Archive for ‘Guardian20’

December 23, 2011

Ann Patchett, State of Wonder

My review of this ran in last weekend’s Sunday Guardian. Patchett is generally a fantastic writer but I certainly wouldn’t consider this among her best work, even if the depiction of the tribes had not put me off horribly.

 

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At one point in Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder the main character, Marina, attends the opera in Manaus, Brazil. It is a performance of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, and Marina instantly thinks of it as her own story. Like Orpheus, she has been sent into hell to bring back someone from the dead.

Officially, Marina is in Brazil to gather information about the work of the elusive Dr Annick Swenson. Swenson’s research into a drug that would drastically extend the years of women’s fertility is funded by Marina’s employers. She has been living among an Amazonian tribe whose women are able to have children long after the age when most women have passed menopause; yet few reports have been sent back. Anders Eckman, Marina’s colleague, had previously been sent to report on Swenson’s work. But Eckman appears to have mysteriously, and his wife Karen has asked his colleague to find the truth.

Marina is forced to stay in Manaus for a large part of the book; with no knowledge of the tribe’s whereabouts, she must wait for Dr Swenson to come to her. This section, filled with disease and insect-filled hotel rooms and all the horrors of a run-down city that is not of the first world, could easily be an enormous cliché. Instead, these are some of the most powerful chapters of the book. If this is a story about a descent into Hell, this prolonged wait, with no end in sight, is distinctly purgatorial. Marina is ill for a significant portion of her stay, and her illness adds a fevered intensity to her perspective, giving her time in the city the feel of a myth. It’s even tempting to look at the Bovenders, the hippie couple who guard Dr Swenson from inquisitive visitors, as some unlikely two-headed Cerberus.

In addition to the Orpheus and Eurydice theme, there’s much of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in Marina’s journey into the jungle. Unfortunately this also means that State of Wonder replicates some of Conrad’s novel’s flaws. The natives are reduced in the main to props and scenery against which the north American characters’ drama is played out. The Lakashi (the tribe among whom Swenson resides) exist as an undifferentiated mass of theft, inappropriate touching and fascination with long hair. A neighbouring tribe have the reputation of killing strangers on sight. The only ‘native’ character to escape this treatment is Easter, a young boy whom first Anders then Marina come to love. Yet even he is reduced to the site for a philosophical debate about moving people out of their contexts.

This apparent racial homogenisation is interesting in the context of Marina’s own relationship with her racial identity. She is half-Indian (her name is Marina Singh) and has visited her father in India multiple times in the past. Marina’s nightmares, when they come, are all of India, and of being lost in a sea of its crowds of bodies (homogenous in her dreams, “their sweat and perfume, the sharp scent of spice carried in the smoke of vendors’ fires and the bitter smell of marigolds strung into garlands”). If this is passable at all, it is because Marina’s dreams are from the perspective of a small child.

Yet she also worries about the ways in which her Indian ancestry causes her to be singled out. In Brazil she realises that she fits in physically in ways that she cannot at home; “she was able to pass in Manaus the way she was never able to pass in Minnesota”. The result of this is that Marina too is vulnerable to the racial assumptions to which her perspective in this book subjects the Lakashi. In one fascinating scene she is mistaken for one of them and becomes an unwilling part of a show put on for white tourists.

Many of State of Wonder’s concerns are ethical ones. Central to the plot is the question of the extent to which the drug company that finances Swenson’s research is entitled to direct or monitor it. In the beginning Marina is wholly with her employer (she is also in a romantic relationship with her boss) – and as the narrative is written from her perspective, so is the reader. Yet Dr Swenson turns out to be more compelling than expected, and her reasoning is hard to dismiss.

State of Wonder is an odd title for a book in which the things one might reasonably expect to be wondrous are all but ignored. The excitement of the science and the grandeur of the Amazon are barely present when compared to Marina’s far realer thoughts of Minnesota. Patchett’s characters are vivid and their relationships finely drawn. Yet they are not this book’s focus. State of Wonder is an accomplished book, but lacks some of the power of Patchett’s earlier work.

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December 2, 2011

Hari Kunzru, Gods Without Men

Or: in which I manage not to refer to James Wood and “hysterical realism”. A version of this appeared in last weekend’s Sunday Guardian here.

 

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In Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men the desert is not a featureless place. It becomes the subject of Native American myth; the setting for conflict between white men and Indian tribes; the location of a cult striving to make contact with aliens. It is the site of visions for a Mormon miner and an Aragonese friar separated by a century, and of military exercises for the U.S Army. The Pinnacles, a rock formation comprising three columns, to the priest symbolise the holy trinity and to the locals a gateway between the worlds of the living and the dead. It is, in short, the backdrop for a history of the United States, from “the time when animals were men” to the present.

If there is a central strand to this polyphonic novel it is the story of the Matharus. Jaz (Jaspinder) Matharu is the son of Punjabi immigrants who disapprove of his marriage to the Jewish-American Lisa. Despite this, the couple seem happy until the birth of their son Raj. Raj is autistic, and the attendant difficulties this brings put a strain on the relationship. Then on a trip to the Mojave Desert Raj vanishes from his stroller.

Raj is not the first vanished child in the story. In the late 1950s Joanie Roberts, a member of the Cohort guided by the Ashtar Galactic Command, cannot locate her daughter Judy among the crowds camped around the Pinnacles. Judy had last been seen talking to a strange glowing boy. In the 1920s the sight of a white-skinned glowing child walking with a Native American man leads to accusations of kidnapping and a group of white men gather to chase this man and hunt him down. There is another child involved – this particular victim is chosen in part because he has fathered a child on a white woman.

Without this background of missing children (both glowing and otherwise) the story of the Matharus is still a fully realised one. We switch between the perspectives of Jaz and Lisa, seeing them from inside and out, realising that they each have their prejudices and irrationalities. With Raj’s disappearance the couple is subjected to a media circus – complete with badly-punctuated, rage- and conspiracy-filled youtube comments, talk show hosts who complain that Lisa is insufficiently emotional*, suggestions that the parents were to blame and that the couple, being wealthy New Yorkers, are fundamentally unsympathetic. Kunzru is presumably invoking the media discourse around the disappearance of Madeleine McCann in 2007. Lisa deals with the situation by turning to spirituality. Jaz’s reactions to his son are entirely plausible within the framework of a realist narrative. Theoretically one could ignore the aliens completely.

But it would be a terrible shame to overlook the rest of the book in favour of the Matharu plot thread. Kunzru’s ability to switch registers between eighteenth century priests, twenty-first century pop stars and everything in between is truly impressive and fully on display. It’s not entirely clear what some of these characters, particularly the pop star, add to the plot. Yet the very fact that there are so many points of view adds to the presentation of the pinnacles as a sort of palimpsest of (mostly paranormal) meaning.

A minor but important aspect of the book is Jaz’s Wall Street job , which involves working with a computer programme called “Walter”. Its inventor, a Kabbalah enthusiast named Cy Bachman, claims to be searching for “the face of God”. Walter connects everything, bringing together seemingly random and unrelated events and points of data.  Even the unbelieving Jaz begins to think that these are part of a larger pattern and that he is meddling with something fundamental – he thinks he may have caused the collapse of one country’s economy, and the Wall street crash follows soon after. But are Walter’s data points really part of a larger pattern?

This stringing together of seemingly random events to create a meaningful whole might work as a metaphor for this novel. As might the act of “running the old way”, a talent possessed by Mockingbird Runner, the man chased across the desert. As he runs, his strides lengthen so that the footprints his pursuers find are impossibly far apart. But the footprints are part of a single trail. This is a book filled with people looking for patterns. And weaving all these disparate stories together are two figures; Coyote, the malevolent trickster figure of Native American legend and (as far from local as anything could get) the glowing alien child.

The Balzac quote with which Kunzru begins his book (and from which he gets his title) is apposite. In the desert there is everything and there is nothing. We make meaning, or we don’t. And so Kunzru is able to end his book by saying of the desert, which has been at the centre of multiple grand narratives that “there was nothing out there at all”. 

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* For Indian readers, there’s a bit of a parallel here to some of the criticism directed at the mother in the Aarushi Talwar murder investigations.
October 30, 2011

The Booker and ‘readability’ and similar imbecilities

I really, really meant to ignore the Man Booker prize this year. But then people said stupid things, and other people said stupid things, and I was this guy and it was unavoidable. I ended up writing a short piece on the particular stupid things around this year’s award for last week’s Sunday Guardian.

(On rereading I do feel I was harsher on Sense of an Ending than I really feel: I enjoyed it, if I thought less of it than some of his previous work.)

 

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This is one of those great and obvious universal truths: the Man Booker prize never satisfies everyone.

The point at which it all began to go downhill this year was at the announcing of the shortlist. This was not because the books selected were shockingly inferior – at this point very few had read all of those chosen anyway – but for external reasons. One was widespread surprise that Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child had been left out. Hollinghurst is a previous Booker winner,and was among the favourites for this year. But there are always surprising omissions from the shortlist (I was deeply annoyed last year when Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies failed to make it) and needn’t have been any reflection on the judges or the books that did get shortlisted. Julian Barnes, who had been been shortlisted thrice before, was the only ‘expected’ name to make it onto the list. Barnes’ Sense Of An Ending would be the eventual winner.

Unfortunately, the judges chose to come out and explain their criteria for selecting the books. Dame Stella Rimington, the head of the panel, claimed that she wanted people to “buy these books and read them, not buy them and admire them”– implying that this (being bought and not read) was the usual fate of Booker-shortlisted books. Her fellow judge Chris Mullin claimed that a major factor for him was that the book should “zip along”.

The furore around these comments shifted the debate entirely. It is obvious that the ability to “zip along” is not the primary factor for which the Booker judges should be looking– or if it is, perhaps we should see about getting our Mr Bhagat a nomination next year*. Literariness is an intangible quality, and one that is hard to defend against the more easily counted factors of sales and popularity, but the very existence of literary prizes rests upon the assumption that some books are better written than others. The question of “readability” is a strange one. Even ignoring the silliness of the term – most books can be read – the Booker hardly has a history of promoting difficult experimental fiction.

In all of this discussion, the books themselves seemed to be forgotten. There were plenty of mutterings about the quality of the shortlist, but very little about the actual books on it. The author Philip Hensher described the list as “disappointing” and the result of a deliberate shift towards the more popular, but did not elaborate on which books were unworthy, or why. Soon after the shortlist had been released a new literary award (The Literature Prize) was announced, backed by John Banville and David Mitchell among others. The launch statement hit out directly at the older prize, claiming that there was a place for this new award since the Booker “now prioritises a notion of ‘readability’ over artistic achievement”.

What emerged from all this was a vague sense that this year’s list of shortlisted books was subpar, the result of populist judges; yet apart from some discontent over AD Miller’s Snowdrops (and there is always at least one book on a shortlist that most people feel doesn’t belong there) there was a near complete lack of criticism that called out specific books and asserted that they did not deserve to be there. It can’t have been much fun for the authors – any winner other than Barnes would be dogged by the assumption that this year’s prize had been all wrong anyway.

Oddly enough, of the shortlisted books I read (there were two in which I had no particular interest) Barnes’ was the one that seemed to “zip along” the most. It took much more time and effort to read Patrick DeWitt’s deceptively simple The Sisters Brothers, which was my own choice for the award. It contains elements of the Western (straying close to genre fiction and the sort of horrifying populism critics of this year’s shortlist are so upset by). But it’s also a fantastically clever piece of absurdist fiction (the Western as written by Samuel Beckett?) and in many ways veers closer to the sort of high-brow experimental fiction in which the Booker rarely displays an interest.

The Man Booker prize is often considered the literary award of a genre too easily stereotyped as middle-aged men navel gazing. It’s an unfair categorisation on the whole, and it’s only slightly ironic that Barnes book is about a middle-aged man reflecting upon his past. Having provided such an unusual shortlist this year’s judges could have treated this as a way of opening up the award. Instead, they chose to paint themselves into a corner. Barnes is a great writer, even if this is one of his lesser works. It’s a pity that in the year in which he finally won the award things should have gone this way.

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 *Though is he readable? Many people seem to find him so, at least.

 

 

October 15, 2011

Nayana Currimbhoy, Miss Timmins’ School for Girls

I wanted very much to like this more but it felt like a bunch of disparate elements thrown together without enough commitment to really explore any of them. Reviewed for TSG here.

 

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Charulata Apte’s most noticeable feature is a prominent, disfiguring “blot” on her face. She’s also from a seemingly-conservative Marathi family, has a strong “vernacular” accent and is the only Hindu on the staff – all qualities that make her something of an outsider at the very English Miss Timmins’ School in Panchgani. She sets herself even further apart from the rest of the staff when she befriends the other outsider in the school, the games teacher Moira Prince and her bohemian friends.

Then one teacher from the school is thrown off a cliff and another disappears, and the residents of Panchgani find themselves drawn into a bizarre murder mystery.

The story is divided into sections narrated by Charu herself and Nandita, a student at Miss Timmins’.  Nandita’s sections have a familiarity to them that suggests that both the author and her narrator have been reading their Enid Blyton. Most of the time this is deftly done – there is breaking out of bounds, forming of clubs, nicknames for teachers; their crime-solving involves a lot of wild theorising and roaming around hunting for clues. This being boarding school, there are also attempts to use planchette to find the real criminal. Yet all of this has the air of something vaguely alien, taken out of books, just as English isn’t really the first language of either of the narrators. So the nicknames for teachers are never quite clever enough to suggest complete control of the language and Nandita in particular is often guilty of awkward phrasing- “Akhila, Ramona, and I, Nandita, decided to skinge together”. Sometimes it’s not entirely clear whether the awkwardness is that of the characters or that of Currimbhoy herself – but when the author occasionally comes up with the perfect metaphor (“we kissed each other like two penguins”) one must give her the benefit of the doubt.

But there is a lot more going on in the novel than an unsolved crime. Charu discovers unpleasant family secrets – concerning both her own family and those of her fellow teachers. Broken and dysfunctional families are something of a recurring theme here. Upon discovering that the avuncular local police inspector has marital problems of his own, Charu is forced to wonder if there are “deep dark secrets lodged in the laps of all… families”. If the novel is to be believed, there are.

References to Shakespeare’s  Macbeth are another recurring event in the novel. Charulata is teaching the play to her students, and frequently the landscape of Panchgani is compared to the setting of the play, with one particular set of rocks called the “Witches’ Needle”, and lots of suitably eerie dark and stormy nights.

Much is made of the absurdity of Miss Timmins’ School. It is an anachronism in the seventies, with its emphasis on Scottish dancing, elasticated bloomers and correct skirt length, as well as the preoccupation ‘proper’ English. But while this is all true, the incongruity of such a school in such a context is lessened by the book’s need to tell us why it is absurd.

Currimbhoy’s Panchgani is the real star of this book. The town, with its scandals, rivalries, restaurants and local drug dealer, feels far more real than the school itself. Currimbhoy is gently funny in her depiction of the local inhabitants, for example Mr Blind Irani and Mr Dubash, elderly men who have long, polite arguments using the letters page of the Poona Herald as conduit. Or the local entrepreneur who decides to branch out into making honey and spends eight months trying to get an American magazine on the subject. When it arrives, the magazine Honey is not at all what he expects.

Currimbhoy never falls into the trap of making Charu too wide-eyed or innocent; her experiments with drugs are described in a matter-of-fact manner that is a relief. She chooses not to overplay the contrast between Charu’s comparatively sheltered (from sex and drugs, if not from sordid family secrets) background and the world of her new friends. Perhaps the only moment where this portrayal falters is in the moment where she discovers that she is bisexual and rather tediously insists that she must be “a wanton woman”.

Miss Timmins’  School For Girls’ one great failure is that it touches on multiple genres while failing to take advantage of them. Currimbhoy has all the weight of the mystery, the school story and the coming-of-age novel to draw upon. There’s even the considerable power of Macbeth, should she have chosen to strengthen that connection. She does not. The result is a novel that is almost one of many genres, but somehow falls in the middle to be nothing in particular. Currimbhoy is a good writer, and parts of her novel are fantastic. But a boarding school murder mystery with a lesbian love affair should never be in danger of becoming boring, and this oneoccasionally comes close.

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September 24, 2011

Shailaja Bajpai, Three Parts Desire

In last week’s TSG. I’m rarely this entirely negative about a book but I didn’t get along with this one at all. On the paper’s website here, or slightly edited below:

 

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Is it possible to write a successful novel in which the main characters have no names? (Yes). Is it possible to write a successful novel in which practically all of the characters are unpleasant? (Yes). Is it possible to do both of these things while writing a saas-bahu saga? At this point it all breaks down.

Shailaja Bajpai’s Three Parts Desire is a multi-generational saga about the life of “Didi” (her only name, given to her by her maid and lifelong companion Sita), the daughter of “Mem”. As a young girl Didi travels to America, where she tastes freedom (in the form of friends, movies and champagne) and has a brief affair with an American boy before returning to India to be forced into an arranged marriage. Confessing her carnal experience to her new husband Purushottam, or Purush (literally “man”; even he cannot be given a real name) turns out to be a bad idea. By the time Didi’s daughter “Baby” has been born, the marriage has fallen apart.

When the story opens, Didi has been separated from her husband for some years, and is living with Sita in a small house on a hill station. Skipping back and forth in time the novel moves between Didi’s disastrous marriage and (the now adult) Baby’s attempts to understand the events leading up to the point where her mother left the family home. There is no great mystery involved here; knowing what we do of Didi’s past life, at least part of the story is obvious.

Simultaneously the novel explores Baby’s relationship with Karthik, whom she meets at university. Karthik is almost unique in the book in having a name of his own. He is also probably the closest this novel comes to a sympathetic character, and he is almost excruciatingly worthy. Baby is perpetually angry, Sita’s narrow-minded moralising is grating rather than endearing, Purush is repulsive and Didi and Som Devi, both complex characters, are frustratingly under-explored.

Characters talk like no one on earth. Didi is curious about how Karthik “[met] that beautiful but self-willed daughter of mine”. She describes her own sindoor as her “red signpost […] it tells everyone who I am”. The difficulty of creating an authentic sounding speech in English literature for characters who are clearly speaking a different language has produced some howlers in the past, and it does so here again. Som Devi’s speech is peppered with “I am telling”, and Mem insists that her husband must be “here-there” before calling the domestic help “an ulloo, Hari Prasadji, bilkul ulloo!”

Matters aren’t helped by Bajpai’s apparent fondness for the most jarring of similes. Karthik’s life “had been abruptly disconnected like a telephone line with an unpaid bill”. Later, when his hand is injured, “the blood was smeared ketchup on finger chips”. Baby goes one up (and again we have the awkward switch from one language to another) when she licks his bleeding knuckles. “’Karela,’ she observed, ‘your blood tastes of bitter gourd’”.

Then there are the overwrought bits of symbolism (for example, a long paragraph in which Baby watches a bird dithering between security and freedom before it chooses to commit suicide by flying into a tree trunk).

And there are turns of phrase from the narrative itself that are bizarre. On the very first page of the book we meet a shop assistant with “a charcoal smudge moustache and an Adam’s apple straining out of his neck”.

An un-likeable character is not necessarily a bad one and there are good stories to be told here. We are told little of Baby’s time in America, but the little we do know makes her character far more complex. Karthik’s difficulties with his family and his desire to do the right thing could make for a good character arc. Didi and Som Devi, as I mention above, are grey characters deserving of a lot more insight. And insight is what this book lacks the most – there are characters and relationships that may seem inconsequential on the surface, but are worthy of exploring; yet the book seems uninterested in doing this. It’s hard to tell exactly what it is that the novel and its author are interested in doing. The choice to give these characters universal names might imply a deliberate movement away from focusing on their individual personalities, but why? Three Parts Desire meanders through the lives of these unlikeable people, telling us next to nothing about them. For a novel that is quite long (over four hundred pages) it has very little to say.

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*Do I need a glossary for this? Briefly:
“Didi” – older sister; “Purush” – male; “sindoor” – this; “bilkul ullu” – literally a complete owl, but she just means he’s an idiot; “karela” – bitter gourd; “saas-bahu” – mother-in-law–daughter-in-law dynamics, but no glossary is enough to really explain this.
August 7, 2011

E.M. Delafield, Diary of a Provincial Lady

Last week’s Left of Cool piece. I’d been meaning to get around to reading this book for a while – it had been recommended to me by friends (including the always-reliable in these matters Anna Carey). I loved this so much; the rueful tone, the self-awareness, the snobbery, the not understanding why Robert can’t understand that the new footman has a funny name, the social anxiety and the obvious intelligence. I’m glad I discovered Delafield, and I look forward to reading more.

(A version of this appeared in TSG here etc)

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There’s a particular form of criticism of some writers (like Jane Austen, horrifyingly enough) which suggests that their work isn’t worth much because it’s so limited in scope. They only write about domestic issues, relationships, day-to-day household life. Trivial subjects all.

But in the hands of some writers triviality is not such a bad thing. No one who isn’t completely joyless complains that P. G. Wodehouse restricts himself to a bunch of mentally deficient upper-class English twits, when what he does with these characters is so good. And in E. M. Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady, a few months in the life of an upper-middle-class, harried mother of two is the stuff of genius.

Delafield’s “Provincial Lady” lives in a village with her two children, the mademoiselle who acts as governess to her daughter, and Robert, her husband. Robert works as a land agent for a Lady Boxe (Lady B) who frequently pops in to patronise our heroine. Robert is always grumpy about something, their daughter Vicky has a knack for saying the wrong thing at the wrong moment, and their son Robin spreads chaos and destruction whenever he is home from school. The house is never tidy, the cook is always upset about something, and nothing ever seems to go quite right. The Vicar’s wife visits and refuses to leave, and a local suffragette is trying to raise political awareness.

Our unnamed provincial lady worries frequently about money. This seems ridiculous – the family has a governess, a domestic staff of at least three people, and a son who goes to what seems quite a fancy boarding school. There’s plenty of classism here, as you’d expect. And yet it’s not as offensive as it might have been in other circumstances, and the narrator has everything to do with it.

In part it is the tone of the book. Diaries are usually intended only to be read by the person writing them*, and Delafield’s fictional diary is therefore written as if to assume that the reader can follow the supposed writer’s thoughts – jumping from topic to topic without any particularly obvious logical connection. It’s a surprisingly intimate style and it works.

She’s also accessible because she isn’t perfect. A recurring theme in the book is her failure throughout the year to successfully grow hyacinths indoors from bulbs, with cats, husbands, children and incomprehensible instruction booklets all getting in the way. She’s also never quite dressed right for the occasion. She catches measles as an adult in the most undignified possible manner. She’s never quite at ease in social or cultural situations. She worries about being wrong about literature (“Have a depressed feeling that this is going to be another case of Orlando about which was perfectly able to talk most intelligently until I read it, and found myself unfortunately unable to understand any of it”) and about how people will see her (“feel that if I do mention this, everybody will think I am boasting–which indeed I should be–so better forget about it”).

Yet all of this is done with a sense of rueful self-awareness. She knows very well that the social circles into which she aspires to fit are pretentious. (“Americans, we say, undoubtedly hospitable–but what about the War Debt? What about Prohibition? What about Sinclair Lewis? Aimée MacPherson, and Co-education? By the time we have done with them, it transpires that none of us have ever been to America, but all hold definite views, which fortunately coincide with the views of everybody else.”) She knows the class system is silly. She knows that her various failures are funny – her diary suggests that she’s laughing at herself throughout.

If this seems heartless, it isn’t. There are flashes throughout of genuine feeling; but feeling filtered through a well-developed sense of irony. The result is familiar and hilarious.

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*Unless you are a character in an Oscar Wilde play. Doesn’t Cecily Cardew say somewhere that her diary is totally private and consequently meant for publication?

July 23, 2011

Edward Gorey, The Curious Sofa

Last week’s Left of Cool piece focused on this strange, clever book by Edward Gorey (who can usually be counted on for strangeness and cleverness). At the paper’s website here, or in unedited form below:

 

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Some people believe that the real purpose of a book or a film is simply to tell a story well, with things like style being secondary concerns. These people must find pornography very frustrating indeed. Regardless of any aesthetic merits that porn might have (and we could argue over what these are indefinitely) it must be admitted that it rarely provides a solid plot or fleshed out characters. Equally, however, you could argue that these are not flaws but features. Pornography doesn’t so much fail at traditional storytelling as it succeeds at being pornography.
“Ogdred Weary” has a name that is an anagram of that of Edward Gorey,the renowned artist and writer. It’s possible that this is a coincidence. Gorey is best known for The Gashlycrumb Tinies, an illustrated alphabet book in which twenty-six children with names beginning with all the letters of the alphabet die in diverse and horrible ways. Ogdred Weary, by contrast, is barely known at all for his book The Curious Sofa: A Pornographic Work.
The Curious Sofa is the story of Alice, who is sitting on a park bench eating grapes when she meets Herbert, a well-endowed (the text tells us, though the illustrations only show him fully clothed) young man. Matters proceed in a manner easily recognisable to anyone familiar with the genre. Herbert escorts Alice to the home of his aunt Celia (the taxi ride providing Alice with new experiences) where a house party appears to be in progress. Alice seems unfazed by events. There follow a series of tableaux involving French maids, well-formed butlers, a game called “thumbfumble” and a couple who both “had wooden legs, with which they could do all sorts of entertaining tricks”. Frolicking gardeners and a sheepdog ensure that the work covers a reasonably broad range of the better known subgenres of pornography. The fun continues the next day, with a change of location and the addition of a few more characters. Thus far things seem to be proceeding as one would expect.

And yet Gorey Weary is coy about the actual acts. The word sex, or any of its synonyms are never mentioned in the book, and nor are any particularly direct euphemisms. People “romp”, “frolic”, perform “rather surprising service[s]”. The illustrations never show genitalia, merely people (usually fully clothed) standing or sitting around, usually eating grapes (which for some reason always seem to show up in depictions of erotic situations).

The sex acts in question (if indeed they are sex acts; perhaps it’s all in the reader’s filthy mind?) grow increasingly bizarre as time passes. We can well imagine what Alice might have been doing with the sheepdog, but what of Scylla, the guest with “certain anatomical peculiarities”  who demonstrates “the ‘Lithuanian Typewriter’” with the help of two young men? What is the “astonishing little device” provided by Reginald, another guest?  And what on earth is the “terrible thing” that Gerald did to Elsie with a saucepan?

We are not fated to find out. Elsie’s sudden and unexplained death is the first indication that all is not well. Soon after, the partiers visit Sir Egbert, possessor of the “Curious Sofa” of the title. Alice feels “a shudder of nameless apprehension”.

We never see the curious sofa (the illustration has it shielded by the audience), but with its nine legs and seven arms its proportions seem decidedly non-Euclidean. Nor do we know what the “machinery inside the sofa” does. All we know is that Alice begins to “scream uncontrollably” before the book ends. The last picture in the book is a bunch of grapes abandoned on the floor. Whatever is going on in that room, the party would appear to be over.

The Curious Sofa may be the only book in the world to combine pornography with a nod to country house murder mysteries and an almost Lovecraftian horror element. Readable as a clever comment on plot in porn or simply a bit of dark hilarity, this is classic Gorey. Or Weary.

 

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Suggestions for shocking saucepan-inclusive sex acts now solicited. I was not expecting that sentence to be quite so alliterative.

 

 

June 19, 2011

Francine Pascal, Sweet Valley Confidential

Somewhere in my blog drafts there exists a post about sequels (particularly when they come a few years later, and/or are by different authors) as a form of literary criticism – in that they generally comment in some way upon the original text. This being my blog I was illustrating this with reference to the Pamela Cox Malory Towers/St Clare’s sequels and fillers. Some day I must see about finishing it. But this is what makes sequels inherently interesting to me (and is also a big reason for my championing fanfiction, but that’s another post).

I’m also deeply fond of the Sweet Valley High books. We have a long history together – I bought my first at the airport when I moved from England to India; I got into trouble at school a couple of years later with a certain teacher who thought she ought to be allowed to dictate what I read; I bonded with wonderful people (like the brilliant Anna) over them.
Recently I reviewed Sweet Valley Confidential, the ten-years-later sequel to the Sweet Valley High books. The review was here in last week’s TSG. The unedited version is below – I did think of putting some of my reactions while reading it up here, but the only point at which they really got funny was my outrage at Lila Fowler’s boob job (should I have put a spoiler warning here?). I will eventually put up a plot synopsis in crayon, though.

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There’s a sense in which all adaptations, sequels, and even fanfiction of a work of literature or film function as a kind of critical appraisal. This is inevitable –each of these requires commentary on and interpretation of the original work. So a “ten years after” sequel to a successful franchise, years after the franchise has run its course, and by the woman who created the characters and setting yet didn’t actually write the books, has the potential to be far more interesting than the book itself would indicate.

The Sweet Valley High series (along with its various spinoffs; Sweet Valley Kids, Sweet Valley University, and others) was conceived of by Francine Pascal. At the centre of the series were the Wakefield twins, Jessica and Elizabeth, beautiful and identical but with opposite personalities. The new sequel, Sweet Valley Confidential, revisits the same characters ten years later.

A sequel to the Sweet Valley books was never going to follow any sort of internal consistency. This would be impossible; while the original series allegedly took place when the twins were 16, the books existed in that strange suspended time as do a lot of long series. Multiple birthdays and Christmases passed without aging the characters in the slightest. All this means that Sweet Valley Confidential is able to pick and choose its history and it does so seemingly at random.

In this book the twins are estranged. Elizabeth works as a theatre critic in New York, cut off from her family. After a disastrous marriage to a jealous millionaire, Jessica is engaged to Elizabeth’s former boyfriend Todd.

The original readers of the Sweet Valley High books are all in their twenties and thirties now, and presumably well aware of some of the more ridiculous aspects of the series. So, it seems, is Pascal herself. It’s hard to imagine why anyone who hadn’t read the original series would pick this book up, and this knowledge allows Pascal to do more with the book than she could otherwise have done. The book is full of snarky references to the original series. It’s never outright parody, but there’s an arch knowingness to it – a signalling to the readers that both she and they know this is all very silly. A scene in which the twins’ mother is reduced to growling “bring out the fucking cake” is hilarious entirely because of its incongruity with the original series. At times the tone is outright sarcastic:

It was a fun wedding. Not a whole lot different from any Sweet Valley High dance, which, as everyone knows, is not a whole lot different from real life.

The book ends with an epilogue of the “where are they now” variety, in which we are given potted histories of characters who were not mentioned in the book itself. This is blatant fan service, but then, so is the whole book.

At times the mocking allusiveness can be genuinely uncomfortable. In veiled references that would be lost to anyone who didn’t remember the original books, Pascal reminds us of an attempted date rape and a false accusation of sexual assault that took place between couples who (in this book) are now living happily ever after.

The knowing tone is unpleasant, but it is not consistently maintained. At some points this seems a genuinely unironic sequel –the twins are still flawlessly beautiful and talented, fat people are still anathema, and everyone is still the same person he or she was in high school.

Then there’s the sheer badness of it all. Jessica’s ditziness is indicated by the dropping of anachronistic (Sweet) Valley girl “likes” into everything she says. Then there’s the sex; it’s odd enough to see characters from one’s childhood having sex, but Pascal makes it all quite needlessly terrible; in the first chapter Elizabeth’s heartbreak is so profound that “[s]he cried after every orgasm”. Or this, rather happier encounter:

When they made love, it was completely loving, full of such deep tenderness that the passion almost played second to the adoration.

But the passion was there, and once the love had been established, the excitement took over and spun them out into the wild reaches of the glorious.

At last Elizabeth knew the splendid, the marvelous, the amazing, the spectacular!

The over the top!

Over the top indeed.

Read without reference to the rest of the series, Sweet Valley Confidential is merely a bad book. With the knowledge of the context behind it, however, it is awkward, uncomfortable, and depressing. One can only hope that the forthcoming Sweet Valley High movie, to be scripted by Diablo Cody, is less painful.

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I do have questions. With the option of cherrypicking her series history, Pascal could so easily have not included the attempted daterape or the false accusation – just as she chose to ignore Jessica and Todd’s multiple affairs over the course of the series. Things like this make me wonder if the book is more thought out than it appears – which doesn’t stop it from being shite, but still.
May 22, 2011

Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner, Rob Sitch, Molvanîa: A Land Untouched By Modern Dentistry

My Left of Cool piece this week was about the travel guide Molvanîa: A Land Untouched By Modern Dentistry.
Here is a famous citizen of Molvanîa:

And here is the column.

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One of the many wonderful things that Youtube has given me over the years is “supersonic electronic”, a song about romance and interstellar travel by Zlad!. (Sample: “Hey love crusader, I want to be your space invader; for you I will descend the deepest moon crater”). At the end of the song Zlad! salutes his supposed homeland, Molvanîa. I was curious about this country and wished to find out more.

Molvanîa is the subject of a 2003 travel guide (of the Jetlag Travel Guides series), Molvanîa: A Land Untouched by Modern Dentistry. In this volume, experienced travellers like Philippe Miseree and Andy ‘The Animal’ Wilson explore the major cities of Molvanîa, providing prospective tourists with useful information regarding the hotels (equipped with spittoons and occasionally furniture), the cuisine (centred around pork fat, beetroot and garlic brandy) , and cultural activities (consisting in the main of pornography or peasants beating donkeys).

Located somewhere in central Europe, the country features some diverse geographical features. The Molvanîan Alps to the South, the Steppes to the East, the Great Central Valley (home to the capital city of Lutenblag) and the Western Plateau. It has a fascinating past. During its eventful history this small country has been invaded by Goths, Tatars, Turks, Huns, Balts, Lombards and militant Spanish nuns (the Romans were scared off by a description of Molvanîan women). In the 20th century, buoyed by liquorice and parsnip production, Molvanîa entered World War II on the side of the Germans. In the post-war period it came under Soviet control. That all changed with the fall of the Lutenblag Wall (due to shoddy construction) in 1982.

Molvanîa has had its share of great personalities. Djar Reumerten, the country’s most famous philosopher, is known for having proved conclusively that he did not exist. There is scientist Willjm Krejkzbec, a Nobel Prize near-winner whose “academic fame has been largely overshadowed by his much-publicised interest in sado-masochism (see ‘Museums’ section p106)”. Szlonko Busjbusj, the father of modern Molvanîa, reduced the alphabet by 33 letters, made wheelbarrows legal tender, and has a number of bridges, rivers, roads, and a communicable disease named after him. The country’s patron saint, St. Fyodor, is best known for drinking an entire vat of communion wine, and occasionally fasting for up to three hours.

Molvanîa is fictional; a hodge-podge of clichés and jokes about Eastern Europe. This is certainly not the first travelogue to focus on a fictional country. A notable predecessor is Malcolm Bradbury’s Why Come To Slaka?, purportedly written by the politburo for travellers to an imaginary soviet state (Slaka had previously been the setting for Bradbury’s novel Rates of Exchange). Bradbury’s travelogueis about satirising propaganda quite as much as it doesthe genre of travel writing. Molvanîa: A Land Untouched by Modern Dentistry is less ambitious, taking its format from the more easily recognisable travelogues with which we’re all familiar. Chapters on the major cities are divided into sections about transport, accommodation, dining, shopping and entertainment, and these are all subdivided into luxury, mid-range and budget options. The back flap carries a guide to the symbols used in the book, which include such markers as “Nudist camp” (symbolised by a pair of binoculars), and “Devil worship” (a pentacle) as well as more ordinary ones such as “entertainment” (a hangman) and “public toilet” (a lit cigarette). The last pages of the book also advertise other works in the series, such as Let’s Go Bongoswana, Viva San Sombrero! and Surviving Mustaschistan.

The book never seems sure what sort of humour it is aiming for. It careens wildly between hilariously earnest praise and snarky comment – the latter generally beating the reader over the head with its humour. The spoof titles above are an example of what’s wrong here: Surviving Mustaschistan? Was that really the best they could do? It’s things like this that keep Molvanîa: A Land Untouched by Modern Dentistry merely amusing instead of outright hilarious. The Zlad! song was better.

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May 9, 2011

John Hodgman (ed), The McSweeney’s Joke Book of Book Jokes

Why yes, I did write an entire column about a joke book. This week’s Left of Cool.

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A surprising amount of our humour is about the difference between “us” and “them”. With the cruder forms of humour this is obvious. Most jokes about women, or gay people, or people from other countries, or people with funny accents are clearly meant for an audience of people like the teller, not like the subject. There’s a sort of bonding that goes on; you and I can joke about this because we are the same; our separation from those people is shared. In that sense, most jokes are in-jokes.

If there’s a publisher that understands this, it is probably McSweeney’s. McSweeney’s, the publishing house behind the journal McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern among other things, was founded by Dave Eggers. It’s easy to dislike McSweeney’s and everything connected to it; everything the company publishes is infused with an archness and a self-reflexive irony that can be quite irritating. Eggers himself is best known for his book A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and that title is indicative of much of the sort of thing that is associated with his company. It can be smug, it can be overly precious, it is far too concerned with its own cleverness – and all of these criticisms can be found in the works it publishes itself. For example, the website McSweeney’s Internet Tendency boasts a piece titled “McSweeney’s Pretentious Horseshit”, part of a series of letters to “entities unlikely to respond”.

Yet the sheer cleverness of their publications, the willingness to play around with form, and the association with a number of brilliant authors make up for much of what would otherwise be unforgivably irritating. I suppose it is possible to loathe McSweeney’s, but I’ve never fully managed it.

Few publishing houses display so clearly their knowledge that they are directed toward a specific demographic of people. Add to that the recursive nature of a book about books and it makes perfect sense that The McSweeney’s Joke Book of Book Jokes (published by Vintage, who have published other McSweeney’s anthologies before) should exist.

That the cover is on backwards is only the first indication of the sort of book this is. It is is more about the hilarity of books in general than about particular parodies of specific books. It does not require you to be that much of a reader; what it does require is that you know a bit about books. So there are multiple riffs off the canon -James Joyce gets a couple of entries, as does Homer; Lolita, Macbeth and Beowulf are present and Gregor Samsa has a cameo as a sports coach – but none of them require that much familiarity with it. We all know the basic plots and characters, and that is enough. The number of people who have willingly read Boswell’s life of Samuel Johnson is probably very small, yet Teddy Wayne’s “Johnson’s Life of Boswell” works simply because we know that Boswell existed.

When it isn’t playing with the sparknotes version of the literary canon, the collection focuses on books that it can be reasonably sure everyone has read – children’s books. The Harry Potter parodies fall flat, but John Moe’s “Winnie-the-Pooh is My Coworker” is excellent. As is “Re: Hardy Boys Manuscript Submission” by Jay Dyckman, in which an editor turns down a rather too contemporary manuscript.

Other pieces choose to talk about literariness, rather than specific books. Notable are Brian Bieber’s “Tales of Erotica: Chuck Norris and Me” and a piece in which Charlie Anders has a serial killer explain literary terms (the “Synecdoche vs. Metonymy” section is illustrated through dismembered body parts and is really very illuminating).

If The McSweeney’s Joke Book of Book Jokes doesn’t require specialised literary knowledge, then, it’s still a book of in-jokes of sorts. It is a book directed specifically at the McSweeney’s reader; indeed it almost manages to be an in-joke about in-jokes.

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