Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Hawthorn & Child - Keith Ridgway

'Random is never really random'

Amongst a select group of readers there is a lot of enthusiasm for Keith Ridgway. They may not agree on what his best work is but there is certainly consensus that he is one of the most interesting writers working today. His latest novel is the first to be published by Granta who have been making all the big waves in 2012 with fabulous titles like Peter Stamm's Seven Years, Ben Lerner's Leaving The Atocha Station, Justin Torres' We The Animals and Denis Johnson's Train Dreams still to come. One book I had been eagerly anticipating, after enjoying his story collection Standard Time, was this new novel from Ridgway and those of you who read John Self's Asylum site or follow him on Twitter will have already been bashed around the head several times with how good it is. It really is very good. All the more dispiriting then to learn that on its publication day Waterstones, which has over 300 stores nationwide, had ordered a grand total of 18 copies.

I can't do anything about how Waterstones buys books, all I can do is bang on about this cracker sufficiently hard enough to send you to your preferred book outlet of choice and order a copy. I fail to see how you could be disappointed. How can I be so sure? Well, it seems to me there are two kinds of thing that can excite you about a book. The publishing industry as it stands can create plenty of buzz behind debut or event novels, books that like to stand up very tall on their own and demand that you all read them and discuss them. The quality of writing in those books is not the point. Amidst all the hubbub that is the insane phenomenon of 50 Shades of Grey (which took just eleven weeks to sell over a million copies, smashing the previous record held by Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code which took a leisurely 36 weeks to do the same) I only ever hear people saying how badly written it is, but who cares? Other books like Room or The Slap used quirk or debate to fuel enthusiasm, the kind of water-cooler chatter that helps build word-of-mouth success. I've read plenty of interesting debuts only to be disappointed by the follow up before watching that author fade away (presumably having made enough from the much publicised six-figure advance to not have to worry about writing much more).

What I get excited about is finding an author who I want to read time and again. Philip Roth, Denis Johnson, J M Coetzee, Graham Greene, Stefan Zweig, W G Sebald, John Burnside - these are writers who haven't just written one good book, but several, and provided innovation and exploration for those readers devoted to them. Locking on to a modern writer like that seems to be getting harder with publishers less wiling or able to nurture writers as in days of old. Fail to shift enough copies or win an award and you may find yourself being forced to write a werewolf trilogy to keep the...erm, wolf from the door. Why is Ridgway amongst the writers that you should be interested in reading? Lets start with just how enjoyable this book is. There is nothing quite like reading a novel and getting a kick out of each successive page in terms of pure enjoyment. Ridgway writes with that deceptive ease that makes you feel as though the book is an easy read even whilst it dares to reach the parts other novels cannot reach.

Hawthorn and Child are two detectives whom we meet in the opening chapter within a dream of Hawthorn's. How's that for a playful beginning? They go to investigate a seemingly random shooting in which the victim claims to have been shot by a vintage car, we might expect this to go on to be a police procedural, albeit of a rather unusual kind, but don't expect to get any answers to this case or indeed any other. In fact don't expect this book to give you any of the usual assurances of a narrative novel. Whilst Hawthorn and Child may lend it their names you would struggle to even call them the main protagonists. 'We are not at the centre of things, said Child' and he is right, as the book's various chapters introduce us to new characters and storylines, the two detectives returning periodically a little like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Hawthorn is the most fascinating of the two, a somewhat depressive figure, 'crooked somehow', prone to drifting off; making cryptic, literary notes that have little bearing on the case in hand. He is also gay and in one bravura section entitled How To Have Fun With A Fat Man Ridgway manages to write about Hawthorn policing a riot and attending an orgy in a sauna at the same time. Sometimes it is clear which location we are in but all too often Ridgway's brilliant use of language keeps it ambiguous and points up the similarities between these two seemingly opposed scenarios.

At a signal they move away form the wall. They move towards he others. It is always a confrontation. It is always a stand off. Hawthorn is shoulder to shoulder with men like himself. He is eye to eye across the air. He is picking out certain faces. He is making calculations. There are certain things he wants to do. There are things he doesn't want to do. These things are always people. He accepts or declines each face. Each set of shoulders. He is agreeing to and refusing each body in turn. His mind is ahead of him. He is saying yes to that one, no to that one. He is choosing. Choice is an illusion.

Each chapter has its own title, inviting us to treat this like a collection of linked stories. Some of these are so successfully independent that they give the pleasure of reading a perfectly honed short story. When this happens more than once in the novel you get the slightly giddy feeling of too much of a good thing. No complaints here however. Goo Book for example, in which we meet the driver of the elusive criminal Mishazzo and enter his relationship with his girlfriend, neither of whom can actually say tender things to one another but choose to write them instead in a notebook for the other to find, thus freeing themselves up to indulge a far more exotic sexual life (involving some of what is presumably making 50 Shades so popular), is a brilliant, self-contained gem (so much so that it was printed in the New Yorker here). It could stand alone as a short story and satisfy you completely but placed where it is in the novel it adds not only a frisson of something unexpected but also something close to sentimentality; a moment of genuine romance no matter how tainted.

They lay next to each other in the bed and touched each other and laid their faces one against the other and when they were tired of talking they fucked and when they were tired of fucking they talked, and many different afternoons became one afternoon that persisted in his mind for the rest of his life and he never knew what to make of it, then or after.

Marching Songs is another section that thrives out of context (again there's the opportunity to read it as such thanks to the publisher themselves here). It is a quite brilliant monologue, not just because of its distinctive voice, scattered subjects and obsessive detail but because whilst it is like a direct address monologue it is very much a piece of writing that makes virtue of itself as a piece of writing. I'm sure it could be read brilliantly out loud by an actor or the author himself but it reads so well on the page that the perverse pleasure is there for everyone who picks up the book (or clicks on the link above). A piece that captures brilliantly the morbid curiosity of the modern world, where videos of every kind of accident and atrocity can viewed whenever we like and as often as we like ("You can watch it all. Over and over.") actually had me personally unable to stop myself viewing some of the videos detailed. There is something compelling about the heroism of Formula One driver David Purley as he seeks to save the life of his friend and fellow driver Roger Williamson in the Dutch Grand Prix of 1973 but Ridgway manages to make even more of it with his simple description and commentary on the event.

I have read novels before that use the linked story format to make up their whole. Some of them work better than others. Ridgway almost goes one step further by eschewing the idea that these linked stories should come together to provide a narrative. As I said earlier, there will be no solution to the shooting incident that opens the book (sorry, spoiler!), but that is never really the point. The combined narratives of each chapter satisfy on their own in the same way that an unresolved short story can. The fact that there is not one but several of them and that they all inhabit the same world and share some of the same characters is what actually made the book such a success to me. Along the way you will meet criminals and the men who pursue them, family members, a premiership referee who sees ghosts, a secret brethren of wolves in conflict with other animals (yes, really) and yet none of it ever seems absurd. It is quirky in all the right ways and all goes to show what I said at the very beginning. There are some writers you read and come back to again and again because they consistently produce work of quality, variety and ingenuity. Ridgway has joined that list for me (in fact I enjoyed this one so much I read it twice - and I never do that), I can only hope that he will do the same for other readers too.


Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Calm At Sunset, Calm At Dawn - Paul Watkins

'living in fear'

The name of James Daunt was previously familiar to those who had had the pleasure of browsing and buying in one of the six bookshops that bear his name (perhaps most beautiful amongst these is the flagship store in Marylebone - feast your eyes book lovers). Then he went and got himself appointed as the new man at the head of Waterstones, charged with reviving their flagging fortunes and re-instilling the importance of the bookseller within the bookstore. Daunt also have their own publishing arm which started in 2010 publishing works by Saki and Sybille Bedford. Next on their list is this novel from American Paul Watkins, who worked for six years as a crewman on a deep-sea fishing boat before writing this coming of age novel originally published in 1989 (also adapted into a hilariously awful looking TV movie). After having enjoyed Redmond O'Hanlon's non-fictional treatment of the same terrain in Trawler I was tempted to feel the biting wind and salty spray in my face once again and signed up for another brutal trip out to sea.

I don't want to sound like a broken record but I find myself one again having to comment on the design of a book from a small publisher. I recently gave Coffee House Press a hard time over Leaving The Atocha Station (now, thankfully, treated to far more deserving edition from Granta) and I'm afraid I have to have a little dig at Daunt for this truly horrendous cover. It almost looks worse in the flesh but you can see above how the bold typeface and simple design make it look not just like a self-published book but like a self-published self-help book which makes me want to throw it across the room or at least hide it in a brown paper covering whilst reading (I think I'd rather someone saw me reading 50 Shades of Grey on the tube). It's such a shame because the french flaps and quality of the materials inside are all lovely, it's just the cover that really lets it down.

Anyway, on the Rhode Island coast we meet 20 year old James Pfeiffer who has been expelled from college after an altercation with another student and is currently working in a dead-end job at the local fish-packing plant. Even the attentions of the boss's daughter aren't enough to compensate for the sheer tedium of his working day.

Everything I owned smelled of fish.
Clothes I'd never even worn to the plant smelled of fish
Fish scales fell out of my hair each time I scratched my head. Even after showering and washing and combing they still flickered down onto my shoulders.
In my dreams, I became a fish and swam down to the wreck of my grandfather's trawler...
As hinted at end there, fishing has been in Pfeiffer's family for generations. His grandfather fished and perished at sea, his father fishes to this day but doesn't want his son to follow in his footsteps for reasons that he will only learn about fully later. Until then his father's reticence combined with the allure of sea-faring tales and superstitions make Pfeiffer feel as though something is being withheld from him to which he is entitled and attracted - 'It seemed to me that my father had found something so precious he couldn't bear to share it with his sons.'

Pfeiffer has dreams of running his own boat one day but in the meantime he keeps trying to get himself on board another as crew. There is a catch-22 scenario wherein skippers will only take on those with experience leaving those without having to lie or force their hand in order to earn a berth and possibly work for little or no money. Pfeiffer eventually gets on board a scallop trawler and we follow him out onto treacherous seas with a crew of frankly terrifying shipmates where death or injury are always just a big enough wave away. I was reading this book primarily for the thrill of those scenes of tough work, danger and fraught relationships and it doesn't disappoint. Watkins makes great use of his own experience to describe the disorientation of working away from land, in shift patterns that leave you always exhausted, in freezing conditions, under constant pressure but with the potential always there to make enough money to get started on his dream.

Plot-wise the book is set on far more rigid lines than the choppy waters it sails on. There aren't many surprises in this tale of a son proving himself to his father (and himself) and a father revealing himself and his fears to his son. The Pfeiffer's are a pretty basically drawn family; the father quietly going about his business trying to make a better life for his sons, the mother desperately trying to steer her son away from the sea that claimed her own father and growing in voice in response to his strengthening resolve to make his own decisions and own mistakes. James's brother even provides some welcome light relief with his various business schemes building up to eventual failure and his terrible words of advice and wisdom. Watkins does manage to build up some serious tension however, particularly towards the close and there are several sections that you read whilst almost holding your breath. Personally I'm terrified of the sea and what lies beneath the waves and each of the characters in this book have their own personal reactions to the awesome power of that element we cannot control. Fear is everywhere but often it isn't the fear of what we cannot know or foresee but the fear of finding oneself falling short, a fear of personal failure. As his father points out to his mother - 'You're living in fear of the wrong things' - a statement that could only be made seriously in this very male orientated world and leading immediately to her response - 'Don't you talk to me about living in fear.'


Tuesday, 17 July 2012

The Deadman's Pedal - Alan Warner

'these lone territories'

Warner apparently started writing his latest novel before his debut Morvern Callar but put it to one side and returned to it every now and then over the next two decades. John Burnside did something similar with the novel that was eventually published as A Summer of Drowning and I'm intrigued by the idea that writers might begin a work that they don't have the maturity or experience to carry off immediately;  but by refusing to be rushed and returning to it at a later date they turn failure into triumph and produce some of their best work. I haven't read any of Warner's previous novels but some critics have suggested that this latest is his most ambitious and satisfying. With nothing to compare it to I can only report that it is indeed wonderfully written, exceedingly ambitious and a pretty good bet for the literary prize lists this year.

In the Highlands of Scotland during the early 1970's, sixteen year-old Simon Crimmons has reached one of those forks in life. His parents want him to remain at school but he wants out. Too young to work in his father's haulage business he nevertheless wants to work just about any job in order to pursue his desire for a motorbike that will give him independence and the chance of some kind of escape from the Port. There's also his fledgling relationship with Nikki, a series of trysts in various locations whilst both of them dream of a hotel bed and some privacy to indulge themselves in physical intimacy. It is the misreading of a job description that leads Simon to his job on the railways ('traction engineer' being nothing to do with broken bones in the hospital as he presumed) and it is within this environment that Warner is allowed to develop his substantial themes.

Simon's father (an Englishman) is a self-made man who has afforded their middle-class lifestyle through the growth of his road-haulage business. Already furious at the idea of his son not continuing his schooling he is naturally disgusted that he should then consider working for his biggest competition, ie. the railways. These opposing positions are the first of many, Warner manages to cram an awful lot of politics and social comment into a book that never feels as though it is shoving its arguments down your throat. The subtlety with which he does it is in direct contrast to the weight of the themes discussed: railways/transport, nationalisation/privatisation, Nationalism/Union, work/privilege, youth/old age. James Robertson's weighty And The Land Lay Still may have a broader scope and cover a longer period of Scottish history but Warner achieves something of the same definitiveness in his portrait of Scotland at its own forked road.

One area in which he is particularly skilled is dialogue. Not only is he naturally brilliant at capturing the idiomatic speech but in the group of railway workers he creates great set-pieces of banter, character and argument. When we first meet these many voices near the novel's beginning they are a confusion of new characters and it is hard to keep track but by the time Simon meets them at his job interview they have resolved into a hilarious collection of competing comic swipes. It is a hilarious scene in which Simon is mocked for his age and inexperience (the whole 'traction' confusion actually helps win them round) but one in which he shows some of his pluck and intelligence and manages not to drown. The old boys network usually refers to graduates of private schooling but this group of old boys are just as exclusive at the other end of the spectrum; close-knit, suspicious of outsiders and wary of Simon's youth and middle-class credentials.

He is slowly accepted however, in contrast to the speed with which his father drops him, and builds a close relationship with one driver in particular, John Penalty. It is he who carries one maxim that relates to the novel's title, the deadman's pedal being the one that puts the break on if the driver falls asleep, requiring constant pressure to keep it active - 'Keep your foot pressed on the deadman's pedal through life and you won't go wrong, son'. Penalty also has a great story about the perils of cheating and jamming the pedal down with something. The lazy driver may then find it might spring free at seventy miles an hour as it did for one driver - 'A Rangers-Celtic game was on. First time in history the lot of them were all hugging one another as they went flying from one end of the fucking train to the other.'

I'm making it sound as if this is a book all about men and trains but Simon is a teenage boy and this is a coming of age tale so of course it isn't. I have mentioned Nikki already but it is the daughter of the local gentry who figures largely in his maturation. The Bultitudes have lived at Broken Moan for generations (an early chapter shows us the moment when the Queen herself came to visit) and Varie Bultitude is the almost supernatural catalyst for Simon's ascent to adulthood. He first meets her brother, Alexander, in Menzies dressed in a powder blue military long coat, walking 'with a louping gait, moving his head form side to side as if trying to hear some constant sound.' Their shared love of literature helps them begin an unlikely friendship but it is Varie that Simon becomes enthralled by.

She may ride horses and be studying geology but she is far less rooted than that might suggest, finding instead a fascination in tarot cards and stories of the occult. I mentioned her as almost supernatural and Simon indeed always seems to be under her spell. In one memorable scene when he cheats on his then girlfriend to kiss her, he thinks he may even have been bewitched when he breaks out in blisters (this it turns out only the result of his unknown allergy to horses). Their sporadic encounters lend the novel the risk and danger of being in a relationship with no equality, no foundation, the foot is off the pedal as they both freewheel onwards into the darkness.

The novel is filled with some fabulous set-pieces, many of which I haven't even begun to hint at, characterisation is clear and interesting, dialogue spot-on and frequently entertaining and the writing throughout of great quality. Again, like Burnside, we have a writer of immense talent who isn't a debut author with weighty hype behind him, nor an established prize-winner and yet he is quietly churning out good work, building in strength it would seem and I hate the idea of him becoming the kind of 'mid-list' author who finds themselves passed over because a major prize doesn't allow them to put a sticker on the front of one of those books. This one is certainly worth a read.


Tuesday, 10 July 2012

in search of lost time

(Signal of two sine functions, one with increasing and second with decreasing frequency)

People have often asked how I find the time to maintain regular posts on this blog as well as working my job and helping to raise a family. The answer has always been by simply making the most of those small moments of time that I could grab here and there, helped by the desire to write the best reviews I could and to converse with others about all things bookish. Finding that time recently has become almost impossible and something in me feels uncomfortable about posting rushed or sub-standard reviews for the sake of maintaining a self-imposed timetable.

I want to be able to tell you properly why reading my latest Sebald was disorientating, confusing and yet also confirmed him to be essential reading. I want to be able to take the time required to describe the  miasmic experience of reading László Krasznahorkai's extraordinary Satantango (but fear that that time will never come and my abilities will always fall short). I want to express my disappointment with a promising author, my frustrations with an exciting one, the joys of a modern classic, the exhausting experience of voicing an audio-book of number9dream; all of these things and more. But the truth is that I'm struggling to even maintain my pithy exchanges on Twitter.

So, I'm not saying goodbye - yet - but you may find my posts becoming a little more sporadic. It would be great if you followed me on Twitter (@iwilltweet) where I can at least give a quick idea of how I'm finding my current reads, direct you towards great reviews of those books and holler like crazy when I actually post something on here. In the meantime of course there is an archive of reviews here stretching back almost five years so please use the index on the right to search for authors of interest and always feel free to comment as I'll always make time to reply.

Huge thanks to everyone who has visited, left comments and helped to make blogging such a fulfilling experience. I never expected it to develop the way it has when I began that sleepless night shortly before the birth of my first son and I'm certain I would have capitulated many years ago if it hadn't been for you reading and responding, so thank you.

As I say, this isn't goodbye, it's more like see you later.

See you later,

Will x

Oh, and just to negate my point entirely, there will be a new review up here next Tuesday...


Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Leaving The Atocha Station - Ben Lerner

'life's white machine'

A book from a small press seemed to make a very big splash over the pond in last year's book roundups. Ben Lerner's debut novel (he is previously published as a poet) is published by Coffee House Press in Minneapolis and it seemed a lot critics, bloggers and readers were rather impressed. Now I don't want to bash a small publisher before I've even started (don't worry, I'm going to say lovely things about the book) but the book itself looks horrible. The design above is pretty inoffensive you're thinking but it comes with the high gloss cover that you tend to see on self-published books and so it all feels rather cheap. And it wasn't. Not for a reader over in the UK at any rate (If I'd been a little more patient then I could have picked up Granta Books edition available from Thursday of this week). This needn't be the case. Small independent publishers like Pushkin, Peirene and newbie Notting Hill Editions regularly produce beautiful books without charging the earth so there's no need for them to look awful and in an age where e-readers are everywhere and some people don't even think they should have to pay for the content they download to them, physical books need to make sure they earn their place on the shelf. It may not be enough any more to say that it's the content that really matters.

Anyway, I digress. And rather appropriately, because this novel, a little like Teju Cole's Open City, is another novel with minimal plot, an almost diarised narration, and plenty of intelligent, witty and entertaining digression along the way. Maybe calling it digression isn't quite right, this is an investigation of sorts, by a man keen to probe the limits of words, of genuine communication, of engagement with the modern world. Adam Gordon is an American poet on a fellowship in Madrid around the time of the bombings in 2004. His research is supposed to be on the country's civil war but under a cocktail of prescription drugs, alcohol and spliff smoke his fellowship has been sidelined by his 'project,' his enquiries into the validity of poetic expression, his own validity as a poet, a lover, a man, and the grand question of where he goes next.

In the 'first phase' of his research for example he has developed a little routine: wake, make coffee, roll spliff, drink coffee, smoke spliff, shit, shower, take white pills, get dressed, go to the Prado and stand in front of Descent From The Cross by Roger Van Der Weyden where coffee, spliff and sleep can compete within his system. One day however when he arrives to take up his usual position in front of the painting there is another man already there. This upset to his daily routine is completed when the man bursts into tears and Adam can't help but wonder whether he is having 'a profound experience of art.'
Insofar as I was interested in the arts, I was interested in the disconnect between my experience of actual artworks and the claims made on their behalf; the closest I'd come to having a profound experience of art was probably the experience of this distance, a profound experience of the absence of profundity.
When the man recovers only to lose it again in front of another painting Adam then contemplates the fate of the museum guards, sworn to protect the paintings from crazies, kids, 'or the slow erosive forces of camera flashes' but also presumably in a job whose only prestige comes from dwelling amongst cultural  treasures designed to provoke this very reaction. What a dilemma: take the man aside to assess his mental health and risk ruining a profound experience, or leave him be and risk endangering one's employment. Adam is far more moved by this than he has been by anything he's looked at in the gallery.

This scenario is typical of the way in which humour and insight combine from the most unlikely situations. Adam is an exposer of the phony but a compulsive liar himself. At one point he tells Teresa, the Spanish woman who will translate his poems and for whom he has a fancy, that his mother has died. This lie has a wonderful effect: sympathy, physical contact, further conversation and connection. It works so well in fact that he uses it again with Isabel, the Spanish woman with whom he begins a relationship. In fact his whole relationship with Isabel is based on not-quite truths, a relationship not lost in translation but created and sustained by it, by the gaps in between what Adam says and what Isabel thinks he says.

Except for our most basic exchanges. . . our conversation largely consisted of my gesturing toward something I was powerless to express, then guessing at what referent she had guessed at, and gesturing in response to that. In this, my project's second phase, Isabel assigned profound meaning, a plurality of possible profound meanings, to my fragmentary speech, intuiting from those fragments depths of insight and latent eloquence, and because she projected  what she thought she discovered, she experienced, I like to think, an intense affinity for the workings of my mind.

This is a great example of the way in which Adam is a narrator we are both repelled and charmed by. He is happy for example to pretend to be inspired by something in front of Isabel, because it fits into her conception of him as an American poet, but the idea of actually being one of those poets 'constantly subject to fits of inspiration' repels him and when he catches himself doing just that he feels shamed and we laugh along with him. He is disparaging of his own talent as a poet, his proficiency in Spanish (throughout the novel there is a hilarious distance between what Adam can understand and communicate and what actually might be being said and done around him), his status as a man but in the same breath he makes unambiguous his belief in art and artistic expression.

I tried hard to imagine my poems or any poems as machines that could make things happen, changing the government or the economy or even their language, the body or its sensorium, but I could not imagine this, could not even imagine imagining it. And yet when I imagined the total victory of those other things. . . the total triumph of the actual. . . I realized that, in such a world, I would swallow a bottle of white pills.
A quick word about pills and medication. Adam is a proficient self-medicator whether that be tranquillisers, alcohol or spliff and the danger with drugs, or talking about them, is that frankly they're not nearly as interesting as the people taking them think they are. Adam manages to avoid most of the pitfalls by not taking them too seriously as an aid to creative expression (although he comes very close) and focusing on the comedy. Those white pills for example don't seem to work for him the way they're supposed to: 'I always felt a few strains of rumination away from full orchestral panic', but then he does drink and smoke 'in a way that made tracking the specific effects of the white pills difficult.' The ritual of taking them however, the 'Eucharistic rite of self-abnegation' is important 'because they were a daily reminder that I was officially fucked up.'

He does describe the different effects on the creative process between his prescribed and non-prescribed drugs, but far more interesting are his ruminations on the ordinary engagement with art, the way for example, in which real time and the time of prose can merge when you read Constance Garnett's translations of Tolstoy on the train so that reading instead of removing one from the world can intensify one's experience of the present. This also connects with his appreciation of the poet John Ashberry in particular (who returns the compliment by providing a nice cover quote for Lerner), whose Collected Poems are never out of Adam's bag and whose work, or Adam's thoughts on it, provide the key to Adam as a character and possibly the experience of this novel as a whole.

The best Ashberry poems, I thought, although not in these words, describe what it's like to read an Ashberry poem; his poems refer to how their reference evanesces. And when you read about your reading in the time of your reading, mediacy is experienced immediately. It is as though the actual Ashberry poem were concealed from you, written on the other side of a mirrored surface, and you saw only the reflection of your reading, Asberry's poems allow you to attend to your attention, to experience your experience, thereby enabling a strange kind of presence. But it is a presence that keeps the virtual possibilities of poetry intact because the true poem remains beyond you, inscribed on the far side of the mirror: "You have it but you don't have it./ You miss it, it misses you./ You miss each other."

This goes back to Adam's experience in the Prado and his general way of observing life, the way in which he has maintained the disconnect, not just through medication but by culturing his status as an observer. Even when the bombings occur and people march in the street in their wake, when 'history came alive', Adam is sleeping in the Ritz after another failed attempt to play a role. But Adam's rejection of himself, of his talent, of his seriousness is challenged by the other characters around him so that towards the novel's end he is forced to accept that others at least think that he is real, that he has a place amongst them and genuine artistic merit. I'm still not sure about the way the book concludes and I am certain that plenty of readers will be put off enough by Adam as a narrator not to care about what happens to him, never mind what he pontificates about throughout the novel. I found lots to absorb along the way, particularly about the way in which we engage with art and to see a novel from a little publisher getting lots of attention (and a tasty printing over here) is always an encouraging thing. Maybe it is the inside that counts...


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