Tag Archives: writer’s life

The Death of the Author: Gilbert Adair

“Reader, I tell a lie.”

Gilbert Adair’s Love and Death on Long Island  features a reclusive author who fell in love with an American heart-throb, and after enjoying this dark tale of obsession, I turned to Adair’s The Death of the Author. This book also features another middle-aged, bachelor author, but this time it’s Leopold Sfax, a man whose egomania exceeds even that of Giles De’Ath in Love and Death on Long Island. Giles De’Ath looks positively humble and congenial next to the malignant Leopold Sfax, a smug, celebrity professor who is enthroned at New Harbor, one of America’s most prestigious Ivy League schools. Sfax is a philosopher, theorist and critic best known for The Theory–an approach to criticism which has dominated campuses across the country since the 80s. Sfax is “the most celebrated critic in the United States,” and with The Theory applied to literature, “the Author was to find Himself declared well and truly dead.”

I had demonstrated that it was for the text to ‘write’ its author rather than vice versa, the presence of a human sensibility somehow embedded with that language, within that text, had at last been understood for what it truly was: an absence, a void. The old and handy pedagogical dichotomies, the so-called binary oppositions that had once served to authenticate the truth and completeness of the Author’s interior universe–identity and difference, nature and culture, self and society–had at last been reversed or dissolved.

The book opens with Sfax meeting Astrid, a “flickeringly brilliant if too conventionally focused” former graduate student, who tells him she plans to write his biography. Sfax, our first person narrator, is obviously not thrilled by the proposition and tells her that he will cooperate but that she will not ‘get’ him–that no one ever has. Perhaps that reaction isn’t too surprising from a critical theorist, or is there something else afoot? Something far more sinister? How much of Sfax, paradoxically, lies in his theory?

I proposed that, again, in every text, there would fatally arrive what I called an aporia, a terminal impasse, a blank brick wall of impenetrability, an ultimatum of indetermination, when its self-contradictory meanings could no longer be permitted to coexist in harmony and its fundamental ‘undecidability’ would undermine for ever the reader’s most fundamental suppositions.

Following the meeting with Astrid, Sfax begins to tell his own story, and yet even as the narrative of reinvention flows, holes appear in Sfax’s past–his life in France during the Occupation, the disappearance of a friend, his decision to move to America with “its bright patchwork of opportunity, its whole candid candied hugeness,” his humble beginnings in a book shop and his leap into academia with “the chance to no longer toil in some obscure store, handling other man’s books the way a bank teller must handle other men’s money.”

the-death-of-the-author

That’s as much of the plot as I’m going to discuss of this slim novel of 135 pages, but I will say that if you enjoy novels about campus life and academic skullduggery, you should try this novel. Obviously Gilbert Adair has fun here (referencing Barthes) with this tale of university competitiveness, backstabbing academics and the unassailable qualities of dominant theories that hold academic disciplines in thrall. Even Giles De’Ath from Love and Death on Long Island is mentioned here in a passing reference to being an advocate of the Theory.

Adair, who breaks through that fourth wall, has a marvellous way with words which trickles down through his insufferable, snotty narrator. Here’s Sfax’s great enemy in the department, a hapless, harmless fellow named Herbert Gillingwater:

a kind of Peter Pan in reverse, never known to have been young. Indeed, his mousy nicotine-stained moustache and frankly sepia beard impressed one as older even than he was, deeply unappetizing hand-me-downs from some ancient parent; and it was claimed of him, an old maid of a bachelor, that if the striation of the corduroy suits he wore in all weathers looked as raggedly corrugated as it did, it was that he would freshen it simply by plunging it every six months or so into a sinkful of boiling water and detergent.

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Love and Death on Long Island: Gilbert Adair

“With each day now came an intensification of my secret life.”

Character is fate, as the saying goes, and yet how to explain the behaviour of a middle-aged British author, a recluse from the crass elements of modern culture,  who goes off the rails with his obsessive infatuation with a youthful American heartthrob?

Giles De’Ath, a middle-aged widower, has penned four novels decades earlier, and he’s earned “the ungrateful epithet of writer’s writer.” All four books, read mostly in France “shared the theme of sacrifice,” but ultimately not one of the sacrifices “is shown to have been justified.” In academic circles, various theories float regarding the meaning of De’Ath’s work, and over time, the author, who has steadfastly turned from public life, “returned to fashion.” De’Ath is writing again; this time it’s a non-fiction book called The Gentrification of the Void which is about to be published. It’s easy to call De’Ath a snob for eschewing modern values and tastes; he certainly looks down on most of the population  and believes that the “stupidity of the world is rivalled only by its ugliness.

love-and-death

One day, circumstances lead to De’Ath walking along an unusual route. He takes shelter in a cinema, and enters the showing for the wrong film. It’s a horrible, cheap third rate teen film called Hotpants College II. He’s about to walk out in disgust when a shot of a young male actor catches his attention, and this is the beginning of Giles De’Ath’s obsession with American heartthrob, Ronnie Bostock.

Soon, De’Ath can’t think of anything else but Ronnie. He stalks London newsagents for imported fan mags, deeply ashamed of his purchases but unable to squash the need to buy anything he can that features Ronnie. Next he buys a television (after learning the hard way that he needs one to play VHS tapes), and then it’s off to the video rental shop for Ronnie Bostock’s meagre backlist: Tex Mex and Skid Marks

I would rerun these two precious tapes of mine until scarcely a heartbeat was struck that I failed to anticipate the instant before. A film viewed this many times, I discovered, however mediocre may appear its point of departure, must always end by acquiring unto itself a special kind of beauty, the beauty of things that are or have come to seem inevitable. Each negligent and certainly unrehearsed gesture, each fortuitous element have swum unsuspecting into the camera’s ken–a face in the crowd, a fleeting, half-glimpsed landscape, some irrelevant, ‘non-signifying’ message just legible in a drugstore window or on an extra’s teeshirt–would by the umpteenth viewing have been branded into the film’s textures, its grain, its very pores, as though all along it had to be so and no other way, as though it were one of the cinema’s vocations, and perhaps its most elevated vocation, thus to statufy spontaneity, to render the incidental indelible, to hold the random to account.

De’Ath, who considers himself “asexual” studies Ronnie Bostock rather as someone studies a foreign language. He intellectualizes his obsession and comes to the conclusion that, even through the somewhat questionable lens of the sycophantic fan mag, there’s something pure and innocent about Ronnie when compared to the other actors of the same age range and status with their “haunched hips and shamelessly flaunted crotches.”

After De’Ath reads some distressing news about Ronnie’s future plans, De’Ath decides to travel to America to meet his idol. ….

The novel is written in the first person by De’Ath, and since this is a man who delights in being inaccessible (both literally and figuratively through his work), the narrator’s voice reflects the pedantic De’Ath through labyrinthine sentences. Imagine De’Ath’s voice as someone who prides himself in being apart from the common herd in a tribe of One. (I’m not going to detail the novel that De’Ath is trying to write but it shows how out-of-touch he is to even contemplate such an idea.)

We follow De’Ath’s mordantly funny journey as he descends into obsessed fandom, slyly buying teen mags and disposing of the unwanted pages far from home.  But De’Ath is never a figure of fun, for although he’s obsessed, he only once loses control; his fixation is systematic and directed.

I loved De’Ath’s perceptions of America. He’s very much the outsider but looks at America rather as a killjoy looks at an amusement park–understanding the allure while denigrating its attractions:

The remainder of that same afternoon I spent at the town’s hairdressing salon, where my hair was trimmed and my nails finely manicured by an obsequious little fusspot of a man who, with his own elaborately crimped and wavy locks, was the very image of a barber in a French farce; in the more expensive of its two men’s shops in search of a ‘stylish’ silk tie that might set off to advantage the pale grey, slim-waisted suit I had not yet worn in Chesterfield as it had been bought and laid aside for exactly the present occasion; then in a chic and overwhelmingly fragrant flower shop–located, possibly as the result of someone’s drolly irreverent sense of cause and effect, next door to the gun store-where I purchased a vast bouquet of white ‘long-stemmed’ white roses.

I thought I’d be writing a post about whether or not De’Ath benefited from the experience with Ronnie, but the novel is much deeper and darker than that, and I’m still mulling over the last few sentences.

There’s a wonderful film made of this book, and that’s what brought me to the novel.

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Malice: Keigo Higashino

“It comes down to character.”

Police procedurals are not my favourite type of crime book; I’ve said that many times, but then I read the Japanese crime novel, Malice from Keigo Higashino with contains a plot that managed to do something entirely different from the typical procedural. Malice, with its emphasis not on the perpetrator (we know who committed the crime around the first third of the novel,) but on the psychology of motive is a fascinating read as the detective in charge of the case refuses to take the case’s solution at face value.

So here’s the plot: best-selling novelist Kunihiko Hidaka is murdered in his home the night before he leaves for Vancouver with his wife of one month, Rie. Everything was packed and ready for the move, but Hidaka, alone at the house, was working on a serialized novel. Hidaka was found dead inside his locked office inside his locked house. Yet someone entered the home, bashed Hidaka over the head with a paperweight and then strangled him with a telephone cord. Both Hidaka’s wife and his best friend, a writer of children’s stories, Osamu Nonoguchi have alibis for the time of Hidaka’s death. On the day of Hidaka’s murder, he was visited by a young woman, Miyako Fujio, who was trying to persuade Hidaka to rewrite his novel, Forbidden Hunting Grounds as it portrayed the life of her brother (stabbed by a prostitute).  Police Detective Kyoichiro Kaga begins his investigations. ….

malice

Malice is told, mainly, through the two voices of Osamu and Detective Kaga. The two men were teachers at the same school together, briefly, but Kaga gave up teaching to become a police detective while Osamu eventually became a full time writer. Osamu, for his own purpose, has written down accounts of the crime including the last time he saw Hidaka. Osamu visited Hidaka on the day of his death as did Miyako Fujio, so Detective Kaga requests Osamu’s accounts in order to help him piece together the crime.

With a couple of slips made by the killer, it doesn’t take too long for Kaga to solve the crime, and while he’s pressured to close the case, there’s something that doesn’t quite add up. A mental duel begins to take place between the detective and the perp–a lazier detective would walk away, but Kaga isn’t satisfied with the solution to the crime. Determined to discover the truth, Kaga keeps digging. Eventually he uncovers a simmering resentment, so evil, it’s staggering in its ambition.

Malice was another foray into Japanese crime, and it was an intense, ingenious, deeply psychological read which showed this reader that the police procedural can be full of unpredictable twists and turns. The witness statements and the detective’s speech at the end of the book were a little rough, but apart from that, Malice is highly recommended. The plot interested me, in particular, because it argues that the victim has no one to speak for them.

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After the Fireworks: Three Novellas by Aldous Huxley

“Ostrichism–it’s the only rational philosophy of conduct.”

In Aldous Huxley’s novella, After the Fireworks, fifty-year-old bachelor, author Miles Fanning is in Rome for his annual stay in Rome with his “oldest friend,” Colin Judd, a man Fanning confesses that he doesn’t like, but still a man who is an asset. It’s through Fanning’s relationship with Judd that we first get a glimpse at this famous author’s character, and it’s not a particularly flattering portrait. Fanning uses Judd for his house in Rome, and because of the free accommodations, he’s willing to let the possessive Judd fuss over him.

after-the-fireworks

Most of Judd’s competition is in the form of Fanning’s female fans, and Fanning, knowing this, has the habit of teasing Judd, provoking his friend’s jealousy.

He was having his revenge. Nothing upset poor Colin Judd so much as having to listen to talk about women or love. He had a horror of  anything connected with the act, the mere thought, of sex.

Fanning has received a letter from a twenty-one-year-old fan, Pamela Tarn, who just happens to arrive in Rome. Fanning, who sometimes has affairs with his women fans, knows that Pamela is too young for him, and he knows that he shouldn’t take advantage of her youth or the fact that she worships him. Fanning is happy to flirt with Pamela as she’s an attractive girl with “impertinent little breasts,” and after all, it’s very flattering to have a young, beautiful girl hanging on his every word:

There was even something quite agreeable in resisting temptation; it had the charms of a strenuous and difficult sport. Like mountain climbing.

He mentions Pamela to an old, female friend, Dodo, a woman he contemplated having an affair with years earlier. She knew Pamela’s mother Clare, and according to Dodo, Clare, a mediocre woman, was a fantasist when it came to her GPs (grand passions) and so-called Caprices. It seems likely that Pamela, “vamping by correspondence,” may be a lot like her mother–a born groupie.

What she’s seen of the world she’s seen in her mother’s company. The worst guide imaginable, to judge from the child’s account. (Dead now, incidentally.) The sort of woman who could never live on top gear, so to speak-only at one or two imaginative removes from the facts. So that, in her company, what was nominally real life became actually just literature. Bad, inadequate Balzac in flesh and blood instead of genuine, good Balzac out of a set of nice green volumes

 

After the Fireworks is an interesting tale for its exploration of an author’s relationship with a particularly persistent fan. Fanning enjoys the attention from attractive female fans, and yet also cringes at the thought that anyone ‘understands’ him. He’s well aware that women read his books, identify with the heroines, and imagine that their lives are part of some sort of epic romance (sometimes with him in the picture). It’s a phenomenon known as “Miles Fanningism”

The plot contains some chapters with Pamela writing, rather immature observations about Fanning, in her diary, while inadvertently revealing her youth, inexperience, and unrealistic worship. After the Fireworks has a literal and figurative meaning with Fanning arguing, logically, in one particularly strong passage, why they shouldn’t engage in a love affair, but the problem is that Pamela won’t take no for an answer…

This could have been written as a tragedy (Anna Karenina is mentioned) but instead this is an excellent novella about human folly. Just because we know we shouldn’t do something, doesn’t mean that we will behave sensibly. The story had a Jamesion feel to it, and no doubt the location accentuated the connection.

This is one of three novellas published in a single volume. The others are Two or Three Graces and Uncle Spencer. I thoroughly enjoyed this tale and was pleasantly surprised by Huxley. Isn’t that a great cover?

Review copy

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Dear Mr M: Herman Koch

“At first the man feigns patient interest in an adjustable bed frame or a chest of drawers, but before long his breathing grows labored and he begins tossing glances toward the checkout counters and the exit, like a dog smelling the woods after a long trip in the car.” 

I loved Herman Koch’s novel The Dinner and liked Summer House with Swimming Pool. These are both very different novels but they share some characteristics: black humour, nasty people, and skewed morality. Dear Mr M, a story of revenge, focuses on a famous writer who is oblivious to the fact that he’s being stalked. The writer, M and his stalker, Herman have deep connections, and over the course of the novel, those long-standing ties are gradually revealed through several perspectives.

The novel opens with Herman narrating. It’s a strong invective as Herman spits abuse at M, a writer he despises, but this isn’t dislike based on M’s professional shortcomings. No, what exists between M and Herman is personal and has putrefied over the last 40 years.

dear-mr-m

A sense of menace arcs over the narrative as Herman watches M which isn’t hard to do since Herman is M’s downstairs neighbour. A game of cat-and-mouse is afoot with the mouse, M, so deeply buried in his own writerly concerns that he’s oblivious to Herman’s malicious activities.

M’s breakthrough novel was Payback, a fictionalized account of the real-life disappearance of a history teacher named  Jan Landzaat. Landzaat was last seen by his pupil, the teenage Laura (with whom he’d been having an affair) and her high school boyfriend, prankster, Herman. Landzaat, who’d been dumped by Laura (and Mrs Landzaat) wasn’t taking Laura’s rejection well when he barged into Laura’s life and the remote home owned by her famous father. There’s no one single story about what happened that weekend, but Landzaat was never seen again. …

But forty years have passed. M’s career is now in eclipse. He’s married to a much younger woman, and above all else, he’s tired–tired of the pathetically small attendance at book readings, tired of the same boring, and sometimes hostile questions, tired of interviews. M, the object of Herman’s decades-long venom is seen as a rather pathetic man who can’t even rustle up a decent cup of coffee in the local cafe. Herman wonders if M “is aware of his own mediocrity?”

In fact, you should see your face when you’re extolling your own intelligence. Your face, and the look in your eyes. It’s the look in the eyes of a rabbit who has misjudged the distance to the other side of the expressway–and realizes too late that the headlights bearing down on it are already too close to dodge. A look, in other words, that doesn’t believe itself for a moment, that’s paralyzed by the fear that the first tricky question will expose it as a fraud, once and for all.

A mediocre writer serves a life sentence. He has to go on. It’s too late to change professions. He has to go on till the bitter end. Until death comes to get him. Only death can save him from mediocrity. 

Koch shows us that there are two ways of perceiving men who have relationships with much younger (underage) woman–they can be seen as predators, which is the common view, or idiots. At first Landzaat seems to be a middle-aged predator, but as the plot continues, he morphs into a pathetic, emotionally weak loser who can’t accept the fact that Laura, his teenage lover, realizing that she’s made a horrible mistake, has moved on. Laura takes the nuclear option, and that leaves Landzaat alone in the aftermath of his affair’s destructive path. Through Herman and Laura’s eyes, we see how the young perceive the aging loser, and to Herman, every teacher is a loser:

Nowhere is the odor of mediocrity more pervasive than at a high school. It’s a smell that works its way into everything, like the stench of a pan of soup that has been bubbling on the burner for too long.

Dear Mr M, for its acrobatic, nasty subversive wit made me chuckle with sheer delight. Nothing is sacred here, and all of the characters are fair game for the author’s acerbic vision. Koch mines the deep well of student dislike for their teachers, so Herman’s observations about his “dropping like flies” high school teachers are vicious. Each “sad announcement,” for Herman, is just an occasion when “you had to keep your mouth shut and look serious, but what we mostly felt was a sense of justice having been done.”  Koch captures the students’ perceptions as teachers being old and decrepit, boring people who are so mediocre, they might as well die now and get on with it. And then of course, there’s that “one spectacular finish” by social studies teacher Harm Koolhass who “less than half an hour after a midnight landing in Miami,” takes a “wrong exit”:

Somehow we couldn’t reconcile the two images–the trousers and the beaded bag on the one hand, the corpse hanging out of the car with its neck twisted at a strange angle on the other. As though the halls, the classrooms and the auditorium of the Spinoza Lyceum were the worst possible preparation for a violent demise in an American B-movie.

Dear Mr M, shares some thematic connections with The Dinner (the insular world of youthful morality) and Summerhouse with Swimming Pool (a predatory male and an underage girl), but it’s ultimately not as successful a novel. While the first half or so of Dear Mr M was very strong indeed, the plot began to lag when it shifted to Herman’s high school days, and the story’s pacing cools down to teenage friendships and a certain ordinariness. These sections just couldn’t match the ingenuity, viciousness and hilarious spleen of the first half of the novel. That said, in the last chapter, Koch pulls the strands together brilliantly, and the novel ends on a splendid note. Flawed as the novel is, I’ll still read anything from this author.

Review copy

Translated by Sam Garrett

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The Eskimo Solution: Pascal Garnier

“He kills people’s parents the way Eskimos leave their elders on a patch of ice because … it’s natural, ecologically sound, a lot more humane and far more economical that endlessly prolonging their suffering in a nursing home. Besides, he’ll hardly be doing them harm; he’ll do the job carefully, every crime professionally planned and tailored to the person like a Club Med holiday.”

In Pascal Garnier’s The Eskimo Solution, an author of children’s stories decides to branch out into a different genre. On a slim advance from his skeptical publisher, he’s rented a house on the Normandy coast, and begins working on a novel about a middle-aged man named Louis who decides to start killing the parents of various friends in order to ‘gift’ his friends with premature inheritances.

Since everything goes to plan, no trouble with the law or anything, he starts killing the parents of friends in need. Of course, he doesn’t tell them what he’s doing-it’s his little secret, pure charity. He’s an anonymous benefactor, if you like.

Gradually the writer begins to identify with his fictional character and the writer’s life spirals out of control as fiction and reality mix in a deadly and disorienting fashion…

the-eskimo-solutiom

Any one reading The Eskimo Solution will have to pay close attention to the text as Garnier melts back and forth into the crime writer’s life and that of his main character and alterego, Louis. The crime writer’s tale is written in the first person while Louis’ story unfolds in the third, so if you get lost it’s fairly easy to pull yourself back and hang onto ‘reality.’ Any sense of confusion, however, isn’t helped by the fact that there’s another Louis, an elderly neighbour in the crime writer’s life. I asked myself why Garnier used the same name twice and concluded that the two characters named Louis–one real, the other fictional–serve to blur the lines between fact and fiction (in this metafictional novel). And as the novel continues with the plot taking the stance of Life Imitates Art, Garnier is clearly dragging the reader into a life spinning out of control.

I really liked parts of The Eskimo Solution; it’s classic Garnier black humour with the crime writer  bemoaning the fact that he has to wait until his parents die until he gets his hands on a meagre inheritance, hoping all the old people will be wiped out by an epidemic, and pissed off asthe fucking doctors have made them practically immortal,” but overall this is not Garnier’s best by a long shot. The novel’s premise had a lot of promise, and if the crime writer had begun following Louis’ lead, this would have been a much stronger novel. Indeed, Garnier seems to play with this possibility–he even places two elderly people in the path of the crime writer. The elderly neighbours, Arlette and (another) Louis are harmless and sweet, but since the crime writer’s fictional Louis has been bumping off people over 50 at an alarming rate, Garnier dangles the murder of Arlette and Louis as a tantalizing possibility.

Anyway, if you’re a Garnier fan as I am (and this is novel number 9) you won’t be able to resist. The Eskimo Solution shows a middle-aged man chomping at the bit to get his hands on his parents’ money, and like many a writer before him, he uses fiction to resolve the issues in his life. Given that I’ve talked to so many people in the last few years who dumped their elderly parents in ‘rest homes’ while they cleared out their estates, selling off all the parents’ worldly goods asap, this novel hit a chord for me. Garnier illuminates the dark wish of many early middle-aged children, drags it to daylight, and takes it to a typical Garnier-ish conclusion. Garnier’s work can’t all be as good as Moon in a Dead Eye, and when you start reading a large number of novels from any writer, it’s inevitable that you rank them in order of preference. While I wasn’t crazy about The Eskimo Solution, it had its merits in spite of its flaws.

Order of reading preference:

Moon in a Dead Eye

Too Close to the Edge

How’s the Pain

The Front Seat Passenger

The Islanders

Boxes

The Eskimo Solution

The Panda Theory

A-26

Here’s another review at Words and Peace

Review copy

Translated by Emily Boyce and Jane Aitken

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Betty Boo: Claudia Piñiero

“Sometimes we can take the right road, sometimes we have to take other roads without knowing whether or not they are going to lead where we want to go.”

Argentinean crime writer Claudia Piñiero takes us back to familiar territory, an elite community for the very privileged, in her latest crime novel, Betty Boo. In Thursday Night Widows, Piñiero explores the dark secrets that reside in the seemingly affluent gated community and the scandal that erupts when 3 men are found dead in a swimming pool. Betty Boo begins with La Maravillosa Country Club, a Buenos Aires community whose exclusivity and high security does not prevent the occurrence of a vicious murder. The dead man, Pedro Chazarreta, was the suspect in the recent high-profile murder of his wife. Although many considered him guilty, the case was dismissed “on the grounds of lack of evidence,” but now found murdered in exactly the same fashion, in the same house, Chazarreta seems to have received the death he deserved.

Betty Boo

The murder brings together a handful of main characters, including former crime reporter, Jaime Brena. Now humiliatingly demoted to writing meaningless, trite articles for the society section at El Tribuno, Brena, divorced and fighting for possession of his books, looks forward to the time he will own a dog, imagining how the relationship will be and what sort of pet owner he will become. He understands he’s a loner and that makes any relationships problematic:

Only a solitary person is able to be at the side of another without feeling the need, the obligation to possess or change him.

The new crime reporter, dubbed ‘Crime Boy’ by Brena doesn’t seem to have a clue about how to do his job, and Brena, somewhat reluctantly takes the new reporter under his wing. Meanwhile, slimy womanizer, the El Tribuno‘s editor Lorenzo Rinaldi hires Nurit Iscar, dubbed “the Dark Lady of Argentine fiction,” and also nicknamed Betty Boo for her dark curls, to write literary articles about the murder from the vantage point of a plush house within La Maravillosa. Nurit was once a writer of best-selling crime novels but she made the mistake of falling in love during an affair with a married man who had no intention of leaving his wife.

Because you were in love, your head was somewhere else and love and art don’t get on well. Sex and art do, but not love and art.

With her last book written during the affair, a romance called Only If You Love Me, a complete flop, and after a bitterly critical review, Nurit now refuses to write a novel again. Divorced and her children grown and gone, Nurit is a ghostwriter (escritora fantasma), and she’s currently working on the memoir of a privileged society woman.

Nurit and Brena are both great characters worthy of their own series. Both are now reduced to using their writing skills for survival, not for something they feel passionate about, but for generating soulless, meaningless rubbish on cue. Brena, involved with crime once again, is energized. Nurit’s affair was the inspiration for her ill-fated romance book, and now relying on ghostwriting for the wealthy who have the money to fund their own meaningless memoirs, she chugs along in life, aided and abetted by close female friends. Rinaldi’s offer to write articles for the paper could be just the jumpstart her career needs, or then again, as her friends are convinced, the offer may mask an ulterior motive…

Once Nurit is living in La Maravillosa, writing her own material again, and with life offering her choices, she finds that her old skills never left. The depiction of the elite housing community reveals the highly stratified layers within Argentinean society–the have-a-lots and the have-nots, with people like Crime Boy, Brena, and Nurit somewhere in the middle. The great irony of the novel is that while walls, excessively high security, and guards supposedly guarantee safety, murder stalks La Maravillosa.

She thinks how the quotidian –banal, even-elements of daily life can get mixed up with crime in a fusion that both robs the horror of any drama and makes simple things more horrifying.

 Betty Boo is not as tightly plotted as the previous Piñiero novels I’ve read (there’s a sidetrack history of the Betty Boo character, for example) and the dialogue formatting isn’t reader friendly. Still this is a novel from my favourite crime writer from Argentina, so I’ll call her the real ‘Dark Lady of Argentine Crime Fiction.’ This is a novel about second chances (and if you think about it, revenge is a type of second chance), but on another level the emphasis here is of creating a world of “counter-information,” “being informed from a different point of reference, outside the centers of power: an alternative media.” Since this is an Argentinean novel, the reference to secrets and “unpunished crimes” carries additional significance.

By the same author:

Thursday Night Widows

All Yours

A Crack in the Wall

Review copy

Translated by Miranda France

 

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Jack of Spades: Joyce Carol Oates

Point me in the direction of a book written by an unreliable narrator, and chances are I’ll want to read it, and that brings me to Jack of Spades by Joyce Carol Oates. First the disclaimer: I’m not a fan of this author’s novels–although I like some of her short stories, so I hesitated when I saw this.

Jack of Spades is narrated by best-selling author Andrew J. Rush who lives with his wife, Irina in a prestigious home in Harbourton, New Jersey. Almost immediately we can tell that there’s something a little off about Rush, for while he appears almost gushingly humble and self-deprecating, he never misses an opportunity to slip in self-flattery even as he tries to paint himself as a nice, normal man, a pillar of the community. He describes himself as “the most famous of local residents,” and with 28 books to his credit, this is no doubt true. He writes “best-selling mystery-suspense novels with a touch of the macabre. (Not an excessive touch, not nasty-mean, or disturbing. Never obscene, nor even sexist. Women are treated graciously in my mysteries, apart from a few obligatory noir performances.”

Jack of SpadesHere’s where the cracks begin to appear in Andrew’s self-portrait, for while he’s busy emphasizing that his books are in good taste, then he reveals that he writes an entirely different type of book under the pseudonym: Jack of Spades, “born out of my restlessness with the success of Andrew J. Rush.” These books have a cult-type popularity, are extremely violent, sexist, “cruder, more visceral, more frankly horrific.” The local library refuses to stock any titles by Jack of Spades, so Rush donates copies.

So right away, we have a paradox: Rush goes to great lengths to continually explain how his books don’t offend, don’t cross any lines, but then he also produces, secretly, this whole other line of books that are offensive and written in extremely bad taste.  We can only conclude that Rush is a very complicated man who needs to hide his more vicious, violent side beneath the surface of both his personal and professional life.

But is Rush a nice guy at home? As layers of the story drop away, we see Irina through Rush’s eyes. Once she was a promising writer, but now she teaches at a small school. Even though Rush frequently prefaces the word, ‘wife’ with the term “dear,” there’s violence, dominance and control behind his attitude, and that violence occasionally seeps through the surface when she questions her husband or suddenly appears in the areas of the house that are more or less forbidden to her.

Soon after we were married, Irina gave up writing. I had been her most enthusiastic reader and had continued to encourage her, going through drafts of stories and novels, but something hesitant and self-doubting had crept into her sense of herself as a writer. Gently I admonished her–“Darling, you care too much for precision and perfection. There’s no need to polish each damned sentence–just say what you want to say.”

But Irina grew ever more shy about her writing. I hope it wasn’t because I insisted upon reading everything she wrote, and offering my heartfelt, sincere, and sympathetic critiques.

It doesn’t take too long before you realize that the veneer of nice guy and good husband (and what about those estranged children?) is stretched thin and that Rush could explode at any minute. The name ‘Jack of Spades’ is a pseudonym, but it’s also a label for Andrew’s dangerously violent alter ego.

The pivotal incident occurs when Rush is served with a summons to appear at the local courthouse. With a very nice touch, the summons is misspelled, and Rush, for a moment, imagines that there’s some mistake–surely the summons is meant for ‘Andwer J. Rash,’ whoever he is, and not him. But no … as it turns out, he’s being accused by some local nut of plagiarism–and not just plagiarism; he’s also being accused of actually breaking into someone’s home and stealing her unpublished manuscripts.

This accusation sparks a violent turn of events in Rush’s life. So far, he’s barely managed to keep the more violent side of his personality under control. The civil suit tests that ‘nice guy’ veneer to the limit.

There are many. many five-star reviews of Jack of Spades out there. For this reader, in the minority, the book doesn’t have much appeal. Perhaps if I hadn’t read Henry Sutton’s brilliant: Get Me Out of Here or Phil Hogan’s wonderfully nasty  A Pleasure and a Calling, I’d feel differently, but both Hogan and Sutton take the intricacies of the unreliable narrator to new levels; Jack of Spades does not. The narrative exposition lacks subtlety.  Both Henry Sutton and Phil Hogan constructed windows in the lives of two very different, cunning, psychopathic narrators, and while we read about the actions of these men with fascinated horror, it’s to both Hogan and Sutton’s credit that we can acknowledge the nasty intelligence and craftiness of their protagonists as they create mayhem for other people. In the case of Andrew Rush, there’s nothing to admire–not even the bestsellers. Being in his mind is an unpleasant chore.

Jack of Spades is at its best in its references to Stephen King. Andrew Rush is constantly compared to King. This comparison to Stephen King obviously bugs the hell out of Rush who tries to get some recognition from King, and then later he plays a nasty trick involving King that seems both tongue-in-cheek and also references how King attracts the nuts for some reason. While Andrew Rush can’t help but be flattered by the comparisons to King, there’s a niggling annoyance there that Stephen King is richer and much more famous:

With my third bestseller in the 1990s it began to be said about me in the media–Andrew J. Rush is the gentleman’s Stephen King.

Of course, I was flattered. sales of my novels, though in the millions after a quarter-century of effort, are yet in the double-digit millions and not the triple-digit, like Stephen King’s. And though my novels have been translated into as many as thirty languages–(quite a surprise to me, who knows only one language)-I’m sure that Stephen King’s books have been translated into even more, and more profitably. And only three of my novels have been adapted into (quickly forgotten) films, and only two into (less-than-premium cable) TV dramas–unlike King, whose adaptations are too many to count.

But who’s counting, right?

Review copy

 

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The Last Word by Hanif Kureishi

“Otherwise, these days, no sooner has someone been sodomized by a close relative than they think they can write a memoir.” Author Hanif Kureishi seems to be an author readers either love or hate, and this theory is arguably authenticated by a number of vicious, personal comments about the author left on this blog–comments far too nasty to see the light of day. The Buddha of Suburbia was an amazing book, but Kureishi surpassed it with his phenomenal Something to Tell  You, and as Kureishi is not a prolific author, I was delighted to see that he’d written another novel: The Last Word.  This is a story of a young man, Harry, who’s commissioned by a flamboyant, out-of-control publisher, Rob, to write a biography of a Lion of British literature, now in his 70s, the aging Mamoon Azam. Harry goes to live with Mamoon and his second, expensive Italian wife Livia in order to gather material for the book, conduct interviews and gather information from the diaries of Mamoon’s first wife, Peggy. The last wordThere was some gossip that The Last Word was based on V.S. Naipaul, his approved biographer, Patrick French, and the resulting book The World is What it Is, a ‘warts and all’ “confessional biography” (Ian Buruma). Author Hanif Kureishi denies the connection, but when reading The Last Word, it’s impossible not to think of Naipaul–and not just because Naipaul and Mamoon Azam are both “eminent Indian-born writer[s]” who’ve made their careers and homes in England. There are other connections between the lives of the fictional Mamoon and the living Naipaul, and as we might anticipate from a writer of Kureishi’s subtlety, there are also some differences. While Naipaul apparently complied with his biographer’s demands, Mamoon proves to be slippery and the most difficult of subjects. The Last Word begins brilliantly with Harry travelling with Rob by train to Mamoon’s estate. Harry is busy thinking, somewhat dreamily, of the monumental task ahead of him. He’s a book reviewer and a teacher with just one well-received biography under his belt, and now contemplating his future & home ownership, “it had occurred to Harry, in the last year, at least as he matured, that he needed to be well off.” While Harry chews over the project of writing a biography about Mamoon, his publisher Rob, acknowledging that it can “inhibit” a biographer to have a living subject, wants something sensational. Something “mad and wild“:

Harry, the Great Literary Satan is weak and woozy now like a lion hit with a monster tranquilizer. It’s his time to be taken. And it’s in his interest to cooperate. When he reads the book and learns what a bastard he’s been, it’ll be too late. You will have found out stuff that Mamoon doesn’t even know about himself. He’ll be dead meat on a skewer of your insight. That’s where the public like their artists–exposed, trousers down, arse up, doing a long stretch among serial killers, and shitting in front of strangers. That’ll teach ’em to think their talent makes them better than mediocre no-brain tax-paying wages slaves like us.

So of course, we are in for a romp. Here’s Harry commissioned to write an authorised biography of a living legend–a man “too cerebral, unyielding and harrowing to be widely read, [Mamoon was] becoming financially undone; despite the praise and the prizes.” Mamoon is considered a serious writer whose work wrestles with moral issues, and yet publisher Rob, sniffing that there’s plenty of dirt under that stiff writer persona, is pushing for an expose, a dirt-slinging, tabloid style biography which will be a bestseller. According to Rob, Mamoon’s fiercely protective, expensive wife, Livia, is “a man-eater who never passed on a meal,” and Rob even suggests that Harry should be prepared to sleep with Livia to get his story. Between Livia, who wants only a whitewashed biography, and Mamoon who’d rather not have to participate at all, Harry seems to be severely outclassed by craft and personality. The writing here is occasionally brilliant, evidenced here by Rob’s enthusiastic descriptions of two of the women in Mamoon’s life:

Marion, his ex-mistress, a Baconian torso on a plank, is bitter as cancer and spitting gobbets of hate to this day. She lives in America and not only will she see you, she’ll fly at you like a radioactive bat. I’ve organized your visit–some people accuse me of being a perfectionist. There is also the fact he drove his first wife, Peggy, over the edge. I’m sure he wrapped oranges in a towel and beat her blacker and bluer than a decayed Stilton.

And then there’s Rob (my favorite train-wreck of a character):

If Harry thought of himself as a cautious if not conservative person, Rob appeared to encourage his authors towards pugnacity, dissipation, and “authenticity” for fear, some thought, that the act and the art of writing, or even editing, might appear “artistic,” feminine, nancy, or possibly, “gay.” Never mind Mamoon, Harry had heard numerous tales of Rob’s “sociopathic” tendencies. He didn’t go into the office until five in the afternoon, though he would stay there all night, editing, phoning, and working, perhaps popping into Soho. He had married, not long ago, but appeared to have forgotten that wedlock was a continuous state rather than a one-off event. He slept in different places, often in discomfort and with a book over his face, while appearing to inhabit a time zone that collapsed and expanded according to need rather than the clock, which he considered to be fascist. If he became bored by someone, he would turn away or even slap them. He would cut his writers’ work arbitrarily, or change the titles, without informing them.

The novel is about the difficulties of biography and how we align the image of a great writer with a not-so-great human being. According to Rob, Mamoon “has been a dirty bastard, an adulterer, liar, thug, and, possibly, a murderer.” Of course it’s Harry’s job to get to the central truth at the core of Mamoon’s life, so the novel should also, in theory, be about Harry’s journey of discovery. Unfortunately, from its very promising premise and phenomenal beginning, the novel takes a turn with the character of Harry. He’s introduced with hints of naiveté–the way , for example, we’re told that it ‘occurs’ to him that he’ll need to be well off–a phrase that implies a certain unworldliness. Mamoon seems to do everything he can to derail Harry’s desire to gain access, and Livia clearly wants Harry to write a “gentle” hagiography. Both Mamoon and Livia appear to select Harry for the job because he’s one of “the few decent and bright Englishman left on this island,” yet Harry not naïve or decent. As the plot develops, Harry is revealed to be quite the opposite of how he first appeared. And herein lies the central problem, at least for this reader. While the novel is at its best with Kureishi’s caustic bitter wit (seen through Mamoon and Rob), Harry’s personal life quickly overwhelms the central plot and the philosophical questions on which the story rests. Harry is a difficult, unconvincing character and his sexual relationship with a minor character feels particularly contrived. After setting up the initial central dilemma of extracting the sordid truth from Mamoon whether he likes it or not, the plot stagnates, teeters, stumbles and veers towards farce and some scenes and dialogue seem patently false. I’ve come to expect unpleasant characters in Kureishi’s novels, and that’s not a problem as nasty people can be great fun to read about. The major problem in The Last Word is plot momentum and hijacking. So what does Kureishi have to say on the question of how we align the great writers with their often less-than-great characters? The central issue seems to be not so much what a writer does or doesn’t do in his personal life as much as a matter of hypocrisy, and here’s Mamoon on the subject of E. M. Forster:

View? I have no views on a man who claimed he wanted to write about homosexual sex, a subject we certainly needed to know about. Since he lacked the balls to do it, he spent thirty years staring out of the window, when he wasn’t mooning over bus conductors and other Pakis. An almost-man who claimed to hate colonialism using the Third World as his brothel because he wouldn’t get arrested there, as he would showing off his penis in a Chiswick toilet.

Review copy

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The Parrots by Filippo Bologna

A writer writing a novel is like a serial killer who’s keeping a victim locked in the cellar. Every evening, he slides under the cellar door a tray with a little water and stale bread, just enough to keep his victim alive, anticipating the moment when he descends the cellar stairs to have his fun with her.”

As readers, we pay attention to those who carry off the coveted literary prizes in the publishing world. Those who directly benefit are probably the most interested in following the Trail of the Winners and the Losers. I note who wins this or that prestigious prize, but mostly my interest stops there. I don’t have any interest in reading a book just because it’s a prize winner, and I tend to be skeptical of the entire selection process. Nonetheless, I appreciate the efforts of those who try and read the short list for themselves prior to the announcement of the prize, and I also empathize with authors who wait for the news only to hear they’ve been passed over. It would be tempting (and also torturous) for those who didn’t win to read the prize-winning novel and chew over the reasons why this one won while theirs didn’t.

The ParrotsI’ll admit that the nasty side of me wonders what goes on in the minds of the contenders. The healthy thing, of course, would be for any nominee to cross fingers, ignore the process, hope for the best, and then behave gracefully when the prize falls to someone else. Sometimes it’s just not that easy to lose, and stories of rival authors attempting to sabotage each other through Amazon reviews give me hope for humanity. And that brings me to the Italian novel, The Parrots by Filippo Bologna, the cynical, but very funny story of three authors in Rome all competing for the same prize. These authors are known as The Beginner, The Writer, and The Master–all men at different stages of their lives and their writing careers. They are men who want/need that prize for a range of reasons, and given that I love to read books about people who behave badly, it was almost guaranteed that I’d like this.

The Writer, on his second unhappy marriage, and plagiarizer of his mother’s work, badly needs the prize. He tried writing novels “filled with love affairs, lonely desperate men throwing stones at the stars, missed dates, ashtrays overflowing with cigarette ends and women dragged by their hair, raincoated figures waking the night streets, cars speeding by beneath the streetlamps, the glances of strange women behind the windows of buses: that was how he imagined the stories he would one day write.”  But “his stories had kept slipping away from him, his sentences had jammed like rusty revolvers.”  

The Beginner turns out to be a tough contender, and according to The Writer’s publisher, The Beginner’s first novel may win the prize because it’s a “first book. And when it’s your first book, they forgive you everything.”

The Master plagued with bills, is convinced that other writers have the edge due to computers, if he could just “plug his technology gap,” he’ll be able to “rival other writers in creativity.” Facing cancer, he mulls over the “prizes he hasn’t won, the recognition he hasn’t obtained” and he sees the prize as “the only way to take leave of the world with dignity.” This drives him to desperate measures.

The Prize is organized and financed by The Patroness who as “the lines on her face crease a moment like a ruff, then relax” conjures up the image of an aging fashion model.  Votes roll in. The Publisher tells The Writer that he’s behind in the prize voting which he explains is due to the death of voters they used to count on. The rash of deaths has lowered the age of the typical voter on the panel:

The older they are, the better. What little time they have left isn’t enough to read all the books in the competition. So they have to choose: read or live. They can’t do both. That’s why they have to trust what we tell them.

On the other hand, there’s The Beginner:

They’ve had him park his arse on the right sofas, on TV and in drawing rooms, they’ve stuck him on the covers of women’s magazines. He isn’t very intelligent but it’s not vital for him to be intelligent–on the contrary. He’s polite, good-looking, blue eyes, women have a soft spot for him.”

“I don’t think he’s that good-looking, he has a stupid face.”

Of course, you get the idea that it isn’t about the books, it’s about the projected personalities, the PR campaigns, vote rigging, and  the pathetically unattended book events in provincial towns in which The Beginner offers “himself as a sacrifice to a handful of torturers who have emerged from their houses.” And of course, that’s taking the optimistic look that anyone will even show up. But there’s worse: “the neglected provincial writer chosen to chair the debate”:

Because he could well imagine ending up there himself. The Beginner had immediately recognised the type, universally knows as “provincial writer who hasn’t made it”.  It was a very specific, widespread and in no way innocuous, anthropological and literary category. Poisoned by the suspicion, if not the contempt, of their fellow citizens, hurt by the smugness of literary society towards them, worn down by rejection and their own inadmissible lack of talent, such people spent their wretched days exiled to their desks, writing imaginary reviews, updating their blogs, working away at novels doomed to the eternal darkness of a drawer. With the passing of the years, they ended up suppressing their feelings of failure and converting them into a sense of martyrdoms. They constructed vast conspiracy theories in which powerful publishers, ensconced in the centre of things, did all they could to crush anyone outside their own charmed circle–the only proof of this conspiracy, of course, being their own misfortunes. They founded small and apparently crusading publishing houses in some cellar, or directly in their own homes, clandestine distilleries where they got drunk on the very spirits they sold under the counter. By so doing, they were finally able to realize their dream and see some of their own manuscripts in printed form, just for the fetishistic orgasm of touching the cover, leafing through the pages, arranging them on display on the mantelpiece in their best room. The most enterprising of them even managed to found schools of creative writing–on the pattern of the more famous ones–in premises placed at their disposal by cooperatives or local authorities, more as an opportunity to exchange a few words with some human beings on autistic winter evenings than as an assertion of their own debatable teaching skills.

Ouch! That long quote gives a sense of the novel’s tone. Caustic, merciless, and cynical, this clever novel pokes fun at the publishing industry, and apart from the occasional sink into farce, this mostly works. I found the objectification of the three authors: The Beginner, The Writer, and The Master, a bit wearying at times, and asked myself why the author chose to write the novel like this. Why not give his characters names instead of leaving them as types? But after concluding the novel, it seems fair to argue that individualism doesn’t count–identity beyond production doesn’t matter as in many ways. The Beginner, The Writer, and The Master, while three separate human beings plagued with their own issues, are arguably the same person at different stages of their careers in this grubby cannibalistic industry.

The Parrots is a good companion read to Gert Loveday’s very funny novel, set at a writers’ workshop: Writing is Easy.

Review copy/own a copy. Translated by Howard Curtis.

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