Monday, 5 July 2010

'a song of self in dissolution'

A Preparation For Death
by Greg Baxter

Catchy title, eh? Doesn't it just make you want to dive right in? It was probably this that made me ignore the proof that came through the door one day - in fact I donated it to the internal library we have at work, where it has sat ever since. When the arrival of a second proof coincided with the appearance of some quotes from the book on the Twitter feed of one @john_self then I decided it was time to take a proper look. He loved the book and raved about it here. In the end I was slightly less enamoured, a failure on my part possibly, but proving that it's a book likely to split opinion. Greg Baxter was born in Texas and it was in America that he wrote and published a novel to little critical acclaim. Aghast at joining the ranks of unpublished authors in an America where bad writing 'had become institutionalized', Baxter moved to Dublin where he sat unemployed for seven months, revising that ill-fated novel, before gaining employment as a reporter on a weekly newspaper for doctors, 'a job I was not qualified for and did not want, yet I remain there today.' But it was his response to an job advertisement, for a teacher on a creative writing course, that proved to be the real turning point. Whilst he exhorted his pupils to tell the truth he did the same himself, reading the books that jealousy had masked from him before, discovering a new honesty within himself and writing once again but with that new honesty at the core. This book was written whilst the author was experiencing it so there is a relentlessness about it that keeps the pages turning. We read on horrified and intrigued so that it feels a little like driving past a car crash, rubbernecking to take in the detail only to discover another and then another crash on the same stretch of road.

Baxter has several demons to contend with and these are only encouraged by his desire to self-destruct. Alcohol plays the major role with sex and failed relationships coming a close second. In the first chapter we get the first of many lines that combine toe-curling honesty with a black humour after a drunken Baxter drops some change in the street.

I was surrounded by the naked calves of office girls and solicitors in high heels. It does not take too many naked calves to make one feel surrounded by them. I wanted to lick them. I often feel one drink away form whatever makes a dog hump women's legs.

Humour, even if it is only black, is important if you're going to write a memoir which is essentially equal parts self-deprecation and self-pity. Without humour you end up with this kind of response to being singled out as a bad seed at a writer's conference - 'It was easy to single me out - not just because I was dislikable, but because I was the nobodiest of nobodies.' There are moments of humour but it has already been flagged that this book is about honesty. Baxter has no interest in making you like him. In fact he goes some way in the opposite direction, detailing sexual encounters with little or no empathy taking almost perverse joy in listing his transgressions.

I spent a whole decade cultivating rage. I laboured to disappoint. I infected the people I knew with bitterness. I pulled them in close and betrayed them. I felt no remorse, just pity. I left the tiny battlefields of my relationships scorched and full of smoking corpses. I walked over the bodies without examination.

You'll notice there's an awful lot of 'I' going on there. There is such a piercing gaze levelled by Baxter at himself that there were times when I simply couldn't bear to hear this man talking about himself any more, it was exhausting and infuriating. Baxter knows this of course and it should be no surprise given what he says about his own preferences - 'I love the disfigured, the monstrous. All the books I admire are ogres - flawed, imbalanced, savage. They enhance me. Everything else reduces me.' How much you enjoy this book will depend on how much navel-gazing you can stomach and whether what you take away from it outweighs what it takes from you. When Baxter takes a look at his own family and their roots in Austria then things get really interesting. Anyone who writes may well find something too in the frequent statements about the act of writing.

I put on some warm and comfortable clothes, set up my computer, made a pot of coffee, and opened a blank page. After twenty minutes, I found myself cutting my toenails. I like to cut an edge and pull slowly across, revealing some of the quick, and when I am done with all ten, I air them out, and press them against the floor. After an hour, with nothing done at all, not a sentence, I was sitting on the floor in a corner, wishing I was dead. A little while later I began - as I do when all hope of writing is lost - hitting myself on the forehead with a closed fist. It is a punishment, but also an attempt to exhaust myself. I have always been like this. The fact that I cannot rid myself of such panic - such vanity - is as distressing as the panic itself...It does me no good, I suppose, to declare that my past is behind me; but I like to think that if I confess, I will be the only one left who believes my own lies...I am as much my weaknesses as I am my strengths. But to conceal them here, to myself, would be insanity. So I betray them. I hand them over like spies. I give up their identities. I have them running through the streets of a great dark city. they are chased down blind alleys and assassinated. I do not write because I am honest; I write because I am dishonest.

We know too that this book is an act of redemption and after all the destruction there is something curiously heart-warming about the lift that occurs near the end, particularly as it is about connecting with his own family and accompanied not by discoveries linked to reading or writing but by Baxter's discovery and appreciation of music. There is also some fantastic writing. As I said, infuriating at times, but also beautiful, angry, depraved and sometimes all three at once. One can be in no doubt though that Baxter has been upfront about what to expect from the very beginning and even about his truthfulness:

You think you've told an eviscerating truth about yourself, but all you've done is discover the lie that it was founded on, so you tell a new truth, and so on, until there are no guts left to rip out. And that is the end. 


Max Cairnduff 13 July 2010 at 15:23  

Eesh. There really is an awful lot of I there.

I fear I'd have the same reaction I did to Crime and Punishment. Get a grip man! Stop wittering!

Perhaps I'm not the best audience for this one...

William Rycroft 14 July 2010 at 12:39  

Oh Max! I won't hear a word said against Crime and Punishment!

Max Cairnduff 14 July 2010 at 18:22  

I admit it's well overdue for another go. I think I tried it too young to be honest.

Anonymous,  14 July 2010 at 19:35  

I think we can forgive Max for a youthful dismissal of Crime and Punishment, which I also feel is one of the best novels ever written. Max just wasn't there that day. He will now catch up.

Max Cairnduff 15 July 2010 at 12:49  

I feel duly chastened. I shall add it to the TBR pile forthwith...

Anonymous,  15 July 2010 at 22:35  

Max: You are hereby granted a conditional absolution, dependent upon your rereading the book.

And just what imagine what awaits: thousands of pages of great Dosteoevsky!!!

He is that good.

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