Archive for September, 2011

Slaughterhouse 5

September 30, 2011

The Year of Reading Dangerously – Kurt Vonnegut

In Slaughterhouse 5 Kurt Vonnegut performs an astonishing balancing act between reality and fantasy. A science fiction novel, featuring a protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, who travels backwards and forwards along the timeline of his life, experiencing reality in the same way as the alien race that kidnap him and take him via flying saucer to their home planet, Tralfamadore, where he is placed on public display, it begins:

“All this happened, more or less.”

As usual with Vonnegut, everything is carried along by the world weary honesty of the narrative voice, exemplified by the novels’ catchphrase:

“So it goes.”

Here, however, this intimate, almost confessional tone is used initially not to animate Vonnegut’s characters but to discuss his attempts to write the book we are reading. Interestingly, what would seem to be a preface is identified as chapter one – intrinsic to the novel itself. In it Vonnegut is keen to establish the truth of his experience at Dresden, the importance of writing about it, and the difficulty of writing about it:

“When I got home from the Second World War twenty three years ago, I thought it would be easy to write about the destruction of Dresden since all I would have to do would be to report what I had seen…But not many words about Dresden came from my mind then…And not many words come now…”

In fact, Vonnegut is not simply introducing his theme, but his approach to it: the bombing of Dresden is he contends, like all such acts of mass violence, incomprehensible:

“Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds.
“And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like, ’Poo-tee-weet?’”

Only by adopting the viewpoint of an alien race can we even begin to understand it, “seeing all time as you might see a stretch of the Rockies.”

“All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is.”

It’s no surprise, therefore, that Vonnegut’s alter ego, the Cassandra-like Kilgore Trout, makes an extended appearance, unable to make a living from his science fiction novels, which are to be found gathering dust as window dressing in an adult book store. (Or that Pilgrim becomes an optician – this is a novel that is all about the way we see things).

Vonnegut’s central premise also provides an explanation of his structure as the narrative moves restlessly backwards and forwards through Billy’s life. It allows him to focus on the war throughout without ignoring either what comes before or after. It also emphasises the way in which his war experiences clearly never left him, creating a kind of eternal present in the novel. And, of course, the Tralfarmadorian view of reality corresponds to our own understanding of the novel, with the past and future clearly coexisting with the present no matter how the pages are sequenced. (In the first chapter, Vonnegut portrays a chronological retelling of events as childish, describing how he sketched the story on a role of wallpaper with his daughter’s crayons.)

The real question, however, is does it work? Does it deliver the anti-war novel he promises his friend, Bernard O’Hare’s, wife? It is certainly as readable now as it was when first published over forty years ago, though probably not as shocking (I could be wrong there, though – it was the end of the sixties). Vonnegut does not avoid the horrors of the war, but nor does he glory in them. There is no attempt to sicken the reader with descriptions of death and violence. Vonnegut uses the small detail or well-chosen phrase instead: less than a page tells of the removal of bodies from the ruins of Dresden, but Vonnegut says all he needs in the final sentence:

“Thus began the first corpse mine in Dresden.”

Despite an almost cosmic bleakness, you sense he feels sympathy for even his most unpleasant characters (Again in the first chapter, he quotes his father as having said to him, “you never wrote a story with a villain in it.”) War is not evil; it is – to go back to where we started – incomprehensible.

Danger rating: Vonnegut is very much a love him or hate him writer. His novels feel like conversations with the man himself, and he will either be someone you could listen to for hours or someone you will cross the street to avoid before he starts going on again…

Kieron Smith, Boy

September 23, 2011

The Year of Reading Dangerously – James Kelman

Looking back, the 1980s were a golden age for Scottish literature. Following the publication of Alasdair Gray’s Lanark in 1981, James Kelman’s first volume of short stories (in the UK), Not Not While the Giro, was released in 1983; both came from small Scottish publishers. By the end of the decade we had also seen first volumes from Janice Galloway (The Trick is to Keep Breathing, 1989) and A. L. Kennedy (Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains, 1990). All four writers continue to produce important work and arguably have never been succeeded by a new generation of equivalent talent in Scotland.

Kelman has since published seven novels, the latest, Kieron Smith, Boy, in 2008. Although Kelman is often caricatured as a narrowly Scottish, or even Glaswegian, writer, his work has actually shown a remarkable range from the working class protagonist of The Busconductor Hines to the teacher of A Disaffection. His follow up to Booker winning How Late It Was, How Late purported to be a series of translated statements from an unnamed country under military rule. This was followed by a novel set in the United States. Kieron Smith continues to explore new territory as, although Kelman returns to the Glasgow, we view it through the eyes of a child, the four hundred pages covering the years between age 10 and 12 in Kieron’s life. This is particularly important with Kelman, where the entire narrative is immersed in the consciousness of his character.

From the opening sentence, we are in Kieron’s mind, and it is not by any means an outstanding mind: one of the tricks Kelman plays with the Scottish tradition of the clever working class boy encouraged to better things by a teacher is to suggest that this is happening off-stage with Kieron’s brother, Matt:

“His books and jotters were there but just scattered about. One thing he done was a foreign language, Latin.”

As for Kieron:

“My teacher said if I just stopped frittering, frittering, frittering. I was good at my lessons except I did not try.”

Kieron prefers climbing, playing football, and going out with his pals. For much of the novel he is concerned with fighting (he does not actually fight anyone – unusual in a young boy and possibly a deliberate avoidance of anything that might seem like action on Kelman’s part). His granda teaches him to box:

“Never mind if he is a big boy son ye just box him, boof, boof, boof. Ye box the mitts off him, that is what ye do.”

His Uncle Billy has different ideas:

“That was what Uncle Billy said, and once ye got them down, ye did not let them back up, ye just carried on till they could not hit ye back. Ye had to stop them else they would stop you. Even if they were decked, ye still had to fight them.”

He frequently speculates whether boys are ‘best fighters’, and his friendships, for example with Podgie, are often partly based on fear. Kelman convincingly recreates the threat of violence that permeates the life of boys, perhaps best exemplified by the alley that Kieron must walk down to get the train home from school where a gang are always waiting. His other choices are a lengthy detour, or a short cut through back gardens which will inevitably lead to trouble at school.

Of course, there is no plot to speak off, and the same topics come round again and again. Kieron’s character develops (for example, he becomes interested in girls) but this development is not marked by key moments. (Though it is, amusingly, by his attitude towards swearing, which he self-censors throughout until near the very end) There are a few events that in another novel would create plot (his granda’s death, the move from primary to secondary school), but they are simply absorbed into the narrative. There is no description – a park is simply ‘the park’.

Michel Faber has described the novel as “both very revolutionary and very, very dull.” However, though I did find the narrative voice a little tedious at first, there came a point when I fell so entirely into Kieron’s world that its ordinariness simply felt real. Kelman presents Kieron’s life without pathos or irony (the special effects the novelist applies to his story); in fact we might simply say: Kelman presents Kieron’s life.

Danger rating: do not expect ‘action-packed’, or indeed any adjective that might apply to multiplex viewing. Or any adjective.

1982 Janine

September 16, 2011

The Year of Reading Dangerously – Alasdair Gray

1982 Janine is not the most obviously experimental of Alasdair Gray’s novels: Lanark, with its disordered books, author appearance and Index of Plagiarisms (complete with imaginary chapters), and Poor Things, with its various narratives and scholarly notes, are more formally adventurous. However, having read both a number of times, I decided to return to Gray’s second novel for the first time in over twenty-five years. It still displays one or two of Gray’s tricks, from the unflattering blurb:

“Every stylistic excess and moral defect which critics conspired to ignore in the author’s first books…is to be found here in concentrated form.”

to the typographical mayhem of ‘The Ministry of Voices’. For the most part, however, the novel is an interior monologue addressed to God, taking place over the course of one long, dark night.

As with Lanark, Gray is concerned with both the personal and the political: for Gray the two are indivisible. Though the novel opens with the sexual fantasies of its narrator (and you can’t get much more personal than that), Jock McLeish, it is not long before he is also discussing his political views with us:

“…in Britain almost everyone of my income group is Conservative, especially if their fathers were trade unionists. Not that I have totally rejected the old man’s Marxist ideas. The notion that all politics is class warfare is clearly correct. Every intelligent Tory knows that politics is a matter of people with a lot of money combining to manage people with very little.”

This is typical Gray – not only the view expressed, but the succinct and certain tone with which complex truths are revealed in all their simplicity. Whereas love united the personal and political journeys of Lanark, here we are more concerned with repression. Published in 1984 (the title is an echo of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four, deliberately backward looking, with its everyman protagonist tortured by memory rather than forgetting in a Room 101 of his own choosing – the novel’s first line is “This is a good room”), Scotland was trapped in an unending nightmare of Tory rule. Gray links personal, particularly emotional, repression to that of national oppression. It is no surprise that McLeish works as a security consultant – at one point he describes himself as a “locked box”.

Throughout the novel, McLeish attempts to repress his memories, particularly of those he has loved, with pornographic fantasies. When memories surface, they are clearly painful:

“When forget her and I were not lovemaking or asleep we lay merely holding each other, amazed and grateful to be holding each other.”

McLeish concocts sadistic storylines in which women are restrained and abused by men and other women. In a world of instant internet pornography they possibly seem quite tame, but in a literary novel they still have some shock value, particularly as the text form requires the complicity of the reader to bring them to life. McLeish’s constant descriptions of clothes make clear that the women themselves are little more than objects:

“Do I like women’s clothes more than their bodies? Oh no, but I prefer their clothes to their minds. Their minds keep telling me, no thank you, don’t touch, go away. Their clothes say, look at me, want me, I am exciting.”

As the novel progresses the pornography fades away and we learn more about McLeish’s life: his childhood, his time at college, and the crucial turning point in his life when he assists a theatre group at the Edinburgh Fringe. There, his lack of belief in himself prevents him recognising his own potential, and he ends up trapped in a loveless marriage. His best friend at college, Alan, whom he regards as a man that might do anything, dies in a fall, an event Gray uses to show the demise of McLeish’s optimism. He later fantasises about Alan creating a utopia on earth had he lived:

“While working hard in every field of energy and communications I was helping my friend Alan establish the proper place and destination of man in the universe.”

McLeish’s journey is not unlike Lanark’s: he must go down to Hell and then return to the daylight. Page 56 of the novel is, in fact, made up entirely of the word ‘hell’. Here the transformation also takes place through a mouth, but it is McLeish’s’ own mouth, first when he attempts suicide by taking an overdose and then when he chooses to live and vomits the pills up again. It is this that makes 1982 Janine a resoundingly optimistic novel despite the bleak picture of the world, and the people in it, which it frequently paints.

Danger rating: either that the pornography will put you off, or you’ll be disappointed when it disappears.


September 11, 2011

The Year of Reading Dangerously: Tom McCarthy

Just over one year ago I was sitting in one of the smaller tents at the Edinburgh International Book Festival listening to Tom McCarthy discuss his new novel, C, with Stuart Kelly. Unusually, I hadn’t read the novel, or either of McCarthy’s previous two novels, but had bought a ticket purely on the strength of what I had read about him, despite the fact that this had not yet driven me to read a single word he had written. As a discussion of literature, it ranks among the best that I have ever witnessed at the festival, and it was one of the reasons that I decided to spend a year reading more experimental fiction, having still not opened C or the copy of Remainder I had also acquired by the end of the year. Ironically, that very decision delayed my reading further (I almost considered leaving it until the end of this year), but eventually I decided that enough was enough and, having by now largely forgotten the overwhelming and rather intimidating nature of the philosophising last August, dusted off my copy and began.

My disappointment, therefore, will come as no surprise. The first disappointment is that C reads, superficially, very much like a traditional novel. It has a central character, Serge Carrefax, whom we first meet at his birth, follow through childhood and adolescence into adulthood, and leave fatally ill at the novel’s end. He even has a rather picaresque life: an eccentric father and mother; a strange sister who kills herself; participation in World War One; drug addiction; and a secret mission which takes him to the ancient tombs of Egypt. Of all the ‘c’s that McCarthy is interested in, however, character isn’t one of them: Serge remains flat and unconvincing throughout, eliciting no empathy from the reader. Of course, this is deliberate – McCarthy signals his intentions when he describes Serge’s inability to develop perspective in his drawing:

“Serge just can’t do it: his perceptual apparatuses refuse point blank to be twisted into the requisite configuration. He sees things flat; he paints things flat. Objects, figures, landscapes: flat.”

As an aerial observer during the First World War he relishes his viewpoint of the world, a map laid flat below him. (I am reminded of Alasdair Gray’s description of Duncan Thaw’s aim in his painting to describe his own ambition in Lanark. It’s interesting in itself that Thaw is a painter and Serge an engineer; McCarthy even includes a painter in this section who bemoans he simply can’t paint what he sees from a plane.)

Serge, therefore, is not a character in the traditional sense; according to Jenny Turner in the London Review of Books:

“…he’s a convergence, or rather an area of concentration where ideas, images, words, preoccupations gather and regroup.”

McCarthy telegraphs his interests from the novel’s opening pages where Serge’s father is more concerned about the arrival of the equipment he needs for his wireless experiments than the birth of his son – perhaps making equally clear the writer’s priorities. Communication is the ‘c’ that we return to again and again. Not only the wireless which punctuates the entire novel, but the school for deaf children his father runs, the séances, the inscriptions on the Egyptian tombs – for this is communication across both time and space. It’s no surprise that the final scene in the novel is not Serge dying in his cabin as he sails for Egypt back to England, but the ship’s wireless room, followed by a final paragraph describing the ship’s wake “etched out across the water’s surface” seeming as much a metaphor for radio signals as Serge’s life.

The other ‘c’ which McCarthy is clearly interested in is cleverness, which I do not mean uncharitably. Cleverness, in this anti-intellectual age, is to be cherished, but my second disappointment was in just how much C needs the reader to be clever for it to be worthwhile. Of course, this is partly a disappointment in myself, and all good novels reward a second reading. But great novels, even difficult ones like Ulysses (and much has been made of C finishing in 1922 when Ulysses was published) demand a second reading through engagement as well as puzzlement.

Danger rating: reading C can feel a little like watching one of annual enactments of Greek myths performed by the children at Serge’s father’s school: worthy and clever but to be admired rather than loved.

Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife

September 2, 2011

The Year of Reading Dangerously – William H. Gass

You only need to flick through the pages of William H. Gass’ Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife to become aware that this is something a little different. Whether it is the sheer variety of fonts, often apparently fighting for space on the same page, the ever-multiplying asterisks lining up like orderly ants, the stains left behind by a careless coffee cup, or the behinds and breasts that embellish the text from cover to cover – something will catch your eye.

Most of the narratives focus on Willie Masters’ wife, Babs, who is, indeed, lonely and looking for company. Having found the novel’s title emblazoned across her naked torso on the cover and frontispiece, she bends to take its first letter into her mouth, he breasts swinging towards the text like unwieldy punctuation. First and third person narration intermingle as she contemplates the names men give their penises, her “breasts as big as your butt”, and whether saliva is “the sweet wine of love” (though this latter line of thought is in a different font, perhaps not her voice at all…). Some suggestion that all is not simply smut is to be found in a consideration of imagination:

“I feel sometimes as if I were imagination – imagination imagining itself imagine.”

Men, she suggests, do not want to use their imagination and therefore need to be seduced into using it by her form, just as it says later:

“No-one can imagine – simply – merely; one must imagine within words or paint or metal…Imagination is its medium realised. You are your body…and the poet is his language.”

Thank goodness, then, it’s all an extended metaphor for writing – the blurb confirms this (“Disappointed by her inattentive husband / reader…”) – though this may not be entirely obvious when we are quickly engulfed in a script about a man who finds a penis in his bun. This already extended hotdog joke is lengthened further (I can feel the innuendo taking over) by copious footnotes, not always on the same page as the text from which they originate, and eventually requiring a record-breaking* twenty-five asterisks. As the play progresses the footnotes (generally discussing how the play should be performed) become more and more prominent –the text enlarges until finally it seem to be pushing the few lines of dialogue left off the page.

Is it funny? Well, it’s about funny, often making suggestions as to how to play a scene for humour: at various times we’re informed timing, contrast and repetition are the essence of the comic; puns also feature. Ultimately we are told:

“Actually it doesn’t matter how this scene is played for this is what they call a naturally humorous situation.”

However, we are told this in the shape of a tree, which I find makes any truth more palatable. Rather than humour (though there are some who find him funny), Gass seems more interested in making sure we don’t forget we are reading. Just as Babs draws attention to her body, so Gass draws attention to his text. The script format itself, lacking performance, is a reminder, but the footnotes, like being constantly tapped on the shoulder while watching a play, are even more attention-seeking. Throw in frequently changing fonts, Alice in wonderland letters, casually shrinking and growing, and sentences which writhe the page around like a bucketful of snakes, and you are unlikely to lose yourself in the story. When a coffee cup ring appears Gass cannot resist pointing out that it is not a real coffee stain:

“The muddy circle that you see just before you and below you represents the ring left on a leaf of the manuscript by my coffee cup. Represents, I say, because, as you must surely realise, this book is many removes form anything I ‘ve set pen, hand, or cup to.”

In other words, the sign which reminds us that what we have in our hands is an artefact is itself artificial.

Gass’ chaotic and kinetic creation has its admirable qualities, but my general feeling was that the joke went on too long and wasn’t all that funny anyway. It is probably not entirely a good sign that I only laughed when I came to the page that said:

“You’ve been had, haven’t you, jocko? you sad sour stew faced sunofabitch. Really, did you read this far?”

Danger rating: see above. Also, perhaps best not read on a train.

*I made this up.