Archive for the ‘The Year of Reading Dangerously’ Category

Books of the Year 2011

December 30, 2011

The Year of Reading Dangerously is over and, although I didn’t quite make it through my list of ‘dangerous’ writers (I’ve still not read Paul Auster, William Burroughs, Harry Mathews or Arno Schmidt, and I’d also hopped to reacquaint myself with Beckett and Jean-PhilippeToussaint), it was an invigorating experience. Only occasionally did I feel I was reading more out of a sense of duty than enjoyment, and the number of writers I look forward to reading again is far greater than the few I will probably avoid(I wasn’t convinced by the cleverness of Christine Brooke-Rose or William Gass).

The most interesting effect can be seen in my Books of the Year – not a weighty novel in sight. All of them are either short novels (perhaps even novellas) or short story collections. Possibly experimentation works better in short forms…

Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck – like Michel Faber, I think that Erpenbeck is a major writer, and this short novel distilling 100 years of German history into the events around a single house is a masterpiece.

The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis – the ideal Kindle read, a seemingly endless supply of imagination to dip into.

A Life on Paper by Georges-Olivier Chateaureynaud – another excellent collection of short stories by a French writer appearing for the first time in English thanks to Small Beer Press.

Europeana by Patrik Ourednik – a history of twentieth century Europe in this difficult to classify work, more an imaginative essay than a novel. Dalkey Archive have since published two more of Ourednik’s novels which I will be adding to my ‘to read’ pile.

How I Became a Nun by Cesar Aira – it’s difficult to define what makes Aira’s short novels so attractive, but the sheer joie de vivre of the telling is one quality. Couldn’t resist – already returned for a dose of The Literary Conference. The good news is that New Directions seem to be publishing him regularly.

Guadalajara by Quim Monzo – I’d previously enjoyed The Enormity of the Tragedy, but this collection of short stories was even better. And published by the wonderful Open Letter.

this is not a novel by David Markson – I found this title hard to resist, but there’s more to Markson than clever title: I found this book quite moving. Available thanks to another small press, CB editions.

Lightning by Jean Echenoz – the concluding part to Echenoz’s trilogy of biographical novels, this time based on the life of Nicola Tesla. A collected edition from a UK publisher would not be amiss.

The Sickness by Alberto Barrera Tyszka – deservedly on the short list for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, this was an impressive meditation on illness.

Pricksongs and Descants by Robert Coover – I now find it hard to believe I had never read Coover before. Highlight of the year was hearing him read at The Edinburgh Book Festival – two new stories just as good as this classic collection.

Tree of Codes

December 9, 2011

The Year of Reading Dangerously – Jonathan Safran Foer

Tree of Codes is what Jonathan Safran Foer calls a die-cut book, one that has been created by taking an already existing text and erasing words and even letters until you have something new. In this case the original text was Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles – sTREE OF CrOcoDilES (you see how it’s done?) The book, an extraordinary artefact in itself, has been produced by Visual Editions, who most recently released the loose leaf Composition No. 1 (a precursor of B. S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates). The erasures are represented by gaps in the page allowing the reader to see the pages beyond and turning each page into a delicate spider web of text.

Although over a hundred pages long, with only a few words on each page the novel does not take long to read, and the story it tells, such as it is, is a brief one, focusing on a single family: father, mother and narrator. The style is necessarily poetic:

“During / this winter my father / would spend hours / in corners / as if / searching for / Mother / and / emerge / covered with dust / and cobwebs / his eyes / froze / for long periods / .”

I have reproduced the gaps (as you would the lines in poetry) because they are part of the reading process; even more so than with poetry, the eye must search for the next word, avoiding the distraction of future words glimpsed through the gaps. This creates a solemn tone brightened by the felicitous use of found language, for example:

“I had a hidden resentment against / mother for / Father’s death. She had / condemned / him / to / mirrors / .”

(I did wonder as I read how many of these phrases were Foer’s and how many Schulz’s. Michel Faber, who made the effort to find out, has said, “you notice quite often that what seems like an audacious coinage is already there in the original,” but goes on to point out that the novel also contains plenty of instances where Foer combines words and phrases form genuinely unconnected sentences in felicitous new ways.”)

Though most of the novel has an apparently domestic setting, and there is a sense of claustrophobia created by the dynamics of the family, the city outside also oppresses, from the opening scene where we find children greeting each other “with masks painted on their faces” and a “sleeping garden” screaming, to the end, where we find a “shapeless mob without face” and the city is described as spreading over the country. Knowing Foer’s previous work and Bruno Schulz’s history (he was killed by the Nazis and much of his work was lost) it is not surprising that we find intimations of the Holocaust in the novel.

In this sense the novel’s form is ideal: the gaps and erasures representing loss. Those absences remind us both of the dead and of Schulz’s missing words, those he wrote that were lost and those he never had the chance to write. The gaps also create a sense of inevitability. While this exists in all books to some extent, when you can actually see the words pages ahead the inescapable nature of the narrative is emphasised. Finally, the very fragility of the pages suggests how we should reverence art and life.

Danger rating: given that the book is not cheap, you may find a part of your concentration taken up with taking care not to tear it. However, this simply emphasise what a wonderful object it is.

Collected Stories

November 27, 2011

The Year of Reading Dangerously – Lydia Davis

Until the publication of her Collected Stories last year, Lydia Davis was best known in the UK as a translator of Proust and Flaubert. This was largely a result of the four volumes which make up her Collected Stories (stretching from 1986 to 2007) having (so far as I can see) never acquired a British publisher. Luckily, Penguin have remedied this in exuberant style with over 700 pages of Davis now available for a little over a tenner. (Actually, it struck me while reading that this is the perfect book for the Kindle, and not only in terms of weight – with many of the stories only a page or two long there is one for every conceivable spare moment).

It will obviously be impossible for me deal with Davis’ work in any detail in this short review – there are, after all, 199 stories to contend with, leaving me a little over two words per story. However, if you are at all interested in the form you should certainly get hold of this collection: Davis is a unique voice who has clearly refined her craft over the twenty years of writing it contains. She deals best with relationships, and I found myself frequently acknowledging the truth of her observations, sometimes with a smile, sometimes with something nearer a grimace. What she captures is not the spiritual profundity that we often associate with literature, but the just-beneath-the-surface reality that we recognise as life. This can be done briefly and humorously, as in ‘The Outing’:

“An outburst of anger near the road, a refusal to speak on the path, a silence in the pine woods, a silence across the old railroad bridge, an attempt to be friendly in the water, a refusal to end the argument on the flat stones, a cry of anger on the steep bank of dirt, a weeping among the bushes.”

This is the entire story, one of many that is less than a page, but it is undeniable that Davis pinpoints the essence of an experience. Her lack of characterisation allows the reader to identify with what is important; her refusal to suggest a deeper meaning validates ordinary life; her brevity suggests focus.

She is equally capable, however, at dissecting a relationship at greater length, as she does in ‘Old Mother and the Grouch’. In a series of short scenes Davis casts a cold eye on a married couple who spend most of their time in anger and resentment. Snatches of dialogue are intercut with passionless précis of their feelings:

“Grouch needs attention, but Old Mother pays attention mainly to herself. She needs attention too, of course, and the Grouch would be happy to pay attention to her if the circumstances were different. He will not pay her much attention if she pays him almost none at all.”

The repetition of ‘attention’ places emphasis on analysis rather than narrative. In fact, the short sections deny us clear narrative, and there is no progress or deterioration in their relationship by the end of the story. Does this make the story more depressing? It might, but we also sense that the relationship is enduring.

Davis deals not only with romantic relationships (though ‘romantic’ is rarely the word that springs to mind), but also with family relationships in such stories as ‘Two Sisters (II)’ and ‘The Furnace’. This focus on relationships might seem to imply that her palette is limited to domestic settings, but Davis seems to delight in undermining the limitations placed on female writers by embracing them and then filtering them through a postmodern lens. Take, for example, ‘Mrs. D and her Maids’, the story of a woman’s life told entirely through the servants she employs, with extracts from their letters and her advertisements. Mrs. D is a writer, but that does not mean she escapes Davis’ satirical eye:

“…the stories often have a vein of wistful sentimentality that works to their detriment.”

Immersed in domestic details as we are, we are also told:

“The cash often makes a difference in the family’s economy.”

The Kafka pastiche, ‘Kafka Cooks Dinner’, also deliberately juxtaposes the literary with the domestic. And then we have the wonderful ‘Idea for a Short Documentary Film’:

“Representatives of different food products manufacturers try to open their own packaging.”

Simply put, this is an entrancing collection that will entertain even the most of jaded of readers. Even its lightest moments (like the one above) let us see the world slightly differently.

Danger rating: Will you manage to limit yourself to one a day, or simply gorge yourself? The shorter the stories, the more difficult it is to stop.

Maybe This Time

November 20, 2011

The Year of Reading Dangerously – Alois Hotschnig

Maybe This Time by Alois Hotschnig is the latest title from Peirene Press, the final title of its second year. It specialises in publishing books less than 200 pages long(so they can be “read in the same time it takes to watch a DVD”) from European writers little known in English (Hotschnig has had one novel translated into English before this). At three books a year – you can in fact subscribe – one would hope for a high level of quality control, and, if Maybe This Time is anything to go by, that is exactly what they have achieved. The book even opens with a brief endorsement from the publisher, though any use of the word ‘Kafkaesque’ near a volume of short stories is a little worrying as it seems to be a rather slapdash shorthand for anything other than gritty realism. However, in this case the cap doff to Kafka is not entirely inappropriate both in terms of style and resonance.

Typically we find ourselves immersed immediately in the mind-set of an anonymous character: Hotschnig isn’t interested in easing us in gently with descriptions of setting, back story, or even the small details s that writers use to humanise their characters. The first story, ‘The Same Silence, the Same Noise’ begins:

“Whenever I left the house, they lay on their jetty and when I came back, hours later, they were still lying there.”

Twelve pages later we know little more about the narrator beyond his obsession with his neighbours; we know little more about his neighbours; and there has been no interaction between the narrator and his neighbours. The narrator barely exists beyond his obsession:

“The more absorbed I became with my neighbours the more my life merged into theirs, the fewer visitors I had.”

The logic of the story soon takes us to the point that the narrator swims across to his neighbours’ jetty, but here Hotschnig surprises us again:

“But I no longer felt any desire to sit on any of the chairs and I made my way home through the gardens.”

Another writer would have left it there, but in the final few paragraphs the previous owner of the narrator’s house (about whom we, again, know nothing) appears and takes on the narrator’s role as voyeur:

“He sat there in my place and I watched him from the house. I didn’t take my eyes off him.”

This sense of losing identity is common to many of the stories. In the second story, ‘Two Ways of Leaving’, Hotschnig moves from one character (‘she’) to another (‘he’) halfway through. As the story progresses we discover that they were once in a relationship which has now ended: the story’s structure mirrors the break-up which seems inexplicable even to the couple:

“One day he left, without planning and for no reason. She didn’t ask why she just let it happen.”

The story is imbued with a sense of their separation: as he waits alone in the flat where he left her he remembers both looking at her from the balcony and looking up at her from the street. Identity and separation are also evident in perhaps the creepiest story, ‘Then a Door Opens and Swings Shut’. Here the narrator, Karl, encounters an old woman with a house full of dolls. One particular doll reminds him of himself:

“The doll had my name. And now, as the woman drew my attention to the doll’s face, I noticed how much it resembled me.”

The doll allows him to access his childhood memories, but the more he returns to the doll, the more his relationships outside that room deteriorate, making the story a parable about investing too much in the past.

Perhaps the story that best illustrates this concern with identity is the final one, ‘You Don’t Know Them, They’re Strangers’. In it the main character loses sight of his identity entirely:

“On his front door he read the name they had called him all evening.”

It is not simply that he has forgotten who he is; his identity changes throughout the story:

“The name on his door was not the same one he had signed on letters in the office. He went into the flat. What he discovered was new, different from what he remembered had been there that morning.”

Partly Hotschnig is playing with the use of the pronoun ‘he’ as a ‘character’, but he is also questioning our sense of who we are, just as his often apparently motiveless characters make us consider our motivations. While it is difficult to judge a writer on the strength of a few short stories, this collection at least is certainly worth reading.

Danger rating: just keep checking in with your loved ones that you are still who you were when you began reading…


November 12, 2011

The Year of Reading Dangerously – Eloy Urroz

“Friction” – we are told on the back of Eloy Urroz’s second novel to appear in English – “one letter away from fiction (just in case we hadn’t noticed) – is what’s generated when reality and imagination rub against one another”. Sure enough, we are treated inside to two parallel narratives, one presenting itself as the novel, the other as episodes from the life of the writer. (The alternative chapters are identified by Roman and Arabic numerals). The novel tells the story of an affair between a painter, Arturo, and his friend’s wife, Maty, although much of the time they spend in bed together is taken up with Arturo recounting the story of his father, a famous politician. In the ‘real life’ story, the writer, Eusebio Cardoso, also misbehaves with his friend’s wife, bringing his marriage to an end at the same time he loses his job. Needless to say, the two narratives collide towards the novel’s conclusion, with Urroz’s previous novel also caught up in the impact.

The novel is an exploration of the ideas of the Greek philosopher Empedocles, in particular the suggestion that change is caused by the four main elements (themselves eternal) being united and separated by Love (Eros) and Strife (Eris). Urroz makes no attempt weave this subtly into the narrative beginning the novel with the declaration:

“Love and Strife, Eusebio, what are they? Perhaps the forces that move the earth, as the famous Empedocles asserted some five centuries before Christ?”

It follows, therefore, that we are drawn towards both, hence the novel’s affairs, where characters unite in love, but at the same time create strife in other relationships. The suggestion is we are attracted to the negative side of our actions as well as the positive. (However true this is of life, it certainly reflects the dynamic of fiction).

The second narrative begins dramatically with the instruction:

“Close the book. I’m talking to you, idiot! Yes, you, the one who’s reading, who just now started reading this page…”

Of course, there’s nothing more likely to make you read on than the command to stop (see, we are drawn towards potential strife…). In this case the Reader is a specific character, the husband of Marty who will shortly discover that his wife is having an affair. Unfortunately this bravura use of the second person doesn’t last long, and the character himself is largely forgotten until he unites with Cardoso near the end, known first as Reader before adopting the name Anagnostes.

The problem with dual narrative novels is that usually one story grabs you more than the other and therefore you read half the book in a distracted hurry. However, while Frictions is certainly readable, I didn’t find either narrative particularly engaging. The story of Arturo and Maty is largely a monologue about Arturo’s father (and his obsession with Empedocles), a story that is not helped by being placed in the context of a conversation. The relationship between Arturo and Maty becomes incidental. There is also the suspicion that this section has rather a lot to say about Mexican politics, all of which was missed entirely by this particularly Reader. (Why else would it be set in the future?)

Cardoso’s story is the more intriguing at first – as he is a university lecturer hoping for tenure it reads rather like a campus novel. His affair (where he ‘massages’ his wife’s friend to orgasm without either of them removing any clothing) is both comic and pathetic. However, when we are told a story about colleagues gathering to literally eat shit I rather lost sight of the satire (at least, I hope it was satirical).

The novel’s conclusion involves Cardoso and Reader flying to an imaginary town from Urroz’s previous novel, The Obstacles. Having not read this I’m sure much of the humour passed me by (although I did like the bit where Cardoso finds the phrase “Elias killed me” engraved on the floorboards under a character’s bed, something which presumably contrasts with the implications of the earlier novel). Unfortunately we then move onto another scatological chapter on arse wiping. A few pages later, when Reader exclaims:

“Enough with the never-ending chapters, already! We’ve had it up to here; let’s just put an end to this affair once and for all.”

I did feel he was speaking for me.

Urroz is clearly a novelist of great imagination but, for me, the tricks he employs never live up to their initial impact, and the novel itself outstays its welcome.

Danger rating: you may decide to have an affair rather than persist with reading.

Snow White

November 5, 2011

The Year of Reading Dangerously – Donald Barthelme

As we’ve already seen in Robert Coover’s Pricksongs and Descants, trangressive subversion of the fairy-tale was all the rage in 1960s America, no doubt in part a reaction to its Disneyfication in the previous two decades. What better target, then, than Snow White, the cartoon that started it all, whose title itself resonates with cosy innocence?

Much of the initial humour in Donald Barthelme’s Snow White comes in the contrast between the Disney version we know so well, and Barthelme’s contemporary interpretation. Rather than mining diamonds, the dwarfs clean the outside of buildings and make Chinese baby food. They queue up to have sex with Snow White in the shower. In the ‘housework’ scene Snow White begins by cleaning the library: spraying the books with DDT, oiling the bindings, ironing the pages. The care and detail suggests the work of a maid rather than the joyful animal-accompanied singing we are used to. (Strangely, I just typed ‘horsework’ rather than housework, clearly more influence by Barthelme than I thought – he uses the term horse wife more than once to describe Snow White’s role).

The novel begins in a spirit of ennui. Bill (one of the ‘dwarf’ characters) has grown tired of Snow White:

“We speculate that he doesn’t want to be involved in human situations anymore.”

She, meanwhile, exclaims:

“Oh I wish there were words in the world that were not the words I always hear!”

and takes up writing poetry and wearing “heavy blue bulky shapeless quilted People’s Volunteers trousers.” Even Paul, the ‘prince’, and therefore the most dynamic of the characters, is largely aimless:

“I have loftier ambitions, only I don’t know what they are, exactly.”

Not knowing, he sets off for a monastery in Nevada.

In desperation, like all good fairy-tale princesses, Snow White decides to hang her hair out of the window. Barthelme uses the introspection and knowingness of his characters for humorous effect throughout (most the novel is written as a series of short monologues):

“This motif, the long hair streaming form the high window, is a very ancient one I believe, found in many cultures in various forms. Now I recapitulate it for the astonishment of the vulgar and the refreshment of my venereal life.”

The sophisticated vocabulary is amusingly at odds with both the character and the genre, but the constant introspection can also be seen to stand in the way of action. Paul spots the hair (we, in fact, are aware of this from his introduction on the eleventh page) but the sight makes him “terribly nervous” and only leads to him arranging to spy on Snow White further. Even when he sees her naked later, he is happy to remain at a distance:

“Paul savoured the sweetness of human communication, through the window.”

Barthelme is able to both highlight the inadequacies of the fairy-tale, particularly its inherent sexism, while at the same time using it to examine the flaws of modern life. With chapters rarely more than two pages long, and flitting from character to character with little in the way of narrative or dialogue, the novel’s style itself suggests the disconnect the story explores. Barthelme also uses pages of what might be described as slogans in block capitals to summarise events, reducing the anxieties of the characters to signposts or adverts. Overall he creates an impression of a society so caught up in its own neuroses that it struggles to act at all.

Snow White is an amusing novel, but one that is difficult to love until the end. Though the characters are deliberately tiresome, this does not make it easier to spend so much time with them. If you have never read Barthelme before, then I would suggest that you begin with his short stories, which are easily available in two volumes from Penguin Modern Classics, the functionally titled Sixty Stories and Forty Stories.

Danger rating: you may never be able to watch Snow White again without thinking about the shower…

Geometric Regional Novel

October 28, 2011

The Year of Reading Dangerously – Gert Jonke

Although Gert Jonke is apparently one of Austria’s most important writers, Geometric Regional Novel (first published in 1969) took twenty five years to appear in English. The precise, official language of the title (which at least includes the word ‘novel’, removing any doubt that this is simply a work of town planning, but at the same time suggesting a need to label) does not clash with our initial impression of the interior:

“The village square is rectangular, bordering on the houses gathered around it; streets and lanes flow into it; other than the well in the centre, in which the paving stone patterns seek their source, and from which they spread out like rays, there is nothing in the village square.”

This indifferent description, however, is at odds with the voices that echo through the novel, two individuals (only ever voices) who want only to walk across the empty square but who “weren’t supposed to be seen” for reasons that are never explained. Each time they think the square is empty, they almost immediately notice something preventing them from leaving their hiding place, giving the apparently peaceful village a sinister air.

Jonke uses this disjunction between style and content throughout. The language is generally bland and passive but the events can range from the unusual to the surreal. He parodies a number of different forms. The visit of an “artist” is described initially as if in a policeman’s notebook using such constructions as “people are said” and “it is reported”, interspersed with snatches of unpunctuated reminiscence. This is then followed by a ‘Report in the fine arts section of the newspaper’ where the man’s fatal accident is lost in a diatribe against “reckless agitators and imitators in the service of the radical Left.” Even diagrams are included, and there is a four page parody of a form which must be completed to walk in the forest, including such questions as:

What do you want to buy?
Do you also want to buy anything else which you are not, however, listing here?
Are you aware that you are a bad person through and through?

A lengthy section is written in the form of instructions to bridge keepers, with much emphasis placed on what they should do in the event of an individual who appears “at all suspicious.” Fear of strangers is a recurrent theme:

“For reasons of security it will be henceforth prohibited to walk through forests and along tree-lined roads in order to protect the population from the black men who hide so well in the shadows of the trees that sometimes they can hardly be distinguished from the darkness of the tree-lined roads.”

The most surreal element (which, according to translator Johannes Vazulik’s afterword, was much expanded in Jonke’s revised second edition, of which this is a translation) is that where the village comes under attack by small birds which eat mortar. In much the same way that a swarm of insects might devastate a village’s crops, these birds remove the mortar from the buildings causing them to collapse:

“…their beaks peck around in the mortar uncontrolledly, hysterically, uninhibitedly, quite violently knocking out the wall as if it were the flesh of their prey…”

Whether the birds represent time, nature, chaos or an attack on the village’s static solidity, it is unlikely the symbolism is entirely straight forward. Only by spraying the walls with water can the destruction be averted.

If there is a plot it applies only to the village square itself. Trees which surround the well are cut down as they are regarded as dangerous. The stumps, which at one point school children sit on, are later removed and replaced by benches. They, too, must go to allow access to the walls of the houses to fend off the birds. Only then is the village square finally empty, though another kind of emptiness has persisted throughout.

Danger rating: Geometric Regional Novel is a novel that, from the title onwards, appears dull when it isn’t. Witty and amusing, it also seems, at heart, rather sad. Luckily another four of Jonke’s novels have been translated ingot English in the last few years.

The Atrocity Exhibition

October 13, 2011

The Year of Reading Dangerously – J. G. Ballard

J.G. Ballard has the unusual distinction of being widely known both for a mainstream novel, Empire of the Sun, and an avant garde one, Crash. Both, of course, have been made into films: the first by the appropriately family friendly Steven Spielberg, the second by the equally suitable David Cronenberg, who had made a career out of ‘body horror’ long before his Ballard adaptation. However, if you thought Crash was a little strange, you need to spend some time with Ballard’s earlier novel, The Atrocity Exhibition, the place where the idea for Crash originated, along with many other aspects of Ballard’s unsettling view of the twentieth century. The book itself has a chequered history: the chapter ‘Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan’ led to the first American edition being pulped, and to an obscenity trial in the UK when published as a pamphlet. (Ballard’s attitude to this? “Of course it was obscene, and intended to be so.” He wasn’t called as a witness for the defence.)

The Atrocity Exhibition doesn’t read like a novel. Each chapter is self-contained and only links to others in the repetition of character names and recurring motifs (though obsessions might be a more accurate description). The main character’s name changes from chapter to chapter – in the first he is Travis, in the second Talbot, and in the third Traven. Of course, the word ‘character’ is misleading: all the characters are representative rather than realistic. Ballard isn’t interested in character development, or even motivation in the sense we would normally understand it in a novel:

“Throughout The Atrocity Exhibition its central character has appeared in a succession of roles, ranging across a spectrum of possibilities available to each of us in our interior lives.”

Ballard uses aspects of the exterior world (landscapes, vehicles, celebrities, news footage) to create representations of the interior world. (This is echoed in the many references to artists such as Salvador Dali and Max Ernst). Characters blend with landscapes and buildings:

“Tallis was immediately struck by the unusual planes of her face, intersecting each other like the dunes around her…The young woman was a geometric equation, the demonstration model of a landscape.”

Perhaps the best examples of this are the lists which appear throughout:

“(1) Spectro-heliogram of the sun; (2) Front elevation of balcony units, Hilton Hotel, London; (3)Transverse section through a pre-Cambrian trilobite; (4) Chronograms by E. J. Marey; (5) Photograph taken at noon, August 7th, 1945, of the sand-sea Qattara Depression, Egypt”

Ballard has said that these lists were produced by “free association”, and they produce, to some extent, in miniature the effect of the novel as a whole.

However, the discontinuity between chapters, and between the titled sections which replace paragraphs within chapters, is not the most alienating aspect of the work; that lies in the prose style itself. Written at times as if a research paper for a scientific journal, the novel is dense with the language of medicine, psychology and geometry. (The chapter title ‘Tolerances of the Human Face’ in fact comes from a scientific paper). This emphasises both the lack of interior / exterior differentiation, and the sense that the novel itself is an experiment. Ballard, however, is experimenting not simply with the representation of reality like other writers, but with questions of what, or even where, reality is.

As well as the recurring motif of the automobile accident, inevitably linked (as most things in the novel are) to sexual arousal, Ballard builds the novel around the assassination of Kennedy, the Vietnam War, sex symbols such as Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe, and the aforementioned Ronald Regan. Ballard’s prescience is remarkable: almost everything he refers to is still in the public consciousness forty years later. He also forecasts the growth of celebrity culture and the attraction of filmic violence, whether real or imaginary. In fact, the novel is the internet, with its non-linear narratives based on thematic obsessions, its focus on sex, celebrity, and violence, and its awareness of the relationship of all three to arousal. If the novel is uncomfortable reading, it’s because it feels like it’s still happening.

Danger rating: feels very much like you are entering the mind of a madman – the danger is you might become one. I read the annotated 1993 edition with Ballard’s saner comments in the margin as therapy.

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.