Saturday, 31 December 2011

My Month in Novels (Dec)

1. Will Self — Cock & Bull

For those seeking a pass into the perverse otherworld of Britain’s one-man imaginarium Will Self, these polymorphous novellas are a fine beginning. In ‘Cock’ a provincial wifey sprouts a string-bean male appendage that envelops her femininity, turning her into a masculine beast seeking to part the bald hillocks of her hubbie’s buttocks for some anal adventure. In ‘Bull,’ sports hack John Bull acquires a set of fleshy she-lips on his backleg and starts a strange affair with a vaginally fixated, philandering GP. If these summaries don’t naphthalene your imagination then there really is no reason for you to read books. (Reading Self makes one inclined to use naphthalene as a verb—pardon me). Cock & Bull is a modern horror story—the horror of warped selfhood, how genital-gendering can lead to a strange transvestism of the self, can scramble our notions of wo/manliness so badly we don’t know whether to give or receive anymore. As usual, Self dazzles with his linguistic foreplay, taking us to a dreamy little climax with his powerful intellect and grotesque imagery. A sick treasure and one of my personal favourites, along with How the Dead Live. Bookspotters’ Note: This hardback edition from Atlantic Monthly Press circa 1993 has the best cover art. This is a re-read from a few years ago.

2. Harry Mathews — The Journalist

I love difficult fiction, since even if I don’t understand the author’s particular intentions, I can pick and choose meanings like at some ontological deli. The trouble with some OuLiPo work, alas—and more broadly in the novels of Harry Mathews—is that his novel-length games pose specific problems and solve them in specific ways, often using egghead algorithms I am too dim to comprehend. As with Tlooth, I was entertained for the duration, but could have used a detailed roadmap. [This is a roundabout way of saying I didn’t understand how this novel ended, and if anyone wants to enlighten me, please do so below].

The Journalist has a simple premise: a businessman recovering from a nervous breakdown keeps a journal of his post-recovery life, using a very pristine prose style akin to a certain Harry Mathews, that gradually descends into Nicholson Baker-like tracts of precise, exhaustive and tedious detail (as in The Mezzanine). He breaks all the categories of his day into sets and subsets, leading to an almost symphonic string of paranoid ramblings and pedantic detail. Gogol’s ‘Diary of a Madman’ springs to mind at once—the premise here is the same.

The novel is hilarious and oddly chilling. Yet it falls into that OuLiPo trap of obsessing on inanimate objects, like the most boring moments in Perec, or in Robbe-Grillet’s entire corpus.

3. The New Uxbridge English Dictionary

Some excerpts from the comprehensively reviled 18th edition (precisely) of the Uxbridge English Dictionary:

Analogy — something that makes you itchy and sneezy

Barbecue — long wait for a haircut

Climate — first instruction at mountaineering school

Diphthong — fondue underwear

Exceed — a plant

Flabbergasted — appalled at your weight gain

Gastric — lighting a fart

Hoedown — agricultural strike

Infantry — a baby oak

Jacuzzi — Italian version of famous essay by Emile Zola

Kitsch — a small kitchen

Laplander — a clumsy private dancer

Miasma — the reason I have an inhaler

Nobleman — eunuch

Optical — to giggle during surgery

Parapet — an airborne cat

Quest— the Jonathan Ross family coat of arms

Rambling — jewellery for sheep

Semolina — a system of signalling with puddings

Tailback — post-operative Manx cat

Undeterred — a skidmark

Vigilant — an insect that stays up all night

Weeding — Scottish handbell

X-rated — no longer appreciated

Yo — a yoyo that only goes one way

Zucchini — animal park enthusiast

4. Françoise Sagan — Bonjour Tristesse

First, a digression. (How can one digress before the story has even begun? Surely for a digression to take place, a tangible thread needs to be established? Well, what is this parenthesis exactly, if not a digression? Point proven). So: that digression I promised. My first brush with love was with a Scottish lassie named Emma (not a very Scots name, but if local flavour is required, let’s call her Agnes). So Emma-Agnes was the victim of my affections and the entire “passionate” encounter is best described a “polite” encounter. In fact, excessive politeness was responsible for our inevitable separation.

It happened thus. I had been friends with Emma-Agnes for a few years in school and decided to write a page-long summation of my feelings toward her, apologising for my inappropriate biological urges impeding on our friendship. I expressed regret that I was attracted to her, and understood entirely if she’d want to sever our union and banish me, even though we took the same train daily, the same classes, and a few tutorials. To my surprise, she wasn’t repulsed and we carried on as friends. A few months later I wrote a second letter asking if we might go to lunch together, if that wasn’t too forward, and I would pay for her meal, if that wasn’t too sexist an attitude to take. She agreed.

And it progressed at this pace over the year. I eventually wrote her a letter requesting a lip-to-lip exchange, which occurred a month after the letter had been sent. Emma-Agnes already had a boyfriend at this stage, and would fall pregnant a few months later, but she kept up her side of the agreement. On an empty train carriage, I leaned in for the exchange. I hovered close to her face, then stopped to ask her if this was the correct angle for a satisfying “kiss.” She nodded and egged me on cordially. There was contact: her lips were a little sticky from lipgloss, so it was like kissing a Jelly Baby’s innards. After the peck, I was on the point of collapse. She was offering a second, more fuller exchange, but I decided that was enough for one afternoon. Absolutely marvellous. (You may baulk, but we shy people take what we get in this life, and when we love, we love like dying men crying out for morphine).

She left to have her baby a few months later and I didn’t see her again. It seemed she preferred the father of her child to me. I guess he was a little more assertive a lover. Ah well, the delirium of young love! This book is good.

5. Harry Mathews — Singular Pleasures

I am drawn to Harry Mathews—eighty-year-old Anglo-French poet, essayist, novelist and American Oulipian—largely because the Dalkey Archive Press publish a large wodge of his novels, and I respect the Dalkey Archive Press more than I respect all the world’s leaders and notable persons. So I am willing myself to love Mr. Mathews although his work is perched on the inscrutable side of potential literature—his games come with no instruction manual. Not so in this short collection of sixty-one vignettes of people masturbating across the world: here, these elegant little paragraphs are a characteristically (of the Oulipo) naughty formal experiment. Imagine that scene in Amelie where Ms. Tatou imagines everyone having sex in Paris at that precise moment, but in autoerotic terms. A lovely volume with watercolour illustrations from Francesco Clemente—it takes only twenty minutes to read, about as long as it takes to achieve climax. Or longer if you, you know.

6. Ben Marcus — The Age of Wire and String

Regard the mushroom people: their Vauxhalls are emblematic of an anti-inflatory ecosystem. To decode their literature, commit the following procedure. [1] Insert a zucchini into the Upper Ventilation Shaft, taking time to scalp the rogue dripping insidious seedpeople. [2] Suggest a mode of dance for the staplers. Do not describe their weevils as disrespectful. You risk criticism from the unholy arc of M.J. Nicholls—a disgraceful cannibal among the pigeons. [3] Caulk the skirting boards of the Shadek Temple for the arrival of Prince Edward Island, the foremost performers of foul-mouthed Scottish indie. When the sky tilts upwards, regard this review as a rather obvious parody, and scoff at grade nine, then torch the weak badgers: their sides are green. Fire a warning shot at the rich and overly educated author, Mr. “Ben Marcus,” and perhaps comment on his producing a work of such slick literariness after his five million dollar private education at Brown etcetera. Retract this comment as sour grapes or dour skates.When all is over, regardez-vous the debut as sub-Italo Calvino and dismiss it with a cavalier contempt, then go looting for peachier literary treasures amid the salt.

7. Jack Green — Fire the Bastards!

A “challenging” and “difficult” work of “experimental” criticism that shows me up as the third-rate wannabe hack who can’t close-read for toffee that I am. Jack Green was (or is, or was) an underground crank who wrote first-rate criticism in lowercase and no punctuation in his newspaper (ah—how things have changed . . . oh um oh hmm) and this work torpedoing lazy reviewing was published without his consent in the early nineties. The pieces date from the 1950s, and take Gaddis’s The Recognitions as their springboard to call all reviewer clichés into question: all of which exist today, all of which I have committed at some point. (Things such as comparisons to other authors, calling the writer “erudite” and the prose “challenging” or “something that will mature over several reads.”) The overall product is a pedantic, passionate defence of an uncategorisable novel (am I falling into the trap?) and a reminder that criticism should aspire to meticulous text dissection and laser-eyed close reading. Nowadays, only published authors review books in national papers: a step forward or a sideways lunge into incompetence? Jack would know, the bastard. [P.S. I don't want to read The Recognitions. It sounds bloody difficult.]

8. Stanley Elkin — The Franchiser

This frustrated and tickled me in equal measure. I adored the frenetic pace, the comedic chutzpah and cartwheeling craziness in the manner of Ishmael Reed or D. Keith Mano’s Take Five. The language was serpentine, maximal and gushed out like golden fonts from a tyke’s diaper (or nappy, if you’re British, which you aren’t, are you?) BUT. And here’s a big but . . . I like big buts and I cannot lie. This exhaustive style, in today’s hypertwitchy reading world, lends itself to the weary page-scan, the lazy skip-scan-skip until the dialogue kicks in or a paragraph break finally pops up from the descriptive shrubbery. So I think that’s Elkin’s downfall as a novelist: he’s too damn sesquipedalian in this age of the decircumlocutious.

But I thought the ride was a scream: Ben is a sublime comedic schmuck, a perverse inversion of the American Dream, and his adopted family of afflicted brothers and sisters tenderises the savage. BUT. There are moments of sexual wish-fulfilment (i.e. seventies retro stuff), a little tasteless satiric cruelty (killing off his cast of lovelies in ha-ha-disgusting ways), and that endless gush of words floods what would otherwise be a bitter and lean satire. Elkin’s own troubles with MS are channelled through Ben in a detached but “recognised” way, i.e. he doesn’t drown the problem in humorous abandon. But he leaves us too mired in his vast imaginative bog to touch a tangible emotion. I will read another Elkin. [P.S. This book has the ugliest cover Dalkey has ever designed! Look at it!]

9. William H. Gass — Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife

One of the funniest curios from 60s postmodernism, this typopathic novel has the bitchingest range of stretchy fonts and the craziest kerning of any apparently serious work still in print. An attempt to link “penetrating” a woman’s body to “penetrating” the body of a text, or something like that, it’s more an excuse to splice sexy nude shots of a dusky model with outrageously dated textual effects and high modernist gibberish. All right, William Gass would never accept that explanation, but hey, this was the sexy sixties—surely some of that avant-garde fairydust touched the recent writer of Omensetter’s Luck? Some of the textual effects, thought radical in Alasdair Gray’s Lanark, are used here in a more condensed form in this part dense literary novella, part Playboy special. (And yes, they appear to have airbrushed out the model’s navel on the cover, sexist pigs). A fun oddity for formfreaks.

10. Curtis White — Memories of My Father Watching TV

Curtis White’s father fixation reaches its summit in this short novel, blending parodies and shifting forms to create what David Foster Wallace calls a “witheringly smart, grotesquely funny, grimly comprehensive, and so moving as to be wrenching” piece of work. This is what Jack Green might call in reviewing terms a “boner”—quoting someone else’s words to pad out the review instead of having to formulate an opinion. But I’ve been reviewing all over the place this weekend and, I might add, on my own here in the GR offices—no one else has read one single book this weekend out of one hundred-odd friends. Is anyone reading this December? This is another digression to stop me having to speak about the book. OK. You win. Curtis White is terrific—his work runs largely on comic vignettes that pass into the “wrenching” and personal, with a style somewhere between the ironist excesses of Sorrentino and the trickery of Coover. Jack Green would call that a boner also—playing the comparison game to cover an absence of useful analysis. Ah. Who cares. What’s on TV?

11. Paul Murray — Skippy Dies

I find growing up such a strain, partly since I’ve hit my middle twenties and I can’t seem to get on with it. All the routines of life—unemployment, infidelity, alcoholism—I look upon with wry amusement, as mere targets for my satiric inner child to mock from my ivory tower. This novel paints a cynically accurate portrait of teenagehood (at least among rich Catholic kids) as texting thugs driven by spite, sex and sleeping pills. And the adults too are misguided souls, aimlessly searching for an elusive whatever in a disappointing and cold world. But for the duration, Skippy Dies is a manic not-really-coming-of-age-at-all novel written in a range of delicious close third-person narratives, flipping between breathless teenage babble, a convenient scientific genius (helps add cosmic heft), and an adult pedagogue with a wandering penis. The sublime comic energy that infuses this novel guides the reader through its giddying 600+ density, through its crass humour, teenage theatrics, comic caricature, towards the unusual ending where it withers into oblivion like the sequel to Carrie. Now back to my miserable life . . .

12. Émile Zola — The Dream

Here’s something to warm the cockles this Christmas (what are cockles anyway? do cockles fit in a stocking and are cockles an acceptable present for a nephew?)—a Zola novel with a happy ending! Happy, that is, if you happen to be a pious foundling embroiderer with aspirations to sainthood who wins her Prince Charming after having her heart crushed and submitting to her parents’ pessimistic wishes and God’s will, who is brought back to life two minutes from death by a snog from an archbishop who also happens to be future hubby’s father. I think that qualifies as happy, or indeed a cogent English sentence. I want cockles for Christmas. Please send this starving boy all your cockles!

13. Denis Diderot — The Nun

I’m applying for positions of paid work at the moment (known as a “job”—so I’m told), and after about a month of no replies I’m about ready to sign up for the convent. I would love to be a nun! Provided I had computer and broadband access, and was permitted to read any book I so pleased, I’d put on my habit and sing the sacraments! Unfortunately all the nun positions are filled at the moment, despite me faking three months nunning experience on my CV. (I’m considering changing the name on my CV to Jeffrey Archer, since everything else on there is made up—British joke, Google the bestselling turd). This book is amazing! Diderot is such a fiendishly funny satirist, wiping the floor with all his 18thC cronies. The Nun takes us from a sadistic convent regime of starving and torture into a sumptuous world of desirous shephebes (my coinage—hire me someone!), in breathless first-person prose: excellent rhythm, pacing and plotting. And a wee bit titillating. The book was originally orchestrated as a hoax, which makes me love Diderot even more.

14. Jonathan Littell — The Kindly Ones

So . . . the war. The Second one. Or is that the Second One? Do we capitalise all Things Pertaining to the War? I think it’s appropriate to capitalise when referring to the Greatest Atrocity in All of Mankind . . . or if not appropriate, respectful. And people, well, people keep writing books about It. That War. That Pesky War! This near-1000-page novel is the rambling testament of SS officer Dr. Max Aue, devoted Hauptsturmführer (Captain), later Standartenführer (Major), semi-repentant monster and lunatic, following his humble beginnings liquidating all non-Aryans to his time, uh, liquidating all non-Aryans.

The novel is written in a flat first-person prose, heavily factual with some surgical dissections of the narrator’s complex emotional life. The breadth of research on display is outstanding (Littell spent five years researching and less than a year writing the book) and the reader gets swept along in these rhythmic flows of gruesome insider information—blandly descriptive horrors keep the reader going through shock, acting as an unfortunate emotional catalyst. Largely, however, the book is about the collapsing bureaucracy of the Nazi regime, rendering absurd their illogical brand of single-minded barbarism as a kind of Weltanschauung through cold unbiased fact.

Critics of the book complain about the narrator’s obsession with excrement, but excrement acts as an unpleasant metaphor for his disturbed mental state, for the rotten world of wartime Europe—Max Aue might have murdered his mother and stepfather, and still holds a torch for his sister whom he sodomised as a teenager. This warped one-way romance builds to a devastating pitch 900 pages in (worth the wait) where he falls into a perverse erotic fantasy, merging his body to his sister’s by writhing in her bed sheets, imagining himself back in the snug seat of his mother’s womb. The suggestion being Max, nor his colleagues, should have ever left the womb, or ever ceased being infants.

Plus, critics hate long novels. They have to review four or five per week, they can’t be doing with 1000-page monsters with conflicting moral messages. This Novel About the War, however, is an absolutely breathtaking piece—a fresh and contentious addition to an already bursting market. Sure, it has its flaws: suffocating marshes of micro-detail and long dialogues between SS officers of an often tedious nature, but the overall execution is coolly done, as if JG Ballard had written about the War. Oh, hang on . . . So, if you have a spare 25 hours this week, make this one a priority. A modern classic? No. But damn good.

15. Kurt Vonnegut — Mother Night

As a deliberate contrast to Jonathan Littell’s 1000-page monster The Kindly Ones, I re-read this early Vonnegut masterpiece. The 1997 Robert B. Weide adaptation with Nick Nolte is one of my favourite movies, and where the novel is structured in typical nonlinear fashion, the movie embellishes and adds colour to the novel in its linear form. The two mediums complement each other perfectly, so if you haven’t seen the film version, do it soon! And if you haven’t read this brilliant novella, the confessions of Howard W. Campbell Jr., an American spy posing as a high-ranking American Nazi whose talent for writing propaganda makes him one of the most powerful fascists of the war, do it soon too! Some criticise Vonnegut’s writing for its Twain-like simplicity, but Vonnegut is a great economiser, and his novels demonstrate a perfect mastery of tone, rhythm and moral rightness, never shying away from the moving humanism that underpins his greatest work. This novella is so freaking wonderful it’s unreal. Read me!

16. M. Ageyev — Novel With Cocaine

This book has the dubious honour of being the 400th book I’ve read over the last two years, the first being John Barth’s appalling Coming Soon!!! (whose three exclamation marks speak of a desperation undignified for such a dignified dignitary). If you think I’m some sort of freak who lives in a tin house with nine cats, you’d be right, only I don’t have cats and I live in a Glasgow flat with ceilings so high all the heat collects ten feet above me. As a consequence I write this enswaddled in fur (from the nine cats I skinned) and a pair of velvet-lined slippers, with a cup o’ warm coffee afore me. Check out MFSO’s review, which includes a chemical formula and more hybridised words than is healthy from a man under thirty, and check out Knig-o-lass’s review which gushes and splutters love for this Russian curio. Me? I found the novel badly structured, slipshod, drearily eloquent like early Nabokov, bereft of character or style, and frankly an overcooked turkey. I do concede that the final chapter, esp. the mother’s suicide, gives a sharp shock, but that’s about all the novel does, gives a series of sharp shocks. Plus, cocaine only features in the last sixty pages, it’s also “novel with dull schoolboy reflections” and “novel with prostitute” for the duration. Read only if you’re desperate to out-weird your bookish friend who’s always sniffing out of print relics from yesteryear.

17. Kurt Vonnegut — Breakfast of Champions

Kurt at his most caustic, rambunctious and playful. When Vonnegut releases Kilgore Trout into the world on his fiftieth birthday and he looses the ghost of his father, this scabrous novel becomes a personal and moving account of a man, his father, and a big old lemon of a world. There’s an early clip of Kurt reading from this on YouTube, where the tale was told in first-person from Dwayne Hoover’s POV (and Kurt was but a phantom), but the third-person narrator opens up the metafictional element that proves integral to the heart of the novel. But listen: this is a furious assault against all that America holds dear, an impish black comedy mixed with his typical whimsy, pitch-perfect satire, and unique Midwestern charm. A film version was attempted in 1999 with that towering comedic presence Bruce Willis to disastrous results, turning real wit into sitcom farce. So for those unsure about this strange little novel, take my word that this ranks among Kurt’s greatest books, along with the nine or so others of equal import: Mother Night, The Sirens of Titan, Jailbird, etc.

18. Douglas Adams The Salmon of Doubt

A collection of essays, speeches, ramblings unearthed on his hard drive(s), one short story culled from a BBC annual, and the titular unfinished Dirk Gently novel. The essays are breezy and witty, often lacking focus when discussing science and technology, but comprise (realistically) the most readable of his non-fiction output. There are some readers, yours included, who feel Adams spent himself on the Hitchhiker’s books: although the Dirk Gentlys were absurdist romps sutured with awesome logic, they didn’t hang together as novels. The short excerpt from The Salmon of Doubt, however, might prove me wrong: the usual warmth and humour is present, although in nascent form, (the narration even slips from third into first person, a sign of Adams’s dissatisfaction). But all in all, nobody who loves Adams could resist reading this book, despite snoozing through the travel/nature pieces to get to the stuff they want. It’s a pleasing gallimaufry. Savour it, because there is no more.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

I Ate a Boulder

I ate a boulder. Yes, I ate an actual boulder. You’re thinking: how? Did he break the boulder down into little rock chips and eat those one after the other? And in that case, how would he survive the experience long enough to finish eating a whole boulder, which would stick in his throat and choke him to death or at least cause him unendurable stomach agony? To all the questions I respond simply, I ate a boulder. I ate a boulder, because I am an unnamed, unclassified invention in words, and if I want to eat a boulder I will eat a fucking boulder, without your niggling attention to the whys and what-fors. Know what I did next? I ate a cathedral. Then I had Japan, Laos and Paraguay for pudding! How d’you like that, you little monkey, does that meet your approval?

Monday, 26 December 2011

DAN-UCK-UCK-IEL!

I lost my mother last night. I sat down at the computer to try and capture the moment, use it later in a novel or something. I described her body lying peacefully in the bed, the flowery duvet cover, the table lamp weakly illuming the cupboard (I used that word ‘illuming’—poetic, huh?), but it was lame. She was a dead old woman in a bed. That was the reality. Hardly literary gold, is it? After I buried her, I hit upon a novel idea. I sometimes called bingo at the Seagrove OAP home and this gave me access to the kitchens and staff areas. I would contaminate a few meals with various weed killers then observe the deaths for use in fiction. First to croak was Mrs Thomson who stood up in the canteen and clutched her neck. She wobbled and sputtered and shrieked her son’s name—DAN-UCK-UCK-IEL!—before she crashed into Mrs Bea’s mash potatoes, sending the peas flying in a beautiful arc. Brilliant! Well, so I thought. When I went home to write it all down, the scene was comically grotesque. I wanted a scene that moved the reader to tears, not made them giggle in secret. There was nothing for it—I’d have to smother my son and write down my wife’s reaction. I crept into my son’s bedroom with a pillow then I . . . nah! I didn’t really! Ha! YOUR FACE! And I didn’t really poison the old woman either! HAHA! And my mother’s fighting fit! OH YOU SHOULD HAVE SEEN YOUR FACE! My Lord, what a hoot this fiction lark.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

My Year in Rejections



This year’s no-nos were so dull I almost abandoned the post. But there’s a few of interest in there.

January:

Hi M.J. -
Thanks very much for this, I really liked it - but I don't think it's quite right for us for a couple of reasons. The key one is the dialogue at the end - it's a crucial bit of the story and two distinct voices, which is tough to pull off as a single reader. I also thought the start took a while to get going. The first graph is really intriguing but then there's a bunch of backstory when I kind of wanted you to get into it.
These points are rather specific to our site and my odd personal taste so I really hope you have success place this one elsewhere, and in the meantime if you have anything else you think might be suitable please keep us in mind.
Many thanks,
Mike / 4'33''——


February:

Hello M.J.,

Thank you for your submission to Smash Cake. I apologize for our delay in
response, and appreciate your patience.

Unfortunately, I'm afraid we're going to pass on these pieces.

I hate that, too, because I love your breezy sense of humor. I can tell
you're a kindred spirit. (You're probably a riot at a party, too.)

Thanks for thinking of us, and best of luck in your future pursuits.

~~Tracy Lucas, Editor
Smash Cake Magazine


March:

Dear M.J.:

Apologies for the late response. We loved your story and laughed out loud and
wish we could publish it, but it doesn't quite meet our guidelines. We're
looking for pieces that relate to the setting of a book or an author's hometown.
While we're sure Murmansk must be both of those, you'd need to make the
connection for us within the story and include a couple quotes from that author.

If you can do that, we would be happy to reconsider and/or see something else
you think might work.

All best,
Tina Rubin
Founding Editor


April:

Dear M. J. Nicholls,

Your story, Becoming a Bandit, will be published in the May issue of Frontier
Tales. Thanks for your submission.

Thanks for your support, and keep those stories coming!

Duke Pennell

[Site didn’t seek my permission—the story had been published elsewhere].

May:

Dear Mark Nicholls,
Thank you very much for sending “Fingers in Our Ears” to Boulevard. Although it doesn't fill our editorial needs at the moment, we're glad you thought of us. We receive too many manuscripts to make individual comment possible, but we do wish you luck in placing this with another magazine.
Sincerely,
The Editors

June:

Thank you for your interest in Whitefish Review.
We received over 400 submissions for issue #9 and were able to select work from 37 different artists, photographers and writers.
I'm sorry that we were not able to use your work. Please continue to submit in the future.
I know these rejections are hard – I get many of them!
We will host the unveiling of issue #9 at The Lodge at Whitefish Lake on June 10 beginning at 7 p.m. This year, we will have readings by esteemed authors Doug Peacock, Mary Clearman Blew, and Lois Red Elk, as well work from a young writer selected for this issue, Callie Ann Atkinson.
Good luck with your art. Our next submission period begins August 15.
--Brian
Brian Schott
Editor

July:


Dear MJ,

Can't say I didn't enjoy this display of frustration and misanthropy, but I think it takes a strong constitution to get through it. There's no single place where the Reader can focus his attention (or even his sympathy); the result is a mix of laughing at ()and not knowing whether this is meant to be funny) and of deploring (without for a moment believing this is meant to be tragedy. Maybe you enjoyed writing it more than the reader might enjoy reading it,

Still, I did enjoy it, so you're welcome to send us something else. (NB: Some of this story is deliberately offensive, and we don't do drab sex, or much of the other kind, in TRoL. It's bad enough we all have done it: who wants to read about it?

KB (Editor)

August:

Dear M.J.,

Thank you for sending us your nonfiction piece.

Our editorial board read your work with interest. Unfortunately we did
not feel that it would be the best fit for our journal at this time.
This is not reflective of the quality of your writing; subjective
tastes play an important part in the assessment process.

We're sorry that we won't be able to offer you a spot in this issue,
but hope that you will consider submitting again in future reading
periods.

We appreciate your efforts, and wish you all the best in placing this
piece elsewhere.

Thanks again. Best of luck with this.

Sincerely,
The Editors at Sliver of Stone

September:

Dear M.J. Nicholls,

Apologies for our delay in responding.

Thank you for sending your work to and/or and for allowing our
editors to evaluate it. Unfortunately, we find that it does not fit
our present needs.

Best,
Damian Ward Hey,
Editor-in-Chief
and/or


October:

Thank you for sending us your work. We appreciate the chance to read it. We also sincerely appreciate your interest in The Cupboard. Unfortunately, this piece is not for us. We encourage you to submit again in the future.

Thanks again and best of luck with your work.

Sincerely,

Adam, Dave, and emily


November:

Dear Mark Nicholls,

Thank you for submitting A Florescence of Gerhards to Clockhouse Review for consideration. We appreciate you sending your work to us. At this time, however, we feel it does not fit our needs. We hope you will consider submitting again in the future.

Good luck with your writing.

Kind Regards,

The Editors
Clockhouse Review


December:

Dear Mark Nicholls,

Thank you for sending us "On/Off" and giving us at Catch Up the opportunity to consider your work. We've read your submission and really regret that it doesn't quite sync up with what we were envisioning for our upcoming issue.

We really appreciate your interest in Catch Up, and we apologize if you're receiving this despite having withdrawn your submission.

We hope you'll continue to follow the journal, and we wish you the best of luck.

Thanks again.

Sincerely,
The Editors of Catch Up.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

My Year in Books

This post elects and celebrates the best books of the batch read each month. It’s hard to get a crystal clear picture what was read overall, so let’s get lay down some statistics.

I read fifty-three books by American or Canadian writers (by birth), forty-six by French writers, twenty-four by English writers, sixteen by Scottish writers, nine by Russian writers, eight by Irish writers, five by Croatian writers, four by German writers, three by Czech writers, three by Italian writers, two by Argentine writers, two by Chilean writers, two by Chinese writers, two by Spanish writers, and one by Albanian, Australian, Belgian, Bulgarian, Dutch, Greek, Indian, Japanese, Norwegian, Polish and South African writers. Plus an anthology of European fiction with stories from every country in Europe. There were also a dozen or so nonfiction titles whose authors’ identities I didn’t log.

Of these 227 books (at the time of writing), one hundred and fifty-three were novels or novellas (or closer aligned with the novel than anything else), thirty-eight were nonfiction (essays, biographies, academic), twenty-seven were short story collections, and a feeble five were poems or drama. The numbers don’t scan exactly, but no one but me cares about this stuff, and I’m not so anal as to break it down into sub-categories. Or am I? Other stats: seventeen of these books were illustrated (with pictures, cartoons, unusual page design), and fifty-five were published by Dalkey Archive Press.

So what were this year’s greatest reads? To keep the post from expanding into the unreadable, I’ll try to keep my selections short. These reviews may contain original material. Be careful.

January — Deborah Levy — Billy and Girl

This was the first novel that truly floored me in at the start of 2011. I haven’t been dogearredly marking up the book as perhaps I should since I tend to have one incredible experience then move on, seeking the next like an empty thrillseeker. What I loved, if I recall, was the offbeat narrative voice, its mix of dark childhood themes (parental abandonment and abuse), black humour and unexpected emotional peaks. I haven’t taken to Levy’s work with a passion yet, I should read her earlier novels next year.

February — B.S. Johnson — B.S. Johnson Omnibus

A cheat, since this contains three novels in one. But these novels, among them Albert Angelo and House Mother Normal, contain some of the finest (and only) British metafiction and typographical experiment in print. Albert Angelo is a collage novel masterpiece with the infamous see-through pages: it’s a hilarious, tragic and personal novel. House Mother Normal is a fabulous black comedy that makes devastating use of blank space.

March — Hubert Selby Jr. — Last Exit to Brooklyn

A searing sift through the slurried slums of post-war Brooklyn. The only book that uses shock, violence and vulgarity to depict a world of tragic isolation that truly pierces the heart, gets you so deeply you feel you are THERE, in this boneyard of brittle bones and broken bodies, crying and fighting and fucking and SHOUTING AT YER FREAKIN KIDS TA SHUT THERE TRAPS. Selby’s editor on this book was Gilbert Sorrentino, who helped Selby refine his extraordinarily precise style, his pitch-perfect dialogue, distinctive abuse and misuse of punctuation, his staggering pacing.

April — Daniel Handler — Adverbs

Adverbs has a twisty, clever authorial voice, all-knowing and wise like the best omniscient narrators, which doesn’t really deviate from its essential Handlerness, despite inhabiting the emotional realm of his lovesick hipster personnel. But Handler handles words like a panhandler panhandles handles, or a handler handles hands: deftly, with aplomb. Like Watch Your Mouth, Handler uses recurring images, phrases, motifs, characters, spooling them through his stylish prose with its sardonic Sorrentino metacomment, its wily Nabokovian impatience, its Eggersian whimsy. Each chapter corresponds to one particular adverb, but it’s irrelevant really, as the star here is the style, and the style succeeds strikingly well at depicting the yearnings and maimings of love. And they’re endlessly funny.

May — Paul Morley — Nothing

Paul Morley, Best Rock Writer in UK, explores his own father’s suicide in this exhilarating memoir by taking the reader through his complex relationship to dead bodies (he saw Ian Curtis laid out on a stretcher), his waning relations with his dad, and the mindset that lead Mr Morley to end himself in a car somewhere outside Gloucester. There’s a dedication to B.S. Johnson afterwards, and Morley’s approach to telling the story is as stubbornly non-linear: the first section is about his aborted attempts to write the book (or imaginary versions of the book), there’s a straightforward memoir section about his school life, a series of little vox pops on various themes, and transcribed interviews. His style is maximal, indulgent even, but always warm and witty.

June — Tatyana Tolstaya — The Slynx

This exceptional little pearl should go straight atop your reading list, knocking off that willowy story collection, those fat-arsed historical doorstoppers, and that free verse thing carved into tree bark. Get rid of them all. Put them in a glorious bonfire and read this instead. The granddaughter of Leo T has all the talent of her antecedent, cribbing also the mordant wit of Bulgakov, the lyrical euphony of Nabokov, the despairing glamour of Zamyatin. The Slynx is a first-rate novel on all fronts: original and captivating in its form, succulent and rib-tickling in its prose, dark and prophetic in its subtext, sutured together with sugary feasts of stylistic invention that would make even the illiterate smile. A book about now, about the past, about the future—this book time travels, this book inhabits the fourth dimension. Read it now.

July — Raymond Queneau — Children of Clay

Les Enfants du limon emerged in 1939, the fifth of nine novels in a decade of tireless creative energy for the Parisian polymath. Unlike the other OuLiPo originals, Queneau had a solid body of work behind him before co-inventing potential literature, using the group as a springboard for ideas, to launch him into superstellar orbit. His output of poetry, essays and songs is far greater post-1960, though his corpus of novels act as fine exemplars of the OuLiPo methods—methods that would seep into postmodern literature throughout the sixties and beyond. Our protagonist, M. Chambernac, is working on an encyclopaedia of French “literary lunatics” in the 19thC, and hires trickster Purpulan to do the cataloguing and secretarial work. As he completes his work (of which vast screeds are reproduced here), he finds his own mind teetering off-piste, and discovers the real lunacy may be closer to home.

August — David Foster Wallace — A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again

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. In this essay collection, by making the focus tangentially on Wallace himself as filtered through the Illinois State Fair, a revolting cruise ship, or a tortured TV consumer, the work has a deeply personal and directly emotional feel, and although not as ambitious as his attempt to depict the grand throbbing alive-ness of life as in Infinite Jest, the work shines and sings with a more reader-friendly humour, brio and natural warmth, as well as the stylish feats of intelligence and logical probity that is his trademark. An essential text for any serious reader of contemporary essays.

September — Denis Diderot — Jacques the Fatalist

For those exhausted or defeated by Tristram Shandy, here is a precursor to the postmodern novel that packs in more incident, philosophy, bitching and warm humour in its 237 pages than most modern avant-garde writers manage in a whole corpus. Jacques—the titular Fatalist—attempts to recount the tale of his “first loves” while accompanying his Master on a series of oblique misadventures that invariably end up as digressions and more digressions. All postmodern tricks—stories-within-stories, frames-within-frames, direct reader-insulting—are present, and better than in 1971. This is a wild and hilarious romp with a fiercely readable translation from the unfortunately named David Coward, and this edition has an exemplary introduction that neither squeezes all life from the work nor drowns it in academic verbiage. Proof once again the French are the true genitors of all great literature. So it was written up there, on high.

October — Ali Smith — There but for the

I hate to resort to crude Americanisms, but Ali Smith is the motherfucking BOMB. Her latest novel, circa October 2011, shares a structure all but identical to The Accidental—four sections with little one-two-page prefaces—but also shares its masterful grasp over narrative voice, language, style, humour, and subtly heartbreaking strangeness. The novel plays elaborate games with chronology in frequent bracketed sections (the structural design of which eludes me) but There but for the is another lovingly designed work of art, bordering on masterpiece, from my newly crowned Favourite Ever Scottish Writer.

November — Dubravka Ugrešić — Lend Me Your Character

More magical egghead prose from Croatia’s best woman. ‘Steffie Cvek in the Jaws of Life’ is a patchwork novella with various instructions for perforating and crocheting the prose. Where B.S. Johnson might actually knit a novel in a scarf, Mrs. Ugrešić merely presents the idea with her customary sardonic wit. The story collection ‘Life is a Fairy Tale’ involves a woman who finds a penis in her hotdog, a zealous translator of Daniil Kharms failing to reach her publisher, a reworking of Tolstoy’s ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’ involving a cannon on a train, and a man who borrows a writer’s female character to have sex with his male character. Absurd brilliance from this restless firecracker. I chose this merely to give Mrs U. a place—she’s my favourite Croat EVER.

December — Paul Murray — Skippy Dies

This month is technically still happening but at the time of writing (the 17th), the best book so far is Skippy Dies, a comedy drama set in an Irish boarding school. This novel paints a cynically accurate portrait of teenagehood (at least among rich Catholic kids) as texting thugs driven by spite, sex and sleeping pills. And the adults too are misguided souls, aimlessly searching for an elusive whatever in a disappointing and cold world. But for the duration, Skippy Dies is a manic not-really-coming-of-age-at-all novel written in a range of delicious close third-person narratives, flipping between breathless teenage babble, a convenient scientific genius (helps add cosmic heft), and an adult pedagogue with a wandering penis. The sublime comic energy that infuses this novel guides the reader through its giddying 600+ density, through its crass humour, teenage theatrics, comic caricature, towards the unusual ending where it withers into oblivion like the sequel to Carrie.

The end. Here’s to another two hundred or more in 2012!

Monday, 19 December 2011

My Year in Stories

It’s been a pleasing year for larding stories into esoteric but beautiful literary magazines. It can feel fruitless being published in these venues since you never know who, if anyone, is reading you. But that’s something even well-known authors and geniuses face, so shut up me. I got stories published. I should be grateful, and I am, even when I’m not.

First stories published this year were How to Wreck a Human at The Literary Burlesque and The Manifesto For Exploding Televisions at Metazen. The former is a homage to Gilbert Sorrentino where I blatantly aped the voice he uses in Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things. Fortunately, the Literary Burlesque closed their website and my story no longer has any online presence, so this rip-off is no longer open to your scorn. Hurrah!

Next was my first ever audio publication Fingers in Our Ears at Liquid Imagination, read by the husky-voiced former movie announcer Robert Eccles. This story, once again, takes up the Sorrentino influence but attempts to use cynicism as a more wrenching emotional spanner.

Becoming a Bandit was published in Feb 2011 in the enormous collection Winter Canons. It’s a coming-of-age tale of bandits-in-training and assorted incompetence in the Wild West. The book itself is accessible to Americans only, since the cost to ship the tome Brit-side is frankly ludicrous. The Easily Persuaded Killer is a crime story of some description, in the satirical mould, as that’s what tends to happen with me. It takes potshots at Ian Rankin Denise Mina types, and it’s in the collection Ransom (scroll down lots).

The strangest story of the year goes to man/woman in a collection of “apocalyptic erotica” called This is the Way the World Ends. The piece is actually a split-page formal experiment which happens to involve one scene of simulated sex between a homosexual man and woman. The story was improperly formatted in the book, which ruined the design somewhat, but Freaky Fountain Press have some quirky books in their staple, so I forgive them. The story itself slightly embarrasses me now, but hey ho hum.

In April, my first creative non-fiction piece Instruction Manual For ‘Burntisland Beach Disaster’ was live at Shaking Like a Mountain. Then in June, The Ante Review published it again with an incorrect title and no response to my emails asking them to fix it. Thanks!

More authorial angst was published in Glint Literary Journal with The Little Book of Nothing where I aped Lucy Ellmann’s style with mixed results. The story features the sexual abuse of trees . . . and dribbling. My favourite publication of the year, Prime Mincer, published my story Downfall of the Dans: A Comic Opera. I used the form of an operatic aria to structure the story, and I seem to still be happy with the results, so all is well.

In September I had another short in Metazen, Ffion at the Fjord. I used a ‘reader key’ to give the reader three reading options, short, shorter, shortest. There’s also a little flash piece in the online Edinburgh mag Broken Doll Collective, Ffion at the Funfair. It was a good month for story success, as Frankie & Johnny, the piece I adapted for a class exercise, was printed in Duality 5: Style. The editor misspelled my name, which took the pleasure off somewhat. But I got published so shut up shut up. I’m such an ingrate.

I also love Barge Journal, who published the first in a cycle of pieces using a fragmented narrative approach. The technique involves a series of thematically linked mini-stories, digressions and stylistic quirks to create a “disquisition” of sorts—something that raises a number of interesting ideas and discussion points on an off-kilter topic, a caffeine rush of ideas and anecdotes. The first, A Disquisition on the Importance of Scottish Heather was published there. The second, A Disquisition on the Centrality of Sandwiches in Corporate Britain went up this month at Eyeshot.

So thank you to all these fine venues, a special thank you to my indispensible proofreading bitch Christopher Allen, and a special thank you to me for writing so much pap. My current stack of unpublished material, by the way, totals ten freaking stories, so I have a strenuous year ahead. Good luck me, and good luck to you with your writing endeavours!

Saturday, 17 December 2011

My Year in Abandoned Books


I decided, after sticking to the bitter end with so many putrid novels, to stop this stupid behaviour at once and simply cast aside any book that fails to ignite my loins. These are the books I peevishly quit this year after one hundred, fifty, ten or two pages. My “reviews” are pasted direct from my “seduced and abandoned” Goodreads shelf.

1. Marc Cholodenko — Mordechai Schamz

For some reason I found this book unconscionably boring I had to pull out ten pages in. Books where an eloquent poet based on the author shares his poetic thoughts for 120 sheets leave me ice-cold. This explains the love-hate thing I have with Calvino and why books by poets are usually best left in a small fridge freezer in the Outer Hebrides. There are exceptions, there always are, which makes these grand dismissals impossible to do these days, as some smart-tongued galoop will always sidle up to throw eggs of logic at you. Considering no one on this site will probably ever read this, I’m saved an egging.

2. Herta Müller — Nadirs

I got 30 pages into this and the violins began swelling from the page in mocking staccatos. This is a book of Romanian shorts, all narrated from a child’s perspective (i.e. descriptions of things she sees and nothing else), all about impoverished Romanian villages and backward peasants. Well, it’s an odd idea for a story collection. I could not understand the reason for writing like this, for stripping all the components of a story away, paring it down to descriptions (too advanced for a child) of scenes. Sometimes striking and sometimes macabre, but mostly tedious and miserable. Why, Herta Müller, why?

3. Raymond Queneau — The Skin of Dreams

I went along to the NLS to read this, but had to pack it in when the multi-character screwball antics got too much. I love Queneau but he really wrote one too many of these novels: a little disappointing for such a daring innovator! The same thing again and again! I won’t get around to finishing this unless I go back because the book is going for £100 on Amazon. All my rich uncles passed away in the 1800s, so it doesn’t look like a finisher. I have to admit, though Queneau is brilliant and witty, and well worth reading . . . reading ALL Queneau’s works in English isn’t a good idea. Or maybe I need a little time away to really appreciate them. Unless this title is reprinted, I’ll have eternity away.

4. Jennifer Johnston — This is Not a Novel

This Is Not a Novel is not some David Marksonlike mosaic of quotes, wisdom and fractured narrative, it is the exact polar opposite of such an approach: a directly emotional novel in the first-person intercut with letters and assorted correspondence. Nonlinear approach aside, there could not be two more opposing novels with the same title. Markson’s This is Not a Novel autopsies all fictional tropes and invites the reader to reassemble their components into a strange, original work. In Johnson’s novel her protagonist proclaims: “This is not a novel. I want to make that perfectly clear.” Thus establishing first-person character narration, a voice, a tone, and a style. Ergo: classic novel. I was attracted to this since it shared a title with Markson and expected something a little more original, seeing Review Press are the publishers. Instead, this is a tissue of scenes from a well-to-do Irish family with emphasis on tears, conflict, etc . . . mainstream fodder. Not for me. Lesson learned: be more choosy about reading material. Or go read the David Markson.

5. Claude Simon — The Flanders Road

Bailing out of this one at p82. Oneworld Classics is almost as impressive as Dalkey in bringing esoteric out-of-print novels back into the world. Have a gander at their catalogue if such a thing impresses you. The Flanders Road is an important novel of the nouveau roman movement: Mr. Simon uses an atemporal third-person narrative voice, narrating war horrors in a nightmarish stream-of-thought style, popular among Beckett and late-period modernists. For the contemporary reader, the style is a dated experiment, tiresome to read and more historically curious than narratively explosive. I don’t have the patience to wade through punctuation-free avant-garde monsters these days. I think I’m growing up.

6. Guy Davenport — Eclogues

OK, I didn’t give Guy much of a chance, but I could see where it was going. Endless Greek references, academic indulgence, unbearable polyglot showboating. Bah. Bah. I like random Greek and German phrases and words like boondoggle and whoopdedo as much as the next reader—OK, I don’t—but these difficult stories went over my head, and don’t fall into my corner of the avant-garde, where Sorrentino and Queneau hang out quipping and smoking. I hear his essay collections are the bees knees, so I’ll try those instead.

7. Aurelie Sheehan — Jack Kerouac is Pregnant

Not my teacup. Oblique, down-at-home stories with that tone of assumed melancholy, mystery or profundity, yawningly repetitive for a whole collection. People write like this all over the internet, and McSweeney’s are partly at fault for popularising this stripped-down, bland, reaching-for-the-lyrical style.

8. Gustave Flaubert — Madame Bovary

I have two Czech novels to read ahead of my second book group meeting so I’m throwing in the towel on Bovary. So far, I’ve found at least two people in Glasgow who like to read—the others must be opera lovers—and with some luck I might net a third! Fingers crossed. So: I really can’t decide why Flaubert’s ultra-precious, excessively descriptive style frustrated me in this novel, but had me hooked in A Sentimental Education. I don’t understand. Here’s an attempt: Education has a more epic span and frenetic narrative pace—it weaves an exhilarating tale of illicit love, socio-political upheaval and coming-of-age lunacy into one spiffing tome. MB, despite its satirical underpinnings, falls more into the “costume drama” camp, and progresses at a leisurely, claustrophobic pace: I got 134 pages into the novel and I didn’t feel Bovary had any presence as a character, and Flaubert’s excruciating depiction of bourgeois pleasantries between his various nonentities didn’t help the story spark into life, nor generate interest or compassion. His reliance on omniscient narration over dialogue also presents a problem. So I’m going to watch the BBC adaptation later. Call me lazy, call me crazy, call me Miss Daisy. Onwards!

9. Marie NDiaye — Rosie Carpe

An endearing and breathless style, bringing to mind Boris Vian’s little pearl Heartsnatcher, kept me skating along the thin-ice plot, opaque happenings and wraithlike protagonist for the first two parts. Rosie Carpe is a deliriously enigmatic character, a female receptacle, airily disengaged from her surroundings, who finds herself knocked up by a hotel manager and amateur pornographer, constantly pining for her brother Lazare. NDiaye’s narrator is cheek-to-cheek with her characters, yet she offers erudite assessments of their behaviour (don’t tell the creative writing tutors)—flighty and profound in Rosie’s case, not so strong in Lagrand’s narrative. In fact, this position switch disengaged me completely from the text—our microbiological attachment to Rosie, distant even when close, is taxing enough, so when the position swifts to a lesser character, it’s near impossible to pass through the opaque fog. So I gave up. Sorry Marie. I’ll try harder next time. NDiaye is one of France’s top female black writers: this is her only book in English translation.

10. Jean-Paul Sartre — Nausea

An insufferable philosophical classic, penned in nauseating and styleless first person prose. Roquentin is an arrogant buffoon whose existential woes are trivial, arch and pathetic. No attempt to create a novel has been made, apart from using that most lazy of constructs, the diary, opening the whole work out to a meandering thought-stream of excruciating random dullness. It isn’t accessible to confused students, unless those students happen to be aesthetes on private incomes writing dull historical theses, who like lifeless tracts of flat and horrible prose and can tolerate being bashed over the head with dated postwar ideas. I think that was Sartre’s intention, anyway, I might be wrong. But I get it. Yes. OK. Thanks. Life is horrible, etc, free will is illusory, etc etc. Got it. I read up to p50. That’ll do. The novel was never a useful medium for complex philosophical ideas, except perhaps Camus’s The Stranger, but that was under one hundred pages, and so tolerable. Absolute tish-pock.

11. John Burnside — The Mercy Boys

A poet’s novel about various Dundee alcoholics, malcontents and miserable men leading their miserable lives, written in excessively descriptive, somewhat flat prose. This is what rankles me about the Scottish novel—the sheer unflinching lugubriousness of the enterprise. This is why reading A.L. Kennedy or James Kelman or any other thistled luminary makes me break out in hives. Let’s be honest, Scots writing today sucks balls, except Ali Smith, the high priestess who will pull us from this depressing mire. Alan Bissett? Rodge Glass? Please! Give me a Uruguayan drunk writing isosyllabic iambs in crayon any day. John Burnside’s A Lie About My Father is really neat, howevs.