Wednesday, June 27, 2018

June Reads Part Three

Pact of the Fathers by Ramsey Campbell
Slow Horses by Mick Herron
Burley Cross Postbox Theft by Nicola Barker

It's been too long since I enjoyed a Campbell novel. He's such a unique voice in today's market; his version of "quiet horror," from a long lineage including Charles L. Grant and Robert Aickman, just doesn't seem marketable any more. My guess is that Campbell's horror isn't as "cinematic" as other horror writers such as Clive Barker or Stephen King. Even big upcoming horror writers doing Weird fiction (capital W) such as Michael Wehunt or Matthew M. Bartlett are more "cinematic" and thus easier to market than Campbell's quiet slow horror. The allure of Campbell isn't so much the horror aspects but the exacting poetic prose and his control of narrative. In Pact of the Fathers, nothing much happens and nothing surprises the reader. From the moment the plot begins, there is little that will shock the reader. Instead, I devoured this novel thanks to its masterful control and its stunning prose. In one instance, Campbell describes a cold glass of water as "musical with ice." This description has stuck with me for days! I'm never disappointed by a Campbell novel, but I still haven't read one which pushed into the realm of superb. He's just a comforting read.

Slow Horses and the rest of the Slough House series has been garnering some intense praise in the UK. One article, listing the greatest spy novels of all time, put the first book of the series at the end of the list(!). I had heard Herron uses the long lineage of spy fiction, especially Le Carre, to subvert, to interrogate. I can't say I was terribly impressed with the first 100 or so pages—too much quippy dialogue and too much exposition—but after the volta if you will, my interest was quite piqued. Herron has a great skill with plotting but shows off his hand a bit too much. I reread my review for The IPCRESS File, and I noted I found the novel tedious thanks to its interest in seemingly extraneous details. I think reading it now, I would find it a different experience, one more opaque and exclusionary (I can't seem to find a review or even a listing marking the exact month in 2012 I read Funeral in Berlin, which I remember adoring it in comparison to the first of the "Harry Palmer" novels), which I must admit interests me a bit more than Herron's expository style. If there's a spectrum, with the opacity of Deighton's IPCRESS File on one end (along with Le Carre's The Honourable Schoolboy), then Herron is almost at the opposite end, but not quite all the way. He withholds some details, enough to give jolts of surprise but only ever in the next scene. In other words, Herron is writing marketable spy fiction which upends much of the stalwart, stiff upper lip aristocratic tropes of Le Carre but is still resolutely within the bounds of marketable genre fiction. Herron's George Smiley, as it were, is a flatulent, corpulent grumbler, wearing still the same shabby overcoat with ludicrously deep pockets. Jackson Lamb, this character, is fun in the way Trickster characters, like the Seventh Doctor or Willy Wonka: the bumbling is only subterfuge. I think I'll read the next in the series. Let's see how Herron refines his approach.

 Another month, another Nicola Barker, this time her epistolary novel, Burley Cross Postbox Theft, which has the clever premise of a collection of letters presented as evidence in the investigation of the titular theft. The Byzantine plotting Barker is a fan of gets even more elaborate as the holistic picture is left to the reader to assemble. The solution to the mystery, if it can be called a mystery, is probably impossible to solve thanks to the plot's impenetrability. Still, I don't read Barker for clever mysteries; I read Barker for her prose, her wit, her weirdness; and this novel has these ingredients in droves. Populated by a gang of outsiders, weirdos, hippies, stuffy aristocrats, this village is teeming with the small (but not unimportant) drama of everyday life. Barker mines comedic gold from the dissembling and obfuscation in personal narrative, such as, in an extreme example, a translator's version of African French to English not matching the original letter, also included (but in English). This novel was a bit more slow going for me than her other books if only because instead of her usual tintinnabulation of conversation she opts for long paragraphs of first person narrative. Still, Barker's similes and obvious cleverness shine through each and every letter, making this a treat. Very few writers know their way around an adverb like Barker does.

Sunday, June 24, 2018


I had ceased now to feel mediocre, accidental, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I was conscious that it was connected with the taste of tea and cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could not, indeed, be of the same nature as theirs. Whence did it come? What did it signify? How could I seize upon and define it? (Swann's Way, the original Moncrieff translation)
My memory is starting to go. I don't mean in the dramatic dementia kind of way, but more so in the relaxing of elasticity in my brain. I can't pinpoint words with an exactitude I enjoyed before. I can't recall, in vivid details, all the plot points and moments from novels I'd read. There are instances, now, where I've forgotten I've read a novel entirely. Looking back at my blog, I've mentioned a handful of times now my memory isn't quite as exacting as it used to be. This blog's stated goal was to practice my writing, to exercise my critical faculties, to maintain growth. Now, a fourth major aspect must be acknowledged: the archive. I have exported the labour of remembering onto the blog. Now, and until the internet is wiped away in its entirety (fingers crossed), my blog must shoulder the burden of remembering for me.

I moved house this weekend and in the afternoon, a lazy sunny afternoon, quiet and composed after the noise and chaos of moving thousands of books and three very anxious cats, I began the pleasurable task of unpacking my beloved books. I found a handful of old Joseph Wambaugh novels, mass market paperbacks from before the era of barcodes. One of which was The New Centurions, Wambaugh's debut novel from 1970.

After stumbling across it, I considered giving it a go. I have fond memories of reading Wambaugh, even if I stalled out after 2 books in his Hollywood series. But when I searched my blog for references to Wambaugh, I saw that I have already read this, in February of 2013 (a post from an era before I began doing "Monthly" Reads posts, as I have been doing for about three years now). I had no recollection of reading this. Of the other titles mentioned in that post, I can distinctly remember reading Boyden's Three Day Road (and loving it) but my sharp memory of it could be related to my reading it for school and to my composing a paper on the novel. I don't really remember reading Give Us a Kiss by Woodrell. The other books I can remember just a bit.

Writing this and focusing on the specific book, with the cover in mind, memories begin to creep back into reach of grasp. I remember the spine being especially stiff, uncharacteristically stiff for a paperback from this era (late 70s). I remember one of the edges of the page being blue tinted (which is similar to but not the same as a gilded edge, I believe). I recall little else about the novel. I probably enjoyed it enough.

I also unpacked Ross MacDonald's The Instant Enemy. For a week or so, I've been jonesing to read another MacDonald, to appreciate him again. It's been a long relationship, MacDonald and I. We started off a bit ambivalent, me missing what the fuss was about, but as I age and think more and more about aesthetics and prose, MacDonald's world-weary, weather-beaten, shambling prose speaks to me. And of course, a cursory search of the blog to determine when exactly was the last novel I'd read by him showed that not only have I already finished The Instant Enemy but it was the last novel I'd read by him!

At least with Wambaugh, I can visualize the physical details of the book, and just slightly out of focus, a moment in my life when I was reading it (I remember reading it on the bus, which makes sense as I was in school at the time and bused instead of drove). With The Instant Enemy, I recall nothing. Zip. Even a perusal of the synopsis yielded nothing in the crowded aisles of my memory.

Should I read it again? Am I at the stage in my life when I can reread books without being bored by over-familiarity? I suppose the looseness of my memory has its pros and cons. My dad always said that rereading books was always like reading them again for the first time. He could manage to be surprised by solutions and twists despite having already read the book. Maybe rereading mysteries will return pleasure if I can't divine the solution from my addled mind.

Of course, not all is dire as I'm suggesting. Certain novels and experiences stick out, such as formative books from my teens and 20s. I still have impossibly vivid memories of reading, say, Bret Easton Ellis or Irvine Welsh. While specifics elude me, I remember lots about Atwood's The Blind Assassin and Byatt's Possession. Even books from about two or three years ago, while not quite as impacting, still linger around the edges. Casey Plett's luminous A Safe Girl to Love was our queer bookclub pick a couple months ago and though I hadn't read it since 2014, lots stood out to me. I barely needed a skim to replenish the memory banks. 

I'm almost looking forward to rereading things now. Books I may not have appreciated the first time around or aspects that were invisible to me might suddenly become clear.

Although, and this amuses me more than the disturbance I feel about my memory (and the general dread and anxiety I have about ageing in general): I reread Iain Banks' The Crow Road in 2013 (having previously read it in high school) and five years later, I remember very little! Looks like it's time to give it a third go!

Friday, June 15, 2018

June Reads Part Two

Self-Help by Lorrie Moore
The Bradshaw Variations by Rachel Cusk
Distortions by Ann Beattie

I've been recommended Moore's fiction by a few people and this is one of the odd instances where my friends were underselling the recommendation. In short, Moore's slim volume of stories is as close to perfect as short fiction can be. Now I understand why she's held in such high regard. Only a single story in the entire bunch, "Go Like This," failed to thrill me to the same level as the others, but even then, it's still great. The best pieces in the collection take the form of a "how to," in second person, direct address (eg. "Meet in expensive beige raincoats on a pea-soupy night..."). The formal ingenuity brings a sparkling multi-dimensional feel.

Cusk's The Bradshaw Variations is... a varied experience if you will. For every beautiful phrase or miraculous insight, there's a simile that doesn't work or a plodding moment of inauthentic introspection. I took a few notes and quotes while reading this. Let's begin with a simile that feels so artificial, so forced, as to beg a question—was the simile invented before the object? was the object invented for the simile? On page 41: "The lawn at the back of the house is undulating: it rises like a woman's body into two mounds with a soft sloping space between them." Yuck. I was stunned by this comparison—what an inelegant and unnecessary moment. Similes, I believe, aren't simply for art's sake; these tricks and features should illuminate an aspect of the narrative, the character, the themes, anything; similes should work organically to produce meaning, not to lay there on the page like a beautiful dead fish gawping for water. The focal character in this instance isn't articulated through the simile; the simile tells us nothing about the scene, the character, the setting, anything. It's, as I said earlier, inelegant and off-key. 

Later, Tonie, one of two protagonists, is at a cocktail party with her friend, who has been asking questions of a man. This is how Cusk describes the interrogation: "She asks him one thing after another, like a mother spooning food into a baby's mouth: when she comes to the end of one question, she is ready with the next" (89). Again, yuck. I admire the reversal of the simile: we usually expect questions to extract something (info), not to insert anything, and there's artfulness in this opposite. But it clangs and stumbles, like a toddler maneuvering a new space. 

But, not all the similes are duds. Just as many soar and hit their mark. On page 129: "Her dogs were the same, quivering like compasses around her," a gorgeous turn of phrase. I'm not sure if the simile does any heavy lifting in this sentence, but when it's that lovely, we should be more willing to forgive. 

A final example, my favourite of all, on page 94: "When they talked Tonie had the sense of something big and bounteous nearby, as the sea can be sensed when it is still just out of sight." The context only deepens this beautiful sentence: she and her future husband, the second of a pair of protagonists, have begun their romance, which has all the potentiality for beauty and darkness as the sea itself, a tumultuous and scary thing, but gravely gorgeous nonetheless.  

The rest of the novel, aside from the prose itself, is just as I described Arlington Park but more so: pinched and caustic without ever being about anything other than the vague sense that a living human being is an existence defined by sorrow. Characters come and go without ever making any impact on each other. Tonie's erotically charged encounter with a visiting lecturer feels like the only narrative incident to propel the characters (in that she eventually sleeps with a different person hitherto unknown to her). The rest of the cast wander their surroundings feeling both incredibly disconnected from each other (a theme) and oddly hyperarticulate about their inner lives in relation to others. Never before have I read a 21st century novel in which the entire cast are superheroically attuned to each other's interiority. In Arlington Park, this heightened perception produced lovely thematic resonance; in The Bradshaw Variations, it yields an endless void of authenticity and hollowness. 

Again, I worry I'm being unduly harsh. I did like this novel, but after two of these exercises in miserabilism, I worry that Cusk and I don't have the same goals in literature. I don't want just formal elegance and aesthetic beauty but something more, something more than empty vessels paradoxically overstuffed with interiority careening around each other for ~250 pages.   

Distortions is not my first collection of Beattie stories. I've been reading the collection of New Yorker stories for about a month now, dipping in and out. There's a level of overlap here, of course, but with one story, I decided to reread itpartly because I hardly remembered it and partly because Beattie is such a joy to read. I have little to say about this other than the usual caveat emptor: there's always going to be a few lemons in a collection of stories, but at least there were only one or two in this book. Highly recommended. 

Monday, June 4, 2018

June Reads Part One

Five Miles from Outer Hope by Nicola Barker
Grey Area by Will Self
Hot Milk by Deborah Levy
Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk

Five Miles from Outer Hope is more of the same from Barker. I don't mean this in a bad way, of course. Any Barker is welcome Barker, I'm finding. Swiftly, she has darted into the upper echelons of my favourite authors. Her similes, always a delight, are even more outrageous and guffaw-worthy in this slim novel, clocking in just under 200 pages. It's a coming-of-age story about, as is typical for Barker, a ragtag motley crew of weirdos and freaks, narrated by a wonderfully acidic seventeen year old giantess maxing out at six foot three inches. An aspect shared by all the Barker novels I've read, including this one, but I haven't drawn explicit attention to, is the author's tendency for eroticism and sensuality; not so much overt or actual sex (though there is sometimes that) but she knows intuitively that proximity of bodies leads to awareness of bodies. Barker's prose is flush with physical details of bodies: people are always touching things, sniffling, smelling, seeing, tasting and thus a sensuality ekes out from the noise of senses. Interactions between characters are charged, erotically so, though more thanks to the potentiality than explicit action. The narrator of this novel, proud of her clitoris (yes, proud), comes into conflict and attraction with La Roux, a South African boy on the run. Their aggression, their flirtation—though these are the same in a teenager's world—is saturated with a libidinal current, creating a dynamic tension. While this seems a simple act of dramaturgy, I call attention to this if only to proselytize for Barker once again; she really is at the top of the game and seemingly basic tricks of the trade are effortless in her hands. 

Hot Milk, a nominee for the Goldsmiths Prize, is an intriguing and beguiling novel. A 25 year old woman takes her mother to Spain for medical treatment, hoping to ascertain that which causes her mother paralysis and pain in the legs. While her mother endures puzzling treatments at the hand of the quizzical physician, the protagonist explores her sexuality, her femininity, her essential womanness. Suffused with symbols, laden with meaning, utterly permeated with meaning, Hot Milk has a dreaminess to it. Like other novels that skate around realism, the dialogue mixes natural dialogue with gnomic pronouncements and expostulations. I'm often cold towards this style of dialogue, despite my antipathy/ambivalence towards realism (my feelings shift case-by-case), but Hot Milk worked for me. The symbolism, the atmosphere, the dialogue all conspired together to remove any trace of randomness or unpredictability. The novel feels perfectly deterministic in the way that Nicola Barker's labyrinthine plots do. Everything is set. Nothing is up to chance. Thankfully, the novel is short, only 218 pages, and so my patience never ran out. I've heard her Swimming Home is even better, even more enigmatic and abstract. That's perhaps what I was missing with Hot Milk; I kept expecting the realism to deteriorate past an irrevocable limit, yet it never did. 

Rachel Cusk, much lauded novelist challenging the form, has intrigued me for years, but I didn't want to start with her Outline trilogy for fear of making her earlier work inaccessible ("you can't go home again," etc). Arlington Park, a novel enjoying a 2.92 out of 5 on Goodreads currently, felt like a representative work. It's fiercely feminist, rooted explicitly in the experience of women, and takes its form and focus from Mrs. Dalloway. Cusk is no doubt sharply intelligent and exacting; Arlington Park has breadth with precision, almost razor-sharp in its observations and judgement. However, the novel often feels pinched, humourless, sallow. The focus is on five women, five married suburban moms with a galaxy of children, ranging from lovely to monstrous, each wife with clueless semi-absent husbands who make daily guest appearances in the drama of their lives. The women strain against the barriers and dead-ends of their suburban, middle class lives, raging against the limited horizons of possibility. While this could work as a rallying call for emancipation, for a massive restructuring of the status quo, Arlington Park more so ends up as a dour, hopeless affair. I feel even uncomfortable charging Cusk with a lack of humour. I worry I'm inching closer to calling her a feminist killjoy, a pursed lips No Fun Allowed harridan. Pinched and pursed are the best words I can come up with to describe this novel, I'm afraid, and my subject position, with a male-identified first name, positions me as this destabilizing, dismissive actor. I don't know how I can reconcile my ideological sympathy with my subjective response to the novel itself. Is this an opportunity to reexamine my own tastes, my own reactions? Am I the problem? Perhaps. Cusk is, no matter the plotting, a gorgeous craftsman of sentences. Here, she describes the parking lot of a mall during rain: 
Beyond the windows a vast, bruised bank of cloud swept in over the grey prairie of the car park, extinguishing the spears of light that lay everywhere in disordered diagonals like discarded, faulty bolts of lightning. The restaurant [in the mall] darkened. A violent deluge of rain flung itself abruptly down over the defenceless landscape. (110)
I will admit that the "deluge of rain" flinging itself might be a bit much, but the gorgeous first sentence, with its "bruised bank of cloud" and "discarded" bolts of lighting work for me. Quite often, I experienced a frisson, a shiver of pleasure from Cusk's manipulation of the quotidian, infusing it with menace and estrangement. Here, she sums up the threatening aspect of familial life:
It was a dangerous place to live in, a family: it was a tumultuous as the open sea beneath a treacherous sky, the shifting allegiances, the flurries of cruelty and virtue, the great battering waves of mood and mortality, the endless alternation of storm and calm. A downpour would come or a reprieving ray of light, and in the end you didn't know what the difference was, what it all meant, what it added up to, when set against the necessity for just surviving and getting through. (193)
I worry some readers might see Cusk as over-writing, as ponderous and overburdened, almost, but not quite purple (she's too talented to ever bear that charge). A lot of her sentences are long and perspicaciously focused, reminding me a lot not of Woolf but of D. H. Lawrence. She can, when it suits her, provide a stinging little rejoinder, like this Wildean bit of wit:
She couldn't remember the last time a man looked at her as anything other than part of a boxed set that included his wife. (196)
I can understand why she has a low rating on Goodreads: she's intelligent, aggressively so, wielding prose and effect like a hyperbolically sharpened axe, both razor sharp and bludgeoning. She's also less interested in the traditional aspects of naturalism or realism: she commands the characters, the setting, the weather to serve her needs. She's remorseless and perhaps that's what is so off-putting about her work. I'm not deterred of course. Any writer capable of crafting such beautiful prose is always going to have my interest, perhaps not my loyalty, but at least my continued attention.

Grey Area, a collection of short stories, like all collections, is a mixed bag. For every singularly Selfian story which dazzles and impresses, there's another dark with misanthropy and bereft of the light touch of satire. Self is an audacious writer (in the same way my beloved Nicola Barker is): he writes not to relate the reader but to show off, to impress them. The stories in this collection are fantastic, satirical, vexing, imposing, breath-taking, irritating, all in the way Self's work has been. The two absolute bright spots are "Incubus (or the Impossibility of Self-Determination as to Desire)," a tale of realist marriage strife and infidelity which takes a wonderful left turn in the fantastic, and "Grey Area," another Zack Busner tale about a new medication providing patients with renewed patience and interest in their lives, and for one patient, too much interest. "Chest" is also terrific, a nightmare, especially for me, about an all-pervasive fog giving every single person respiratory problems, from pneumonia to asthma to cancer. Self's skill with detail shines in this story, as the coughing, the sputum, the breathing or lack thereof, all worked to constrict my own chest. I wheezed in sympathy more often than in laughter. The satirical bit in "Chest" comes in the form of class-based distinctions between anti-fog measures: some characters can afford gas masks, others can't. Like all the other Self I've read, the writing itself is the draw, but the imaginative leaps, the estrangement is what keeps me coming back.