Friday, December 28, 2018

December Reads Part Three

Crudo by Olivia Laing
Clear by Nicola Barker
Ironopolis by Glen James Brown

I felt excited for the possibility of Crudo: a slim novel, doing something new and interesting, challenging realism, challenging the form of the novel. Unfortunately, the experience itself is deflating. Of all the "this is the future of the novel" books I've read in the past couple years, this might be the worst, but only in that category. Stacked against other lit-fic, Crudo is just mediocre. A book written in real time which contends with the real time-feel of the 24 hour news cycle? Intriguing. But Laing never does anything particularly novel with this conceit. Rather, she puts the existential horror of reading the news against the narrator's petty bourgeois concerns. The result, for me, was increasing impatience with the narrator's concerns for her things, for her apartment, for her own interests (in the face of nuclear annihilation). If the hammering of the bourgeois concerns is a play towards a kind of Flaubertian satire, then it didn't work for me.

An aside: if the adjectival noun for Flaubert, to denote his style or oeuvre, is indeed "Flaubertian," pronounced "flau-bear-shan," then I believe Gustave himself would at least approve of the euphony of the word. Also, adjectival nouns are some of my favourite things. How did we decide it would be "Mancunian" (that's a demonym, but it's a type of adjectival noun) or "Foucauldian"?

Crudo contains some euphonic and linguistic pleasures... but they're all lifted from Kathy Acker. The cycle went like this: I'd read a clever turn of phrase, a bit of poetry, and check the references at the end of the book, only to discover the phrase was lifted from Acker or someplace else. On and on it went. The cumulative effect was, again, impatience, and a renewed interest in finally reading some Acker, whom I've had on my to-read list for eons. I kept asking myself why I wasn't just bothering with Acker in the first place?

As a finished, published novel, Crudo felt like a batch of notes for a more fully realized project. The quotations, the ideas, the form of it all gave the impression of the journal a writer carries around jotting inside bits and bobs to be shaped and polished for a novel. But, it was only 130 pages, so I don't feel cheated. I also got my copy free from the publisher, so there's that too.

For most of Ironopolis, I could not prevent my brain from comparisons to Moore's Jerusalem. Both are about working class neighbourhoods being crushed under the boot of capitalism in the guise of "progress"; a lamentation for all the culture and history being erased and ignored and lost as the media and academic world find no interest in the lives of the working class; both feature a creature/spirit/something reminiscent of old English folklore, a something in the water which whispers to those who walk on land; a structural oddity; even aesthetically, at the level of the sentence, Brown's prose is the kind of laboured, 10-words-instead-of-2 kind of writing Moore favours. Where Jerusalem was this mammoth project covering the entire history of this town, Ironopolis is content to chronicle 50 years of the town, doing so in the same non-chronological order, asking readers to piece the narrative together and make sense of the twisted threads, the insular world of the working class. I once said, in a English literature seminar, that the British novel can be reduced, almost universally, to anxiety about class; Ironopolis does my theory favours. It's working class through and through, filled with characters struggling to make ends meet, to develop their own culture and history and live their lives without the boot of the upper classes. The poverty is harrowing without ever being poverty-porn, without ever being nakedly manipulative. Dampness, mildew, a chill you can never shake, mould everywhere. Having just enough to pay the bills, just enough to afford one two-week holiday at the coast per year. Scheming. Stealing. Confidence tricks. Ironopolis details this in the loving way Irvine Welsh does with Trainspotting but with the drink instead of skag. I kind of forgot how much I prefer working class fiction to upper crust stuff (not that I dislike fiction about the upper class). Ironopolis isn't perfect, though; like many first novels, it's everything thrown in, including letters, diaries, transcripts, poetry, stream-of-consciousness. Everything. There's something to be said about the maximalist approach, but Brown could have tapped the brakes just slightly. Otherwise, I loved it.

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