Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Somewhere on a see-saw

Thanks to a combination of holidays and illness and general lack of intellectual ambition, my reading habits in recent weeks have been defiantly middlebrow. Not that any author would want his or her work defined as such: even the marketing wonks of Publishingworld don't seem to acknowledge such a genre. You've got your pile-'em-high blockbusters, the Browns and Ludlums and Grishams, not to mention the pinker, more glittery bits of chick-lit; and you've got your proper literary fiction types, the universe of I'll-say-nice-things-about-yours-in-the-New-York-Review-if-you-do-the-same-for-me-in-The-Observer. But what about the books that hover somewhere between? And how do they get there?

Take The Understudy, by David Nicholls. The author seems to be doing quite nicely as a purveyor of not-very-laddish lad-lit, the narrow segment of the post-Nick-Hornby spectrum that doesn't much care for football. His first novel, of course, had at its heart the noble sport of quizzing, a pursuit that's quintessentially male (competitive, anal) and yet at the same time utterly unmanly (girls don't swoon when you do it). The Understudy brings us another decent-hearted, obsessive nerd, one Stephen C. McQueen, whose middle initial was added by a helpful agent, just in case of any confusion.

Stephen's an actor, you see, although his dreams of stardom are based on the offchance that the megastar for whom he's depping in a West End play about Byron might come to some misfortune. Immediately we're in the realms of the existential hero, watching his youthful dreams getting kicked to pieces, night after night (plus two matinees a week). Chekhov could have created Stephen, in all his tragicomic glory; Beckett and Stoppard have returned again and again to characters, like him, slightly to one side of greatness, literally and metaphorically hovering in the wings, waiting for the call that never happens.

But this is the middle ground, remember? You can throw a few big ideas around, but heaven forbid you toss in any allusions that are going to perplex or challenge your reader unduly. In fact, if you do feel the need to refer to another work of literature, it's better that you get it wrong than run the risk of disrupting the warm and sudsy bath in which your punter wallows.

An example. Josh, the expensively-dentisted pretty boy whose wellbeing obstructs Stephen's lust for glory, takes his underling out for a drink at a private club. "Lead on, Macduff," he declaims as they step out onto Piccadilly and the reader is expected to know or infer that the quotation is from Macbeth. Except it isn't, of course. "Lead on, Macduff" is one of Shakespeare's three great misquotations, alongside "Once more into the breach" and "Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well". It's "Lay on".

Now, if this were Dan Brown, the (mis)quotation wouldn't be there in the first place, or if it were, it would be glossed and footnoted, with detailed notes about the renowned playwright William Shakespeare and his place within the Priory of Sion. And if this were, say, Margaret Atwood or Tom Wolfe or Martin Amis or Don DeLillo, or Chekhov or Stoppard (especially Stoppard), the fact that Josh gets the line wrong would kickstart endless chinstrokery about the fragility of the Canon, or the persistence of solecisms, or an entire alternative literary universe would grind into gear, where Tom or Don or Tom would interrogate Shakespeare as to why exactly he wrote "lay" rather than "lead" and how he feels about everyone getting it wrong and, while we're at it, Will, this literary genius thing is the loneliest game, innit?

But this is David Nicholls, and David Nicholls isn't allowed to (doesn't allow himself to?) play those games. So a misquotation lies there on the page, and you never know whether it's a wry, smartypants dig at Josh's dimness, or a straightforward goof that someone should have picked up somewhere in the editorial process, but nobody did, cue shrugs and sighs all round as Nicholls signs the movie deal. (As with Starter for Ten, it's screamingly obvious that The Understudy was conceived with a movie version somewhere in the DNA. The main female character is American, for no apparent reason other than that this might make the product more saleable in Ohio.)

Maybe Mark Haddon isn't cut from the same cloth as Nicholls. After all, Haddon's own debut, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, won the Whitbread Prize, a fact that seems to scream Proper Literature pretty loudly. And yet, for all its postmodern maths puzzles and clinically unreliable narrator, it was a confidently un-literary type of book, dealing with a small universe of small people who really didn't give a damn about the precise words Shakespeare put in the mouth of his anti-hero. A Spot of Bother inhabits the same universe, as the principals bounce between London and Peterborough in the service of a bourgeois family farce that never quite tips over into the tragedy that hovers at the edge of the page. Infidelity, breakdown, cancelled weddings, mid-life crises, born-again Christianity and eczema add to a bubbling mix of dysfunction; but Haddon's implied message seems to be that, hey, aren't we all dysfunctional, when you look at it? And surely any book that can carry on its inside back cover the assertion that it's "a crisp, light, effortless read" (Sunday Times) isn't seeking the same market that plays spot-the-allusion with the new Ian McEwan.

OK, two very specific points that place A Spot of Bother closer to Nicholls than to The Proper Lit Crowd. First - and this might be worth a quick SPOILER ALERT - near the middle of the novel, one of the characters attempts to cut off part of his body with a pair of scissors. Now, if the novel were identical in every shape or form with what Haddon has produced, except for the fact that the character cuts off another part of his anatomy - yes, well done, that one - this could be a Will Self or an Iain Banks or an Irving Welsh or, indeed, an early McEwan, and it would resonate with dark, sub-Freudian glowerings behind the psychic leylandii, and say something about Blairism into the bargain. But the character does not cut off his penis; characters do not cut off their penises in Mark Haddon's books; readers do not go to Mark Haddon in search of characters cutting off their penises. He's grim, but not that grim, and that's what places him so precisely on the Grisham>McEwan spectrum.

A little later on, one of the characters has the following line: "Sharing an ageing bisexual lover with my own mother... I think life is probably difficult enough already." In fact, it's just a wry one-liner, a droll response to the maelstrom of plot in which the principals find themselves. If it hinted at any kind of internal reality - if anyone really was sharing an ageing bisexual lover with his own mother - we'd be in Douglas Coupland territory. But we're not. We're in Haddonland, and again, Haddon doesn't play those games, and we wouldn't want him to.

Of course, any notion of placing Nicholls or Haddon somewhere on the length of a see-saw (whatever won the Booker this year on one seat, the sequel to The Da Vinci Code at the other) depends on the point of view of the reader. Some people would find The Understudy or A Spot of Bother offputtingly literary, and will never stray from the safe ground of their blockbusters; others will dismiss my notion of 'literary fiction' as utterly lightweight and predictable, because it's not in Armenian and doesn't require intimate knowledge of string theory to make any sense of it. It's like the moment when George W Bush declared that John Kerry was on "the far left bank" of American discourse, a comment that suddenly said far more about Bush's perception of reality and normality than Kerry's. Or maybe, as Dave Hill suggests, it's all down to the colour and sturdiness of the cover.

And then maybe it doesn't matter whether Nicholls and Haddon are 'literary' or not. Maybe it only matters whether they're any good or not. If that's all you want: The Understudy is a bit less good than Starter for Ten, which was kind of ordinary in the first place; A Spot of Bother is an equal bit less good than The Curious Incident..., which was pretty damned special. So Haddon is better (and possibly ever so slightly more literary, if that matters to you) than Nicholls. Case closed.

And hey, he got through a whole post about books without once talking about dead French cultural theorists! Give the man a (middling) round of applause!

Saturday, November 24, 2007


I've been reading LD Beghtol's rather wonderful book about The Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs, surely the greatest triple album ever made, or at least the greatest made by a gay ukulele player with a chihuahua. Beghtol includes polls of fans' favourite and least favourite tracks on the album: oddly, of my own five favourites, two are in the former Top 10 (at 2 and 6); and two are in the latter (2 and 8). This may have some kind of aesthetic or other significance, but I'm damned if I can put my finger on it.

PS: RIP Dr Who's mum.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Just say n....

In which I have to be very careful with my quotation marks.

A tedious necessity

A troll or two I can cope with, but this is becoming... I was going to type 'intolerable' but it's worse than that. 'Boring', that's the word I'm after. Someone's even taken to pretending to be me, which is a bit like that film with two Roger Moores, except that the person in question isn't even George Lazenby.

So I'm using comment moderation for the time being. Apologies for the inconvenience. All else as normal. As you were.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Cold comfort

Please excuse me if this post comes flecked with phlegm, but Small Boo and I have both been stricken by some virulent respiratory lurgy, involving much snuffling and hoiking and sinus pain and all manner of similar indignities. All the more reason to regret that my parents have departed for less sunny climes: despite my mum's temporary manual dysfunction, I'm sure she could have rustled up tomato soup and hot buttered toast, her magical cure for all known ailments since I was about three years old. And you thought chicken soup was the kosher penicillin? Meh!

Anyway, since my mystery ague has sapped my attention span along with most of my other bodily functions, I've given up on books for the moment, and taken to studying the packaging on the various proprietary goods we've used to staunch the flow of goop. I'm particularly struck by a warning on the side of a pack of Kleenex anti-viral tissues:

"Directions for Use: It is a violation of Federal law to use this product in a manner inconsistent with its labeling. Use only as a facial tissue."

Crikey. So if you find yourself having to jot down a phone number, or maybe even a brilliant idea for a blog post, and the only paper to hand is a Kleenex tissue, can you expect the attentions of an armed-to-the-teeth SWAT team, ready to stick a bag over your head and deposit you in Guantanamo?

And where does this leave the ad agency Euro RSCG, who've released a notebook made out of napkins, for just that sort of creative eventuality? Will they, too, be busted by da Feds? Or will this just spiral into insanity, with Andrex selling packets of leaves, or Nokia offering twigs and matches, so you can send smoke signals when you forget your phone?

Maybe when the antibiotics kick in, this will make sense. But somehow I doubt it.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Whisky, you're the devil

A few unattached thoughts about recent travels:

One: Why is it that, for some people, a visit to some site of natural or manmade beauty is incomplete without a photograph: moreover, one that includes the photographer's travelling companion gurning like a moron in front of said site, usually masking the best bit. And this isn't a sarky dig at Japanese people: they do take lots of snaps, but execute them with searing speed and efficiency, so that an entire coach party from Kyoto can aim, shoot and move on in the time it takes for a retired estate agent from Rotterdam to reposition his wife, fiddle with his exposure and wonder whether now would be a good time to try out that pristine tripod.

Two: Am I alone in finding it rather charming (albeit very arrogant) that French people are the only travellers who do not presume that strangers have English as a default language? "Bonjour!" they all chirruped as we met on the path to the weird underwater carvings of Kbal Spean.

Three: Back in Bangkok, there's a delightful French restaurant called Le Bouchon, nestled amidst the deepest, dankest fleshpots of Patpong. The highlight of the pudding menu is vanilla surprise; the surprise supposedly being the massive slug of whisky that the chef adds to the ice cream. In reality, the surprise comes when my mother, about 20 minutes after consuming said delight, staggers into O'Reilly's Bar and starts boogying to the Beatles cover band, wielding her plaster-encased right arm with gay and dangerous abandon.

Friday, November 16, 2007

In every dream home a heartache

Back from our second trip this year to Cambodia, again to Siem Reap, home of the wondrous weirdness that is the temples of Angkor. I had a brief "aaah-this-is-the-life" moment, thinking how delightful it would be to spend my life strolling between ABC stout at The Warehouse and palm wine at the Grand Cafe, with occasional detours to the neo-apocalyptic landscape that is Ta Phrom, a place that adds new levels of meaning to the phrase 'urban jungle'.

But of course that would be Ta Phrom without hordes of doughy Austrian tourists; and Siem Reap without the aching poverty. And I realised what I really want is an amalgam of places: not just Ta Phrom, but the best chunks of Barcelona and Hong Kong, leading onto the more interesting sidestreets of New York and Edinburgh and Tokyo and Montreal and Rhodes; with Niagara Falls and the North York Moors and the Pyramids a gentle stroll away. And a really good Lebanese restaurant and about 143 fabulous bookshops and record shops and a branch of Muji as well. And free wi-fi, of course.

Which leads, I suppose, to a task for the weekend, or maybe a meme, or whatever. What would be your ideal location, concocted from all the fun bits of places you've visited, or even places you haven't? And don't worry that you're leaving out the bad bits. Think of it as a conceptual bespoke travel agent, with metaphysical overtones. Or something.

Normal service will resume next week, probably with a pompous rant about Japanese books and French films and Canadian pop music and stuff.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Playing pool

Just returned from a relaxing long weekend with parentals in Hua Hin, holiday resort by appointment to the Thai royal family, and many lumpy Scandinavians in inappropriately skimpy swimsuits. Highlights: excellent seafood restaurant; cool waterfalls; the temporary loss of my mother's undergarments in the hotel pool, gamely retrieved by father (how they ended up there is a mystery that may never be fathomed); the vain search for the world's largest stone frog (well, that's what it said on the sign); and, best of all, watching two bright cerise dragonflies duelling like a pair of Regency bucks, at least one of them played by Stewart Granger.

On to Cambodia tomorrow. Update upon return, end-of-the-week-ish.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Thai takeaways

One: Inevitably, as the world becomes smaller, the Thai language picks up smatterings of English. Not as much as in some other Asian countries: the lack of a colonial past means that there isn't the semiotic infrastructure that drops English words into, say, Hindi or Tagalog. But it happens, and in the midst of a staccato burst of Thai, what sounds like a fragment of an American sitcom pops out.

The other day, I was in a taxi, and the driver was contemplating the traffic. "Oh. My. God." he said. And you could hear the full stops.

Two: This morning I was at the immigration department, applying to renew my work permit. "This photo is same as the one last year," said the man behind the desk. I had to agree, but suggested that I'm the same person as I was last year. "This old photo," he continued. "Need new photo, more recent. And different colour shirt this time as well."

One of my friends pointed out that he just got a Thai passport for his 10-month-old son. The photo will be valid for five years, shirt and all.

My parents are rolling into town tonight, for the last leg of their round-the-world shenanigans. Will be doing touristy things with them, involving beaches, ruined temples and possibly horses, over the next 10 days-ish, so posting may be a little erratic during that time. Be good, and if you can't be good, be... well, bad, I suppose...

In the meantime, I know YouTube is the last refuge of the blogger bereft of inspiration, but this is fab: 'All The Rage' by The Royal We.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Now it's dark and I'm alone

(Several lifetimes ago, I promised to do a post about Brian Wilson. This isn't quite as long ago as I promised to write something about Haruki Murakami's long-disowned second novel, a post that will probably appear around the time Chelsea Clinton becomes President, but it's still too long. The following isn't ideal, but it's something at least. A promise is a promise, after all.)

If you were to compile an orthodox canon of the most important (not best or favourite) rock and pop acts of all time, you'd immediately spot a neat Atlantic divide. The American acts on the list (Presley, Dylan, Springsteen, Madonna, Jackson, Aretha, etc) will tend to be individuals; the European side of things (Beatles, Stones, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Sex Pistols, U2, ABBA) mostly comprises bands. There are exceptions, of course (the Velvet Underground, Bowie) but there's enough meat there for a good, chunky thesis on US individualism versus European collectivism, with an appendix on the aesthetics of stencilled logos on bass drum skins.

There's one other act that throws a spanner in the works by refusing to fit neatly into the band/solo dichotomy: the Beach Boys. Pundits will argue whether they should be perceived as a band, or simply as a vehicle for their founder, Brian Wilson. Their greatest album, Pet Sounds, was for the most part concocted by Brian with studio musicians, and his bandmates were brought in at the end to provide harmonies.

There's no doubt that Brian was the towering genius of the band, and that the work he produces today under his own name is far more important than the slick nostalgia-fests being touted by the various other surviving Beach Boys, often under some variant of the BB identity. But that doesn't mean that the contribution of Love, Jardine, et al was irrelevant. The true poignancy of Brian Wilson's work is that it evolved from within a group of hormonally-charged males devoted to a proto-Loaded lifestyle of skirt and cars and high-jinks. Brian, shy, sensitive, insecure, chubby, half-deaf, tormented by a toxic relationship with his father, soon to descend into the pits of addiction and madness, would be a freakish outsider if he were playing maracas for the twee-est C86-era indie band. Putting him at the centre of this pit of rutting blokery (didn't Dennis end up shagging Mike's daughter, or was it the other way round?) was like having Franz Kafka turn out for the Springboks.

The result is that even when the songs are about stereotypically 'manly' pursuits (and before the pedants weigh in, I know a lot of the lyrics were written by outsiders) there's still an air of vulnerability. It's as if these all the driving and surfing and wenching is hypothetical: 'Wouldn't It Be Nice' and 'I Get Around' are childish imaginings of masculinity and adulthood; the closest Wilson comes to the reality of adolescence in his early work is 'In My Room', the song of a lonely boy who needs refuge and reassurance.

I think it was Marilyn Monroe who said something like: "lt's a terrible thing to be lonesome, especially in the middle of a crowd." And that's what makes Brian Wilson so perfect: he's in a band, and yet not in it; of it and not of it; eternally, transcendentally, semi-detached.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Coining it

Denis MacShane appears to have invented a new word: "semigrant". It's someone who spends periods working in another country, but has no intention of staying full-time. It sounds good, and might inject some much-needed common sense into the immigration debate. Essentially, people can't really change the fundamental culture of a place if they're popping back to Krakow every three months.

Partly inspired by that, may I offer my own neologism: "eclecture". It's a talk or similar educational event that covers all manner of ground, looping through apparently disparate areas of art, science, politics and so on via the most tenuous of connections: a bit like when you look something up on Wikipedia, and follow an interesting link, and then another, and an hour later you've completely forgotten why you started.

Thursday, November 01, 2007


So there was this e-mail from Amazon, single-breasted slayer of high street bookshops, informing me that "...customers who have purchased or rated books by Haruki Murakami have also purchased A Boy from Nowhere: v. 1 by David Mitchell."

That's fast work by the boy Mitchell, I thought. It doesn't seem so long ago that I was reviewing his last tome, Black Swan Green.

So, what's this one about?

"This is my story - an account of my life which began in the backstreets of the east end docklands and took me eventually through all kinds of experiences and adventures and raised me to a level that many years ago I thought would be impossible. It is a book that should be read by every young man or girl who comes from a disadvantaged background, as i did, but who still maintains a burning ambition to get on in this world of ours. There is little you cannot achieve provided you have the will and the determination to see things through to the very end."

Ah. I think they've mixed up this chap with the other, Booker-nominated and very definitely Murakami-influenced fellow. Although...

And this is where that whole postmodern, metafictional, let's-play-with-the-notion-of-authorship, every-writer's-entitled-to-a-Pierre-Menard-moment, bloody-Nabokov-got-away-with-it thing tips over into absurdity with a smidgeon of paranoia. Because I couldn't shake off the notion that this memoir might actually be an arch, literary jape by the other David Mitchell. There was something about the blurb on the publisher's website that just seemed too authory to be real:

"Leaving school at 14, as most working class lads did then, and without any educational qualifications the story plots his fight to gain success against all odds and tells how he rose to become UK Director responsible for the sale and distribution of all Czechoslovak confectionery products; this brought him into close contact with the communist world, with spies, and explains how and why he assisted MI6."

I think it's the reference to Czechoslovak confectionery products that does it for me. That's just too good to be real. And the problem with feelings like this is, even if I were to read A Boy from Nowhere, even if I were to meet its author, Mr Mitchell, even if I were to see the MI6 files that detailed the microfilms he secreted among the shipment of Curly-Wurlys from Bratislava (I'm guessing that bit), I'd still have the nagging instinct that the book was fiction, that this was all some benevolent con-trick, and that David Mitchell would whip off his latex mask and be replaced by, uh, the other David Mitchell. Or even the other other David Mitchell, the "...and Webb" one. Or maybe Murakami or Borges or Nabokov, or even Patrick McGoohan.

Poor Mr Mitchell (the confectionery one, that is). He's found himself embroiled in a web of intrigue and confusion that will make his dealings with MI6 seem positively humdrum.