Monthly Archives: August 2014

The Wants

By chance, I finished two books recently with ‘want’ in the title. As good a reason as any, I thought, to blog…

Wants

He Wants is the follow-up to Alison Moore’s excellent debut novel The Lighthouse which, as you may recall, appeared on the 2012 Booker shortlist — remarkable not just for being a coup for any debut novel, but for its being produced by the tiny publisher Salt (one of two indie publishers on that year’s shortlist). Again a short, tightly focused novel in which a certain melancholy seems to flow from the characters to pervade the text, He Wants has a slightly larger cast, but is very much in the same vein as Moore’s first book. It’s a story of repressed longings, buried memories, veiled but very real threats. We follow Lewis Sullivan, a retired RE teacher, as he potters through identical dull days: his daughter brings him soup he doesn’t want; sometimes he goes to the pub for a shandy and a sausage roll. Meanwhile, his father Lawrence is maundering in a retirement home, and Lewis’s daughter Ruth has a marginally more lively but ultimately similarly stultifying life: generation after generation, members of the Sullivan family seem destined to stumble into ruts they can’t escape from. It’s not like they even want to be in the village; Lewis often encounters neighbours he’d plainly like never to have to see again (Moore withholds the reasons for one mysetrious, violent encounter just long enough). Even the reader may not, due to the similarity of their names, be immune to the way Lewis, a teacher like Lawrence, often gets confused for the older man. Into this network of misspent lives comes Sydney, Lewis’s long-absent childhood friend, who seems at first a kind of spiv, but is soon revealed to be something more than just a chancer: he may be Lewis’s way out.

This is a thematically tight-knit novel: the characters’ desires, their “wants”, are referenced throughout, from wishes for vast life changes to regrets over the most minute of missed opportunities. The chapter titles, too, alert us to these: almost all begin ‘He wants’ or ‘He wanted’, in reference to Lewis, Lawrence, Sydney et al. When change comes for Lewis, it’s in a scene that confirms what the novel has spent a while obliquely hinting at (and I had wondered if I was reading too much into these hints), and although it’s almost as cathartic for the reader as for the character, I slightly felt that we peep behind the curtain, so to speak, at this moment. One of The Lighthouse‘s great pleasures was how the delicious cropping of its ending demonstrated to perfection the old saw about things being unsaid being as important as those said. It’s satisfying to give Lewis the opportunity to articulate what he really wants, and indeed to grasp it, but I felt a little of this slim book’s subtlety slipped away here.

There’s also a whimsical tone which sat uneasily with me. A loan shark character, Barry Bolton, has the name and the demeanour of a comic book villain, and fails to embody much of a threat, while characters’ obsessions over the right mug to drink coffee from, or what sausage roll they would or would not like to eat, push this book in the unwelcome direction of something like Rachel Joyce’s Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, in which the deliberately implausible setup and a whimsical tone detracts from any sense the characters are at any real risk and, therefore, from any sense that they have grown (or deserve our sympathies). Moore’s book is better by an order of magnitude than Joyce’s, but its depiction of village life recalls John Major’s much-derided description of “long shadows on cricket grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers” — a place which, despite references to mobile phones and the Tottenham, might be stuck in 1954, not 2014(ish). Which may very well be what a lot of England is like, and may be contributing to the characters’ inertia, but is a little unthrilling to read about.

From over the pond — specifically, Brooklyn’s beautiful Book Court, where I bought my copy — comes Jonathan Miles‘s Want Not (Mariner Books). While in Moore’s novel, want colours her every character’s thoughts, Miles’s is thematically dense, exploring all manner of notions of (that unspoken half-phrase the title alludes to) waste. Here is bodily waste, food waste from restaurants, ordinary trash, waste paper (complete with indentity-theft-worthy documents), nuclear waste, wasted opportunity, characters one might accurately summarise as “wasters”, etc, etc. It all gets a bit much. It seems like there are a bunch of American authors (oddly enough, many called Jonathan) who would like to be Jonathan Franzen — or maybe there’s some Ur-writer at whom they’re all aiming, and eventually there’ll be a Big American Novel of Ideas credited solely to Jonathan, an icon without need of a surname.

Want Not is a long, thickly plotted, sometimes infuriating book, in which three sets of lives — that of a linguist whose life is collapsing around him following his divorce, that of a “freegan” couple dumpster-diving for food and living in a squat furnished with other people’s trash, and a debt collection agency’s head honcho — affect one another in (yes) unexpected ways.These are clever interactions, but it takes a while for them to be revealed, and the journey to that point involves a lot of longueurs and digressions. Miles, you feel, has sat for a while brainstorming every connotation the word “waste” brings to mind, then done a lot of research to become an expert on all these things. In the course of 386 pages, the reader learns the symptoms and effects of Irritable Bowel Syndrome, the method for skinning and butchering a dead deer, how to “trick out” a Jeep to pimpmobile standards, how long a language can be expected to “live” unchanged, and many, many, many other things. As in Franzen, what we have in Want Not is something like the old “novel of information” which seeks to contain as much as it can about the world by, well, containing as much as it can. (Don DeLillo’s Underworld is perhaps the great example of the genre; it too deals with garbage and waste, especially the enormous, defunct (real-life) landfill in New York which — in the kind of life-imitating-DeLillo twist in which the 2000s has excelled — reopened after 9/11 to accommodate the waste after the disaster.) Often these are fascinating; I’ve not read a more shocking (in a good way) description of the physical sensation of giving birth, for instance, though obviously I’m not in a position to gainsay his description, either, and I wonder whether it rings true with mothers who read this book? Sometimes, though, a little pruning or tightening wouldn’t have gone amiss. When Matty, the freegans’ loser houseguest, gets trapped in a trash compactor and has to think fast to avoid being crushed to death, the book spends several pages of lyrical prose describing his actions and thought processes; it seemed an oddly stately way to describe frantic activity. Even bit-part characters get lengthy flashbacks, backstories, inner lives; it’s certainly comprehensive. For me it felt — as lots of novels of information can do — a little like it was a book that was exciting in the planning, but which had grown a little ungainly in the telling. That said, it’s a novel about conspicuous consumption and brazen waste, set in present-day New York, and for it to be excessive and capacious and all-encompassing is, in the end, entirely appropriate.

Goodreads

In an effort to join everything together in an inextricably interlinked web of work-displacement, I’ve signed up to Goodreads (on which posts from this blog are repeated, which in turn appear on my Twitter feed, which also reposts items from the Glasgow Coma Scale Tumblr…).

As well as letting me engage with readers — you can ask me a question on there! — this has already provided me with many happy hours of work-adjacent but not actual work activity by allowing me to add all the books I’ve ever read (give or take one or two shameful ones, like that Lisa Jewell book I bought one evening from Waterstones in Glasgow because it had a nice cover, and because I had been drinking). There’s a competitive streak that makes me want to have the most books on there. 1,360 and counting…

Artful

Boats at Rest in Mount's Bay by Alfred Wallis 1855-1942

Boats at Rest in Mount’s Bay by Alfred Wallis 1855-1942

New from me today: a feature for the Scottish Book Trust website discussing ten excellent books on art and artists. There are fictional artists and artworks in novels by Siri Hustvedt, Sarah Hall and Jonathan Gibbs, biographies telling the often bizarre life stories of artists Alfred Wallis and Robert Mapplethorpe, and (as I’ve described it on my Tumblr page already) the single most vital book I read in my research for The Glasgow Coma Scale: the 1987 compilation of David Sylvester’s interviews with Francis Bacon: starkly candid, and indispensable, in my view, for an artist of any variety.

On Vanishing

Here’s an interesting piece (yes, on Buzzfeed – don’t worry, it’s not ’Ten cats dressed up as other types of cat’) by Catherine Lacey on writing in the first person, and the journalistic convention of attempting to conflate the author of a novel with its narrator. ‘Is it based on a true story?’ is one of those bizarre rather impertinent questions people ask people who’ve written a piece of fiction — a question whose equivalent you feel they might feel silly asking, say, an architect (‘Are all your designs based on a house you lived in as a child?’) or a teacher (‘Do you only teach children the things you were taught yourself?’). In a way it’s the flipside of the old saw about everyone having a novel in them, the implication being that all a published author has done is write down the kind of thing that has happened to them in life, and how hard can that be?

I also identified with Lacey’s description of the sharper kind of wanderlust she feels – a desire to disappear entirely (a shared dream of writers?) – which makes me wonder if, for her, as for me, the act of vanishing into writing a book satisfies this urge. Few other occupations allow the practitioner the chance to inhabit a life that is, even if the journalist who interviewed Lacey didn’t seem to grasp this, almost entirely unlike her own. I don’t believe that writing a novel should be a way to work directly and overtly through ‘issues’ (though in some cases writing can be useful therapy), but maybe it goes some way to assuaging a desire to throw everything in the air and go off to start a new life on the other side of the planet on a whim. (I feel this urge every so often.)

You work in the dark, so to speak, and until you show your manuscript to other people, or discuss it in any specific terms, to write a book means to hide in plain sight, to spend your time with people no-one else knows, to go to a place where no-one can really find you. My partner Mark was astonished on reading the first draft of The Glasgow Coma Scale: ‘So this is who you’ve been hanging out with all year!’ If you can’t flee to that uninhabited desert island in real life, you can live vicariously through the experiences of someone who is shaped by you, and shapes you too.

Summer Reading

Everyone is else is talking about the books they’re going to read this summer (including, ahem, an exceptionally well-curated list at Refinery29) so here are my picks. These are the titles – well, eight of them – I’ll be reading in the park round the corner, on the annual pilgrimage to Festival-glitzy Edinburgh next month and, with a bit of luck, on some short European trips in September… September still counts as summer, right?

'Yellow King' curtain fabric not included

‘Yellow King’ curtain fabric not included

All My Puny Sorrows – Miriam Toews (Faber)
Animals – Emma Jane Unsworth (Canongate)
These two have had knockout reviews, the former from my editor, who has (ahem) impeccable taste. I read Emma Jane Unsworth’s first novel, Hungry, The Stars and Everything, and suspect there will be some commonality in theme despite their very different settings: Hungry in a fancy restaurant where a reviewer has a very strange meal, Animals in a shared house where two girls inspire each other to go on ever more (self) destructive benders.

Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys – Viv Albertine (Faber)
I’m a sucker for music memoirs – even when, as in this case, I don’t know all that much of the work of the musician in question. That said, I did go and see Albertine – of The Slits, The Flying Lizards and latterly playing solo under her own name – play a gig at the Old Blue Last in 2010, and she seemed astute and likeably self-effacing. And her book has a great title.

The Eyrie – Tim Winton (Picador)
A new Winton is always an event; on the surface, this looks like the poet of the Australian landscape has turned his attention to more urban matters. Winton’s prose is always wondrous, and there’s a fableistic quality to the writing, especially in the more straightforward (and short) novels like Breath, his last novel, whose descriptions of surfing elevated it from a sport to a sort of transcendental experience.

From the Fatherland with Love – Ryu Murakami, trans. Ralph McCarthy, Charles De Wolf and Ginny Tapley Takemori (Pushkin Press)
I’ve been meaning to read ‘the other Murakami’ for a while now and, as is often the case, it was the cover of this new reissue from the estimable Pushkin Press that sold this one to me. It sounds entirely bonkers.

My Life in the Bush of Ghosts – Amos Tutuoloa (Faber)
The bold new geometric jackets Faber’s given their reissues of six paperbacks by Nigerian author Amos Tutuola make them utterly irresistible. Faced with the choice, I plumped for the one whose title I knew from the David Byrne/Brian Eno record.

Sum – David Eagleman (Canongate)
I stayed away from this when it first came out, as it suggested something a bit whimsical or cod-religious, until a friend recommended it recently. I don’t believe in an afterlife, but here are forty stories/thought experiments postulating what one could be like.

The Wanderer – Timonthy J. Jarvis (Perfect Edge Books)
I was lucky enough to read this book in manuscript a while back, and to be able to give this incredibly imaginative, splendidly weird book a blurb. I’m looking forward to revisiting a book which both celebrates and subverts the tropes of weird, Gothic and horror fiction – found manuscripts, immortal beings, the anthology format – so gleefully and masterfully.