July 23, 2009
Roundup: Peter Ferry, George Saunders, Michael Sims
Peter Ferry: Travel Writing / None of This Ever Really Happened
I’ve noticed a few books recently whose titles have been changed for paperback publication. Presumably this signifies poor hardback performance. If so, such failure is entirely undeserved for Peter Ferry’s novel Travel Writing, which has been reissued in the UK as None of This Ever Really Happened (it retains its original title in the US). Ferry is an experienced practitioner of – among other things – travel writing, and it’s a pleasure to see a debut novel which has the mark of maturity and isn’t just the beginning of a long apprenticeship performed in public.
If the publishers wanted to give it a hook for browsers to hang it on, they could do worse than comparing Ferry to Paul Auster, whose metafictional storytelling and tone the book often resembles. The book is narrated by Peter Ferry, who shares not just his name but also his biographical details with the author: teacher, travel writer. He begins by telling his creative writing students about an experience which didn’t happen to him (except that it really did), where he saw a semi-naked woman driving a car erratically alongside his, and, while he was still wondering whether to intervene, watched her collide with a wall and die. The exchange between Ferry and his students as he expands on the story provides the framing device for the book.
It’s all a little tricksy (real writers such as John Fuller appear, as well as a character called Peter Carey, who is not the writer), but compelling in a way that I found quite surprising. I’m just not sure how Ferry managed to get his story under my skin quite so effectively. As well as this, the novel is full of very nice things, such as a subtle and effective portrait of grief, when the narrator, reflecting on his father’s death, finds himself exhaustively listing all the items he had to clear out of his storage shed. However the line between author and character is a little too nebulous when he includes several chapters of his real travel writing, one of which was first published by Ferry over 20 years ago. The end result however is a pleasing hybrid of cleverness and narrative pull, which deserves wider attention. Its potentially broad appeal is reflected in the cover quotes which include praise from sources as diverse as the Times Literary Supplement and (I did say diverse) Good Housekeeping.
George Saunders: The Braindead Megaphone
George Saunders has a mundane name for such a distinctive writer. His specialities are absurd satire – of political doublespeak and a service sector economy gone mad – and pathetic portraits of damaged losers, sometimes in the same story. I’d recommend his collections Pastoralia, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, and The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil/In Persuasion Nation. This book is a collection of essays, which I won in a Twitter draw: I didn’t buy when it came out as I’d been disappointed by his non-fiction in the Guardian, where his weekly column suffered the usual occupational hazard, of too often having to make bricks without straw.
Some of the selections here are truly dire, such as ‘Woof’, ‘Proclamation’ and ‘Ask the Optimist!’, which seem like abandoned drafts of Saunders fiction. I reserve for special mention ‘A Brief Study of the British’, which I remember without fondness from its original version in the Guardian (you can read it here, but please don’t): a sort of sub-Bryson romp for which readers should be advised to pre-curl their toes at the outset. This also features one of Saunders’ least appealing weaknesses: a fondness for what J.B. Priestly called Komic Kapitals (or what I call the last refuge of the scoundrel).
Once we get those over with, this is not a bad collection. The longest pieces are Louis Theroux or Jon Ronson-esque pieces for GQ magazine, on the Buddha Boy, the US-Mexican border, and Dubai (“capitalism on steroids, [with] the gap between Haves and Have Nots wide enough to indicate different species”). At around 40 pages each, they are too long, but there is some nice phrasemaking (the Himalayas are “Platonically white, the white that existed before other colours were invented”) and the odd unexpected sentiment (“A human being is someone who, having lived a while, becomes terrified, and, having become terrified, deeply craves an end to the fear”). There are also articles on Slaughterhouse-Five, Barthelme’s ‘The School’, and Huckleberry Finn (never having read the last, I am not persuaded to, as Saunders spends most of his time defending what he acknowledges as the very many “missteps” of the book).
Where Saunders excels,as in his fiction, is when he’s taking on cant and illiberalism. The title piece condemns the degradation of our public discourse, where “the people who used to ask, ‘Is it news?’ now seem to be asking ‘Will it stimulate?’”, and where “in surrendering our mass storytelling function to entities whose first priority is profit, we make a dangerous concession: ‘Tell us,’ we say in effect, ‘as much truth as you can, while still making money.’” As a result, Saunders says:
The era of the jackboot is over: the forces that come for our decency, humour and freedom will be extolling, in beautiful smooth voices, the virtues of decency, humour and freedom.
Always in the background of these pieces is the US and British invasion of Iraq in 2003. In ‘A Survey of the Literature’ – riddled with Komic Kapitals – Saunders proposes ‘fluid-nations’ made up of people with particular attributes, such as Men Who Fish, Farmers Who Mumble Soundless Prayers While Working in their Fields, and – you can see where he’s going with this – People Reluctant to Kill for an Abstraction. Also uniting these pieces is Saunders’ interest in language. His manifesto seems to be expressed in ‘Thank You, Esther Forbes’, an expansion of this Guardian piece from 2005, where he praises Hemingway, Isaac Babel, Gertrude Stein and Henry Green for their “sentences that had been the subject of so much concentration, they had become things in the world instead of attempts to catalogue it.” A statement of ambition for Saunders too, I presume: so get back to it, George, and give us more fiction.
Michael Sims: Adam’s Navel
Another Twitter discovery – when discussing ‘genre-defying non-fiction’ with author, reviewer and tweeter-par-excellence P.D. Smith, he recommended Michael Sims, whom I’d never heard of. I investigated by getting hold of his 2003 book, Adam’s Navel, described patronisingly on the UK paperback as ‘the Weird and Wonderful Story of the Human Body’, but more accurately summed up in the US edition above, as a Natural and Cultural History of the Human Form.
This is an excellent book which could be unfairly dismissed as ‘a perfect book for dipping into’. I read it through and enjoyed it thoroughly: Sims takes us on a journey from the hair to the toes, with biological facts as well as cultural, literary and historical insights into the various body parts. It has vivid imagery (“the human head is roughly the size and weight of a bowling ball and the spine labours like the stem of a sunflower to carry such a burden”) and apposite quotations (Wilde: “The great mystery of the world is not the invisible, but the visible”). So crammed is Sims’ journey that it is a book with literally half a dozen fascinating things on every page: which actually makes a sequential reading quite a drawn-out process.
If pressed to criticise Adam’s Navel, I would admit to being at times irritated by Sims’ informal style and his needless editorialising (does the typical reader of this book need to be told that people who see faces in the shadows of the surface of Mars are “goofy”, or care to know that Sims thinks internet emoticons are “ridiculous”?). I would also have liked, as well as a bibliography, chapter-specific endnotes, so that I could see, for example, the source of insights such as this, in a section on our expectations of “appropriately ‘childlike’ proportions” in human babies:
Sociologists have found again and again that children who are born with more adult-looking features are likelier to be victims of child abuse than their cuter fellows.
Sims’ references are idiosyncratic – from Calvino to Calvin & Hobbes – and his knowledge impressive. Reading Adam’s Navel is a little like going to see a great comedian: there’s so much good stuff in there that you can’t remember a single example by the end. Fortunately, and unlike most stand-ups, Sims provides us with a detailed index to help us find that elusive nugget again in order to impress our friends.