July 29, 2010

Cormac McCarthy: Child of God

Posted in McCarthy Cormac at 8:00 am by John Self

The last book I read before I began this blog, over the Christmas holidays 2006, was Cormac McCarthy’s festive The Road. I had some quibbles with it, but it’s one of those books which, partly through the distance of memory and partly through the ubiquity it has attained since then, seems almost unassailable, a cornerstone of the modern canon. But my previous efforts with McCarthy – All the Pretty Horses, Blood Meridian – had been abortive struggles. So, inspired by blog reviews and the handsome reissues by Picador in the UK, I tackled one of McCarthy’s earlier novels (and his shortest).

I was warned in advance that Child of God (1973) was a “rough” and “extremely nasty” book. These red flags overprepared me for what turned out to be unsettling but not all that distressing: there is violence, but it is brief and unexceptional; the most disturbing injury is a bird losing its legs. Still, the book is about an Ed Gein-type serial killer, so the bar was set high.

Lester Ballard is a freak, and if he wasn’t such a loner he’d be in good company. The people around him in East Tennessee are not much less eccentric than he is, like the dumpkeeper’s daughter who indulges him in what passes round those parts for flirtation:

What say, jellybean, she said.

What you laughin at?

What you lookin at?

Why, he’s looking at them there nice titties for one thing, said the man on the drum.

You want to see em.

Sure, said Ballard.

Gimme a quarter.

I ain’t got one.

She laughed.

He stood there grinning.

How much you got?

I got a dime.

Well go borry two and a half cents and you can see one of em.

Then again, Lester’s peculiarities seem to go a little further than most. “They say he was never right after his daddy killed hisself.” His confused flirtations with another woman go too far, or are misinterpreted, and he ends up with jail time for attempted rape. “What you in for,” he asks his cellmate, who replies, “I cut a motherfucker’s head off with a pocketknife.”

The book has an atmosphere of portent, though the threat seems often to be in the reader’s mind, as Ballard fails again and again to live up to our worst fears. Still, he gets there in the end. “Mr Ballard. You are either going to have to find some other way to live or some other place in the world to do it in.” McCarthy makes no excuses and offers no explanations, but on two occasions the narrator does directly address the reader. Right at the start of the book, in the second paragraph, Ballard is described as having “Saxon and Celtic bloods. A child of god much like yourself perhaps.” The message is – what? – that god or nature creates monsters; or perhaps that violence to McCarthy is a force in itself, delivered through unknowing vessels like Ballard. Later, the narrator observes that “some halt in the way of things seems to work here. See him. You could say that he’s sustained by his fellow men, like you. Has peopled the shore with them calling to him. A race that gives suck to the maimed and the crazed, that wants their wrong blood in its history and will have it.”

Ballard does seem maimed, his actions desperate rather than malicious. The reader can have a curious sympathy, or at least pity, for him. McCarthy’s prose leaves things open, and only rarely goes off the scale, encrusted with ornament:

Alone in the empty shell of a house the squatter watched through the moteblown glass a rimshard of bone-colored moon come cradling up over the black balsams on the ridge, ink trees a facile hand had sketched against the paler dark of winter heavens.

Most of all, Child of God, with all its dark disgust and beautiful violence, is a pleasure entire. McCarthy’s singular vision was intact – fully formed – even in his early work, and this slim starter was the taster I needed to convince me that I need to read all his others too. A difficult decision, but one which I will delight in agonising over.

July 22, 2010

Lee Rourke: The Canal

Posted in Melville House, Rourke Lee at 8:00 am by John Self

Lee Rourke’s debut novel is one of those books I knew I had to read. I’d been meaning to get his collection of stories, Everyday, which was praised by trustworthy sources. When I discovered that his novel was to be published by the reliable Melville House, that sealed the deal.


The Canal is a novel about boredom which, through some alchemy, manages never to be boring, even when it seems to aim that way. The language used by its nameless narrator is plain, even deliberately banal.

It was good sitting there, watching the world go by – saying nothing, doing nothing. It was really good.

‘There’ is a bench by a canal in North London, where our narrator, like Reger in Old Masters, goes regularly to sit. (“I’ve often thought that we seek reality in places and not in ourselves.”) The location is grounded in reality but anonymous, specific but vague. The canal is a place defined by function but largely unvisited; blank but threatening. Unlike Reger, our man is not contemplating a work of art but the routines of life, and he is filled not with splenetic rage but with apathy and even a sort of pleasure at the littleness of his existence.

I liked being bored – I liked what it was doing to me. The word “boring” is usually used to denote a lack of meaning – an acute emptiness. But the weight of boredom at that moment was almost overwhelming, it sure as hell wasn’t empty of anything; it was tangible – it had meaning.

People who embrace boredom, he suggests, avoid becoming “lost in superfluous activity,” like the multitudes who “are just as bored as I am, only they think they’re not because they’re continually doing something.” He embraces his boredom so enthusiastically – if that’s the word – that he gives up his job. “I am bored with work full stop. Not your company, but work.” Like Melville’s Bartleby, he would prefer not to. His rewards are the mesmeric routines of existence by the canal: the swans; the building overlooking his bench, with the office workers who never look out; and a mysterious young woman who joins him and with whom he strikes up a rapport.

Violence enters the narrator’s longed-for stasis as he is confronted by a group of youths. Like many elements of The Canal, these encounters recur and rerun, the teen argot of the attackers becoming a sort of unmusical overture, repeated from four angles each time. The threatening atmosphere they bring with them is present too in the subdued violence of the young woman the narrator befriends. She tells stories of her experiences, of mechanised killing which recalls a Ballardian worldview.

And as our world becomes increasingly boring, as the future progresses into a quagmire of nothingness, our world will becoming increasingly more violent. It is an impulse that controls us. It is an impulse we cannot ignore.

These worthwhile touchstones – Ballard, Melville, Bernhard – do not mean that The Canal has no identity of its own. In fact it is an idiosyncratic book which is likely to linger in memory whatever the reader makes of it. It has teasings of traditional novelistic concerns, but delivered in a welter of blank style, forceful repetitions, naturalistic blunted dialogue, and ready-made controversies like the woman’s paean to suicide bombers (“They … excite … me”). This last is not lazy tabloid-baiting but ties in with the book’s theme, the dangers of unaccepted boredom:

“It’s interesting to note that a sizable minority of extremists are recent converts. They have nothing else to do. We are empty.”

What these elements mean is that The Canal is a novel which forces the reader to engage with the book on its own terms. In a world where many books conform to expectations and run in the ruts of their predecessors, this is an unsettling and at times confounding experience. Like many of the books I recommend these days, it is likely that The Canal will not please everyone – but what worthwhile book does? Nonetheless, its rarity, its persistence – its brevity – make it a valuable addition to that shelf of books which tackle real life, our daily existence, head-on, rather than wrapping it in the distracting ribbons of so much fiction.

July 19, 2010

Book Giveaway: Greg Baxter’s A Preparation for Death

Posted in Baxter Greg at 9:14 am by John Self

Few books this year have had me launch into such trills of praise as Greg Baxter’s A Preparation for Death. It is a vigorous, painful, bright-eyed wonder. Not everyone agrees: Will Rycroft found it “infuriating” (though also “beautiful”). Inside Books thought it at times “plain disturbing” (as did I, which was one of the things I loved about it). In the UK press, the only review I’ve seen was in the Sunday Times (now hidden behind a paywall), which praised the book but then spent most of its length detailing negative points. Sometimes it seemed like the only person who loved the book as much as I did was Anne Enright.

So I hope this draw will find A Preparation for Death a few more willing submissives. Penguin have generously offered five copies to readers of this blog. If you think it might be your cup of Marmite, say so below and your name will be entered in a draw for a free copy. The only requirement is that you should come back here and share your thoughts on the book, positive or, er, not so positive. (Or do so on your own blog, or Amazon etc.) The draw closes at midnight BST on Saturday 24 July 2010 and is open to entrants worldwide.

July 15, 2010

Paul Harding: Tinkers

Posted in Harding Paul at 8:00 am by John Self

The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction is one of those awards that I follow but don’t often take heed of. For most of the Pulitzer winners I’ve read (such as Updike’s last two Rabbits, Eugenides’ Middlesex, Ford’s Independence Day), they’re books I would have read anyway. Those examples make me forever think that the Pulitzer is an award favouring big books, so this year’s winner is a double surprise: not just a debut novel, but a 185-page debut. (It won against Daniyal Mueenuddin’s In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, one of the best books I’ve read this year, so expectations were high.) I bought the US edition, but it was picked up in an expensive bidding round by Heinemann in the UK, and has just been published here.

In the end I don’t regret reading it, but only because it was so short. Tinkers is a story of a father and son, Howard and George Crosby, written largely in flashbacks as the son George, now in his old age, dies. The UK edition shows a clock on the cover, because George is a clockmender, refining his father Howard’s own interests:

He tinkered. Tin pots, wrought iron. Solder melted and cupped in a clay dam. Quicksilver patchwork. Occasionally, a pot hammered back flat, the tinkle of tin sibilant, tiny beneath the lid of the boreal forest. Tinkerbird, coppersmith, but mostly a brush and mop drummer.

That passage is a pretty good indication of what to expect from Tinkers. A love affair with language, almost onomatopoeic at times; words to be rolled on the tongue and read aloud. Sometimes Harding gets it exquisitely right, as when a boy is cremating a dead mouse and the kerosene catches “and the bier was gulped in flame” – gulped perfectly evoking both ‘engulfed’ and the sense of the flame swallowing the body. Other times, he overdoes it, as in this passage describing a boy floating leaves and tree bark down the river:

Let those grassy crafts be listed alongside the iron hulls that cleave the sea, for they are all improvisations built from the daydreams of men, and all will perish, whether from ocean siege or October breeze.

He also has an addiction to lists. On one page alone we get:

  • “odd planks and hoops and handles and blades of wood and iron”
  • “each artefact having split or worn out or dulled to the very end of its usefulness”
  • “so that not even Ray’s father … could nail it, tie it, or hammer it back into place”
  • “The curing shed was where he and Ray Morrell went and smoked and played cribbage and told stories and jokes”
  • “milking the cow or sweeping the yard or, most often, unyoking and feeding and inspecting Ray’s father’s giant oxen.”

It’s a stylistic choice that Harding has consciously made, but it sometimes sounds more like a nervous tic, and it generally enhances the feeling that he’s a man who never turned down the opportunity to add another adjective. It also suggests that this is a book which will be welcomed by those who love lyrical prose – the more the merrier – and treated with some suspicion by those who think a little of that sort of thing goes a long way.

Nonetheless, the fine writing does make some of the scenes vivid and memorable, such as when a grandson shaves the dying George, or when Howard extracts another man’s tooth (sorry, extracts “a single black tooth planted in a swollen and bright red throne of flesh”). To me, however, the strongest scenes were the ones set in the present, around George’s death, and I found myself kicking my heels in frustration to get back there as the story went further and further into the past (with part two covering George’s childhood with Howard, and part three Howard’s youth and his relationship with his own father).

In Tinkers, the human body is an intricate machine like a clock, with parts that go wrong (as in Howard’s epilepsy, which made “his head feel like a glass jar full of old keys and rusty screws”, and made his children think, “Daddy’s broken!”), which needs careful maintenance, and eventually fails.

The forest had nearly wicked from me that tiny germ of heat allotted to each person and I realised then how slight, how fragile it was, how it almost could not even properly be called heat, as its amount was so small and whatever its source so slight, and how it was just like my father disappearing or the house, when seen from the water, flickering and blinking out.

The characters of George, Howard and their family are secondary to the descriptions of their activities and the places where they live. That makes it a surprise to have a scene near the end featuring George the clockmender at work, which shows him cynical (“This is the thing to get into, boy. I tell you, this is how you can make some bucks”), and ripping off his customers either directly (in the only scene we see) or implicitly (when we learn that his prices “always seemed to surprise, if not actually anger” his clients). This adds a frisson to an otherwise rather too well-behaved novel, a book to divert but not necessarily to detain.

July 8, 2010

Bret Easton Ellis: Imperial Bedrooms

Posted in Ellis Bret Easton at 8:00 am by John Self

I had better preface this post by saying that although I have read Less Than Zero (Bret Easton Ellis’s 1985 debut, to which this is a sequel), I can’t remember a thing about it. (Let’s assume, though, that it featured privileged teens getting busy and popping Xanax.) I suppose that if I had loved it, I would have remembered. I have, however, loved the other Ellis books I’ve read – even Glamorama, even The Informers. So my appreciation of this book might have been greater if I’d remembered or liked Less Than Zero; but my overall fondness for Ellis’s stuff means I gave it an enthusiastic, even excitable, welcome when it arrived.

Imperial Bedrooms is a short book, particularly by Ellis’s recent standards. True, the gestation period was not as long as that for Glamorama or Lunar Park (seven years apiece) – but five years to produce 168 pages? My immediate fears were of a Beatrice and Virgil-style car-crash of a book, but the reality is not that bad (not quite).

Our narrator is Clay, who along with much of the cast of Less Than Zero, has survived the last 25 years of increasingly dangerous blandness. Clay is now a writer, with “a very successful shark movie” and a “series about witches that ran for two seasons on Showtime” under his belt. Now he has written a movie, The Listeners, which is in the process of being cast. (“It’s just another movie,” Clay says to his old friend Julian, who objects: “Maybe for others it’s something else. Something more meaningful.” “I get where you’re coming from,” says Clay, “but there’s a vampire in it.”) Clay takes advantage of his connection with the movie to satisfy his appetites for beautiful actors and actresses who want to be cast in it.

Imperial Bedrooms opens strongly, and Ellis’s ability to create an atmosphere of creeping menace within beautifully blank prose is undiminished. Call it Ellis Island: a land populated by people like a boy “so blandly good-looking he’s not even a variation on a type” and a “young actress [talking] about fasting and her yoga routine and how superstoked she is to be a movie about human sacrifices.” It is a place where people have what they want and are phenomenally bored as a result. But also here, “the fear returns and soon it’s everywhere and it keeps streaming forward,” because for Clay, in middle age, this “mosaic of youth” is “a place you don’t really belong anymore.” Clay also feels more alone, through apathy (“our friendship had worn out”) or bereavements (“People just disappeared”). We shouldn’t expect introspection from Ellis’s characters, and he puts it perfectly when Clay decides to return to LA from New York because of “whatever had happened to me there that fall.” This is right because it is not authorial concealment to be later revealed (for which he would have said “what had happened to me”), but a disclosure that Clay is interested only in effect but not cause, in how he has ended up but not how it happened.

This ties in well with the unknowability which lies at the heart of Imperial Bedrooms – of all Ellis’s books. In this world, people skate on the surface, while the messiness of real life (represented here, as usual, by depraved sex and eye-popping violence) waits to claim them. Nobody can work out why Kelly Montrose died, or what has happened to Amanda, and whether any of this is anything to do with Rip Millar, or Julian, or even Clay’s latest ingenue, Rain Turner (“On a daily basis there’s a whole new army of the retarded eager to be defiled”). Clay’s relationship with Rain either keeps at bay, or brings about, the horrors that haunt him every time he returns to his apartment. The insight we get comes not from him but from others. “Do you know anything about her,” his old girlfriend Blair asks, “except how she makes you feel?”

Most of the concerns here are familiar to Ellis readers. The recycling of characters, the paranoia, the cannibalisation of Ellis’s previous work and the fictionalisation of his life. What Imperial Bedrooms notably lacks is the wit of earlier books – particularly the comic tours de force that opened Glamorama and Lunar Park – which makes the bleakness here particularly unremitting. The few good jokes seem like retreads.

“Don’t you have a boyfriend?” I ask. “Someone … more age appropriate than me?”

“Guys my age are idiots,” she says, turning around. “Guys my age are awful.”

“I have news for you,” I say, leaning into her. “So are guys my age.”

There is a little less chaos, too: we get a kind of resolution to the mysteries, and the book feels doubly thin as a result. Even the opening and closing lines, always a matter of meticulous attention for Ellis, seem less than heroic.

Shallowness is Ellis’s subject: he satirises the world we suspect secretly fascinates him. The problem with Imperial Bedrooms is that its shallowness seems to go below the surface too. Its greatest achievement is to remind us of the other works. (Though the good news is that there is nothing here as grotesque as the rat scene in American Psycho, or the haemorrhage death in Glamorama. Small mercies.) If American Psycho is Bret Easton Ellis’ Money, then Imperial Bedrooms must be his Yellow Dog: full of interesting things, but disappointing precisely because of the expectations of something greater, and destined, in my view, to be filed under “Other works”.

July 1, 2010

Greg Baxter: A Preparation for Death

Posted in Baxter Greg at 8:00 am by John Self

Here, out of a Jiffy bag sent on spec, is one of the best books I’ve read this year. I’m coming out and saying that at the top because I fear that otherwise, people might drift away from reading a long review of a book they don’t know by an author nobody’s heard of. I almost ignored it myself, this being one of those books that arrive unsolicited, few of which appeal and hardly any of which I finish. But something made me sample the preface, and once I did, I knew I was trapped until the end.

A Preparation for Death is a memoir of a few years in Greg Baxter’s life: let’s say the mid-2000s, though it’s hard to follow the chronology precisely, and anyway he swoops back into previous generations now and then. It’s an account of the years that led to and from the breakdown of his marriage and the breakdown of his ambition to be a novelist; when “no thought I had was quiet. Everything was a military march.”

Baxter, living in Ireland, came there from his US birthplace, and is of Austrian descent. The book doubles as a travelogue of his life and times: the ancestral homeland, the new hope:

No city in the world transforms in rain like Dublin. In the sunshine it is hard-edged and ugly and rank. In the rain it softens like a sponge, swelling, and all the open spaces narrow.

He teaches literature to make ends meet as an unpublished writer. “I come home and write for nobody, for an audience of zero.” He is deteriorating physically (“my face had turned a shade or two greyer – I looked like a jar of old rainwater”) and is self-lacerating about his own compromises.

But I am like anyone else – fear and apprehension rule many of my hours. And addiction to the dispensable. Because it is more agreeable to be in bondage to the superficial, and have a thing or two in common with the man sitting beside you on the bus – whose acts are repetitions, whose memories are souvenirs, whose entertainment is palatable – than to become incomprehensible.

So: Baxter takes himself seriously. But if he doesn’t, who will? He is not at pains to come across as affable, and as a result I liked him all the more. Or do I mean I liked his book all the more? This is a book with no About the Author page; the entire book is about the author. One might say that that is true of any book, and that Baxter is just more honest about it.

Honesty is one of the book’s selling points, according to the blurb, and it’s true that nobody would invent some of the things Baxter admits to thinking. But what impresses most is the concrete prose, the defining solidity of almost everything he says: no ambiguity here, no fine writing, just aesthetic delight throughout at what he says and how he says it, which borders on physical pleasure.

My former housemate Elísabet – who is something of a sensation in her country, and only dates men half her age – writes very beautifully about sex because she is not afraid of what people will think. She says an orgasm is like a hand that reaches up inside her, grasps her by the spine, and shakes her like a rattle, an inch away from the death of one self and the rebirth of another. I have no capacity to write beautifully about sex. Often I am battling through the swamp of a dozen pints, the smoke of twenty cigarettes, and no sleep for days. The exercise is nauseating, and I feel like the young Orwell working in a small, hot, Paris kitchen.

Well, he may not write beautifully about sex, but he writes a lot about it. “I often feel one drink away,” Baxter says, “from whatever makes a dog hump women’s legs.” More often still he seems to be no drinks away, and seems to have the knack of finding women who want to let him hump their legs, and plenty more besides. There is – you can view this as come-on or turn-off as you will – a good deal of explicit sex between these covers.

What really drives Baxter, however, is the self-love of language and literature. He has a novelist’s touch for the deft pen portrait (“She walked two miles a day with a fat dog that couldn’t keep up with her”) and has no qualms about splicing in other writers to no loss of effect. “I used to measure my writing by its charisma – such was the way in which at that time I loved my fellow-man; according to the standards of other men [Augustine] – but now I measure it by its character.” A Preparation for Death reports on Baxter’s struggles to match his own high ideals. “All the books I admire are ogres – flawed, imbalanced, savage. They enhance me. Everything else reduces me.” He names names – Maupassant, Kafka, Schulz, Cioran, Bunin, Mansfield, Kharms, and on, and on – and reminds us that “whatever society degrades, a genius ennobles; whatever society embraces, a genius obliterates. It makes my heart clamour now just to think of them.” What reader cannot identify with that? (As I was writing this post, flicking back through the book for relevant passages, my own heart swelled and thrilled plenty.)

Baxter’s conscience is tortured, but his prose is clear. “I spent many years trying to interpret existence, when I ought to have been squandering it.” Now he is trying to intepret it again, he runs up against the same wall as every writer who ever tried hard enough. How to reduce to writing those ineffable moments, the sharing of which in language is the writer’s simple, but impossible, ambition?

By the time you have named it, you have forgotten it. The imposition of a word is the act of forgetting. A man who wishes to transfer his experience to the page might as well try to throw a typewriter at the moon.

A Preparation for Death is an account of the frustrations and consolations of literature. In struggling to do it justice, or at least explain its seduction (how it had its easy way with me, as I blushed and giggled like a teenager), I am reduced to impersonating Martin Amis on Saul Bellow, and just quoting paragraph after paragraph.

There are too many days in the week. Too many weeks in the year. Too much space to fill. I would like to have lived for an afternoon only, born at the age of twenty, dead eight hours later, experienced life, all by myself, in a corner apartment with a high view of a busy junction, an ambulance route, a metro entrance, the back of a restaurant, warring neighbours in the corridors, a broken television, an empty bookshelf, and learned only sensitivity, because I would have missed nothing, gained the same experience of life, and would not have grown so addicted to existence that the thought of not existing gives me indigestion and bad dreams.

This passionate ambivalence is all through the book, yet we keep getting trills of warning toward the end that it all might be altering forever. Baxter, we learn, is to become a father. That is why, on the penultimate page, “I plan to separate the self that I shall leave here from the self that will return: to cast the author of this book into a condition of permanent aimlessness,” for fear that otherwise “he will forget the perfection of inexistence. He will grow out of the despair that he worships.” This is the only indication we get of the tsunamic changes parenthood painfully brings. This is not a book about redemption or epiphany. There is light at the end, but it is still around a corner. The book is not about a triumph from disaster; the book is the triumph.

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