Thursday, January 31, 2013

Books I read in January

At Swim-Two Birds, Flann O'Brien. I have resolved to write something about every book I read this year. It may end up being a plot synopsis, or a sestina, or simply the words "I done read a berk!" I'm making no promises of coherence or insight.

Anyway, the first book I read in 2013 was Flann O'Brien's comic extravaganza, At Swim-Two Birds. The narrator is a slightly pompous university student who spends his days avoiding his dour uncle and composing a novel, of sorts, about an author named John Trellis who forces his characters - variously drawn from Irish myth and penny dreadfuls - to live with him. The characters end up drugging Trellis in order to gain their freedom, and hilarity ensues, just as Newton's Third Law of Hilarity states that it must.

And look, it's very funny a lot of the time. There are longueurs, especially the bits drawn from mythology, which perfectly synthesise the standard myth-telling tone, right down to being kind of boring. The joy of the book is its virtuosic bullshitting conversations, in the course of which O'Brien skewers everything from literary convention (c. 1939) to the shit your da' says.

Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn. A librarian pressed this into my hands, with the promise that it was the current big thing. Later I learned that it was the most-reviewed book on Goodreads for 2012. Last week I rescued a ringtail possum that had fallen into the Darebin Creek. Granted the power of speech by a mischievous discardedsyringesprite, he foretold that I would read Gone Girl while holidaying on the Great Ocean Road, and write about it here.

And lo it came to pass. Gone Girl is a super-slick thriller, machined to provoke and enthral by a provocative enthralling machine going by the unlikely name of Gillian. It's hard to give any kind of synopsis, because this kind of novel relies on drip-feeding you revelations, page by page, chapter by chapter, all the way to the end. I can safely say it's about a woman who disappears one day, and the husband she leaves behind. The rest you'll have to discover yourself, possibly in the inevitable movie adaptation starring - I don't know - Channing Tatum and whoever has the dubious fortune to be the female version of Channing Tatum. (Not Stockard Channing. That would be confusing.)

I'm not sure that I actually enjoyed this book. It is, as I've attempted to suggest above, very well done. There's no faulting Flynn's professionalism: she had me turning the pages well into the night, just as she's s'posed to. But I don't know. It was a little too perfectly honed for my taste, the twists - none of which are especially shocking - doled out too meticulously. The other problem I had is with the narrative form, which leans heavily upon competing first-person narrators, a conceit that becomes increasingly contrived. As with everything else here, Flynn does it as well as it can be done, but if I want to watch clockwork I'll look at a clock. YMMV.

The Beauty Queen of Leenane and Other Plays, Martin McDonagh. Loose trilogy of short plays by the writer-director of the wonderful In Bruges and the messy but occasionally inspired Seven Psychopaths. The characters (drunkards, thugs, harridans) and settings (run-down shacks furnished with the meagre trappings of grinding poverty) reminded me of the venerable Synge and O'Casey plays I encountered studying Irish lit at uni, which I gather is partly the point. As in his films, McDonagh works with and against stereotypes, creating a subtle push-pull of knowingness and sincerity. The rural Galway of these plays is bleak and dull, filled with conniving drunkards whose recourse to violence is frequent. Somehow, though, McDonagh allows his characters enough humanity to provide moments of real emotional resonance. Oh, and the dialogue is often piss-funny, so it be.

The Last Samurai, Helen DeWitt. Genius is a difficult quality to depict. In movies it's usually done by having the genius character do a lot of blackboard work while ancillary characters watch with quiet awe, thus affirming the genius's genius for we plebs in the audience. Writing genius is much harder, and is probably best left to genius writers or at least the very smart. I mean, anyone could write about a genius, but it's something else to actually write a genius from the inside out.

In The Last Samurai, Helen DeWitt writes two geniuses. The first is Sybilla, a single mother with a compulsive, acquisitive personality, and a talent for languages. The second is her son, Ludovic, a child prodigy whom Sybilla believes could be the next Newton or Einstein.

The first half of the book is told mostly from Sybilla's p.o.v., as she attempts to educate the infant Ludo, while working a thankless typing job, and pursuing her own intellectual interests. The narration reflects Sybilla's eccentric, free-wheeling approach to life, love and pedagogy, the pages alive with idiosyncratic punctuation, capitalisation, bits of Homeric Greek and Japanese and mathematical formulae. Exhilarating and exhausting, it places the reader inside the experience of genius, and the special demands that a child prodigy places on even the most intelligent and resourceful parent.

The second half is slightly more conventional. Ludo, now eleven, goes in search of his father, "auditioning" various notable men for the role. His encounters with these men are funny and moving, and the juxtaposition of Ludo's rational, measured intellect with his mother's more rambunctious style creates warm drama amidst all the cleverness. The Last Samurai is an odd, wonderful book. I can't think of anything quite like it.

The Pillowman, Martin McDonagh. A writer of gory fairy tales is arrested by the secret police in a totalitarian state, accused of a series of child murders. What follows is by turns hilarious and tragic. It's essentially an exploration of storytelling - its responsibilities, meanings, purposes, and distortions - but there is nothing didactic about it. Instead it is a twisting, turning, razor-toothed monster of a play, impossible to pin down, and impossible to stop reading. As far as can be determined from simply reading the play, McDonagh's approach to stagecraft is far more sophisticated here than in his earlier work. Even on the page The Pillowman is a brilliant, urgent work.

The Accidental, Ali Smith. This is a tough one to synopsify. The set-up, consciously cribbed from Pasolini's Teorema, has a mysterious stranger ingratiate herself into a troubled family holidaying on the Norfolk coast. The stranger acts as a catalyst, shaking up the family as individuals and as a group.

So, that sounds contrived and dull. But what a synopsis - even a good synopsis, as opposed to my effort - can't intimate is Smith's dexterous free indirect narration, the way she successfully delineates and animates her quintet of protagonists. The Accidental is also deliberately of its time: set in 2003, it takes in the Iraq war, Abu Graihb, internet porn, cyber bullying - but there is little if any Amis-esque "state of the nation" posturing. Full marks, too, for not capitalising the word "internet". That, as Devo said, really gets my goat.

I first read this on publication in 2005 (and wrote about it here). Somehow I never got around to reading more Ali Smith. The time has come to rectify this.

Girl Meets Boy, Ali Smith. Smith twists the myth of Iphis into a warm and witty romantic satire about boys who like girls who do boys like they're girls who do etc. Part of the Canongate Myths series, this is a light and airy novella with intimations of weightier themes.


  1. Well you've got me beat Tim. I'm currently plodding my way through Philip Sidney's Old Arcadia, my second attempt. I'm not going to let it beat me this time!

    I lost At Swim Two Birds on the bus years ago, one third through. And I was really enjoying it! Flann O'Brien wrote newspaper columns I think. I'd love to read some of those.

    Oh, and I'm currently distracting myself with Project Gutenberg's SF library online. Check out this pulpism from a Robert Howard Conan story:

    He laughed at her insolence and flexed his mighty biceps.

  2. Old Arcadia sounds like hard work! But then I remember you are a fan of The Faerie Queen, so I suppose you're used to the Elizabethans.

    I've got a book of O'Brien's columns called "The Best of Myles" (he wrote the column under the name Myles na cGopaleen - and in fact rather confusingly his real name wasn't Flann O'Brien, it was Brian O'Nolan.)

    Re: Conan laughing and flexing his biceps, that's my standard response to one of those myki people asking me if I "have any questions about the service".