as a writer, and going further than most would dare in the process.

Exploited? If anyone’s exploited it’s the God damn men. Most of these girls are on a total ego trip in front of the camera. Sure I had animals in my last film, but nobody there forced anybody to fuck them. Chuck Raw, my star, walked off the picture because of the dog. He says, ‘I love dogs and I won’t be a party to this, Milton. Banging women fucks up their minds – they can’t handle it. Any dog who fucks a woman is finished as an animal.’ I respected Chuck for that. I have the courage of my convictions, he has the courage of his. Don’t you get the idea yet? Nobody is putting these people in chains! I am taking them out of their chains! I am a monster with something to offer! I am changing American fucking forever! I am setting this country free!

Yet what makes The Anatomy Lesson so extraordinary – and easily my favourite of the half dozen Roths I’ve read – is that in the middle of all this high octane prose, which turns the pages itself even when the story is idling, there is a controlled and tender portrayal of grief as Zuckerman recalls his mother’s death.

The mother who’d been so enormous to him for the first ten years of his life was as diaphanous in recollection as [a] chiffon hood. A breast, then a lap, then a fading voice calling after him, “Be careful.” Then a long gap when there is nothing of her to remember, just the inevitable somebody, anxious to please, reporting to him on the phone the weather in New Jersey.

Which leads to intimations of mortality, something that we haven’t seen the last of in Roth:

In the car to the cemetery, what is there to think? On the road to the cemetery, stupefied or wide awake, it’s simple: what is coming. No, it stays unseen, out of sight, and you come to it. Illness is a message from the grave. Greetings: You and your body are one – it goes, you follow. His parents were gone and he was next. Out to the cemetery in a long black car.

So where Zuckerman hoped for “an end to the search for the release from self,” he finds instead that the pain, like his writing, brings him further into himself than ever. The awareness spreads through him, through the story like, well, like a menorah held bottom side up.

This self-reflection on the decline of the body brings with it a certain amount of self-loathing, and a reprise of rage, as Zuckerman tries to decide which is easier to bear: the memory of grief, or the presence of pain, when he discovers an obscene and hate-filled note on a green index card to his mother from someone who hated Zuckerman’s books, and took it out on her.

He’d walk over to Meyer Lansky’s hotel to find out from the bell captain who could be hired to do a little job. Why not that for a change, instead of flying back to New York to file the green index card under “Mother’s Death”? You could not be a nothing writer fellow forever, doing nothing with the strongest feelings but turning them over for characters to deal with in books.

Books like this one. And how fortunate we are that Zuckerman – I mean Roth – I mean Zuckerman – has turned them over to us, and keeps on doing so. The pain is his, the pleasure all ours.

December 15, 2007

Jennifer Clement: The Poison that Fascinates

Posted in Clement Jennifer at 9:23 pm by John Self

Here is a rare triple: a book (a) with a beautiful cover (imagine the title and butterflies below in sparkling gold), which (b) I got the chance to read before its release on 17 January 2008, and (c) is a mesmerising and memorable read from an interesting new voice. Well, new to me anyway, as Clement is a poet, as well as the author of a memoir and a previous novel whose title, A True Story Based on Lies, had caused me to pick it up once or twice in the bookshop. Next time I do, it will be for good.

The Poison that Fascinates

Meanwhile, The Poison that Fascinates has the mysterious, elliptical feel of a novel in translation, without ever succumbing to gaudy exoticism in its depictions of Mexico (where Clement lives). Instead, what we get is a laconic precision which generally avoids the purpleness that can characterise a poet’s prose (“In the rainy season the city becomes molten, streets turn into rivers that carry plastics, newspapers, dry willow leaves and small shards of volcanic glass”).

It is a book of disappearances: of murder victims, of the past, and of innocence. Emily Neale is “half an orphan” whose mother went missing when she was a child. This gives her both connection to and distance from the children in the Rosa of Lima Orphanage in Mexico City, which was set up by Emily’s grandmother. (“The orphans are permanently mystified by the fact that Emily does not have a mother but does have a father. They think she is half of what they are. They act as if being left with one parent were somehow impossible”). The orphanage is now run by Mother Agata, who reminded me of the gargantuan Dog Woman in Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry:

Mother Agata is an enormous woman. Her hands are so large that she can carry most things in one hand. Dressed in her nun’s habit she looks like a colossal angel that people stand beside for shade or shelter. Children want to climb up the trunk, limb and branch of her body.

The language is Wintersonian too, with its compact fluency and occasional over-reaching – but too much ambition is better than none. The Poison that Fascinates also revels in representations of womanhood: from the compassionate altruism of the mother to the far extreme of the murderess. Emily keeps notes on female murderers, an account of a different one ending each chapter. These portraits of dissociation produce some of the richest and strangest writing in the book (“She felt her eyes were inside her mouth; her nails were growing backward into her hands; a monkey bit her face; her feet were run over by a train; she heard piano music in her arms”) and each one comes at its subject from a fresh angle.

The murderesses are one of Emily’s obsessions, along with details of saints and unusual facts. It takes the arrival of her cousin Santiago to break her out of this controlled world:

I just can’t believe it when I meet someone who is so controlled by society’s rules and expectations. You know all about facts. You know all about other people’s lives and even the lives of saints. But what about your life, Emily? Have you ever done anything unexpected?

Santiago’s appearance in Emily’s life will have consequences that, as the blurb promises, change her life forever, and which ultimately bring together the disparate elements of the story. The title is from Mexican composer Agustin Lara: “Woman, divine woman, / you have the poison that fascinates in your eyes,” and complements the various angles which the book takes on cultural roles and expectations of women. It becomes a fascinating puzzle of a novel, reverberating around the brain and impossible to get out of your head.

December 11, 2007

Twelve from the Shelves: My Books of 2007

Posted in Uncategorized tagged at 2:10 pm by John Self

This seems like a good time to recap on the first year of this blog, and give a few pointers to anyone wading through it looking for something interesting to read.

Please feel free to share your own read(s) of the year in the comment box below.

Light Years

1. James Salter: Light Years. “So relentlessly seductive … that each time I returned to it I felt like a teenage suitor: giggling, nervous, hot-faced with intimidation.”

2. Salman Rushdie, Shalimar the Clown. “A typically dense multicultural circus, written with verve and vivacity. … Like an eight hundred page book squeezed to half the size.”

3. Indra Sinha, Animal’s People. “A meaty, joyful, feast of a novel, filled with violence, energy and humour.”

4. Brian Moore, The Emperor of Ice Cream. “A perfect amalgam of multi-faceted subject and unfussy form, keeping numerous plates spinning at once. … Elevates Moore into the twentieth century greats.”

5. Warwick Collins, Gents. “Brings a Fetherlite touch to thoughts of sin, racism, prejudice, family, society and sex. Punches so far above its weight that it will effortlessly knock you out.”

6. Patrick Hamilton, The Slaves of Solitude. “Pretty much flawless … Simultaneously horrible, very funny and eventually highly involving.”

7. Peter Ho Davies, The Welsh Girl. “A slow burn triumph … has all the qualities necessary to make it a sure fire modern classic.”

8. Philip Roth, Exit Ghost. “A filling and mature book … elegiac and moving.”

9. Jill Dawson, Watch Me Disappear. “A quite fascinating and subtly horrifying story of girlhood and sex … makes thrusting three-dimensional life from the black-and-white page.”

10. Gore Vidal, Point to Point Navigation. “If it doesn’t move you to weeping then you should have your tear ducts checked by a qualified professional. … A perfect valediction for Vidal.”

11. Stefan Zweig, Twilight/Moonbeam Alley. “Bleak and ironic … one of the finest stories I have ever read.”

12. Jeanette Winterson, The Stone Gods. “Fits so much into 200 pages that I kept checking back to make sure the book was numbered properly.”

Which leaves no room for Don DeLillo’s Falling Man, Gerard Woodward’s I’ll Go to Bed at Noon, Roddy Doyle’s Paula Spencer, Charlotte Mendelson’s When We Were Bad, or J.R. Ackerley’s We Think the World of You

December 8, 2007

J.R. Ackerley: We Think the World of You

Posted in Ackerley J.R., NYRB Classics at 1:56 pm by John Self

Having just done the online equivalent of a trolley dash through the NYRB Classics on Amazon, I warn you to expect more of these handsome volumes cropping up here in the coming weeks. Here we have We Think the World of You (1960), the only novel from literary editor J.R. Ackerley, which is described on the back cover as “hugely funny” (by the Glasgow Herald) and “a fairy tale for adults” (by Ackerley himself). I don’t really agree with either of those, but it’s still a delightful discovery which charmed and disarmed me.

We Think the World of You

Apparently the novel is a reworking of Ackerley’s memoir My Dog Tulip (that’s one NYRB title I don’t need to get then) and in fact the German Shepherd pictured on the striking cover is his own. Our narrator, Frank, is a well-to-do middle-aged man who is in love with a younger married man called Johnny. We never have explicit details of how intimately they know one another, though Frank’s brief but adoring descriptions of Johnny’s body (“the whole of his smooth, unblemished torso glowed … as though bathed in perpetual sunlight”) reveal enough.

Johnny, a working class boy not made good, is in prison for housebreaking, and Frank (“unwilling to assist him, unable to give him up”) visits; Johnny wants Frank to look after his dog Evie while he’s ‘away’ but is met by rebuff (“Couldn’t you feed ‘er when you come ‘ome of an evening?” “But I don’t always come home of an evening”). Meanwhile Frank, in an attempt to stay close to his beloved, begins to visit Johnny’s family, which is the source of some comic misunderstandings and a fair amount of snobbery:

I noticed at once that, in my short absence, the window had been closed. The working classes, I reflected with a shrug, have an ineradicable belief that the colds from which they constantly suffer are due to fresh air rather than to the lack of it.

As usual, here the first person narrative tells us more about the speaker than his ostensible subject. So it is throughout the book: although it is a story about a dog, and how Evie acts as both a surrogate for Johnny – Frank ends up deeply in love all over again – and a link to him, really the book is all about Frank. Naturally he hates Johnny’s wife Megan, but gets on with his mother Millie (“an exceptionally strong bond united us, we were both bewitched by her son”) but not father Tom. He is jealous of anyone who is close to Johnny, as he rolls in agonies over Johnny’s repeated failure to write to him, or to grant him one of his precious permitted visits. In time his adoration of Evie becomes total and the whole of Frank’s feelings are played out in vigorous exchanges with Millie:

“She had Tom’s slippers last week! You remember, the red ones I gave him for Christmas? And you should have seen Tom’s face when he come home and found what she done. Laugh! You couldn’t ‘elp but laugh! Oh, but he did pay her for that! He took off his belt to her. ‘You didn’t ought to ‘it ‘er like that, Tom,’ I said, but he only told me to mind me business. Oh he did give it ‘er!”

For a moment I could not speak. I was trembling with rage and indignation. Then I said violently:

“How disgusting!”

Millie glanced at me in a startled way.

“Of course he was sorry afterwards,” she said in her slow voice. “I could see that. He made an extra fuss of her that evening.”

“Does he beat her often?” I asked, with a sick feeling looking at the brilliant and extraordinary face by the door.

“I wouldn’t say often,” replied Millie mildly. “He gets a bit ratty with her at times when he’s in a bad mood or his back’s been playing him up. But you mustn’t go thinking that Tom’s a cruel man, for he’s not. He’s a kind man at heart, and he’s fond of her. Oh yes, he thinks the world of her, he do.”

“Just like your Johnny does of me!” I said, getting up.

This phrase, as the superb title suggests, is the key to the book. Everyone in Johnny’s family “thinks the world of” everyone else, when to Frank this is nothing but the cruellest insult as his own feelings seem increasingly unrequited, except by Evie the family dog. And the ‘world’ in question brings to mind the insurmountable class differences in operation too.

Yes, [Evie] knew [Johnny] thought the world of her; but possibly, I reflected, she guessed, as I now did, what the world amounted to, and that what he had just done for us was, of all things she wanted, the most she would ever get, and that she could not count even on that.

We Think the World of You has a formal perfection too, with not only a central character – a non-human one at that – who acts as symbol and representation for so much, and whose purpose changes as the story matures, but also a impeccable ending of solemn resignation and and a warning to be careful what we wish for. My only criticism is that the coda to the main story which leads to this tragic conclusion (“that leads me into deep waters, too deep for fathoming; it leads me into the darkness of my own mind”), introduces an almost new character and seems rushed through. It was nothing I couldn’t live with though, given the unique and brilliant nature of everything before.

December 5, 2007

Evan S. Connell: The Diary of a Rapist

Posted in Connell Evan S., NYRB Classics at 1:25 pm by John Self

Now here is a title to conjure with. What’s a nice guy like me doing with a book like this? Well, I came across Evan S. Connell on Literature Map, when I was looking for authors similar to Richard Yates. His was the most prominent name I didn’t know, so I promptly investigated and found that he is the author of the books Mr Bridge and Mrs Bridge, made into a joint film starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward – imaginatively titled Mr & Mrs Bridge. But The Diary of a Rapist was more readily available, and had the added bonus of being published by NYRB Classics, my latest literary fetish.

The Diary of a Rapist

Here then is a book which inspires strong feelings – visceral as much as intellectual – not only when you’re reading it, but even when your eye snags on the title as it’s sitting there innocently closed. (Mrs Self has already decreed that it will not be displayed on the bookshelves once finished with.) To give it such a bold title, Connell has taken a risk – it catches the eye all right, but the fascination it evokes is ghoulish, and more will surely be put off, or uncomfortable picking it up, than will be drawn into reading. And once over the barrier and into the story, by calling it The Diary of a Rapist Connell has removed any tension or mystery, just as Bret Easton Ellis did with American Psycho. In fact that book, and Joseph Heller’s masterpiece Something Happened, were constantly in my mind as I read, though Diary predates both.

Connell’s narrator, Earl Summerfield, like Bob Slocum in Something Happened, doesn’t believe in easing us into his world gently, and gives it to us with both barrels from the start. He pities and despises his co-workers, but not as much as he hates his wife Bianca:

If it wasn’t for Bianca I’d have been able to make something out of myself by this time. She’s ruined everything. There’s no limit to what I might have done by now. She knows it too. I guess it gives her some sort of pleasure.

That’s on page 2. By page 7 Summerfield is already considering that “I think it’s certain mannerisms of women that makes us want to kill them.” He quickly warms to his theme, when he’s watching two schoolgirls that his wife tutors on a Saturday:

Don’t know why I despise them. They act so innocent but then something turns up in the papers like last week when one of these little innocents was “taken into protective custody” because police discovered she was earning about a thousand dollars a week between the time she got out of school and the time she came home from supper. … The little pig was rolling on her back squealing with pleasure every afternoon in somebody’s apartment or hotel room, earning more in five minutes than I make by working all day. Yes, but if you’d see her at school you’d assume she was a sweet little girl. Same as those two Bianca tutors. They’re probably up to the same tricks. Well, if I had them here right now in this room I’d teach them something they’ll never learn from B.

This is pretty hard to read, partly because it’s rare we encounter such undiluted misogyny in a character, and also because we are shocked by Summerfield’s apparently wilful interpretation of victim as offender. In his eyes, the only victim is Earl Summerfield (“I’ve decided she made use of me”), and it’s a moment’s work for him to twist this around into self-aggrandisement and revenge fantasy (“I’m going to be somebody one of these days, which means I already am somebody”).

He fixates on a beauty queen, Mara St John (“she looked to me like one of those professional sluts from Hollywood”), whom he first sees on Washington’s birthday. His obsession with her reaches its climax in a silent diary entry on Independence Day, where the reader is left to work out what Summerfield has done that is so bad even he can’t bring himself to write about it. But then, we already know from the title.

The holiday dates are significant, because Summerfield’s other obsession is the decline in America, and as his deteriorating mental state (“My head’s as full of light as a shower of meteors … Yes, I become more meaningful at night, my brain alert and flickering with bright perceptions”) is mirrored by reports in the news of beatings, murders and death row executions: he professes disgust at them while lapping them up. The introduction to the book tells us that Connell wrote the book after reading about a beauty queen who had been raped twice by the same man: and the second time he had driven her home to make sure she got there safely. Connell believes the rapist truly believed

that if she truly understood him, when she realized that he was a nice man, they could become properly acquainted, have lunch together, visit the zoo together, get married, and live happily ever after. I suspect that only in America could anyone be so deluded. Only in America, addled by the Puritan legacy.

If The Diary of a Rapist then is also a record of the failure of the American dream (“See American white with maggots, red with blood, blue with hypocrisy”), it is one which presents its case in full flood and with not much subtlety. On the one hand almost every line is quotable and in its right place; on the other hand they all seem very much the same and (again as with Patrick Bateman or Bob Slocum) there is not much that one would call character development. I can imagine many readers finding the whole conceit so repellent that they would abandon the book quickly. We do however get the occasional flicker of sympathy when we see Summerfield struggling to attain normality:

Decent life waiting for me twenty minutes from here. It’s that close! It’s that close to me and I can’t get to it.

Normality is impossible for him however, as I realized when wondering why Connell had decided to make Summerfield just 26 years old when his voice is that of a much older, worn-down and weary man. This must be so that we can’t presume he is an otherwise normal man who has been beaten by life once too often. At 26, he hasn’t experienced enough life to justify one percent of the bitterness and hatred he expresses. To verify this, Connell gives us a couple of flashbacks to Summerfield’s childhood, where he was exhibiting a taste for sexual violence even then. So we are to conclude that he must ‘simply’ by unbalanced. If that is a tenuously optimistic thing to take from it, then grab it with both hands and run with it: it’s the only optimism you’re going to get around here.

December 2, 2007

Peter Carey: Theft

Posted in Carey Peter at 3:58 pm by John Self

I am a serial abandoner of Peter Carey novels. I loved his first Booker Prize winner, Oscar and Lucinda, and then read his next, The Tax Inspector. Since then I have manfully begun each new book, and the occasional older one, without the diminishing returns ever permitting experience to triumph over hope. Illywhacker. The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith. Jack Maggs. True History of the Kelly Gang. All unfinished. So why did I bother with Theft: A Love Story? Because I was in a small local bookshop with limited range, and as always, I was seized by an absolute need to buy a book in a way I wouldn’t have been were the choice much wider.

At least that’s my excuse. The story anyway is of the Boone brothers: Michael, an artist and recently released convict, known as Butcher Bones; and his ‘damaged’ brother Hugh, “doughy, six foot four, filthy, dangerous-looking” with “hair [that] looked like cattle had been eating it”. They take turns narrating the novel and the plot folds back on itself as they recount all the things that led them to where they are today, together with the ongoing story of what is happening now. Each fills in and reveals things that the other omits. Butcher’s narrative is masterly: just on the borderline of out-of-control, the muscular and belligerent tone of a man who suffers from “a lack of charm when sober.” As a man whose paintings used to be in fashion five years ago, but now can’t get arrested (so to speak), he has strong views on the art world:

The market is a nervous easily panicked beast. And so it should be. After all, how can you know how much to pay when you have no bloody idea of what it’s worth? If you pay five million dollars for a Jeff Koons what do you say when you get it home? What do you think?

He is “a thieving cunning man” (“it’s no use getting old if you don’t get cunning”) who harbours great resentment against his ex wife almost as much as he does the art world for ignoring his “monster” paintings “made from light and mathematics.”

Hugh’s voice, unfortunately, is tremendously annoying although in its way a greater act of literary ventriloquism. It seems to be an extension of the semi-grammatical style of Ned Kelly in True History of the Kelly Gang, but littered with UPPER CASE for no reason I could figure out. By halfway through the book I had reached the stage where my heart sank every time I recognised Hugh’s voice opening a chapter. Eventually my heart sank so far that I had to put the book down to go and look for it; and couldn’t then bring myself to pick it up again.

So I have failed to finish my fifth successive Carey novel. I am at least consistent. At the stage where I was keener to read the words around the book than the book itself, I was interested to see Carey give thanks to, among others, his friend and fellow novelist Patrick McGrath. McGrath’s last novel was also about art: the superlative Port Mungo which, incidentally, has thanks in the acknowledgements for Peter Carey, and which I would recommend unreservedly. Otherwise, unqualified as I am to draw any conclusion about this book I didn’t finish, please complete your own thoughts in the space below.

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