1. Zadie Smith — The Autograph Man
James Wood in his thesis review covers all the thoughts I had on this one (and more and more) and is the most worthwhile review of this book around. For those who aren’t that interested, let me sum up the basics: lapsed Anglo-Chinese Jew Alex-Li is an autograph hunter fixated on Kitty Alexander, fictional Hollywood starlet of the 1950s. He spends his time writing a book on Jews v. Christians, spurning his faith, squabbling with rabbis, upsetting his bald girlfriend and cavorting with fellow autograph hunters. In the latter half of the book he meets his idol and develops inner demons.
Smith’s other novels are vast multi-character epics and her towering authorial presence benefits from having numerous dummies to manipulate, rather than the one insubstantial dummy. This novel could have benefitted from a less grandiose scope for quite a thin plot and morose protagonist: a slim 250 pages over a hoggish 419. On the plus side, the prose is as comic, stylish and rhythmic as ever, though her longer meandering passages feel like failed snippets from White Teeth. Hats off for writing a radically different second book—Zadie put up with some hostility in the UK round about this time.
2. Lydia Lunch — Paradoxia: A Predator’s Diary
An hilarious romp through the seedy sexual underworld of 1970s New York and beyond, no doubt based on the author’s “experiences” but probably embellished for added shock value. The narrator is a predator who uses and abuses men as she was used and abused by her own father. In sharp, staccato sentences the book explores a life defined by child abuse: one woman’s attempt to degrade and humiliate men through spirals of disgraceful sex and emotional manipulation. This lasts about two decades.
Lunch’s work is characterised often by stylised psychobabble, a fuzz of posturing attitude and genuine insight. Often she sets this to loud twanging guitars or shards of ear-bleeding feedback, which is a punishing alternative to therapy, for sure. This novel is well edited: no verbose reams of self-indulgent intellectualising to obscure the real terror of what went on in the protagonist’s life; simple, confessionally lurid prose ribbed with black humour. The last ten or so pages collapse into vaguely redemptive new-age claptrap, leaving the reader unclear whether anything was learned from all the nihilistic romping.
3. The Review of Contemporary Fiction: Fall 2001
Gilbert Sorrentino, for those inclined to ignore my random gushings, was the greatest and most prodigious American writer of formally innovative comedic fiction. His body of work towers over the experimental scene (if such a scene exists) as a reminder of how to write daring and outstanding novels of ludicrous artistry, humour and compassion. The piece from David Andrews in here explores his techniques and the creative daisychaining of his books, among them the outstanding Pack of Lies trilogy. William Gaddis wrote lumbering satirical epics delineating the American dream. His prose was denser, tougher and more Joycean than Sorrentino but his twin-tower novels The Recognitions and JR are held in high esteem in the annals of academe. Mary Caponegro is a fabulist short story writer and the essay in here explores her work’s religious and sexual themes, and provides a primer for her works, among them The Star Café. Margery Latimer was an overlooked leftist feminist writer, dead at 33, who left behind four progressive books of daring and important writing about tortured female characters. Her work is overdue a revival, with Guardian Angel and Other Stories the only one in print.
4. Jhumpa Lahiri — Interpreter of Maladies
This collection won the Pen/Hemingway Award, the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and— most impressively—the New Yorker Debut of the Year. Oo-wee! When a book receives this amount of awards, it’s a) lazy—why give two prestigious prizes to the SAME book? b) going to give the reader unrealistic expectations and c) a conspiracy of critics. This collection arrived at a time when an Indian writer hadn’t been given a Pulitzer or important award, and the committee wanted to expand its reach outside middle-class white male Americans. The stories, mercifully, still contain American settings, but have enough watered down Indianness in them to appeal to a mass market, and enough simple sentiment and sentence structure to universalize love loss sadness relationships and so on. Oh and Jhumpia is also a woman. A woman hadn’t won in a while. Important. The stories in this collection are fine but all utilise the same straightforward, overly descriptive, consciously “traditional” narrative voice, one that doesn’t take risks or explore interesting forms or ideas, falling back on saccharine or poetic tropes to go for the heartstrings and not the intellect, using human dramas in far-off homelands to manipulate the immigrant reader rather than new or novel techniques. This is not to say she isn’t a talented writer. Only I feel violently this mode of writing is beating a middlebrow, Oprah-shaped drum, and doesn’t do much except warm a heart or state the obvious.
Goodness gracious. As much as I revere Wallace’s fiction—his attempt to rescue American culture from the despairing morass of self-aware ironical knowingness—his nonfiction is in another league. The sheer cinematic exuberance, the “floating eye” quality of these pieces is breathtaking and wonderful, bringing the reader as deep into each experience as is textually possible, and as close to Wallace as we can be on the page.
This book is dear to me as a writer, reader, wannabe aesthete lacking the Ivy League education, and someone familiar with laughing in the dark. The book presents itself as an acid-tongued rant from an embittered narrator, commonly mistaken for Sorrentino himself, who performs a serious of misanthropic character assassinations over eight lurid, self-referential chapters.
This special ROCF edition sounded exciting—a whole collection of essays on a sublime Sorrentino text!—but in fact, sad to say, hate to report, dislike mentioning: it’s not much cop. The opening essay by David Andrews is the most exciting and lucid, but the others tend towards the banal academic autopsy, especially the second piece (author’s name spared). Main thing to take home from this collection is the divine complexity of Sorrentino’s art, that his antiessentialist aesthetic principals have remained consistent for his five decades as a creator, and that his novels celebrate the value of pure artifice much like modernist art. This news will come as a great surprise to most of you. Some of you might even leap at this news or faint. Be careful out there.
This collection, along with Bagombo Snuff Box, collects short stories from Vonnegut’s time writing for the glossies, dailies and slicks. The pieces range from speculative fiction to standard romance fare, each only hinting at the greatness he would achieve as a novelist. He wrote these for money, no doubt about it, and although several spar with some of his Big Stuff, they lack the scathing black humour, wild absurdity and heartbreaking pathos of . . . hmm, well, start at The Sirens of Titan and go from there. ‘All the King’s Horses’ stands out for its brutality, ‘Harrison Bergeron,’ ‘The Euphio Question’ and the title piece are satirical little SF attacks, while the others bear the stamp of conventional fifties fiction—tales from blue-collar America with social comment and breezy, everyman characters. One for the devoted Vonnegutian.
This book made Curious Incident fans wail and gnash their teeth in 2006. Who knows how Haddon’s reputation fares today, following the lukewarm response to this breezy domestic drama? I get the impression children’s voices are more his forte, what with being a bestselling kids' author and all. In fact, some of the best lines in this book belong to the toddler Jacob and revolve around poo and ice cream. But this is hardly worth a literary excommunication. It is the sort of book only established authors can release, but it does satisfy as a “warm-hearted page-turner” (does anyone else feel sick?)
It’s rare a writer gets their early, indulgent works published. My 800-page retelling of the William Wallace story written in Chaucerian Scots has sadly failed to ignite the literary landscape. Despite interest from Canongate! Bickmore loves it! Martin Amis wrote a 2000-page history of the Corn Laws and their famous Repeal in his late teens. Still unseen. Joshua Cohen isn’t a writer who leaves much in the drawer. In fact, in completing Witz before his thirtieth birthday, he’s blown his creative wad much too soon. Where next for this Jewish sprite with the biggest Joyce complex this side of upper Manhattan?
13. Raymond Queneau — A Hard Winter
This charming and terminally out of print novella hails from Queneau’s more reflective, personal period: a piece in tandem with Odile and The Last Days. An unrequited love story set in a brutal Havre winter during the First World War, Queneau gives his unique spin on a hoary old tale with his signature witty dialogue, French eccentrics and sharp observations. I put in a request at both NYRB and Dalkey for this to be reprinted—so far no responses—so the future isn’t looking good for this little corker. On a par with his earlier wartime works, with its touching scenes and picturesque dialogues, it deserves a new readership among literate Americans. (Or Brits prepared to fork out P&P).
14. Henry Miller — Sexus
Jesus. Just Jesus. Jesus wept.
I think that’s enough review in itself, but I have to spill a little about Miller. Someone on the internets told me I wrote like Miller three moons ago, and having finished Sexus, I want to hunt them down and gore them. First things first: I don’t write pornographic scenes with a vaginal fixation every twenty or so pages where the women have nineteen orgasms and beg to be pronged upon the narrator’s almighty winkle. Well, not anymore.
Second: I don’t philosophise at length in the flabbiest, most verbose prose imaginable, where the artist laments a world that shuns his greatness and free-love philosophies, his rampant misogyny, racism and general beastliness. Not now, at least. And I don’t make my protagonists hard-drinking walking cocks with delusions of greatness who stage hardcore action in roach-infested Bronx slums every two minutes, and cuss the idiocy of all those not Henry Miller the next.
As a no-holds-barred relic of the sleazy 1920s, this is an audacious text, marred by passages of sublime arrogance, outrageously boring prose soup, and completely inane porn scenes. I understand Miller’s status as a provocateur in his own time, but today his writing is a ludicrous mash-up of Dostoevsky, Lawrence and Selby. Sexus is incoherent, meandering and shameless, but oddly compelling. Rather like lovemaking itself. At least when I do it.
Don’t read him. Please.
Library: Pushkin Regional Library in Omsk