Saturday, 16 July 2016

NEW GRUB STREET by George Gissing

This is a book about struggling young artists, and in my opinion it is totally authentic, because it's main focus is on money.

Not, obviously, on having money, but on not having it. It's probably the most money-focused book I've ever read; far more than many about bankers, or artistocrats. That's because one of the best things about having money is that you don't have to think about money. The writers in this book discuss Greek poetry, and plotlines, and publication, but they spend far more time on where you can get a loaf of bread for a half a pence less, and what makes a shirt collar last, and how long you will live if you pawn your overcoat in November vs December. My key take-away: damn the Edwardian era was tough. Struggling artists in those days really know how to STRUGGLE. Also, side bar: thank god for the NHS.

Overall, it's a grim story, in which an idealistic young writer, who wants to do good work, ends up impoverished, and dead, while a hack, who acknowledges what he writes is rubbish, and who reluctantly (and yet enthusiastically) marries for money ends up happy and fulfilled. There a clear strong sense of the inevitability of the triumph of pragmatism, and the foolishness of aspiration. A sobering read.

Sunday, 5 June 2016

A LITTLE LIFE by Hanya Yanagihara

This novel drips shortlists and rave reviews from quality papers, and probably deserves them all. It starts off as a story of four friends from college all trying to make it, mostly in the arts. This was my favourite part of the novel, capturing early adulthood wonderfully well. Here's a description of a restaurant where one of them, an aspiring actor, works:
Not everyone who waited at Ortolan was an actor. Or to be more precise, not everyone at Ortolan was still an actor. . . . It was easy to tell who at Ortolan was once an actor and was now a career actor . . . Acting was like a war, and they were veterans: they didn't want to think about the war, and they certainly didn't want to talk about it with naifs who were still eagerly dashing toward the trenches, who were still excited to be in-country. . . How did you know when it was time to give up? . . . Was it when you got fat, or bald, or got bad plastic surgery that couldn't disguise the fact that you were fat and bald? When did pursuing your ambitions cross the line from brave into foolhardy? How did you know when to stop? In earlier, more rigid, less encouraging (and ultimately, more helpful) decades, things would be much clearer: you would stop when you turned forty, or when you got married, or when you had kids, or after five years, or after ten years, or fifteen. And then you would go get a real job, and acting and your dreams for a career in it would recede into the evening, a melting into history as quiet as a briquette or ice sliding into a warm bath.

But these were days of self-fulfillment, where settling for something that was not quite your first choice of a life seemed weak-willed and ignoble. Somewhere, surrendering to what seemed to be your fate had changed from being dignified to being a sign of your cowardice. There were times when the pressure to achieve happiness felt almost oppressive, as if happiness were something that everyone should and could attain, and that any sort of compromise in its pursuit was somehow your fault.
This gives a feel of the energy and fun of the novel, and will doubtless make painful reading for those who spent any part of their twenties in variously the fine arts, fashion, or media.

Slowly the book turns more to focus on one of the friends, a character called Jude. He has had a very tough childhood, and we start to veer dangerously close to misery memoir. There are pages and pages on self harm, on suicide attempts, and so forth. At some point you wonder at what point it is okay to go from being sorry to being annoyed. That said, I read all 800 some pages in two or three days, so clearly the author's doing something right. Especially appealing I think is the creation of a particular world, which I'm very familiar with - a big city kind of life, that is lived without a lot of the ordinary accoutrements of adulthood (children, mortgages, etc) - that I don't think is very represented yet, in the literature. I looked up the author (who interestingly, given that the book is almost entirely about gay men, is a woman) and I see this was in her mind as she wrote it. Here she is, on her characters:
None of them are legally married or have kids, and this book is also meant to be a homage to a different kind of adulthood, one that isn’t often celebrated in fiction, but which is adulthood nonetheless. An adulthood in which there is a primacy of friendship. It exists perhaps particularly in New York, where people have come to erase their past to a degree in a family of like-minded people. The 20th century was all about romance, but that is quite a recent idea. Friendship is perhaps a purer relationship, I think.
I've thought for a while that the lives of many people I know are based very much on friends and housemates rather than parents and children, and it's interesting how little represented this is in arts and media. Well done A LITTLE LIFE, for giving us what's presumably the first of many such stories.

Saturday, 4 June 2016

GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN by James Baldwin

Of this novel, his first, Baldwin said "MOUNTAIN is the book I had to write if I was ever going to write anything else. I had to deal with what hurt me most. I had to deal with my father."

And he certainly odes deal with his father. Big time. The novel takes place during a single all-night church service during which the 14 year old John (i.e., James Baldwin) gives his heart to Jesus. The novel dips in and out of the memories of all of his family, covering everything from his grandmother, who was a freed slave, to his mother and aunt and of course, his father, who though a lay preacher is essentially the novel's monster. It's unclear if John's conversion is a submission to, or victory over, the man.

Baldwin has a dark view of family life, and every relationship is complicated and unhappy. The freed slave woman, for example, is mostly pictured as a burden her daughter can't wait to escape: it's frighteningly unsentimental.

It's also remarkably written. It's full of the Bible. Here he is on Broadway: "And certainly perdition sucked at the feet of the people who walked there: and cried in the lights, in the gigantic towers; the marks of Satan could be found in the faces of the people who waited at the doors of the movie houses; his words were printed on the great movie posters that invited people to sin. It was the roar of the damned that filled Broadway, where motor-cars and buses and the hurrying people disputed every inch with death. Broadway: the way that led to death was broad, and many could be found thereon; but narrow was the way that led to life eternal, and few there were who found it."

It's a great novel, showing what can happen at that wonderful point where poetry and self-help converge.

Saturday, 21 May 2016

THE CHRYSALIDS by John Wyndham

John Wyndham is famous for DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS, a terrific novel that if you haven't read you ought to. It's about alien plants aiming to take over the world: you know you want to. I've been thinking about it often this spring, because frankly all this fecundity in April has its creepy side.

Anyway, THE CHRYSALIDS I read is contained in a charming old hardback called THE JOHN WYNDHAM OMNIBUS and is a charming old post-nuclear-apocalypse novel. It begins in the best tradition of such books with some children sweetly playing together only to uncover a horrible truth . . . that one of them has six toes. This is horrible because ever since 'Tribulation' humanity has been trying to claw its way back to purity and exterminate any mutant strains. Awesome. As often with such novels we have fun with the theme but it does not quite develop into a successful plot, but who cares. It did make me think that it's interesting we are today so relatively unafraid of nuclear holocaust. There's no reason to be less afraid - indeed we should be more, as nuclear power moves into non-state hands - but I guess it's hard to keep up an appropriate level of terror in the long term.

The third novel in the OMNIBUS was THE KRAKEN AWAKES, which I liked too. It reminded me of my dad, who always used to greet me with that when I woke up late on a weekend. I never knew where it came from. Dad did love a good mid twentieth century scifi, and so do I.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

MORT by Terry Pratchett

My inability to entertain myself is probably getting close to abnormal. I was recently in Rome and ran out of reading matter just before we were about to travel back to London. Panic! What will I do? Think my own thoughts? What a horrible prospect. So I looked through the Kindle app on my travelling companion's iPad and found a bunch of books by an author who I loved as a teenager - Terry Pratchett, which included my old favourite MORT.

MORT is the story of an awkward young man who cannot find an apprenticeship in his own village and so agrees to become an apprentice to an athropomorphic entity representing DEATH. So he learns the scythe carrying, and the hour glass wrangling, and so forth and so on . . . never mind: the fun of Terry Pratchett is not in the plot, which is always a bit half-hearted. It's not the destination, or even the journey, it's more the scenery. As for example when Mort is looking at a rock: "It had curly shells in it, relics of the early days of the world when the Creator had made creatures out of stone, no one knew why."

It got me to London, anyway.

HEARTBURN by Nora Ephron

This book is a comic retelling of the end of the author's second marriage. As she says in the introduction: " . the book you're about to read . . is often referred to as a thinly disguised novel. I have no real quarrel with this description, even though I've noticed, over the years, that the words 'thinly disguised' are applied mostly to books written by women. Let's face it, Philip Roth and John Updike picked away at the carcasses of their early marriages in book after book, but to the best of my knowledge they were never hit with the thinly disguised thing." It's true, this mid-twentieth century generation of novelists seem to have been obsessed with their exes: our current easy-come-easy-go relationship to marriage doesn't seem to provide quite the same grist for the novelistic mill.

HEARTBURN is a light-hearted story, though a little gimmicky for my taste, with receipes included throughout as part of the plot. I think the actual divorce must have been awful: she had a two year old and was seven months pregnant when she found out her husband was not just having sex with someone else but actually in love with her. As she says: "I've managed to convert an event that seemed to me hideously tragic at the time to a comedy - and if that's not fiction, I don't know what is."

I also enjoyed the setting - it's New York among the monied classes in the 1970s, so everyone is eating souffle and out to out-anecdote everyone else. Overall though I found the book a little forgettable, and felt like it would be better on screen, as the best thing about it was the dialogue and the set pieces (e.g., falling into a seal pond). Then I realised Nora Ephron was in fact a screenwriter. Extra points if you know a movie she wrote. (I'll date myself with a clue: Men and women can't be friends . . .)

Monday, 9 May 2016

THE KINDNESS by Polly Samson

THE KINDNESS moves around a lot in time. This is not an easy thing to do, and Samson does not manage it. We see a relationship's beginning from its ending, and etc etc. Done well, this adds mystery and excitement. Done poorly, it just removes all narrative tension. So - yup. The main character, a man, is drunk and alone in his house reflecting on his failed marriage and the last days he had with his daughter who has some kind of unnamed terrible terminal illness. British authors do love a good childhood terminal illness. The book is described as a thriller, and guess what's supposed to be thrilling: apparently the child is not dead. The husband is just so upset with his wife that he decides to cut off both her and HIS OWN CHILD. Then at the end the child as a teenager comes to reconcile with the father and I guess it's supposed to be redemptive. In fact what happens is that you feel like the central character is sort of silly, and you hope this is not really the big reveal. But actually it is.