Posts Tagged ‘vintage’

August 3, 2012

I picked Heat by Bill Buford for the Kill Your Darlings Editors’ Picks. An excellent read for lovers of food and antics.

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having selected the book by georges perec called the art and craft of approaching your head of department to submit a request for a raise to read you are faced with a dilemma or if you like an unsolvable problem on the one hand you would like to read this book which is not perec’s most famous book but maybe his third or fourth most well known for which you have laid down the not insignificant sum of twenty-seven dollars and ninety-five cents and if you are honest with yourself you were expecting a book bigger than the eighty-four page volume you receive in the mail actually perhaps it is over one hundred pages with preliminary matter but that is really not to the point – and we must try our best to keep to the point – but on the other hand you are worried that if you are seen on the way to work with such a title other people on the tram may think you grasping and even worse someone who works with you may spot you and think you insensitive as well as grasping for it is well known that your industry is going down the toilet but it’s one or t’other you have after all spent your hard earned money on this book which is not perec’s most famous book but maybe his third or fourth most well known perhaps not more well known than a void written without the use of the letter e no not once yes really quite a feat anyhow you decide to read this book regardless of what the general public and more specifically your colleagues may think should they see you reading it in this economic climate and more specifically in the midst of this age of uncertainty in the industry in which you work after all you have spent your hard earned money on this book which is not perec’s most famous book but maybe his third or fourth well known and what you discover is that you are relieved that the book is only eighty-four pages rather than say one hundred and forty-four pages because there is only one full stop in the whole thing and it appears at the end that is to say that this book is made up of just one sentence though whether it is a sentence or not is questionable because the book doesn’t even start with a capital letter and there are so many digressions asides whatever you want to call them and clauses lots of them and many ambiguous points where what is missing could as easily be a semicolon as a full stop or a dash em or en whatever you prefer or whatever is house style and even the translator some professor at princeton university has called this book unreadable or what he really calls it is close to unreadable and you would not like this work at all if it was merely an exercise in unreadability but it is not the difficulty of getting through the work that is the point – and we must try our best to keep to the point – but the kind of translation the author attempted to begin with even before the translation by the princeton professor occurred or had been thought of the author accepted a challenge from the computing service of the humanities research centre in paris to write as a computer writes that is to say to adhere strictly to the possible plot given by a flowchart said flowchart is produced winningly in the front of the book so you know whether the protagonist ever gets a raise before you even start reading the text proper but if you have ever worked in an office you probably already know the answer nevertheless as previously alluded to the point – and we must try our best to keep to the point – is that you have never read a book before that has been written as a computer might have written it but of course a computer couldn’t write a book or could it think of those choose your own adventure books from your childhood surely if you plugged in some short scenes the machine would be able to work something out no matter how circuitous or repetitive and perhaps even shades of meaning would come through regardless of whether a machine is capable of creating allegiances or attachments as indeed it has in this book which you have in your hands having laid down the not insignificant sum of twenty-seven dollars and ninety-five cents though you did think that perhaps nothing could be more boring than a book written as if a computer had written it but of course a computer couldn’t write a book or could it really boredom is besides the point – and we must try our best to keep to the point – there is repetition and there is recursion here the book is after all following a pattern laid down by a flowchart what did you expect but as you know a flowchart builds in its let’s call it a reader a flowchart builds in a reader levels of expectation and tension and this book builds its story in washes like a watercolour almost it’s nothing like a mere circuit really finally you discover that the book you are holding in your hand not perec’s most famous book perhaps not more well known than a void was once produced for radio my god you think how did they do that how did they produce this work for radio being that you have just finished reading this book by georges perec called the art and craft of approaching your head of department to submit a request for a raise having selected it to read regardless of flash judgments that may be made by co-travellers on public trams and the glances of your co-workers because although you know it must have taken you a few hours to read this book you feel like you have not taken a breath that whole time.

April 12, 2010

When I read Indignation over the summer, I really enjoyed it. But I wouldn’t have read it unless my boyfriend hadn’t been given it by an Icelandic friend he’d met in Tanzania and if I hadn’t been on holiday in paradisiac Sri Lanka, which was satisfying my hunger for hammocks and beers so generously that all I could do was read the books I’d brought and then everyone else’s. Despite appearances, I’m not trying to flaunt my bourgie lifestyle – only point out how improbable and extreme were the circumstances of reading only my second ever Roth tome. Whatever, you like holidays too.

My first Philip Roth experience was with Goodbye, Columbus. I know a lot of people who love that book, but I wasn’t struck by any gigantic lightning bolts by any means. I’m a bit puzzled now, looking at the Wikipedia summary (yes, okay, whatever, I am lazy), about why I don’t remember Goodbye, Columbus more fondly. Some of those later stories sound pretty interesting. But, with reference to the first, titular, story, I can pretty easily explain why I’ve been so reluctant to dive into the Roth oeuvre since then. I guess I don’t really care about classism if the concerns are expressed predominantly within the context of wanting to screw a lady whom society deems inappropriate for you. So, that story kind of stuck in my head, but not in a good way.

A little while back, I expressed my reluctance to choose another Roth to read – mostly because I perceived that his oeuvre was uneven – at Lydia Kiesling’s blog (she now writes for The Millions), to which she replied: ‘Norman Mailer and Philip Roth both belong to my American Post-War Masculine Bermuda Triangle of Doom.’ Which also stuck in my head. How am I supposed to pick a safe harbour in a Triangle of Doom?

But I read this ‘Pulling a Roth’ post in the Wheeler Centre’s Dailies the other week, and it refers to comments Roth made in his Paris Review interview:

It’s all one book you write anyway. At night you dream six dreams. But are they six dreams? One dream prefigures or anticipates the next, or somehow concludes what hasn’t yet even been fully dreamed. Then comes the next dream, the corrective of the dream before—the alternative dream, the antidote dream—enlarging upon it, or laughing at it, or contradicting it, or trying just to get the dream dreamed right. You can go on trying all night long.

…the effects of which are basically ‘I’ve been writing the same novel…28 times.’

I thought again of Indignation, though many months have passed since I read it, and despite the similarities between it and ‘Goodbye, Columbus’, I remembered it with a small glow. (Of course, I was also recalling with warmth my rope bed swinging between coconut palms.) I think half of our holidaying companions read Indignation during those weeks, and we all really liked it.

Indignation is the first-person story of Marcus Messner, the son of a butcher and his wife. Marcus is a pretty good kid who gets excellent grades at school and helps out at the shop but is nevertheless being slowly alienated by his father’s increasingly pathological worrying. So he jumps ship to a small liberal arts college called Winesburg, where he is subjected to all the usual outsider traumas: frat boys shouting ‘Hey, Jew! Over here!’ and a roommate who has an almost demonic lack of regard for him.

But Winesburg is also, of course, the stage for Markie’s big love story, ‘the beauticious Olivia’. And here again the nauseating lusty affection for what a disgruntled Tim Rutten, writing in the LA Times, called ‘the requisite inappropriate shiksa’. I’ve heard a lot about Roth’s uncomfortably one-dimensional, gazed-upon women. But Indignation’s ridiculous affair worked for me, for a few reasons. One: sure, Olivia is mentally ill and is given short shrift as a character. But Messner’s obsessive fantasising is so feckless that it’s horribly sad to witness, especially in conjunction with his other foibles. I realise that if you’d read more than one other of Roth’s 28 books, Messner’s hopeless, useless, obsessive erotic thrall (that’s Rutten again, paraphrased) wouldn’t just be Chinese Water Torture drop #2, but something progressively worse than that. But Messner is an emotional infant, and his love for Olivia makes that clear.

Second, Messner’s über pathetic romance-stimulated body and thoughts are exploding against the backdrop of the Korean War, which is in its second year. Messner, the butcher’s son, is all too aware of what carnage is like: ‘I grew up with blood and grease and knife sharpeners and slicing machines and amputated fingers or missing parts of fingers on the hands of my three uncles as well as my father—and I never got used to it and I never liked it.’ His academic strivings are an attempt to put a gulf between himself and the violent visceral promise of war, and similarly, Messner’s self-imposed sexual deadline becomes more urgent in the threat of being drafted: ‘I was determined to have intercourse before I died.’

{Don’t read the next paragraph if you object to details that are arguably spoiler material.}

Christopher Hitchens was pretty scathing about this whole tra-la: ‘The ordinariness of the prose here (“trammels holding sway” and all that) is matched by the familiarity of the Eros/Thanatos dialectic.’ But for my part, I was relieved to see Roth’s sexual foregrounding anchored by some pathos in Indignation; though Messner is a terribly weird and self-indulgent unit, his defiance of school norms and his bleating anxiety are just sympathetic enough. This makes the novel’s framing conceit (revealed partway through the book) an effective one – Messner’s in hospital, deeply injured, and is narrating the events of his short life under morphine’s potent sway.

I do find it, in theory, an infuriating proposition that any author might consider each novel an improved iteration of the successive ones. However, late Roth in my case was a far more rewarding experience than early Roth. Indignation puts Roth’s usual ingredients together to create an effective novel; he even manages to make masturbation kind of poignant. Did I just say that? Hmmmm.


Jesse Ball’s The Way through Doors is an extraordinary tonic to that tiresome lament that the novel is dead, a single-handed draught for the literary chopfallen. The Way through Doors has all the necessary ingredients – sneaky, silvery prose; intrepid storytelling; thoughtful metafictional interrogration; and such tenderness as is rarely well executed – for an actual, real, motherf’ing book of the year. Let’s not pollute this conversation with talk of the recency effect. This is probably the best thing I’ve read in 2009.

Selah Morse, a young pamphleteer, in conversation with his uncle, receives new employment as a municipal inspector. His new colleague, Levkin, gives Selah a new blue-grey suit, like to those worn by Armenian intelligence. Amorphous though the role may be – there are no parameters or tasks – it’s a pleasing one. Rita, the message girl, is particularly pleasing, with her prettiness and the tea she brings. After six or nine months as a municipal inspector, Selah is out on the street, on his way to buy noodles. A fine looking girl with bare shoulders and elegant mien is also out and about, walking down the street, when she is hit by a taxi. To assist her, Selah requisitions the taxi and they drive to the hospital, where Selah poses as the girl’s boyfriend. He selects a name for her: Mora Klein. Mora’s memory has been lost, and the doctor tells Selah that to recover it, Selah must keep her awake overnight, and help her reconstruct her past.

Beginning with a story familiar to The Way through Doors’ readers, that of his initiation into the municipal service, Selah searches for truths with which to anoint Mora’s soul. But the tale is long and gathers up its own turning velocity. Before long, Selah’s story is subsumed by another, told by Levkin; an explanatory spiel that helps Selah to realise that the municipal inspector’s role is as ‘a randomizing element in the psychology of the city’. Soon, another story takes hold, this time the story of ‘the curling touch’, told by the Chinese chef of ‘the best vegetable steamed dumplings in the whole city’. These tales coalesce and nudge one another, pools of inked water that bleed inexorably into each other, but retain their own pigments. The stories are ‘phrases cast upon precise winds’, espousing and embracing one another with a curious and exhilarating logic (or lack thereof).

The Way through Doors is not so much a story as it is about story. In many ways, it is Kafkaesque, its teetering dimensions reminiscent of a swimming pool with, impossibly, no bottom. Yet it retains the best aspects of story itself, including its capacity to illuminate the oddnesses of our narrative-hungry human race. Ball’s interest in exhibiting how we prioritise narrative above reality can be seen in his other work, too. He is a creative writing teacher, and one of his writing exercises is an exercise in lying: the student is to convince a friend that they did something that has never happened, using as persuasive ballast the student’s knowledge of what characteristic their friend holds most dear about their self. Also in Ball’s well-stocked and unusual arsenal is the tumbling minstrelry of Boccaccio; the evident teller’s enchantment I associate with the Australian ‘yarn’, something told for the sake of itself; the universality of folk tales; the metafictional defiance of Calvino; and a crooning tenderness that is all Ball’s own.

With all its superincumbent passageways and blithe ladders, The Way through Doors should be a virtuoso reading effort. But, instead, it’s one of the most dazzling and joyful reading experiences that has ignited my reading this year.

A little venture into Jesse Ball’s website.


Something to listen to, this time: the review of Evie Wyld’s After the Fire, A Still Small Voice I did for Radio National’s The Book Show. I get some tonal variation in my voice after the first thirty seconds; just be patient. Wyld won the John Llewellyn Rhys prize for this, her first novel, which was also easily one my favourite things I’ve read this year. Listen to the rest of the show, as well: Reif Larsen discusses the books he likes to collect, Andrea Goldsmith talks about grief and poetry, and Kevin Rudd’s summer reading list is revealed.

In the style of Autofiction, a review of sorts:

22nd year, Winter
Wow! I’m so annoyed I could die. First, the cover of this book is so exactly like the cover of that old guy Murakami’s books. It’s really so stupid. I don’t know why anyone should fall for such a dumb stunt. Wait, I did. Uu? Anyway, it’s just unbelievable. It’s not the same as Murakami really. It’s not as dreamy as his stuff. My friend Kana would probably do him. She doesn’t care who she spreads her legs for. The main character is so annoying! Have you ever met someone so hysterical as this Rin person? In fact, I think I’m going to coin a new genre of fiction based on this kind of narrative: the simple hysterical present.
At the start of this book is Rin is on a plane with her cute husband Shin. A flight attendant spills some champagne on Shin’s knee, and she wipes it off. Rin gets really angry and jealous. But she’s so in love with Shin! She wishes the plane would fall out of the sky so they could die together. Shin goes off somewhere and Rin starts imagining that he is cheating on her with the flight attendant. How did someone get so crazy?
18th Summer
Okay, so now we’re going back in time. That’s cool, I can understand that. She’s with some loser called Shah who lies to her. But I guess the lies he tells her are not so bad. She gets angry about a lot of things. What a stinker! Why is she so angry all the time? She loves dancing and going to parties but at these parties there’s a lot of sex. She doesn’t seem to question it though, so whatever. In fact she knows she’s cute and that guys want her but that’s the limit of her self-awareness really. Rin’s so micro! I don’t think this book is interested in issues other than personal issues.
16th Summer
Whoa, now she’s with a real asshole who makes Rin support herself by going to pachinko parlours. She’s not allowed to get a real job. I guess you can really see why she’s so screwed up all the time. It’s a bit of an obvious trick but you can still feel sympathetic towards her. Some really bad stuff happens to Rin. It’s sad.
15th Winter
Whoa, another asshole. So I guess Rin has a really bad life. And though she’s annoying you really feel sorry for her. Even if you want her to go away because she’s so crazy. This going-back-in-time structure is pretty good! Even though all the parts that show why she has no self-control are so obvious and the language is a bit stupid sometimes, there are also some parts where you really feel sorry for Rin. Sometimes she is really fun! She seems more together when she is younger.
Okay, I’m going to dance to Non-Stop Techno Adventure now.


It pains me to be hasty in writing about a book I enjoyed so much, but my immune system’s inability to deal with certain allergens yesterday means that I feel like I’m about to collapse. So just a quick one today.

So, it took what seems to be a long time for me to read any Carver. I love tensile writing, and I love minimalist writing even more. So Carver was always going to be a shoo-in for me. I was already familiar with the Gordon Lish controversy, and the lauded minimalist qualities of the prose resulting from Carver’s relationship with Lish, his one-time editor. Literary drama is always fun, and there are lots of arguments to be made on both sides of that fence. But the results of the Lish/Carver collaboration(?) are powerful and timeless, despite whatever might be said about its ethics.

Some of the stories are very short. ‘The Father’, weighing in at two pages, describes something like a pastoral tableau in which a newborn baby is coddled by its family. When trying to work out who the baby looks like, little Carol decides that it is ‘Daddy’. Yet, when the other girls hear this, they express their confusion: ‘But who does Daddy look like?’ Carver allows the father only one appearance at the end of the story, but his lack of expression and paleness in response to these innocent questions speak volumes.

This is really the genius of Carver: to be able to imply desolation without so much as typing a ‘d’. He’s the biggest shower-not-teller I’ve ever read. Carver’s simple sentences seem to play tricks. Straightforward (‘I had a feeling tonight.’); vernacular (‘I’m getting jealous, Rudy says to Joanne.’); and barely touching a 4 on the affect scale, there’s nothing flashy to the discrete parts of language that make up the stories. Neither are there any ‘big bang’ moments; as far as we can tell, these are either in the past or future. Carver places his characters on a cliff which is crumbling from underneath. Woven together, the words, sentences and paragraphs create portraits that would seem mild but for the ellipses and cathexes Carver is able to evoke. Will You Please Be Quiet, Please depicts, over and over again, the inanition of small town American life.

Extra points: Geoffrey Wolff’s review in the New York Times from 1976.