Tuesday, July 25, 2006

About some boys

Get the semi-autobiographical Bildungsroman stuff out of your system first, then start to play with the genre. That’s the rule for novelists, although even as I write it, I can hear you bellowing the exceptions. But think of Joyce using A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man as a personal catharsis, a professional calling-card and a dry-run for Ulysses.

David Mitchell hasn’t read the rules, it would seem. He kicked off with Ghostwritten, an interlinked series of tales, somewhere in the no-man’s land between a story collection and a novel; paid tribute to Murakami with the Booker-shortlisted Number9Dream; and then followed went back to the intertwined narrative thing with Cloud Atlas, but went one better, moving his multiple narratives to a distant, dystopic future, and then galloping backwards again, linking the stories with such casual elegance that you gasp in admiration.

Mitchell’s Black Swan Green is, on the face of it, a big jump away from structural trickery towards something like a proper story with a beginning, middle and potential for Andrew Davies to do the adaptation. It’s the story of Jason, an awkward, unpopular, stammering 13-year-old who lives in the titular Worcestershire village in 1982. And, really, that’s it.

Of course, Mitchell adds a bit of narrative oomph at the macro (the Falklands War) and micro (Jason’s parents’ marriage woes) levels. And, as a treat for his loyal fans, he also brings in a minor character from Cloud Atlas. But essentially it’s a first-person narrative with all the stuff that fictional teenage boys get worked up about: peer popularity; personal inadequacies; parents; siblings; girls and their breasts.

What literary invention there is, remains rooted in mundanity. Jason has a mature, imaginative vocabulary for a teenager (“Worm casts pitted the bubbling lawn like squeezed blackheads”), but that’s because he’s a poet, under the gloriously 13-year-old pseudonym Eliot Bolivar. There are unspoken struggles with an internal demon called Hangman (very Murakami) but that’s just Jason’s method of personalising and defeating his stammer.

Maybe all this material would have been too painful to write before Mitchell had secured literary credibility for himself. It is, after all, blatantly autobiographical: Mitchell’s the same age as Jason; he comes from the same area; he had a bad stammer when he was a child. The period detail, all bulletins from Goose Green and snogging to the sound of ‘Planet Earth’, feels pretty accurate (I’m about the same age) although some of it seems a bit second-hand, like one of those cheap nostalgia shows that keep Kate Thornton one paycheque away from the shopping channel. Indeed, Mitchell admits “debts of detail” to Andrew Collins’s Where Did It All Go Right?

It’s a brave admission, in that it hints at a genre/marketing shift, from ‘literary’ fiction to the sentimental end of lad lit. Of course, some people are allowed to scamper between the two, not least the crawling king snake of the genre, Nick Hornby.

Hornby’s Arsenal-‘n’-Springsteen persona disguises the fact that, deep down, he only ever wanted to be a literary critic; his first book was not, as the official myth has it, Fever Pitch, but a volume of essays under the clunky title Contemporary American Fiction. In The Polysyllabic Spree, he returns to the bookish leg of his geek tripos (the others, of course, being footy and pop).

It’s a collection of pieces from The Believer magazine, in which Hornby discusses what he’s been reading. The focus is less on the books themselves – although, inevitably, a level of criticism does slide in – but about himself as reader and consumer. The distinction is key – each essay is prefaced by two lists, of the books he’s read, and the books he’s bought in the previous month. There’s crossover, but they’re usually very different. I think we all know where he’s coming from. Bloody 3-for-2’s in Waterstone’s, that mysteriously leave you with two books you didn’t really want...

When he was writing about Liam Brady or Teenage Fanclub, Hornby was faced with the challenge of turning action (a goal, a guitar solo) into prose, to make it come alive for the reader. If you’re writing about writing, the challenge is less pronounced – why tell when you can show? As a result, the best bits of the book are the quotations from other sources. This could just be Hornby demonstrating that he’s a good anthologist with excellent taste (or, as readers of his latest novel might wish to attest, the fact that his own literary ability is going a bit Sunderland). Consider this, from This Is Serbia Calling by Matthew Collin: “The one good thing about no electricity, one cynic remarked during the power failures, is that there’s no television telling us we’ve got electricity.”

There. The insanity of war and politics encapsulated in 24 words. Hornby, to give him credit, just steps back and applauds, and I rather know how he feels: probably the best line in this post is the result of me quoting Hornby quoting Collin quoting some beleaguered Balkan. It’s postmodern correctness gone mad, I tell you.

Of course, Hornby makes no claims to be a war correspondent, although his life hasn’t been all honey for tea. He can combine humour and pain when discussing his son’s profound autism, and touches on a number of books about the subject. It does reinforce the authenticity of the book – this is about what he reads, and what touches him, not what he feels he ought to read. (In that sense, that the only agenda is spontaneous and autonomous, his essays would work very well in blog form.)

Hornby’s immunity to the vagaries of academic fashion is admirable, but he does seem to create a kind of bunker mentality, seeing himself as ringleader of the intelligent populist against the theorists and the literati (he does, after all, still live in Highbury rather than Hampstead.) One ally and friend that he namechecks is Tom Shone, who has distilled the essence of the intelligent movie blockbuster as the ability to combine clever, subtle details (Chief Brody’s son copying his dad’s gestures in Jaws) with big, dumb thrills in just the right proportion: “…you could have finger steepling and scary rubber sharks in the same movie. This seemed like important information. Why had no one told us this before?”

But when Hornby makes an equivalent point about middlebrow fiction, it comes over as the kvetching of a popular author who might make it to the Booker longlist, but that’s as good as it gets: “…after a lifetime of reading I can officially confirm that readers’ writers beat writers’ writers every time…”

Which, if we accept that what he’s really saying is that Hornby is better than Rushdie and Ishiguro and McEwan, et al, because more people read him, it surely means that Hornby is in turn less good than Grisham and Brown and Kinsella or whoever sells more than him. Or that Chelsea are currently better than Arsenal, and Lily Allen is better than Springsteen.

Once again, he has to reach for a quote to redeem himself, and it’s Gabriel Zaid who summarises the whole book, as well as Hornby’s other completist fascinations: “…the truly cultured are capable of owning thousands of unread books without losing their composure or their desire for more.”

Now, if Hornby could come up with one-liners like that – even if he changed the subject matter to Panini stickers or Dylan bootlegs – he’d get the Booker and the sales figures as well. It's the last match of the 1989 season and the ball’s at his feet...


Robert A. Swipe said...

Big Ron's Chalkboard:

"Big Tim Footman's gone in there, and he's run rings 'round 'Ornby with a sly little nutmeg, dummies Murakuri the left back (the Japanese defender's commiting hari kiri defending that high up the pitch!!) and gives it a bit of the old will he/won't he? before sitting one up at back stick. Spotter's badge for the Brody/Brady eyebrows, my son...

On me 'ead son!


Billy said...

Actually I thought "It’s postmodern correctness gone mad, I tell you" was the best line in the post.

Molly Bloom said...

I'm just talking about Joyce because it is an excuse to...and you've mentioned him..so you've got me started...

If you think about 'Portrait' - what I find interesting is that Joyce begins the journey towards what I would call equanimity. I think it starts in 'Portrait' and then at the end of 'Ulysses' he reaches a kind of equanimity. More than someone like Beckett, who seems to go backwards in a way with texts like 'Molloy' - we have a kind of return to the reptilian state. Fascinating. Lots of people feel that the end of 'Ulysses' is not a place of freedom, but I do. I think he breaks the Viconian cycle and reaches a state of equanimity that was started in 'Portrait'. It is only then that we can have 'Finnegans Wake' because then the book becomes the world. Experience - love, life, death in 'Portrait' and 'Ulysses' and then the book as word/world in 'FW' - wow. Wonderful, wonderful Joyce. Please don't get me started...sorry.

As for football...you'll probably be spitting and seething along with Robert at my latest post. Well, if you like George Best that is.

Molly Bloom said...

I agree with Billy...you are v.clever.

Wyndham said...

Hmmm, I'd like to read Mitchell - he seems very much in the modern American style, the kind of author British writers have a chip on their shulder about. Sadly, I've got this Tom Clancy dissertation to write.

Tim Footman said...

Bob: Yes, the Liam pic was just for you. Did you go the Bergkamp match?

Billy: Too kind, sir.

Molly: I thought Stephen reached that equanimity with the ephiphany at the end of Portrait, then seemed to lose it again before regaining it (vicariously through Bloom) at the end of Ulysses. But I've never made it through Finnegans, I'll admit. I'm waiting for the Bleak House style soap opera.

Wyndham: Glad to have you back, old fruit. BSG is like that, maybe. But his other stuff is touched with magic realism, very unAmerican. And as for "Sadly, I've got this Tom Clancy dissertation to write" - that's gotta be the best line around these parts. Respec'!

Dr Ian Hocking said...

Great piece, Tim. I haven't read any Hornby, but I guess I should. It's also tempting to look at that Collins book, too. Mitchell really seems to be spreading his wings as a novelist. I'm a big fan of Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten, but I'd say that BSG is perhaps more interesting; I can imagine he left it later in his career to tackle the work because, on the face of it, its a book harder to get right than Cloud Atlas, which is a fairly abstract experiment in genre-mashing. In some ways, it's brave of him to tackle the (almost) linear narrative, since his reputation was built on warping it.

Tim Footman said...

Thanks Ian. I think BSG is, as you say, very interesting in the context of Mitchell's other work; but beyond that, it's just another bloke reconnecting with his inner child - cf Toby Litt's DeadKidSongs; Michael Frayn's Spies; Hornby's About A Boy. It's much better written than a lot of the genre - I was tempted to quote dozens of little nuggets of Jason's internal wordplay - but I'm still left wanting something else. So you had a lousy time when you were 13, Dave. Didn't we all?

This is why it reminds me of those I LOVE 1982 programmes, in that it reinforces our shared memories, rather than challenges them. Which doesn't make it a bad book, by any means, but it stops it from being an excellent one.

Hornby frustrates me. He wrote one very good, very funny novel (High Fidelity), realised he'd set off a trend, and (it seems to me) attempted to match the increasingly sentimental guff being churned out by his imitators, eg Tony Parsons.

That said, his writing on books and music remains both intelligent and accessible, even if I disagree with a lot of his tastes. Which is more than can be said for Parsons, whose once-acute journalism seems to have degenerated into self-parody alongside his flatulent fiction. The only good thing to be said about A Long Way Down (Hornby's latest novel) is that it isn't as bad as Parsons's, the title of which escapes me. (It's the one about music hacks in 1977. Dire.)

Robert A. Swipe said...

Tim - Yes, I was at the Bergkamp game (as you'd know if you'd listened to my Bobcast. I have namechecked you on podcast2 as you obviously need a bit of prodding in this regard. There's music on it too, not just me waffling, so you may be more interested than you'd initially thought. See what you think. I'd value your opinion)

Oh and thanks for the Chippy pic.

btw - some nerd called Blezard is muscling in on your bird. I'm right behind you if it comes to fisticuufs (at least 40 yards behind you, running in the opposite direction...)

Molly Bloom said...

There is a very good write up of 'Exiles' today in the new Time Out. I'm going to go and see it and I'll let you know what it turns out like. As a satire of Ibsen..I still think it is a fine play. But..I'm biased.

Tim Footman said...

Bob; consider me prodded. My only excuse is that I've been having broadband problems, so downloading stuff is a hit and miss affair. But I listen, I like - even felt a little pang of sympathy about the Arsenal stuff, even though it's Arsenal we're discussing.

Molly; even as infatuated as you are, you must admit Jimmy's (as Bob puts it) facial hair was a bit halfarsed.

Christ, I've just written 2,500 words on Paranoid Android. And I only quoted the Bible twice.

First Nations said...

toppled, i say, from the 'worlds most well read' throne...

*furiously taking notes*

Molly Bloom said...

Look...I shall defend 'Jimmy' to the last. To the last I say! And that hair is wunderbar.

Robert A. Swipe said...

High Fidelity's great, isn't it?

I keep meaning to re-read How to be Good which had some very funny and well modulated sequences but then went a bit odd when the bird goes off and leaves The Angriest Man in Holloway and listens to Air a lot. The ending hits a surprisingly downbeat note for Hornby and I seem to remember thinking as I read it that maybe he would move off from that "what it's like being you" type fiction to something a bit more abstract. Haven't read Don't Do It, or whatever it's called, so I don't know how valuable that intuition is...

He is a gooner though, so must be defended to the hilt regardless - even though he's the son of a millionaire and about as working class as Lady Antonia Hervey...

I also think he's 'in character' when he does that thing of listing books he bought against books he's read and pretending that his taste doesn't really extend beyond Anne Tyler and The Gooner

Glad you like the Bobcast too - any requests (..and don't say, yes - don't do anymore...) Ringo's a great LP, isn't it? Can you blog something on THAT instead of all the clever stuff?

Tim Footman said...

FN: In the Martin Amis collection The War Against Cliché, there's a very funny review of Who's Who In 20th Century Literature. MA takes the piss out of the author, one Martin Seymour-Smith, who "gives the impression that he has read everything ever written by and about everyone in every language twice."

Molly: The guy was blind, but I bet he shaved himself.

Bob: I always think it's interesting that each ex-Beatle produced his best album (Plastic Ono Band; All Things Must Pass; Ringo; Band On The Run) within five years of the split. And it was all downhill from then on. That thing Jeff Lynne said about ELO being what the Beatles would have sounded like if they'd stuck together is true; they would have been mediocre, with an occasional OK single.