Tag Archives: humour

The Square: Rosie Milliard

“If you just drove in and out of the Square all day to deliver your child to The Prep, which is ferociously exclusive and expensive, you would feel as if life was a sort of planet of plenty, thinks Tracey, who knows full well from her clients who buy cosmetics from her that it is not.”

The Square, a novel from Rosie Millard is a satire which lampoons the lifestyles and values of a handful of residents of a neighbourhood of expensive London Georgian mansions that were “built for the Victorian bourgeoisie, fallen into disrepair, divided up, broken down, reunited, refurbished, [now] they are serving descendants of their original class once more.” Everyone who lives in the Square is proud of their address, as if living there is some sort of achievement. Most of the characters’ primary concern is appearances, so in this delightfully malicious look at class and materialism, we see characters who think they’re unique when in actuality, they are ultra conformists who have “knock-through kitchens,’ send their children to the same schools, compete with ridiculous dinner parties, and show off designer labels as if they were medals.

All those women with husbands who work in the City, dressed in their silk shifts and tweedy jackets, makeup so subtle it looks like it’s not even there, hair beautifully blown. It is the handbags which are the signifiers, though. Soft, buttery leather bags. Purple and green and black, with clinking accoutrements to announce their presence; silver locks and heart-shaped key fobs and gilt chains, and huge stitched handles which fit just so under your arm.

The residents/characters in the book include:

  • Tracey and Larry: who won the lottery but find that maintaining the lifestyle expected of residents of the square is beyond their means. They have two children–Belle and Grace and an au pair, Anya. Belle is old enough to remember her working class, pre-lottery days.
  • Jane and Patrick: Patrick “who has gone to seed,” brings home the big money while mega bitch Jane, known to her husband as “Der Führer,”  brings home her lover, Jay for frantic afternoon trysts. Their only child George is the most mature person in the household.
  • Harriet and Jay: overweight and unhappy Harriet doesn’t fit in with the other ultra slim wives, and Jay busies himself with an affair with ultra-skinny Jane.
  • Pretentious, obnoxious artist Philip Burrell and his nutty Russian wife Gilda who dresses like she “just stepped out of theatrical clothing emporium, or is trying to represent a painting by Watteau.” Philip hires a young man from the local council estate to build his pricey works of art: reproductions of golf holes which sell for up to 50,000 pounds a pop.

The novel follows the various complications in the lives of the characters and culminates in the residents’ fundraising talent show (the council refuses to pay for new iron railings. Sob…). We see Tracey, with her “tarty outfits,” who doesn’t fit in with the other wives, trying to make a living as a door-to-door cosmetic salesperson. Realising that the family will not be able to sustain the lifestyle of the Square for much longer, she hunts down financial makeover guru, television personality Alan Makin, while Philip Burrell decides to move on from making models of golf holes to making models of marathon courses. Meanwhile the resident children, unbeknownst to their parents, struggle with their own issues.

the squareVenom flies in to even the small scenes with two or three characters, but the major laughs break out when the residents come together en masse. The funniest scene in the book IMO takes place at Jane’s dinner party. Jane is the sort of character we  love to hate, and here when she’s on show, at her most pretentious, she’s very funny.

With characters such as these–the pencil-thin rich bitch, the cuckolded husband, the neglected overweight wife, and her slimy cheating spouse you know that you are reading about types rather than individuals–so don’t expect character development here. Yet in spite of the fact that author Rosie Millard’s novel concentrates on stereotypes, we can all too easily imagine people we know in these roles. I struggled with the character of Jane’s son George. He was too mannered, and the segment concerning George’s film seemed constructed for laughs rather than credibility. It’s hard to sustain humour in satire, and when the novel moved towards the fundraiser, the humour lagged and tired as slick wit weakened, and as Jane says as one point, it’s “sort of like realizing that modern British life is indeed modelled on a Carry On film.” But bravo to the author for nailing the pretentious crowd who live in the Square–a place, oddly enough that sounds a lot like Rosie Millard’s own neighbourhood, and a place even more strangely that sounds exactly like a neighbourhood here in N. America…

Opposite the blackboard is the obligatory ‘island’. Every kitchen has one, a marooned stone rectangle surrounded by a cluster of chrome stools. Somewhere on it there will be a single, commanding tap. There might be a recipe book propped up on a lectern, like a religious text.

Beside the island is a colossal, humming fridge and a vast six-burner appliance capable of feeding an entire church choir, should one drop in. This is known as the ‘range’. It is not used very much. Hot meals still tend to come from the microwave, or local restaurants, whose takeaway menus are pinned to a cork board.

The entire room glories in laboratory-style cleanliness. There is an entire cupboard devoted to cleaning implements and chemicals. There is a bespoke bottle for the kitchen’s myriad surfaces, each of which has been quarried, quartered, buffed and bullied into a properly gleaming state of submission.

Kitchens in the Square are a miracle of processed nature. Marble, granite, steel, quartz, slate, with accents of wood and chrome brought together in one glorious assemblage. The kitchens are like a geology lesson.

At night, the au pairs creep out of the small rooms. They enter these bright, soulless places and erect computers upon the marble islands. they perch on chrome stools and talk via Skype to their families in languages which to Belle’s English ear sound like falling water. Alone and undisturbed they explain to their fascinated relations how things are in the Square, a place full of money, nerves, and giant unused ovens.

Review copy

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Crane Mansions: A Novel About the Redeeming Power of Cake by Gert Loveday

After reading about the hilarious doings at a writer’s workshop in Gert Loveday’s Writing is Easy, I decided to read Crane Mansions even though Crane Mansions didn’t sound at all like the usual thing I’d read. I tried this tale on the strength of the author’s (actually–authors–‘Gert Loveday’ is really sister writing team, Joan Kerr and Gabrielle Daly) other book, and I was not disappointed. Complete with dastardly villains, a mystery orphan, and a lost inheritance, this is the sort of tale you might find starring that adorable curly-headed tot, Shirley Temple–I’m thinking of the 1939 film, The Little Princess in which Sara Crewe (Shirley Temple) is left at a girls’ school while her soldier father toddles off to Africa & the Siege of Mafeking. While The Little Princess shamelessly pulls out all the stops when it comes to manipulating the heartstrings, Crane Mansions isn’t a tearjerker. Instead it’s a marvelous, mischievous tale, heavy on laughs and the foibles of human beings.

crane mansionsCrane Mansions is essentially the story of  the orphan Millie Lord, one of the unfortunate children who lives at Crane Mansions, Regulatory School for the Indigent, a place as dreadful as it sounds.  The school, run with the “relentless exactitude” established by the school’s founder, Dr. Crane, is a horrible place where the children are ill-fed and taught the most useless garbage, pigeon-related axioms, which are somehow supposed to train them for the harsh realities of life outside of Crane Mansions. “The simple rules that were the underpinning of the Crane Mansions education: Stay Awake, Sit up Straight, Never Cry, and Know your place in the World.” Breakfast consists of a heavy starchy porridge so vile and tasteless, it could probably be patented as wallpaper paste.  Now the school is run by the founder’s son, the “second Dr. Crane.” While influenced by his father’s “harsh regime,” the younger Dr. Crane brings “the spirit of Poetic Inspiration” to the school from “his adored, long-lost Little Mummy’s tales of fairies, ducklings changing into swans, children changing into bluebirds, through his youthful passion for the works of William Blake.”

While Dr Crane doesn’t question how his father ran the school, neither can he be bothered with “the details,” and so he accedes power to two of The Leaders–schoolmasters Marcel Hogue and Odell Vincent while Dr. Crane, “a scholar, a seer, a visionary” uses his telescope to observe the nesting pigeons and scribble notes about their behaviour. “Pigeonnic Augury” is Dr. Crane’s “entire life,” and he’s obsessed with pigeons, convinced that he is “advancing closer and closer to the Great Truth at the heart of things.”

Dr. Crane isn’t a bad man by any means but “he’s a “rolled-gold nutcase. He couldn’t even peel a banana without help.” Crane just accepts the status quo of the school’s harsh regime and its torturous  exercise programme established by his father while his interests lead his meandering thoughts away from the conditions in which the children live. As the novel continues, it becomes apparent that Dr. Crane’s lack of attention, which may be simple avoidance, has led to bitter rivalry between the two school masters–cruise obsessed Marcel Hogue and inventor Odell Vincent, and it’s this rivalry which opens an anarchic crack into the established order of Crane Mansions.

With a wonderful, engaging cast of characters, Crane Mansions follows the fortunes of Millie Lord who’s plagued with dreams of a former life and gifted with shards of memories. While Millie Lord is a good girl with a strong sense of right and wrong, she defends other, weaker children, and yet her behaviour is seen as aberrant by the schoolmasters (and the lowly schoolmistress) who are really much more comfortable with the sneaky, sly, corruptible or stupid children such as Gertrude Shelton, Ned Parcher & Giles Snedhawk.

I’m not going to say too much about the plot, but I have to discuss one of my favourite characters–a vengeful woman with an appetite for the High Life and her dream of her “own chat show on American TV” who reinvents herself with every spin of the wheel of fortune: Trish Monroe aka Trish Vere de Vere’/Trish Rosskillies who uses men like toilet paper and flushes them away (what’s left of ’em) when they’re all used up. Here she is, posing as a good Samaritan, giving a couple of men a lift in her pink car:

Len took out a cigarette.

‘Ah, ah!’ said Trish roguishly, tapping a long pink fingernail on the hand-painted plaque attached to the dashboard. In flowing feminine handwriting, surrounded by flowers, it said, No smoking–unless it’s salmon!

‘Sorry darling,’ said Len, putting the ciggies away. ‘Filthy habit, I know.’

‘Then why not give it up?’

‘I’ve tried, believe me, I’ve tried!’

‘It’s just a question of putting your mind to it,’ said Trish. ‘I did.’

‘What a woman!’ said Len, turning to Eustace in the back seat with a wink.

Trish was clearly taken with Len, because not only did she drive them to the garage, she even drove them back to the car with the tin of petrol nursed on Len’s lap. Len stood by the car looking after it as the sequined number plate TRISH1 disappeared up the road.

Crane Mansions is its own closed, sluggish bizarre world, and like any other institution, its rules and regulations are not questioned until outsiders breach the walls. While Dr Crane lives in his own impenetrable ivory tower, there’s a very real world out there full of crooks and con men, and when the kitchen girl, Tibbie Clemons reunites with her estranged father, gambling man, Len, he uses this relationship (with a promise of a new life in Australia) as a segue into Crane Mansions in order to steal the secret project under development by Odell Vincent. Since this is very much an archetypal tale, good will eventually triumph over bad, and everyone will get what they deserve–not what they think they deserve.

In terms of literary comparisons, I saw the name Roald Dahl, but I’d also throw in the Lemony Snicket books–although I think Crane Mansions is superior. This is really a very, very funny story–a beguiling blend of Victorianism with the temptations of the modern world–at one point for example, perennial maneater Trish gets a schoolboy drunk. It’s not easy to create believable villains who are both a credible threat and a source of humour, but Gert Loveday manages to create several wicked characters here in this well-paced tale which tackles the idea that children must be raised with love and imagination–not deprivation and useless axioms, and a couple of the school’s graduates are prime examples of the twisted message received from a Crane Mansions’ education.  But this is essentially a tale with multiple moral messages which include the issue of the abdication of responsibility–parental and otherwise, for an abdication of one’s responsibilities leaves a gap for the opportunistic to slip in….

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The Relentless City: E. F. Benson

“America sat high on the seas, grown like some portentous mushroom in a single night.”

Author E.F. Benson (1867-1940) seems to be best remembered for his Mapp and Lucia books which have made their way to television–definitely a way to keep that written word in print. I’d never read Benson before, but then I came across a 99cent offer for the kindle: The Relentless City.

the relentless cityThe Relentless City (1903) is a social satire, a novel of manners, built around a English man, Lord Bertie Keynes, set to inherit a title and a heavily mortgaged estate, and Sybil Massington, a young English widow. These two people decide that they want to marry wealth, and that translates to marrying Americans. Bertie must marry money, and Sybil finds herself admiring the American spirit. Bertie is cynical about his quest:

You don’t suppose the Americans really think that lots of us go there to find wives because we prefer them to English girls? They know the true state of the case perfectly well. They only don’t choose to recognize it, just as one doesn’t choose to recognize a man one doesn’t want to meet. They look it in the face, and cut it–cut it dead.

The Relentless City of the title is literally New York but it’s also the frenetic American way of life epitomized by self-made millionaire and workaholic, former railway porter, Lewis S. Palmer–a man whose whole life is directed, with intense preoccupation, towards the making of money.

Yet in the relentless city, where no one may pause for a moment unless he wishes to be left behind in the great universal race for gold.

The novel opens at the London Carlton, “full to suffocation of people,” and that includes the American Mrs. Lewis S. Palmer, a loud woman who appears to the “casual observer” to be dressed “exclusively in diamonds.” Mrs. Palmer flaunts her wealth and brags that whenever she’s homesick, her husband “sends to Tiffany’s for the biggest diamond they’ve got.” She’s enjoying her time in London, threatens to buy it, and suspects she’ll “rupture something” when she returns home to America. Even though she’s in the Carlton, that doesn’t stop her frequent screams whenever she’s amused. A great deal is made of Mrs. Palmer, her manners “of a barmaid,” & her behaviour in this first scene:

It was said of her, indeed, that staying for a week-end not long ago with some friend in the country, rain had been expected because one day after lunch a peacock was heard screaming so loud, but investigation showed that it was only Mrs. Palmer, at a considerable distance away on the terrace, laughing.

Bertie, who recently recovered from losing his first great love, actress Dorothy Emsworth, sails to America and is the guest of the Palmers at their opulent, ironically named home: Mon Repos where life is “not a holiday, but hard, relentless work of a most exacting kind.” As a Long Island hostess, one of Mrs. Palmer’s goals is to attract people to her social headquarters and away from Newport and rival hostess Mrs. John Z. Adelboden. Mrs. Palmer triumphs when she lures a minor royal to her home:

For only two days before the reigning Prince of Saxe-Hochlaben, a dissolute young man of twenty-five, with a limp, a past, and no future, had arrived like a thunderbolt in New York.

Mrs. Palmer organizes the most outrageously expensive parties. In one, she transforms a local beach into a lagoon with tiny cabinets complete with a change of clothes and fishing nets for all the guests:

The lagoon itself smelt strongly of rose-water, for thousands of gallons had just been emptied into it, and the surface was covered with floating tables laden with refreshments, and large artificial water-lilies. And scattered over the bottom of the lagoon-scattered too, with a liberal hand–were thousands of pearl oysters.

There was no time wasted; as soon as Prince Fritz grasped the situation, and it had been made clear to him that he might keep any pearls he found, he rushed madly to the nearest cabin, rolled his trousers up to the knee, put sandals on his rather large, ungainly feet, and plunged into the rose-watered lagoon. Nor were the rest slow to follow his example, and in five minutes it was a perfect mob of serge-skirted women and bare-legged men. Mr. Palmer himself did not join in the wading, for, in addition to a slight cold, wading was bad for his chronic indigestion; but he seized a net, and puddled about with it from the shore. Shrieks of ecstasy greeted the finding of the pearls; cries of dismay arose if the shell was found to contain nothing. Faster and more furious grew the efforts of all to secure them; for a time the floating refreshment-tables attracted not the smallest attention. In particular, the Prince was entranced, and, not waiting to open the shells where the oyster was still alive (most, however, had been killed by the rose-water or the journey, and gaped open), he stowed them away in his pockets, in order to examine them afterwards–not waste the precious moments when so many were in competition with him; and his raucous cries of ‘Ach, Himmel! there is a peauty!’ resounded like a bass through the shrill din.

In this lively, highly-entertaining novel of manners, there’s lots of scope here for the clash of cultures as English habits and values meet brash, disinhibited America, and the author seems to have great fun exploring the excesses of American high society. After the scene at the Carlton, Bertie’s friend, Charlie, portrayed as a much less progressive character than Bertie, weighs the pros and cons of Mrs. Palmer as part of the “barbarian invasion.” Bertie, the eldest son of an impoverished marquis, much later in the novel makes a statement that American culture is not less or lower than English culture–just different, and while this is an effort to establish differences rather than superiority, it’s a limp attempt as the majority of the book pokes fun at Grande Dame Mrs. Palmer, her ludicrous parties, and the planned stripping of a beautiful English ancestral estate for its coal by the new American owners. In The Relentless City, the American characters are here for laughs with generous dollops of humour in the vein of Oscar Wilde, and  while there are basically two love stories which unfold, there’s also a bit of villainy seen through the character of the dastardly Bilton. Ultimately, after meeting and mingling with the Americans the English characters are left shell-shocked more than anything else.

More intimately disquieting was the perpetual sense of his nerves being jarred by the voices, manners, aims, mode of looking at life of the society into which he was to marry. Not for a moment did he even hint to himself that his manner of living and conducting himself, traditional to him, English, was in the smallest degree better or wiser than the manner of living and conducting themselves practised by these people, traditional (though less so) to them, American. Only there was an enormous difference, which had been seen by him in the autumn and dismissed as unessential, since it concerned only their manners, and had nothing to do with their immense kindliness of heart, which he never doubted or questioned for a moment. What he questioned now was whether manners did not spring, after all, from something which might be essential, something, the lack of which in one case, the presence of in another might make a man or a woman tolerable or intolerable if brought into continuous contact.

 

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Castle Rackrent by Maria Edgeworth

You know how it is with some books. You’ve been meaning to read them for years, but somehow you always pass them by. Perhaps part of that comes from the idea that you think you know what the book’s about, and there’s a familiarity to it since it’s been sitting on the shelf for decades. This is exactly the case with Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent. I’d always meant to read it, but I passed by my old hardback edition–even the college library threw it away which is how I came to own it. For some reason that I cannot adequately explain I had the impression that Castle Rackrent was a gothic novel–perhaps because I’d seen it linked with Ann Radcliffe’s works, so I was very surprised to find myself laughing at this very funny short book narrated by the old, faithful family retainer, Thady. Thady manages to outlive generations of dissolute owners of Castle Rackrent in the book that he presents as a “Memoir of the Rackrent Family.” The cover of the Oxford Classics edition says it all:

castle rackrentBut first a note on Maria Edgeworth… the introduction to my copy states that she was born on January 1, 1767 and died on May 22, 1849. At this point in time, Wikipedia gives her birth year as 1768. She was born in Oxfordshire as the result of the marriage between her father Richard Lovell Edgeworth and the first of four wives. My copy states that Maria was the first child of 19–Wikipedia places her as the second of 22. Right away of course, whichever version is the correct one, we know that there’s an interesting dynamic at work–especially with a quote from Maria’s father regarding his four wives:

I have had four wives. The second and third were sisters, and I was in love with the second in the lifetime of the first.

So whether we are talking about 19 children or twenty-two, this had to be an energetic and chaotic household. Maria Edgeworth lived with her aunts until her mother’s death and then her father remarried and relocated the family to his Irish estates. She returned to England for her education  during the illness of her first stepmother, Honora Sneyd, but after her death, and Mr Edgeworth’s remarriage to Honora’s sister (my intro says that this was Honora’s dying request), Maria shortly returned to Ireland yet again. So no small amount of impermanence and upheaval until Maria’s teen years. At this point she became involved in her father’s business and estates.

Castle Rackrent was published in 1800, initially without the author’s name, but this was added for the second edition. This is an unusual novel for its time as it is narrated by a servant, Old Thady Quirk, and if this story were told by the successive gentry owners of the estate, it would be a very different story indeed. As it is, Thady ‘s disingenuousness may be a construct to not speak ill of his various ‘masters,’–a habit from a lifetime of obsequiousness, or it may be his way of telling this shameful history while still appearing ‘loyal’ to the dissolute members of the family. Nonetheless, it’s the spaces between Thady’s naïve narrative and the actual events that creates so much humour. And this is how it begins:

Having, out of friendship for the family, upon whose estate, praised be heaven! I and mine have lived rent-free time out of mind, voluntarily undertaken to publish the MEMOIRS OF THE RACKRENT FAMILY, I think it my duty to say a few words, in the first place, concerning myself. My real name is Thady Quirk, though in the family I have always been known by no other than “Honest Thady.”

The insertion of Honest Thady let’s us know that the version we are about to hear is suspect, and as the tales unfold from Honest Thady of a dissolute bunch of owners, we have every reason to suspect his version of events.

Castle Rackrent was originally owned by Sir Tallyhoo Rackrent who came to a bad end, so the estate passed to Sir Patrick O’Shaughlin with the stipulation that he take the “surname and arms of Rackrent.” The litigious Sir Patrick, “who used to boast that he had a lawsuit for every letter in the alphabet,” according to Thady, “gave the finest entertainment” in which “not a man could stand after supper but Sir Patrick himself.” Here’s an example of Thady’s fond recollection of a Rackrent:

I remember when I was a little boy, the first bumper of claret he gave me after dinner, how he praised me for carrying it to my mouth.

Probably a good thing that the male Rackrents seem to die early and without issue–and that brings me to my very favourite member of the family, Sir Kit, who brings over his new bride who is, as we learn later, a very dark-complexioned Jewish woman, the “grandest heiress in England,”  who’s been married for her fortune.  The poor woman has no idea of what’s in store for her:

“Is the large room damp, Thady?” said his honour.

“Oh, damp, your honour! how should it be but as dry as a bone,” says I, “after all the fires we have kept in it day and night? It’s the barrack-room your honour’s talking on.”

“And what is a barrack-room, pray, my dear?” were the first words I ever heard out of my lady’s lips.

“No matter, my dear,” said he, and went on talking to me ashamed-like I should witness her ignorance. To be sure, to hear her talk one might have taken her for an innocent, for it was, “What’s this, Sir Kit?” and “What’s that, Sir Kit? all the way we went. To be sure, Sir Kit had enough to do to answer her.

“And what do you call that, Sir Kit?” said she; “that–that looks like a pile of black bricks, pray, Sir Kit?’

“My turf-stack, my dear,” said my master, and bit his lip.

Where have you lived, my lady, all your life, not to know a turf-stack when you see it? thought I; but I said nothing. Then, by-and-by, she takes out her glass, and begins spying over the country.

“And what’s all that black swamp out yonder, Sir Kit?” says she.

“My bog, my dear,” says he and went on whistling.

“It’s a very ugly prospect, my dear,” says she.

“You don’t see it, my dear,” says he; “for we’ve planted it out; when the trees grow up in summertime—” says he.

“Where are the trees,” said she, “my dear?” still looking through her glass.

“You are blind, my dear,” says he: “what are thee under your eyes?”

“These shrubs?” said she.

“Trees,” said he.

“May be they are what you call trees in Ireland, my dear,” said she; “but they are not a yard high, are they?”

“They were planted out but last year, my lady,” says I, to soften matters between them, for I saw she was going to make his honour mad with her: “they are very well grown for their age, and you’ll not see the bog of Allyballycarricko’shaughlin at-all-at-all through the screen, when once the leaves come out. But, my lady, you must not quarrel with any part or parcel of Allyballycarricko’shaughlin, for you don’t know how many hundred years that same bit of bog has been in the family; we would not part with the bog of Allyballycarricko’shaughlin upon no account at all; it cost the late Sir Murtagh two hundred good pounds to defend his title to it and boundaries against the O’Learys, who cut a road through it.”

Now one would have thought this would have been hint enough for my lady, but she fell to laughing like one out of their right mind, and made me say the name of the bog over, for her to get it by heart, a dozen times; then she must ask me how to spell it, and what was the meaning of it in English–Sir Kit standing by whistling all the while.

According to Thady “she laid the corner-stone of all her future misfortunes” this very first day, and if you want to know the fate of this particular Lady Rackrent (none of them exactly fare well), then you’ll have to read the book. Thady relates her history in this deadpan style–as if what happened to the poor woman was 1) deserved and 2) normal, but then the term ‘normal’ doesn’t apply to the Rackrents–an atrocious bunch of Anglo-Irish riffraff, a family of boozers, bounders and debtors, and the very worst sort of landowners.

There’s also an extensive glossary that accompanies the text, and written in an authoritarian style, this adds another level of irony to the humorous tale. Finally the topic of the Irish Roof emerged in Great Granny Webster, and the subject appears again here–the windows are broken and the roof leaks, but there’s too many debts and too little money to fix anything as the various heirs to the castle run the place into the ground.

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The Unrest-Cure and Other Stories by Saki

This New York Review Books edition of The Un-rest Cure and Other Stories by Saki is a compilation from several different collections. There’s a total of 26 stories here:

From Reginald:

Reginald at the Carlton

Reginald on Besetting Sins

Reginald’s Drama 

From Reginald in Russia:

The Reticence of Lady Anne

The Strategist

From The Chronicles of Clovis

Tobermory

Mrs. Packlehide’s Tiger

The Stampeding of Lady Bastable

The Unrest-Cure

Sredni Vashtar

Adrian

The Quest

The Peace Offering

The Talking-out of Tarrington

The Hounds of Fate

From Beasts and Superbeasts:

The Boar-Pig

The Open Window

The Cobweb

Fur

From the Toys of Peace:

The Guests

The Penance

Bertie’s Christmas Eve

Quail Seed

Mark

Fate

The Seven Cream Jugs

the unrest cureSaki, whose real name was H. H. Munro (1870-1916), was a British satirist best remembered for his many short stories which skewered and satirized Edwardian society. New York Review Books took a chance with this volume as these collections are free for the kindle, but in this volume, the wit of Saki is paired with the art of Edward Gorey, and it’s an excellent match.

You can’t read these droll stories and imagine for a moment that you are reading anything but a British novelist, and the amusing Reginald stories, full of one-liners, reminded me of PG. Wodehouse more than anyone else. Reginald’s wit is often at the expense of his listening audience–people who just don’t ‘get it.’ In Reginald at the Carleton, the duchess and Reginald converse and touch on the subject of Lady Beauwhistle’s aunt, a woman the duchess claims is “sweet.”

“And so silly. In these days of the overeducation of women, she’s quite refreshing. They say some people went through the siege of Paris without knowing that France and Germany were at war, but the Beauwhistle aunt is credited with having passed the whole winter in Paris under the impression that the Humberts were a kind of bicycle….”

But for this reader, the best stories in the collection are The Chronicles of Clovis. These hilarious, subversive tales, rife with mischief & savage wit, are superb. I simply loved Clovis, a young man who undermines the decorum of Edwardian society at every opportunity, and behind that comment comes the thought that I would love to be Clovis, stirring up mayhem every chance I got.

In the title story, The Unrest-Cure, Clovis is traveling when he overhears a conversation between two men on a train. One of the men named Huddle, complains to his friend that although he’s only a little over 40, he’s become “settled down in the deep groove of elderly middle-age.” For Huddle and his sister, everything in life must remain the same; they loathe change of any sort, even if it’s a “trifling matter.” The latest disturbance in routine involves a thrush who has built its nest in a new location. To Huddle, the change is “unnecessary and irritating.” Huddle’s friend suggests an “unrest-cure.

“You’ve heard of Rest-cures for people who’ve broken down under stress of too much worry and strenuous living; well, you’re suffering from overmuch repose and placidity, and you need the opposite kind of treatment.”

“But where would one go for such a thing?”

“Well, you might stand as an orange candidate for Kilkenny, or do a course of district visiting in one of the *apache headquarters of Paris, or give lectures in Berlin to prove that most of Wagner’s music was written by Gambetta; and there’s always the interior of Morocco to travel in. But, to be really effective, the unrest-cure ought to be tried in the home. How you  would do it, I haven’t the faintest idea.”

Clovis, while he appears to have a languid nature, is never short of ideas and energy when it comes to creating mischief and social sabotage, so he decides to impersonate a bishop’s secretary and visit Huddle who is subsequently provided with the dastardly “unrest-cure.” The outcome is maliciously hilarious, but underneath all the humour, Saki seems to be making a statement about the passivity of the average person when confronted with “authority” and a particularly nasty agenda.

In “The Stampeding of Lady Bastable,” Mrs Sangrail tries to pawn off her son Clovis on Lady Bastable for a few days while she goes to Scotland:

It was her invariable plan to speak in a sleepy, comfortable voice whenever she was unusually keen about anything; it put people off their guard, and they frequently fell in with her wishes before they had realized that she was really asking for anything. Lady Bastable, however, was not so easily taken unawares; possibly she knew that voice and what it betokened-at any rate she knew Clovis.

Lady Bastable still has memories of Clovis’s last stay and isn’t too keen to take responsibility for him again. Mrs. Sangrail’s assurances that Clovis has matured don’t impress Lady Bastable who argues that “it’s no use growing older if you only learn new ways of misbehaving yourself.” But in spite of Lady Bastable’s wariness of Clovis’s “irrepressible waywardness,” she agrees to babysit Clovis in exchange for the cancellation of a gambling debt. Clovis, however, has his own reasons for wanting to go to Scotland, and so he forms a diabolical plan…

There were moments when Clovis could easily have been a character in an Oscar Wilde play. His glib, confident, impromptu fabrications reminded this reader of The Importance of Being Earnest. Full of caustic, yet eccentric wit, these short stories are best savoured slowly, one at a time.

Review copy.

* Apache gangs, known for their savagery, operated in Paris from the late 1800s but disappeared during WWI

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Happyland by J. Robert Lennon

 Author J.Robert Lennon struggled to get Happyland published–astonishing really when you consider just how good an author he is, but apparently publishers feared lawsuits for implied connections between the very fictional Happyland and the real life story of Pleasant Rowland and the town of Aurora, in New York state. In the introduction, Lennon explains his multiple thwarted attempts to get this novel published adding that “if you’d told me in 2003 that this novel wouldn’t be read in its entirety until 2013, I would probably have stopped writing it–and if you’d told me why, I might have sought out, at least for a while, a less heartbreaking profession than novel writing.”

This is clearly a satire, a work of fiction, and yes inspired by an idea. The author states that he didn’t intend to “write anything remotely controversial,” but he got an idea from real life and ran with it. Unfortunately, publishers were worried about “unthreatened lawsuits,” and when the author refused to change some of the story basics, the book was shelved, appearing only in serial form in Harper’s in 2006. What a great shame that a writer of Lennon’s calibre had to wait so long for the novel to make it to readers, but here it is at last, and it’s well worth the wait….

happylandThe main character of Happyland is middle-aged Happy Masters, married to millionaire mogul James Masters, and while the marriage “dulled by familiarity” isn’t love-y in any sort of traditional sense, it’s successful mainly due to the fact that Happy and James lead their own lives and their meetings are infrequent, “explosive collisions, cataclysmic unleashings of pent-up emotion. Where once they argued, they now fought, open-handed and filthy-mouthed.” 

Happy “founder, CEO and creative mastermind of Happy Girls, Inc” formed the doll company 25 years earlier when “weary of her duties as a bride of privilege,” she found a broken antique doll and began a collection. Happy’s sad childhood never included a doll, and this one precious doll grew to a large, expensive collection, and then she formed Happy Dolls–a company which eventually included an entire line of historic dolls “decked out in period clothes,” and included storybooks with cheesy, abbreviated versions of history. No one could have predicted Happy’s phenomenal success. She intuited what children wanted–probably because her own childhood was spent in longing. Some of her dolls are so popular that “near riots” occur when stock runs low.

There were ninety-two different dolls currently in production, and one hundred fifty-six discontinued models, which had their own separate category on e-Bay. There were websites conferences, clubs. There was fan fiction. There for full-size clothes for real girls to wear, There was an animated cartoon and a live-action dramatic series. There had been one movie Lily and Sally, critically panned but big box office.

Some people overcome horrendous childhood experiences to become almost inhuman, and that’s Happy Masters in a word. Happy was an orphan, “raised by a bitter, alcoholic aunt,” and she learned to “[endure] the inventive maliciousness of two older cousins.” This rags-to-riches story may sound a bit like Cinderella, and we’d expect a happy ending. In a way, Happy has that happy ending. When the novel opens, she’s attended the funeral of one of the cousins. Now they are both dead and Happy has lived to see her 2 of her 3 worst enemies placed 6 feet under. Aunt Missy, however, is still alive, as garrulous as ever, and a meeting at the graveside comes dangerously close to violence.

After the ugly, vicious scene with her aunt at the funeral, Happy drives around for a few hours to cool off. Her journey takes her to the small college town of Equinox, population 410,  sleepy, pretty and quaint in its genteel decay and with a dark bizarre history. To Happy, it’s a “forlorn town, a dilapidated town: barely a town at all, just a few blocks clustered around a handful of cracked and dirty streets.” And it’s here as Happy looks around the town and its disinterested service population, that an idea takes root in her “toxic heart.” Equinox will become her next triumph, her “Jerusalem.”

She learned long ago that there was no point in looking for the thing you wanted; only the weak wanted things that could be found. The greatest desires could only be fulfilled by creating their object: a toy, a man, a state of mind.

She begins by bossing around the local real estate agent and handing the astonished woman a check for a neglected mansion with a beautiful lake view. Then slowly and strategically, Happy approaches various business owners in Equinox.  She begins by buying key operations–the inn, the beauty salon, the dusty corner market–initially offering overly generous sums of money, but then she starts to play dirty. Soon the town becomes divided over Happy’s plan to renovate Equinox making it some sort of glitzy tourist destination which will include a Happy Girl Museum. Most people who lived there were perfectly happy with the town the way it was, but a few people are thrilled to grab the money Happy offers for their anemic businesses.

And people in the  bar had started taking sides. By and large the locals liked the idea–rumor had it Ken Pell had gotten more than a hundred grand for the market, which was probably three times what it was worth, and there were plenty of Equinoxians who would stab their own sisters for that kind of money. College people, on the other hand–professors–said they’d never sell. They liked Equinox because it was quaint and cheap and on the lake. They liked authenticity, which evidently meant hicks and greasers, and they disliked the rich, a category they apparently excused themselves from.

Locals, though: they liked the idea of some bigwig moving into town. They liked somebody spreading money around. They thought it would help.

Even the people who dislike and distrust Happy have no idea of the sort of person they are dealing with. Underneath the public persona of sweetness and a great understanding of children, the real Happy is a hard, driven and canny millionairess who will do whatever it takes to ‘own’ Equinox. That includes lying, cheating, and breaking the law–it’s all on the table over the battle for Equinox. Happy feels renewed by her new plan, and that makes her a very dangerous adversary. Anyone who has the guts or the lack of imagination to stand in Happy’s way discovers the hard way that this woman plays dirty. Happy’s plan of attack when it comes to her play to take over Equinox College–a small private institution for women is simply hilarious.

Here’s Happy in a long quote that gives a sense of the author’s style, Happy’s character and merciless MO as she’s about to take over the general store:

From inside, a rustling, a scraping, a heavy tread. The door swung open. As soon as Happy saw the owner, she knew the battle was won. A shame, really, she’d hoped for a fight. It hardly seemed worth going through the motions now. The man who stood before her was little taller than she was, and half again as heavy; he had the blockish body that results from a five-coke-a-day habit and a lifetime of indolence. His coarse gray hair drooped over a pitted forehead, and the eyes were brown and dull as bark. They regarded her from behind thick curtains of tired flesh, and thick black eyebrows–dyed? she wondered, and is so, why?–dove into the furrows between them, in hostile curiosity. Happy said. “Mister …?”

“Pell.”

“Mr. Pell, so pleased to meet you. I’m Happy Masters.”

The steel door snicked shut behind her, and a switch was flipped in her head. She was different now: relentless, glib, incontrovertible. Homo hardsellius.

“Mr. Pell, let me get straight to the point. I want to buy your store. Today.”

“Not for sale,” he said, but a hint of life crept into those hooded eyes.

“You could be on your way home, right now, with a check in your hand. You could, in fact, be on your way out of town. Winter will be here soon, Mr. Pell. You could be on Maui by the end of the week.”

“Where?” he muttered.

“Hawaii, sir. or wherever you like” Finland, maybe, or Canada. Gotta hurry this up–it was like doing business in a doghouse.

“Mr. Pell, I would like you to retire today. I would like these to be the last moments you spend in this store. I would like to remove the burden of this property from your hands, right now. What would it take to make this happen?”

While Happyland has a delightful, wonderful plot, it’s also full of some great characters, including laconic, easy-going Bud and his tenacious wife, Jennifer who own the rundown gas station/ice cream kiosk. Jennifer makes a decent adversary for Happy as she’s every bit as mean and merciless but, unfortunately, lacks deep pockets. There’s also David who owns the local bar who would like to have principles if he could afford them, and  “middle-aged and languishing,” Reeve Tennyson, the college president who landed in this third-rate school after an embarrassing scandal that he walked into through his own ineptness. Aware that Equinox college really wanted to employ a woman, he’s a bit ashamed of working at Equinox College with its all female enrollment and the large percentage of lesbian students. He mostly hides out in his office, waits for his life to pass and thinks he’s hit rock bottom. It’s probably a good thing that he has no idea of the fate Happy Masters has in store for him.

Poor fella. He was doomed to lose. She could have told him this back in the day. The wandering eye, the nervous hands–it was a wonder he managed to get as far as he did before he fell. And the saddest part of all was that he thought he had landed. he thought this was the bottom.

Well, far be it from her to disabuse him of that notion. There was nothing quite so useful as someone who think she has nothing to lose. Indeed, there were, as life had demonstrated to Happy time and time again, treasures at the dump.

 Happyland  with its dark, satiric humour is very different from the other two Lennon novels I’ve read Castle and Familiar. But even though Happyland is meant to be taken as a very funny story, there’s no shortage of moral questions raised in this quintessential American novel in which money and power trumps all other considerations. Does anyone as filthy rich as Happy Masters have the moral right to convert and co-opt an entire town to their own purpose? And then there’s the response of the townspeople–some business owners would really like to sell to Happy but they’re affronted by her attitude that everything and everyone is for sale, so they don’t immediately sell. This results in a war between locals and Happy, who’s a) determined to get her way and b) ready to bury her enemies in financial disaster. Happyland looks at the reaction of the average Citizen when he’s faced with being either figuratively bulldozed into oblivion by a multi-million dollar corporation or starved off the face of the earth by someone with near-endless financial resources.  Taking a moral stand or arguing principles is a very expensive position to maintain as several townspeople find out the hard way. Then there’s Happy–a woman who possesses many admirable character traits but they’ve been trumped by her own moral corrosion and steady diet of endless power and money. Finally on the meta-level, there’s author J. Robert Lennon  who refused to compromise his principles when it came to altering some of the story basics, and he had to wait ten years for this book to appear in novel form…. I thoroughly enjoyed  Happyland  for its complete change of pace, its even, funny narrative and its underlying moral questions. This book (and its author) comes highly recommended.

review copy

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Kehua! by Fay Weldon

In the extraordinary, funny metafictional novel, Kehua! British author Fay Weldon explores the lives of two sets of characters surrounded by supernatural elements that interrupt and accompany the non-linear narrative. An unnamed writer, obviously a fictional stand in for Fay Weldon, tries to complete her novel in the basement of her haunted house. She frequently interjects her own thoughts into the text even as she tries, with moderate success, to control her fictional characters who develop and evolve sometimes beyond her control. If this sounds confusing, it isn’t, and instead we see the way the writer’s fictional characters become their own beings, get “out of hand,” and capable of acts that “shock[s] even” the author who creates them. This fictional author doesn’t hesitate to demystify the writing process for her audience, and at one point states that “your couple of hours’ reading is my half-year’s work.” Indeed we readers get a sense of the difficulties of the writer’s life as her characters grow increasingly out of control, plot developments pop up like toadstools, and the author is interrupted by the various ghosts who haunt her Victorian mansion. The fictional author occasionally despairs at the way her plot meanders, and that she feels “less real [while] these characters get more real.” But then so much of Weldon’s personal life seeps through the pages, it’s no wonder Weldon’s fictional characters need a great deal of herding towards the desired plot developments.

Kehua!This is a tale of murder, adultery, incest, family, and the way the actions and decisions of one generation work upon those that follow. The latter, incidentally, is a favoured interest of Fay Weldon whose works concentrate on the lives of women with themes that include: female identity & self-image, revenge, transformation & reinvention, gender inequality, female madness and the vicious relationships between women. While Weldon’s work, full of dark, bitingly wicked humour, obviously fits in any feminist canon, her work can also be considered Transgressive fiction for the way her marvelous characters subvert societal norms. Weldon is a very inventive writer which sounds peculiar as fiction writers are supposed to be inventive since they are, after all, in the biz of imagination, creation and keeping us amused.

Now to the plot …

And this is how the novel begins, and this quote, is, I think, the essence of Weldon, for who else (certainly not Wordsworth) would connect “a host of golden daffodils” with a “life lesson” in rampant male sexuality:

Your writer, in telling you this tale of murder, adultery, incest, ghosts, redemption and remorse, takes you first to a comfortable house in Highgate, North London, where outside the kitchen window, dancing in the breeze, the daffodils are in glorious bloom: a host of yellow male stamens in vigorous competition, eager to puff their special pollen out into the world. No two daffodils are alike, nor are any two humans. We attribute free will to human, but not to daffodils–with whom we share 35 per cent of our DNA–though perhaps rashly, when we consider the way some human families behave.

The family under examination consists of 4 generations of women–there’s matriarch Beverley, originally from New Zealand, a veritable Black Widow who’s been married 3 times to three very different men with each marriage representing a specific phase in Beverley’s life. Her first husband, who traded Beverley for political favours, was a Marxist “who disappeared on his way to join Che Guevara in the jungle,” the second killed himself following a “homosexual scandal,” and the third was a “right-wing journalist and notable drunk.” There was also an early childhood phase, spent in New Zealand, in which Beverley’s past was reinvented for her by the couple who cared for her.

Beverley’s daughter Alice, probably in some sort of fundamental knee-jerk response to her mother’s unconventionality, is very religious. Then there are Alice’s daughters Cynara and Scarlet whose birth names were very boring–Mary and Joan (no wonder they changed them), and Cynara’s precocious daughter, 16-year-old “wayward nymphet,” Lola. Lola left home after her mother threw out her husband, “declared herself a lesbian,”  and moved her S&M fixated lover, D’Dora, with her whips, handcuffs and chains, into the house. D’Dora is a member of LGS “a gay and lesbian subgroup whose members prefixed their given names with D for Dyke.” Lola, disgusted and rebellious, moves in with her aunt Scarlet temporarily while she supposedly waits for the paperwork necessary to travel to Haiti as an aid worker. Lola’s mother, Cynara tells Scarlet “for your sake pray she leaves the country soon.” Scarlet soon has reason to regret allowing Lola to move in, especially when Lola notes Scarlet’s abbreviated sex life with her husband, and with faux innocence comments: “it usually goes on only for about ten minutes, shouldn’t it be longer?” But then perhaps there’s no keeping Lola happy:

“When Mum did it with Dad, you could hardly hear when they had sex,” she goes on. “Now she’s with D’Dora there’s more noise. A lot of giggling and slapping and dressing up. I think perhaps it’s S&M. It can go on for hours. They never even think about my exams and how at my age I need sleep.”

The story opens with Scarlet at her grandmother, Beverley’s house. Scarlet is married to Louis, the owner of an eccentrically designed house, built in the 30s named Nopasaran. The house has become a point of division between Scarlet and Louis, and very possibly a good excuse for Scarlet to indulge in a torrid affair with not particularly bright, but good-looking television actor, Jackson, whose career is in the toilet, but who still has a legion of teen fans swooning over Jackson’s Vampire Rising films. Scarlet confides in her grandmother, and Beverley, who knows rather a lot about affairs has some advice:

Leaving home can cause all kinds of unexpected problems. But I don’t suppose Louis is the kind to go after you with the kitchen knife. But you haven’t got any children he can put in the back of the car and suffocate with exhaust fumes. So I expect you’re okay. But you can never quite be sure what manner of man you have, until you try to get away.

Beverley knows what she’s talking about. She survived the jealousy-based murder-suicide of her parents back in New Zealand when she was three years old. But wait… . Was this murder-suicide or was it murder-murder? And just who was Beverley’s father after all? Was he the man married to Beverley’s mother or was Beverley fathered by the charismatic doctor who sneaked around making ‘house calls’? The question of fatherhood, and just who impregnated several female members of this eccentric family comes up more than once in this tale. So much so in fact that there’s a family myth which conveniently pops up from time-to-time involving a mystery man met while on holiday.

The men in Weldon’s novels are often seen as Attractive Nuisances, temporary fixtures that float in and out of the lives of the women, either leaving them pregnant and fending for themselves or else simply disappearing to greener pastures. They are seen primarily as mostly superfluous beings to the matriarchal structure–at  best trophies for the female characters who scheme against one another to either stir trouble (as Beverley does) or steal another woman’s male (as Lola tries to do). Ultimately, Weldon tells us that women survive and have the scars to prove it. As Beverley ruminates:

it’s all women do, really, isn’t it, run. Tuck the children under the arm and try and find somewhere better, safer. You get into the habit when they’re small and then just carry on.

One of the remarkable things about the novels of Fay Weldon and one of the reasons she ranks as one of my all-time favourite modern British authors is that she has no sacred cows and simply isn’t afraid to take the piss out of everything, so there are references to Lady Gaga, Beryl Bainbridge, and we learn a little bit about Louis and his mother through a very funny reference to yet another author:

Louis’ mother is called Annabel: she is a lone parent with genteel aspirations and family money. See him as the child an Anita Brookner heroine might have had, supposing an acceptable suitor had turned up to woo her and then she’d turn him away, although pregnant, on moral grounds. Perhaps he was already married and she didn’t wish to upset his wife.

I loved this quote–not only for its humorous dig at another novelist whose work is so different from Weldon’s but also because the quote shows how the author is in complete control of the narrative. Louis and his mother seem a little out-of-place in this Weldon novel, a little overwhelmed and shoved aside by the other characters who are made of far stronger stuff. Sensitive Louis, whose nickname is “poofter,” is a man who “became hysterical and threatened” suicide at the very mention of the slightest modernizing of his beloved house, Nopasaran. So Weldon’s explanation that Louis and his mother belong in a Brookner novel makes perfect sense.

While in Lives and Loves of a She-Devil, we see a woman who reinvents herself through plastic surgery, here the plot goes back and forth between the fictional writer in the basement and four generations of the McLean family–women who reinvent themselves through their marriages and relationships. Weldon’s females are by far the more interesting sex. They tend to be creative, and capable of making tremendous mistakes, especially in the male and sexual appetites departments, yet they transform themselves to fit life as it is offered to them until that moment when they decide to seize life and make it subordinate to their desires. As always, Weldon’s women are at their best if and when they can patch up relationships with their own sex and finally put that troublesome many-headed beast, Divide and Conquer in its grave.

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Girl, 20 by Kingsley Amis

“I advise you to retire to one of those places in California where nobody knows anything or notices anything.”

Girl, 20, of the title isn’t actually 20–Sylvia, the latest in a long line of extra-marital affairs indulged in by middle-aged composer and conductor Sir Roy Vandervane,  is a mere 17 and a great deal of trouble. Still no matter, what she lacks in years, she makes up for in ferocity. It would be false to say that Sylvia is Sir Roy’s latest conquest, as in this case, it seems that Sylvia is the conqueror and Sir Roy the eager booty. Anyway, the novel starts with our narrator, music critic Douglas Yandell finding himself dragged into the domestic tribulations of the Vandervanes. Douglas chronicles Sir Roy’s troubled home life with his delightfully neurotic wife, Kitty–a woman who usually tolerates Sir Roy’s clumsy affairs, but in this instance, he has simply gone too far. Kitty monitors her husband’s affairs by counting the pairs of underwear in his drawer, so when the number is depleted, she knows there’s another woman. This latest affair or “goes” as Kitty calls them, seems to be serious.

Girl 20Kitty, herself a product of an “ancient go,” which resulted in Sir Roy’s divorce from his first wife, is very familiar with her husband’s MO. He seems to regard extra-marital affairs as his right, so he doesn’t bother to cover his tracks, and there’s also the argument that his refusal to hide these affairs is a provocation. Kitty summons Douglas to the Vandervane mansion, north of Hampstead, and demands his help–although Douglas’s  first inclination is to support his own sex, “on ordinary male-trade-union grounds,” in these matters. After a few hours at the Vandervane home spent in the company of the family, particularly the obnoxious brat, Ashley, Douglas has only sympathy for Sir Roy’s desire to escape his domestic situation.

Kitty, at forty-six or seven, must feel, and could not understand why Roy, at nearly fifty-four (twenty years my senior to within a week), should have to grow sillier as he grew older, except that his growing wiser would have been unbelievable.

Sir Roy’s affairs have been indiscreet, numerous, and sometimes disastrous. Kitty says she doesn’t “mind him just having a go occasionally,” it’s his long disappearances she objects to. He’s considering taking a “tour of Brazil” no doubt with his latest paramour (whose identity remains a mystery) as part of the luggage.  Kitty is adamant that her husband mustn’t “throw himself away on some filthy little barbarian of a teenager.”

“I don’t know anything at all about her, but they’re been running at about twenty to twenty-six over the last three years or so. Tending to go down. Getting younger at something like half the rate he gets older. When he’s seventy-three they’ll be ten.”

I checked the last bit mentally and found it to be correct, given the assumptions. It seemed to me extraordinary that anyone capable of making these in the first place, and then of following through to their ‘logical’ conclusion, should (as Kitty clearly did), see the final picture as nothing but tragic or repulsive.

“And when he’s eighty-three they’ll be five,” I said experimentally.

“Yes,” she agreed, glad that I had followed her reasoning.

That quote gives a taste of the sort of humour found in Girl, 20. Aging, sexuality, and infidelity all come in for a ribbing here, and when the book is funny, it’s very funny. Poor Douglas is recruited to discover the identity of the other woman as well as determine how serious the affair is, and according to Kitty then  “we can sort of make a plan.” Led on by his curiosity, Douglas becomes embroiled in the private lives of the Vandervanes.  Douglas makes a good narrator for this tale–he’s used and abused by all sides–Sir Roy, Kitty and even other members of the Vandervane household. Although Douglas is ostensibly the wobbly moral centre of the novel, he has a peculiar ‘arrangement’ of his own–he ‘shares’ his girlfriend, Vivienne with the “other bloke,” who gets “every Tuesday and Friday.” So while Sir Roy is in a triangular relationship, being tugged back and forth between wife and mistress, our narrator, Douglas is juggled with another man, but then Douglas begins juggling another woman with Vivienne. Douglas occasionally tries to take the moral high road with Sir Roy, but it doesn’t work, and Douglas, who has a lurid attraction to Sir Roy’s grubbier exploits, doesn’t really have his heart in any firm moralizing.

Author Kingsley Amis stated that the book is about irresponsibility, and the monstrously irresponsible Sir Roy is the larger-than-life character who carries the novel. While he’s exactly the sort of person you wouldn’t want in your life–an egoist, supremely selfish, a champagne socialist with a penchant for pontificating, he’s fun to read about as he careens from one disaster to another. Everything seems to be falling apart, so we see Penny, Sir Roy’s daughter from his first marriage, experimenting with drugs even as her father experiments with a series of young women.  Sir Roy feels that he’s come of age in the 60s and can take a leap just as much as any 20 year-old. He’s convinced that “the whole generation-gap idea’s just an invention of the media and the Yanks.” He’s out to prove he’s just as hip and swinging as … well … Sylvia. According to Sir Roy, he hasn’t been breaking the law “much,” and this is how he describes his torrid relationship with Sylvia:

Ageing shag tries to stimulate jaded appetite by recreating situation of days of firse discovery of sex plus whiff of illegality, corruption of youth, dirty ole man luring child into disused plate-layer’s hut and plying her with dandelion-and-burdock to induce her to remove knickers and slake his vile lusts

This is the swinging sixties, and the novel feels like it with the disintegration of traditional values, sexual experimentation, alternative lifestyles etc, and this novel is so 60s, at times it has an anachronistic feel. Everything that was so successful in Lucky Jim, isn’t quite as successful here. Lucky Jim, Amis’s first novel, gives us the backdrop of academia and a young don who tries to flatter his boring boss–even as he self-sabotages his attempts at sycophancy.  In Girl, 20, we have a younger man who has no idea what married life is about, telling an older married man how to behave, and sometimes he even means it.  Douglas and Roy’s misadventures are very funny, but the spaces between these social explosions are not so interesting, with the result that  Girl, 20 published in 1971, is a much less even novel than Lucky Jim.  Still this is classic Amis, and that means when it’s funny, it’s very funny. And a word of caution for foreign readers who wish to read this in English. Some of the dialogue is written to reflect upper class accents, so there are occasionally sentences such as:

I’m really moce grateful to you two for doing this.”

“What a terribly nice fluht.”

“Uhbsolutelty different.”

I can see foreign readers scrambling for their English dictionaries….

Review copy

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The Deep Whatsis by Peter Mattei

“I’m an asshole and not loyal to anyone, not even myself.”

Just what makes people laugh is hard to predict, and although I’m always on a quest to read something comic, it’s rare that a book is so funny that I laugh out loud. For sheer unadulterated cheek, The Deep Whatsis by Peter Mattei is going to make my best of the year list. It’s not a perfect book, and it wobbled on the ending, but I loved this book for its no-holds barred, outrageously nasty narrator.  For anyone who’s read and enjoyed early Max Barry (Syrup, Company), you should know what I’m talking about when I say that The Deep Whatsis, set in the cutthroat corporate world intent on downsizing, could be written by Max Barry’s evil twin brother. If he had one that is. As much as I enjoyed this book, my wholehearted recommendation comes with a Black Box Warning: if you’ve recently been the victim of downsizing or termination, or if the prospect looms in the near future, then you probably shouldn’t read The Deep Whatsis as it might send you spiraling into the abyss.

The Deep WhatsisSo let’s get beyond the cover, and sink into the nastiness I so enjoyed….

Our pathological liar narrator, Eric Nye is thirty-three, a right piece of work who’s hired at an indecently huge salary by Tate, a worldwide ad agency as “Executive Creative Director slash Chief Idea Officer.” Nye’s job is to move into the New York offices and “clean house,”–a euphemism for firing people. According to Nye he was “brought in to create a culture of innovation and creativity, meaning get rid of the dead wood, shitcan the old and the slow and the weak.” Nye is already horribly overpaid, but he’s also slated to get a big fat bonus if he meets his goal to fire 50% of the staff. Those targeted for termination are in their late 40s and over–those about to qualify for  a small pension. Together with the anorexic  “HR lady,” Nye “creates a dynamic of fear,” as he selects one person after another for firing and then begins his “danse macabre” with his “prey.” Nye compares the way he has developed of “ritualizing” his elaborate methods of firing employees to bullfighting, and of course, he’s the armed matador. It’s a well-drawn comparison, for Nye ruthlessly plays with his victims, letting them know that his attention is on them which sparks a frantic range of paranoid reactions in those about to be fired.

So while Nye spends his days at work (when he bothers to show up) either firing his next victim or playing a game of cat-and-mouse with the next candidate for downsizing, he spends his nights in a hazy drunken state. And it’s this sort of soulless behaviour that leads to Nye’s “meta-doom” when he takes a girl he cavalierly calls “Intern” back to his swanky pad full of expensive designer items–including his eight-hundred-dollar Dalai Lama Edition Tibetan throw rug. There’s something about this girl he just can’t shake, and when she joins the Tate office, Nye begins to get the uncomfortable feeling that he has a stalker.

The story careens between Nye’s heavily medicated days at the office and his drunken and chemically wrecked nights–some of which are spent with Nye’s only friend (and I’m using that term loosely), Seth Krallman “playwright turned pot dealer turned yoga guru,” who hopes that Nye will get him a job and purchase his expensive car. Nye,  a would be-playwright stuck on page two, and Seth secretly despise one another. Here’s Nye on the subject of Seth:

He’s a pretentious idiot, a so-called avant garde playwright who had twelve or thirteen seconds of notoriety in the east Village in the late ’90s when he chained himself to the stage of a tiny theater for a month as some kind of protest slash performance, peeing in a crystal bowl and mixing it with champagne and drinking it every night at precisely midnight, while reciting some poetry.

In a world obsessed with the getting and spending of money, the morally reprehensible Nye is aware that there’s no meaning to life. Even art is served up as some sort of tasteless parody of itself, and in one section Nye attends an art show called, “Show Us Your Tits!” While Nye claims to “feel fine” about cutting employee after employee loose, and outwardly appears to enjoy the massacre he’s conducting at the office, there are indications that at least on some level, he’s paying a price for his cutthroat behaviour. Perhaps it’s his conscience that causes his insomnia and lack of appetite. With his life in a downward spiral, Nye still manages to operate on two levels–on one level he’s slick, hip and conscienceless, but there’s also a sly self-awareness.

Here’s Nye lying to a therapist:

“I’ve never really had a relationship with anyone and I’m thirty-three. I guess that’s not so weird since the advent of video games and reality television, not to mention that new porno app everybody is talking about, thirty-three is the new nine.”

Then I put an unexpected twist into the story, a MacGuffin.

“I guess it all goes back to my mom,” I say and then without thinking what’s coming up next, there it is sliding out of my mouth. “She died in a car accident when I was ten years old. I saw the whole thing.”

The rest of it writes itself. “I was standing in our front yard and my mom was driving down the street. In my mental re-creation of that day I surmise that she was drunk because when she got to our house instead of slowing down to let a garbage truck pass she must have hit the gas instead of the brake. She lurched forward right into the front of the truck as it was zooming by.”

I figure this would be an excellent place for a pause and so I put one there. I look up at him and waited, wondering why I am making up all these tales when there are perfectly valid truths I could be telling him.

The Deep Whatsis is hilariously, savagely funny, and so of course, while Nye’s victims pile up, we can’t wait for him to get his comeuppance. Even Nye, who is unleashed at Tate, has to answer to someone, and in one wonderful scene, he’s called in to get chewed out by his boss.

What a disgusting man, I think, how many awful chemicals there must be lodged in every crevice of every tissue of his body, which may be why at sixty-whatever he’s still working here, still alive preserved in chemicals, he’ll never die because technically he’s already dead, he’s undead, he’s pickled by fear, lies, and nicotine.

“I gotta get off the goddamn phone,” he says to whoever he’s talking to and tosses the thing away. “Nye,” he says to no one in particular but since that is my name I know he must mean me, “get your hipster ass in here.” Then he stuffs his breakfast sandwich into the fleshy maw located in the center of his colorless face and keeps pushing until most of it is jammed in there and then he begins chewing, bent over the desk so that the egg yolk drips out and runs down over his chin like yellow chicken cum onto the crumpled tin foil in front of him. “Where’s your cohort?”

“I wanted to talk to you first, just the two of us,” I explain.

“Fine, good, now I can chew your ass out in private.”

“That’s what I figured, sir.”

“Close the door and don’t call me sir. I know you hate my guts.” Barry is worth at least fifty or sixty million since the agency was sold to La Groupe S. A, the holding company that owns the holding company owned by M. J-C.

“I don’t hate your guts, Bar,” I say, “I love you,” and at the moment this is basically true. He puts down the last bit of his egg-and-sausage, sucks at the ends of his fingers, and reaches for the smoldering Newport sitting in the battery-operated vacuum-action ashtray that sits next to the Smoke Eater. He takes a long drag on the butt and leans over toward the machine and exhales into it again like it’s some girl or cat he’s trying to get high. I almost expect him to tongue the thing.

“I assume you don’t mind if I smoke,” he says, probably reading from a script he wrote for legal reasons; but sitting here I’ve clearly given up my right to take action. “They don’t even let me smoke outside this building any more, can you believe that? Somebody complained about the secondhand smoke out on the sidewalk. It’s New York Fucking City, it’s Tenth Fucking Avenue.”

“Times change, I guess.”

“Oh shut the fuck up you asshole,” he says to me.

The Deep Whatsis is a very funny novel, but there are some ugly truths here as we see Nye trying to grab that bonus. In order to succeed, he’s supposed to leave every shred of humanity behind, and he does this quite successfully, refusing to “sugar-coat” the firing process or pretty it up as something that it clearly isn’t. In Nye’s world, empathy is seen as weakness while sociopathic tendencies almost guarantee success in the corporate world in which savagery, self-centeredness and self-promotion trump all other human qualities. Nye fires people with gusto, those with new babies, those with disabled relatives, and even one man for wearing pleated Dockers–no one is spared. And while he appears to take glee in his work and his well-honed psychological warfare, he despises himself for what he has become–a cog in the corporate machine, gradually losing his grip on reality. Original, subversive and savagely funny (loved the Wikipedia page) this book, replete with Nye’s various theories of life, offers a dark portrait of the cutthroat nature of the corporate world and the vapidity of our consumerist society in which the void left by a lack of humanity is filled with meaningless objects.

Review copy

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Filed under Fiction, Mattei Peter

Bleeding London by Geoff Nicholson

After reading several novels  written by Geoff Nicholson for  a Year of Geoff Nicholson (which is extending into a Year and a Bit), I’ve thought a great deal about obsession. The driving force behind Nicholson’s characters is obsession in one form or another, and  I’ve begun to wonder if being an obsessive is necessarily a bad thing. After all if nursing an obsession saves you from going around the bend or blowing your brains out, then what’s the problem?

The three main characters in Nicholson’s brilliantly funny novel Bleeding London are all obsessives, all people on a mission for one reason or another. There’s Mick, a bouncer whose stripper girlfriend, Gabby, a hard-as-nails, “taut redhead,” claims she was gang-raped by six men, “in-bred toffs,”  following a performance for a private stag party in London. Armed with a list of names, Mick travels from Sheffield to London on a mission to hunt down the offenders and deliver painful, humiliating punishments. Sounds fairly straightforward, right?

Bleeding LondonThen there’s Judy who works in a bookshop and is obsessed with having sex in every London location possible. She has a map hanging on her wall marked for each event, and after quizzing each of her lovers, she creates their maps of past sexual adventures for comparison. The men in Judy’s life have a range of responses to her enthusiasm for sexual geography: they find her hobby exciting, erotic, and puzzling. Judy relentlessly pursues her obsession, and yet at the same time feels an emptiness. No wonder she calls late night radio chat shows to discuss her sex life.

Then there’s Stuart who founded a walking tour business called The London Walker. Business was limp at first until Stuart met and married Anita. She’s transformed the business into a phenomenal success, but in the process Stuart has become superfluous. Anita calls Stuart’s tours  “a little recherché,” and he’s eventually moved to a management position while Anita creates London walks designed to appeal to tourists.

At first he continued to lead walks. But Anita had been right. His knowledge of London was detailed and profound, his love of it real, yet as the years went by he had an increasing distaste for the obvious. He genuinely wanted to reveal London to the people who came on the tours but he was bored with its more obvious features. He wanted to show its eccentricities and unknown quarters. Rather than take them to the Tower of London he’d have preferred to take them to the abandoned Severndroog Castle near Oxleas wood. For Stuart it increasingly wasn’t enough to tell a few old anecdotes and point out a few sights and locations. He felt the truth was more profound in the obscure corners than in the grand sweeps. And on a good day he would find these corners, even while ostensibly showing the punters the more orthodox aspects of London. His tours became increasingly abstract, free form, improvised, often turning into a sort of mystery tour. A crowd that had signed up for a canal walk might be treated instead to a tour of sites connected with leprosy. There were a few complaints, some dissatisfied walkers who demanded their money back.

If pressed to tell the truth, Stuart was happy with his small business, but that’s swept aside by Anita’s drive, efficiency, and emphasis on “cash-flow forecasts.”

For a while he conceived of his consultative role as thinking up new and original ideas for tours, but this was not an area where novelty and ingenuity were particularly welcomed. The Henry VIII walk and the Jack the Ripper Walk were always likely to do better business than Stuart’s fancier inventions such as the Thomas Middleton Walk, the Post-Modernist Walk, the Anarchists’ Walk. In fact it was a guide in her first week with the company who came up with the idea of the London Lesbian Walk, which for a while was one of the most popular tours.

Driven to despair and a feeling of uselessness, he falls into an affair that is now over. Depressed and withdrawn, Stuart, decides that he needs a “Big Idea” as a “reason for being.”

Once it had arrived there was an inevitability about it, something undeniable. he was sitting in the coffee bar of the Museum of Transport in Covent Garden thinking how much he disliked buses and tubes when the idea finally struck, and the moment it was there he couldn’t see why it had been so long coming. It felt so completely right. What he had to do was utterly clear. He was going to walk down every street in London.

Armed with a A-Z book of London, Stuart takes off every morning exploring London in a way he’s never explored it before, and we get some of the stranger less-well known episodes of the history of London with an emphasis on sexual tourism.  Naturally, since this is a Geoff Nicholson novel, all three characters, each with a different version of London, collide with tangled connections of sexual obsession. Bleeding London is a very funny book with Mick delivering his creative, humiliating punishments to the men on his hit-list, Judy trying to find meaning in her life by plotting geographical markers of sexual encounters, and poor Stuart who is dazzled and amazed by London even as he realises that it’s a city that is greater than a sum of its parts. Once again Nicholson explores the pathology of obsession in this story of characters whose raison d’être is obsession–characters who finally understand that obsession, a harsh exacting mistress, can never be satisfied. Once down that rabbit hole, you’re a goner.

Geoff Nicholson, by the way, has a blog called The Hollywood Walker.  Which makes perfect sense if you think about it.

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Filed under Fiction, Nicholson, Geoff