January reading: Soseki, de la Pava, Johnson, Lin, Pilger, Murdoch

jan-2014-readingJanuary has been another month of Russian doll reading: books half read, set aside for something else, for various reasons, then taken up again and finished.

Open The Magic Mountain, then, and you’ll find Natsume Sōseki’s Kokoro.

Inside Kokoro, bizarrely, Tao Lin’s Taipei.

Inside Taipei, JA Baker’s The Peregrine, the first 100 pages of A Naked Singularity, all of Train Dreams.

Then Zoe Pilger’s Eat My Heart Out.

Inside Eat My Heart Out, Iris Murdoch’s Under The Net.

Eat My Heart Out, then back to Taipei, and back to Kokoro. Then on to Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, read straight through. No one would plan their reading month like this.

Putting down The Magic Mountain was easy. Thomas Mann has convinced me that this book can sit me out, will not go off like cheap wine, should be taken in long draughts, when the brain and liver is ready for it. (Pace Max Cairnduff on Proust: don’t read unless you can guarantee at least a 50pp stint, ideally a hundred.)

At the time, I wanted something simple, something like the modern classic Japanese romanticism of Natsume Sōseki. I’ve read and loved Kusamakura, his elegy for the past Meiji world, a world that I, for one, never missed, and miss all the more for it.

Kokoro I enjoyed less, by which I mean it moved me less. It is the story of a relationship between a male student and an older man, ‘Sensei’, with whom he spends all his spare time, learning much about life, but always aware that something, some lesson, is being held back. It’s a book, like a Wordsworth poem, perhaps, that carries little weight beyond the wisdom it brings. If you are not in it for the wisdom imparted by the characters in word and deed, then I’m not sure what you will find there.

But I believe that a commonplace idea stated with passionate conviction carries more living truth than some novel observation expressed with cool indifference.

I put down Kokoro, half way through, and picked up Tao Lin’s Taipei, which I had started at some point last year. I’m not sure why I switched. Perhaps I was bored with the Sōseki. But then I’d been bored by the Lin when I’d started it before, long ago last year. It was a book that I found immensely hard to get to grips with. It is at once utterly contemporary, and just the latest in a long line of fainting fit cries from an ever-evolving, never-dying blank generation, from Scott Fitzgerald, with a detour through Kerouac, and on, inevitably, to Bret Easton Ellis. Although it’s quite possible to say that Lin’s novel is a genuine response to the world we live in, it’s also pretty much obvious that it wouldn’t exist without Ellis.

The moderator of the next day’s panel discussion approached Paul and Taryn and said he had bought cocaine for them from a former Olympic soccer player whose father, before recently dying, had operated a major drug cartel.

This just screams Ellis – but, strangely, it’s Ellis without the violence, without the horror, without the paranoia or the comedown. Paul, Tao Lin’s main character, seems to treat the euphoria and despair produced by his near-constant intake of drugs not as imposters, but as permanent, unavoidable roommates.

What’s unclear to me is whether the ‘message’ of the book is that Paul is so affectless, so deadened to life – while being so hyper-vigilant to its myriad detail – because of the drugs, or whether the drugs are there to explain and camouflage a fundamental attitude to the world that Lin is observing in his generation’s own iteration (their own muted cover version) of lostness.

It’s an incredibly dull book, but also enthralling, and often hilarious. What I particularly loved in it is Lin’s uber-precise explication of a particular thought or mental state. These sometimes grow into the kind of extended metaphor that I remember parsing Paradise Lost for, back in secondary school.

Paul imagined the building omnidirectionally expanding at a rate exceeding their maximum running speed, so that this goalless, enjoyably calm exploration of a temperature-controlled, tritely uncanny interior would replace his life, with its book tour and Gmail and, he thought after a few seconds, “food.” Would he agree to that? “Yes,” he though “meaninglessly,” he knew, because he’d still be inside himself, the only place he’d ever be, that he could imagine, though maybe he didn’t know – not knowing seemed more likely.

Lin does a fun thing with his metaphors and similes. Sometimes, as above, he introduces the figure (the expanding building) and then explores its relations to the ground (his life). Other times he builds it from the ground up, as it were, doggedly explaining himself, then tacking the figure (the new thing) on at the end in a rhetorical flourish that seems almost dismissive of the whole process.

It occurred to him that, in the past, in college, he would have later analysed this, in bed, with eyes closed, studying the chronology of images – memories, he’d realised at some point, were images, which one could crudely arrange into slideshows or, with effort, sort of GIFs, maybe – but now, unless he wrote about it, storing the information where his brain couldn’t erase it, place it behind a toll, or inadvertently scramble its organisation, or change it gradually, by increments smaller than he could discern, without his knowledge, so it became both lost and unrecognisable, he probably wouldn’t remember most of this in a few days and, after weeks or months, he wouldn’t know it had been forgotten, like a barn seen from inside a moving train that is later torn down, its wood carried elsewhere on trucks.

Now, I realise this isn’t really a metaphor: it’s a meticulous and imaginative, and sometimes brazenly shallow (memories described as being like GIFs?) exploration of mental processes, which then suddenly shifts into analogy, before topping itself off and somehow erasing itself with a fanciful, and brilliantly left-field, yet also curiously homely simile.

That barn, as if imported from a Don DeLillo or Jane Smiley novel – what is it doing here?

I love the way the book counters its lack of affect with these sudden eruptions of metaphor, almost baroque in their detail and extravagance. I love the attention given to a life that is flatter than a pancake. Yes, I kept thinking, this is precisely what life is like – even without taking any of the drugs that Paul does, I recognise the world he portrays.

Which perhaps does suggest that the drugs aren’t there to counter the meaninglessness of life, but – like salt in food – to bring it out.

Of course it’s also incredibly dull – if you’re not giving it the right kind of attention. Of course I can’t remember a thing from it, neither characters nor plot, only stray wispy scenelets, and – crucially – those metaphors. Of course it provides no wisdom to set alongside that in Kokoro. Yet there is wisdom in the prose, or rather knowledge. It is a philosophical novel, in that it dramatizes mental states and thought processes, but in a way markedly different from those produced by the modernism of a century before (stream of consciousness, interiority etc).

It’s no surprise that one of Lin’s earlier books (of poetry) is called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, and also no surprise that he’s been accused of, among other things, writing ‘Asperger’s style’ fiction, something that I tried out as a concept on my clinical psychologist wife, and that, based on a few samples read to her in the bath, she rubbished. The character is simply too aware of his own emotions – albeit at a rather clinical remove – to be meaningfully on the spectrum.

And yet there is something, some affective lack there, some lack of connectivity, that is possibly being coolly glamourised in this kind of fiction, in the same way that, in the past, particular forms of ‘madness’ were (not least in Mary Butts’Armed With Madness, a favourite from last year).

I put down Taipei, half finished, for a week’s solo editing/writing retreat, when I didn’t want anything so stylistically dominant to risk influencing me. Instead I took along JA Baker’s The Peregrine, for its locale, and sheer distance from anything I was writing about. I also read Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, over two nights, which was, let’s say, a sorbet. It meant nothing to me, beyond its distillation of pure American prose. Like drinking water from a filter jug straight from the fridge – it feels cleaner, for the coldness, and so you end up convincing yourself that it tastes better. Fantastically written, but nothing of it has stayed with me like that barn in Taipei.

What I did start reading, though I shouldn’t have, was Sergio de la Pava’s A Naked Singularity, which I bought, though I shouldn’t have, but I saw the hardback for £5. Well, you would, wouldn’t you?

I’d had this recommended by a couple of friends, and I read the first 100 pages, when I shouldn’t have been. But, oh boy, it’s good. Or rather, the first chapter isexceptionally good. It’s set in a New York court house, with the narrator, Casi, a junior public defender on a night shift who must process a number of sad cases.

It also has a second line that I think is my favourite second line of any novel, ever.

My getting out or what!

Which slots in alongside Wallace’s ‘Mmmyellow’ phone answering phrase, and Kingsley Amis’s ‘tim peach’, for tinned peach, as a superlative example of the poetic-phonetic.

That first long chapter, as Casi tries to help a series of increasingly desperate people up for sad, sad crimes, is a tour de force, lacing its street thrills with increasing doses of compassion. The second chapter, in which Casi unwillingly hangs out with the hipsters dweebs in the flat below his, is a dreadful comedown, and though it returns to the court, and the sad cases, in the third chapter, the impetus is lost. Think of Raymond Chandler: if hardboiled means anything at all, it means No Subplots, No Minor Characters Unconnected to the Crime at Hand.

I’ll get back to it, I’m sure. But the thrill is just a little gone.

Zoe Pilger’s Eat My Heart Out was a review book for the TLS. It’s a ferocious, throat-grabbing, fingers-in-the-eyes read, vomiting up a barely digested hate-map of contemporary London that seems, on reflection, too despairing for satire. Though most of the characters are fools, there is nothing funny about them. Or not enough. I remember reading it on the train home from Hackney on a Friday evening, and half of the passengers looked like they’d stepped straight up off the pages. Other times, more soberly, they hardly seemed worth eviscerating.

To this extent, it reminded me of early-ish Will Self, for the fear and frolics.

But it also reminded me of Iris Murdoch’s Under The Net – to the extent that I put down the Pilger and speed-re-read it. I think what linked them, for me, was the young protagonist flitting from place to place, too intelligent to get tied down by anything, too dumb to realise that, really, getting tied down is, in the end, usually the only option there is.

And really it is Pilger’s anti-hero, Ann-Marie, who holds things together – she is as vile, and wayward, and hilariously objectionable as any of the other characters, but her venom seems willed, moral, the black bile left when no good intentions remain. So the book slightly pulls its own punch, from my point of view. I felt like the main character deserved some way out of the piss-awful labyrinth in which Pilger had dumped her (I, like all the other shitty men in the book, wanted to ‘save’ her), but there was no way out available. Which may have been the point, but from a novelistic point of view, it felt like a cop-out. The only wisdom in the book (and there are plenty of people offering it) is that all wisdom is cant. Although Ann-Marie would probably use another word.

This is the point that I should move on to Claire Messud and Anna Kavan, but I’m running behind on a million things, this post is already very long, and I have a lot that I think I want to say about The Woman Upstairs, not least for the thoughts it’s provoked w/r/t #ReadWomen2014, so I’ll ask you to bear with me, and wait for a second half to this January reading report.

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