Tuesday 19 February 2013

Give Me Everything You Have - Eustace - Benediction

Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked
by James Lasdun

Well here's a powder keg of a book. Let us start with a quick summary of what it is. In 2003 the poet and writer James Lasdun was teaching a fiction workshop at 'a place I'll call Morgan College.' Among the students there was a woman 'I'll call Nasreen.' Lasdun praised a piece of her writing in one class and after the course ended an email correspondence began in which Lasdun hoped to help her in some small way with the novel which she was writing and also he hoped to maybe make a friend of someone he found interesting and different. So far, so innocent. Or is it? Lasdun is at pains in the opening chapters to examine his behaviour at the outset because what developed was a prolonged campaign of obsessive emails, abuse and cyber-bullying in which she tried to besmirch his name and character in a variety of ways leaving Lasdun himself not just shaken and confused but ill as well.

The book is peppered with excerpts from these emails (Lasdun aware of the irony that in quoting so freely from this private correspondence he is behaving in exactly the way that he so deplored in her when she copied other people in on her own emails to him and used the public sphere of Amazon reviews and Wikipedia entries to further muddy his name) which start off friendly and funny, gradually becoming amorous and slightly inappropriate, before becoming suddenly vitriolic, violent and filled with hatred, anti-semitism and delusion. These emails are as baffling for us to read as for Lasdun, if not as personally upsetting. They also caused me a certain amount of unease. Firstly that they were obviously selected from a larger body of correspondance; then that they were often quotes or excerpts and one wondered about any possible context within the rest of the email. Jenny Turner in her Guardain review said that this is a book plagued by too much information and also at times not enough. It was the not enough part that concerned me most.

Taken at face value this book makes clear that this was a campaign of 'verbal terrorism' that Lasdun suffered. The reasons for Nasreen's behaviour are never satisfactorily explained and Lasdun even prefers not to think of her as being mentally ill but someone motivated by a motiveless malice. But how can we not regard her as someone clearly suffering from some kind of mental distress? We just don't know enough about her from this one-sided account of course, and I don't say one-sided in a purely pejorative sense - what else could Lasdun write, however balanced a writer he may aim to be, when attempting to tell such a fraught tale and one in which he is implicated? Reading this as an account of something with a quasi-legal standing (we feel as though this is in many ways a book about a crime being comitted, a book with a victim, protagonist and law enforcement officers) makes for a lot of frustration, Nasreen cannot defend herself and even if we accept Lasdun's inference that she couldn't add anything of any value we can only do that if we accept it all.

If it doesn't quite work as a book of true crime then there are two other ways in which it potentially succeeds. The first of these is probably closer to the way the book is being sold: as a memoir. Lasdun uses this event to write about several other works of literature (you may never need to read another book about Gawain and the Green Knight for example) that illuminate the experience and these sections are fascinating, lucid and wonderfully written. There is another riskier suggestion, a million miles away from the way in which the book is being marketed and that is as a piece of extraordinary experimental fiction. I drop that here merely as a catalyst for discussion, it was something that came up during a little conversation of Twitter the other day, and whilst it may not be true it certainly adds a completely different way of approaching what is an interesting, complex and very troubling reading experience.

Pubished now by Jonathan Cape

Eustace by S J Harris

This debut graphic novel from cartoonist Steven Harris may have some colour on the cover but every page inside is black and white, or rather the many shades of grey in between thanks to his deft and detailed pencil drawings. Eustace is a sickly young boy, exiled to a lonely room in a large house where he is really only visited by the maid, Mrs Perichief, each day as she brings him his stable fare of soup ('not even any kind of soup, just "soup". It's thin and yellowy like old skin.'). Through the novel however he is gradually visited by an ever-growing array of grotesques, beginning with his dreaded great Aunts with their sloppy kisses and secret gifted sixpences. What exactly is going on in Eustace's family is never fully clear although we gather there is some trauma related to his brother Frank, who served in the Great War. Eustace's mother makes a ghostly appearance, ravaged by life, and his father even stumbles into the room, barely able to recognise the son he never sees.

It is the sudden appearance of Eustace's uncle Lucien however that really gets the party started and Eustace's bed becomes the focal point of a congregation of crazies whilst all the while in the background is the hint of something dark and dangerous in Lucien's past that is slowly closing in on him. To my mind Harris's drawings combine the long lines and monochrome of Aubrey Beardsley with the sunken-eyed macabre of Tim Burton. There is something feverish or nightmarish about the procession that passes through the room and one wants to constantly put an arm around poor Eustace and sneak him away somewhere. There is nothing we can do however to protect him from the novel's surreal and comically absurd ending.

Published by Jonathan Cape in March

Benediction by Kent Haruf

It's been a while since Kent Haruf featured on this blog but then it's been a while since he wrote anything, almost ten years in fact since he last wrote about the residents of his fictional town of Holt in Colorado. You can read my thoughts on Plainsong and Eventide and imagine my excitement when I heard that he had written a new novel that would take me back amongst those familiar faces. I was worried I might need to familiarise myself with the previous books but his new novel stands alone  and in fact has little to do with any characters from the previous books. The main focus is on 'Dad' Lewis, owner of the hardware store, who receives the news that he is sick with cancer and has just a few weeks left to live. We will also follow the descent of the new preacher and the way in which the women of the town envelop a young girl without her mother but it is Dad Lewis who forms the novel's heart and around whom the people of the town will congregate.

The surprise is that about a hundred pages into the book I wasn't sure that I wanted to carry on. I'm so glad that I did. Haruf's style is deceptively powerful you see. The prose is simple for the most part, the speech direct, the situations fairly everyday, we observe along with the new preacher 'these everyday lives', but what builds inside that structure is a wave of emotion that overwhelms the reader as the book progresses. There are moments that edge toward the melodramatic and the whole novel flies dangerously close to sentiment but in the central story of Dad Lewis in particular you have a sensitive, truthful and painfully affecting story of life, work, relationships, family, alienation, ageing and mortality; the stuff of life in other words. The way in which it manages to combine both the dignity of the way we behave with the indignity of the way our bodies betray us is masterful and there was at least one occasion when I was powerless to stop the tears welling in my eyes.

Published by Picador in April


Wednesday 6 February 2013

The Engagement - Orkney - Mr Bridge

Three books to take a quick look at, all involving couples, two of which are very unsettling and make amazing use of open spaces to create a sense of claustrophobia, the other a masterpiece from the underrated and, sadly, recently-departed Evan S Connell (August 17, 1924 – January 10, 2013).

The Engagement by Chloe Hooper

Liese Campbell is an English architect who has fled to the other side of the world in the wake of the financial crisis and begun work in her uncle's real estate business in Melbourne. It is through that work that she meets Alexander Colquhoun, a wealthy farmer looking to buy some property in the area. On one of many apartment viewings they find themselves beginning a game, sex in someone else's property and payment for Liese at the end of it. The game develops and becomes a regular thing, sex in new apartments, more money, and soon invented stories about Liese's other clients. When the novel begins it is at the outset of what she expects will be their final meeting, having announced her intention to leave the country and return to England, as Alexander takes her to his house in the bush for a final weekend with an envelope of cash at the end of it. But this is a novel of lies and confusion, where the reader appears to be in possession of the facts and an eloquent and honest narrator but as the pages slip your fingers you find yourself less and less certain about what is real, what fantasy, and who even to be worried about in a long weekend where a dangerous denouement seems only a page-turn away.

I struggled with this book to be honest and even after persevering and finishing it I remain not wholly convinced. The unreliable narrator is a common literary technique but actually surprisingly tricky to pull off. Notable successes include the deliciously villainous Tarquin Winot in John Lanchester's The Debt to Pleasure and the slowly revealed complexities behind the care and concern of the eponymous doctor in Patrick McGrath's Dr Haggard's Disease. I really struggled with the psychology of both Liese and Alexander when reading this novel perhaps because it is all coming through the filter of a character we will learn not to trust. I found too much of what they said hard to believe and the dialogue itself pretty clunky in places and even if this can be explained away by the unreliability of the narrator it strikes me that if the device interferes with the effectiveness of the prose then something isn't quite working. Too often I wanted to shake either one of them and get them to actually respond to what had actually been said to them rather than further continuing the ambiguities and confusion.

All of that said, it is an unnerving and thrilling read that creates tension, atmosphere and genuine fear. It could almost read as a metaphorical study of many relationships, the way in which couples do or don't deal with each other's pasts, the stories they tell one another of their lives in order to portray themselves in a certain light, and the way in which these images can be slowly eroded by the stories others tell about us or the gradual emergence of what I will term, with eyebrow raised and tongue firmly in cheek, the truth.

Published now by Jonathan Cape

Orkney by Amy Sackville

Amy Sackville garnered plenty of plaudits and prize nominations with her debut novel, The Still Point and managed to bag the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. I haven't read that and after 50 or so pages of her new novel I was beginning to think that might be a huge mistake but here is another novel of claustrophobic congress which followed a sort of reverse trajectory to the one above but left me with a similar feeling of admiration rather than love, a book I started off loving but which left me by the end feeling rather over-worked and exhausted.

A man and a woman arrive on Orkney for their honeymoon. He is an eminent professor, she a former student. They have come a long way from the scene of their infamous relationship but even on this remote island they are regarded by everyone as a strange couple. Through the professor's narration we soon realise how little he really knows about the woman who has so enchanted him but there is no doubting the spell she has cast on him. Sackville's writing is extraordinary in places and the opening pages create an evocative atmosphere that swept me along with the fervour of his feeling. This kind of writing is hard to sustain however, or rather it is hard to sustain a reading of, by which I mean that some people may find it a bit too much like consciously 'beautiful writing' and even those like me who found the style to be entirely fitting for a literature professor who has had his heart beguiled by a pale and otherworldly creature may find after a while that the novel gets a bit repetitive.

Described rather optimistically as a single sitting read, it is exactly the kind of book that may well benefit from being read in that way (if you happen to have enough time to read 250 pages in one go), the kind of novel that if it has you the reader in its spell, like our poor professor, will probably fly by as a richly engrossing account of love, fantasy and the enchantment and danger of the natural world. There will be just as many readers however who fail to fully fall for its charms and therefore find it a relatively short read that feels overwritten, overwrought and in danger of being suffocated by its own atmosphere.

Published today by Granta Books

Mr Bridge by Evan S Connell

Ah, the Bridges. How wonderful to be able to engage again with Evan S Connell's remarkable couple in Kansas City. You may remember I read and loved Connell's 1959 novel Mrs Bridge last year and at least I didn't have to wait as long as those at the time for its companion piece originally published in 1969. The man who remained a fairly enigmatic presence in the novel bearing his wife's name is now thrust to the forefront and we get to learn what Walter Bridge was thinking during all those hours spent working away from his family and indeed in the small amount of time he spent with them.

Mr Bridge uses the same technique as the earlier novel; short chapters with their own titles, small moments of life that slowly assemble into a rounded portrait of suburban America in the 1930's and 40's. Walter Bridge is a lawyer, the kind of man who works long hours and even brings his work home occasionally. Described by another character as a 'consummate puritan' Walter is a man almost of another time, his morals apparently very fixed, but one of the joys of this book are the ways in which we will come to see that perception altered as we learn more and more about what makes this man tick. Walter likes things that are tangible and dependable. In one early scene we see the genuine joy he gets from opening his safety deposit box and simply leafing through and holding the stocks and shares that are his investments for the future. His love of these is made all the more hilarious later in the novel when we see him making a proud gift of them to his family at Christmas and encouraging them to buy more when they all receive a bequest.

Walter is often baffled by his family, particularly his wife, whose infrequent emotional outbursts leave him completely at a loss and resorting to the only course of action he can imagine which is to gloss over them and pretend they have never happened at all. Walter is also a contradictory man, it is very hard to pin down exactly where he stands with regards to certain prejudices, seeming at times to be anti-semitic or racist and then confounding those thoughts with a secretive action that we will only learn about much later. And this is where the real joy of Connell's writing lies. His prose is measured and unadorned but most importantly as a novelist his is completely non-judgemental. First India and now Walter Bridge are shown to us as they are, without any authorial comment or guidance as to how we are supposed to react to their thoughts, feelings and actions. It is left entirely up to the reader to decide whether to admire, despise or love them (or indeed all of the above) and that kind of writing makes for an involving, moving and complicated read that will make the characters live with you long after finishing the last page.

Published now by Penguin Modern Classics


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