Most disappointing book of the year: Bleeding Edge took three weeks to read, partly because the steady warble of the prose displayed all the signals of irony but none of the thing itself, replacing it with New York sentimentality, self-congratulation and smartassery. I don’t know enough about coders or coding to know if that part of the book was authentic, but from the tone I had my doubts; and by the end I had given up trying to tell members of the vast supporting cast apart.
Donna Tartt was a quicker read, with some nice turnovers midway and some splendid Vegas anti-sublime (“The sky was a rich, mindless, never-ending blue, like a promise of some ridiculous glory that wasn’t really there”). But The Goldfinch rationalises itself too completely, too competently and too evidently. “There wasn’t a single meaning. There were many meanings. It was a riddle expanding out and out and out.” This is what we’re told but it’s not what we’re shown. What we’re shown is the usual fiction contraption, in which meaning equals a fully-closed structure, and in which the idea of “many meanings” itself becomes the one meaning, the solution, a closing down rather than an opening up. Lawrence Durrell was miles ahead of this 60 years ago.
Given what I’ve heard about Dave Eggers’ The Circle, nothing would persuade me to read it in its year of publication–often better with Eggers, as with Franzen, to wait for the ambient rage and hysteria to die down, so that you’re reading the book rather than everyone else’s reading of it.
If I have a book of the year in the accepted sense (ie, that it should be a book published in 2013) it’s Marcel Theroux’s splendid rubber-tube Gothic, Strange Bodies, which compounds John Gray, Samuel Johnson scholarship, Russian weird science and post-structuralism; a lively sarcastic tour of modern ideas of consciousness, personality and the soul. But I’ve noticed that in a couple of the Year’s Best so far, respondents have picked novels from previous years. What an implied admission. What a relief. In July, in an experimental frame of mind, I bought a Kindle and began stuffing it with favourite authors, discovering almost immediately a Denis Johnson I hadn’t read. So Angels (1983) is my out and out book of the year. I only wish I hadn’t read it, so I had it to read again.
Peter Ackroyd’s Three Brothers might be a detailed a clef rendering of one of the fabulous corruption scandals of the 60s. It might contain a thousand sly references to other writers and their texts. But the main problem is that the delivery of those goods is awkward. Vast amounts of connective tissue are neccessary to make it work, yet remain undeveloped, as a bald line thrown in here and there. A character disappears. “By the way, what happened to Hilda?” another character asks. Almost immediately, enough fresh plot background to float a dozen chapters is crammed without emphasis into a paragraph. None of it mentions Hilda. It’s a puzzling novel: shadowy, but without atmosphere despite the constant appeal to the ghostliness of things; parodic, but with old targets; 80s in feel, but without any of the edge of Hawksmoor; acute and enjoyable in parts, naive and awkward in others–a little like one of Poliakov’s more failed dramas.
An awesome cross-ply of the images that haunt the Thames, Downriver is presented not so much as a narrative as a sustained assault on our ideas of history, causality, sequence; our very ideas of narrative. Nevertheless, we constantly expect culmination, closure. Sinclair drags us along like some fast ebb tide, so that we do not “see” but become a bit of wood, a dead poodle, a lump of styrofoam like a head with all the features eroded away. Heart-in-the-mouth, awed and appalled by our sudden exchangeability with the items in his text, we constantly expect the something horrible which exists behind Downriver as an artifact–a construction, a consequence–of all the little horrors Downriver contains. There is no such relief. The tension simply mounts. Sinclair has put us in the position not just of the characters in his book (poring over a copiously illustrated volume of South Sea diseases; inventing and reinventing the lives of the Ripper and his victims); not just of its objects; but of its obsessive events.
A woman discovers herself in another version of her own life. One minute she is herself, the next she’s still herself but someone else. It’s a trajectory which includes its counter-trajectory, in one economic gesture. Parachuted into her own life as an explorer, she busies herself finding out who she is now, what job she does, what’s different, what’s the same. Is she mad? If so, which of her is mad, and how? Both women have lost something, but finding it isn’t a satisfactory solution. This transition: is there physics behind it? Or is it just a Lynchian dream?
My review of J Robert Lennon’s Familiar up at ARCfinity.
On these upper floors, the corners are all curved. No hard edges to hurt yourself on. The curved surfaces make you feel as if you’re going mad anyway. Losing definition. Losing purchase.
The drugs make you confused. The nurses make you dependant. The building makes you ill. Everything works to make you the proper denizen of the madhouse. Sometimes, James Scudamore’s Wreaking is a little too exhaustive and could be subtitled, “Everything I Know About UK Mental Institutions Since The Victorian Age”. But it’s undeniably well-written, funny, a complex metaphor for the condition of the NHS, and full of good stuff. This, for instance:
Sometimes he spends time with a medical dictionary trying to label his own disorders. Apophenia is one. At various other times he’s been tempted by bipolarity, dementia, hypomania, schizophrenia, syllogomania. He wonders sometimes which of the old Victorian diagnoses he might be awarded if he were in their shoes. Uncontrolled Passion. Metaphysical Speculation. Mortified Pride.
Metaphysical Speculation, I think everyone here can own up to that.
“… we use one another as signposts to the self worth working on. That idea leads back to Russell Hoban’s own pursuit; and the book in which, for most readers, it began. The inexpressible is, if not his big white whale, at least his big green turtle. It’s the secret of which Neaera–the Anita Brookner of children’s writers–dreams in Turtle Diary, only to wake understanding absolutely: “Those who know it have forgotten every part of it. Those who don’t know it remember it completely.” But the secret of what, she asks herself puzzledly. Those who know or don’t know what ? Really she knows full well. The secret is not to write fantasies entitled Gillian Vole’s Jumble Sale, for instance; nor is it to goad a shark for the purposes of photography from inside a metal cage: if you do that, as Neaera says, you “have not really seen him or touched him” because the shark “is to man is what he is to naked man alone-swimming”. We all know that keeping a turtle in an aquarium won’t reveal the secret: but will freeing it, either ? Maybe not. It certainly won’t free us. In Hoban’s tenderest book the inexpressible is something to do with being alive as opposed to being merely conscious … Hoban saw it like this: the great turtles can navigate. They “know how to find something”. They bank and turn, against the current swim 1400 miles, “through all that golden-green water over the dark, over the chill of the deeps and the jaws of the dark.” Can you do anything worse to a creature than prevent it from finding what it can find ? Turtles are alive, and famous for their journeys, while merely conscious human beings trudge around in the hamster wheel of a sore, self-referential discourse.”
–from my review of Hoban’s The Bat Tattoo, Times Literary Supplement, 2002.
My review of Steven King’s Joyland in the Guardian today.
“What is literature, and why do I try to write about it? I don’t know. Likewise, I don’t know why I go on living, most of the time. But this not knowing is precisely what I want to preserve. As readers, the closest way we can engage with a literary work is to protect its indeterminacy; to return ourselves and it to a place that precludes complete recognition. Really, when I’m reading, all I want is to stand amazed in front of an unknown object at odds with the world.”
–David Winters, interviewed by Alec Niedenthal at HTML Giant.
I’m not in the least convinced by this. “…Scandinavian crime dramas–their dour sensibility chimes soddenly with our rain-soaked souls.” But however hard it tries, the BBC Wallander isn’t Scandi-crime. They’ve got the landscapes right, the photography right, the direction right, the script nearly right. But they can’t do anything about the acting. Branagh can’t leave well enough alone. He cues up the crux of every occasion with his eyes or a gesture, recluttering a clean text with the vast pantomimic signage we associate with British TV drama: “This moment is so important. We are so important: us actors, you viewers, this thing we know.” In Britain our souls aren’t “soaked with rain”, they are bloated with the theatricality of denied entitlement, self pity & –wherever the arts are concerned–mutual congratulation. I’d say “mutual self-congratulation” if that bore examination.