Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Books I read in February (Part two)

(Part one is here, yo.)

Strangers on a Train, Patricia Highsmith. I thought I knew the plot from the movie, but it turns out to have been so long since I saw it that all I could remember was that it involved some strangers on, like, a train. Every other preconceived notion I had about the book was completely wrong, which was a pleasant surprise, given the thing's a suspense thriller.

The set-up is a slow burn, and the way it plays out is clever, with ample attention given to the existential nature of the crimes. It is very much a psychological thriller: the fracturing of the protagonist's mental states is as important to the suspense as their physical crimes. Highsmith's omniscient narration is pretty clunky, with the action proceeding mainly via descriptions of actions, thoughts, and mental states. This to some extent undermines Highsmith's efforts to absorb us into the psyches of her wascally cwiminals.

Even still, I enjoyed the sick fascination that Strangers on a Train evoked. Awful people doing awful things: that's entertainment.

Varying Degrees of Hopelessness, Lucy Ellmann. Ellmann's second novel is rather slight compared to her latter-day marvel Dot In the Universe, but it delivers enough wit, sex, and dark jabs at humanity to be worthwhile. Set in an obscure London art school, Varying Degrees follows the amorous fortunes of the virginal, delusional Isabel, and her horny belly-dancing roommate Pol. It's fairly insubstantial, but there is pleasure to be had. Ellmann is frank and funny, and demonstrates a B.S. Johnsonian delight at messing with the trappings of realism.

Thunder and Lightnings, Jan Mark. Another much-loved book from my late childhood. I first read this in Grade 5, having selected it from the small library my teacher maintained in our classroom. I was obsessed with fighter planes, so a novel about a boy obsessed with fighter planes was always going to appeal.

The story is simple. Andrew moves to the country with his parents and falls in with Victor, resident weird kid and devotee of the soon-to-be-obsolete supersonic jet fighter, the English Electric Lightning. In the manner of all such tales of friendship, the two boys complement one another, each turning out to be just what the other needed to expand his horizons as adolescence approaches.

Thunder and Lightnings is a lovely novel, full of the warmth and combativeness of pre-pubescent friendship. It is gentle, not only in style, but also in spirit.

Marry Me, Dan Rhodes. Rhodes's books always end up with cheesy, cartoonish covers, implicit recognition of his strange position in contemporary literature. Too charming and romantic to be feted as a purveyor of Serious Literature, too willing to rub genre the wrong way and make off-colour jokes to have broad mainstream appeal, Rhodes is perhaps the only writer on the planet whose books can carry approving quotations from Jenny Colgan and Stewart Lee.

Marry Me is the follow-up to Rhodes's first book, Anthropology. That book collected 101 love stories, each clocking in at 101 words. This one is less strict in a structural sense - there's seventy or eighty stories of varying lengths - and focuses on the various facets of marriage: the proposals, ceremonies, compromises, and disappointments. A few of the stories are poignant, but for the most part Rhodes goes for laughs and a kind of uneasy irony.

This is a short book - I read it on a Sunday afternoon without having to get up and freshen my drink - but an enjoyable one. Rhodes is brilliant at the difficult short-short form, and he can be very funny - even Marry Me's epigraph page made me laugh.

Man or Mango?, Lucy Ellmann. Ellmann tickles me just so, but while I laughed and gasped and shook my head wonderingly at various times reading Man or Mango?, on the whole it left me perplexed. This is Ellman's third book, and it strikes me as an important one in her corpus. (If I can be permitted such an assertion, having only read three of her books.) (Man I love the word "corpus".) Whereas Varying Degrees of Hopelessness was slight and occasionally tentative, Man or Mango? marks the point at which Ellmann became more or less completely unmoored from the conventions of literary fiction as she is practised. And thank god for that, frankly. There's nothing here resembling traditional "character development", the narrative mode shifts constantly, and Ellmann throws in all manner of stylistic parody and quotation (attributed and otherwise). As for story, well, is there one? Yet Ellmann's gift for combining invective and agonisingly blunt assessments of the human condition kept me turning the pages. And yet, the novel doesn't gel. Unlike Dot in the Universe, which refines the techniques developed here, Man or Mango? is loose and directionless. Yet - don't mind me, I'm transforming into a yeti - I can't dislike a novel that contains passages such as this:

"Everything is so vivid to a child. They're receptive because they're ignorant: they have no idea what a great swindle is in store for them. This is why their smiles move us so. (But it's the smiles of adults that should move us. How can they smile?)"

Misanthropes, represent!

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