Line ’em up, knock ’em down

Some fantastic books in the third clutch of the year – and a little bit of book club naughtiness to boot. If books were like bowling pins, quite a few of these would just keep standing no matter what you threw at them.

WHITE HUNGER – AKI OLLIKAINEN. The first of Peirene’s current series ‘Chance Encounters’ is this Finnish tale of a family trying to survive the seemingly country-wide famine. For, everyone that the family meet are desperately hungry – so hungry in fact that their humanity seems threatened. The family work their way to a desperate end, whilst those better off struggle to understand that goodness is easy when your stomach is sated.

ALL MY PUNY SORROWS – MIRIAM TOEWS. Blimey. If I tell you this is a story about two sisters – one intent on ending her life, the other intent on saving he sister – you’d be forgiven for thinking it sounds depressing. That it is, in no small measure, joyous is testament to the astonishing power of Toews prose. Full of the very essence of what makes us human, and indeed what makes it hard to be human, All My Puny Sorrows is vibrant, warm and surprisingly comic.

NOSTROMO – JOSEPH CONRAD. Yes, I was dreading it. Yes, my friend and I made a ‘cheat’s plan’ to reading it (to save face at book club). But no, I hadn’t expected the plan to add to, rather than detract from, the book. Read about the tag-team adventure.

THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO – JUNOT DIAZ. What a book. In rude style, Diaz tells us Oscar’s story – tracing back to the fortunes of his grandparents, covering the dearth of love from which he suffers – from different points of view. The distinct voices are fresh and fantastic. The albatross (Oscar’s virginity) cleverly exposes what it means to be a dominican male. And the way the story is anchored by references to fantasy fiction (LOTR especially) made me giddy with pleasure. Spectacular.

CHATTERING – LOUISE STERN. An impulse purchase (see ‘When I shop elsewhere I feel unfaithful‘) and a stunning surprise is this collection of short stories. What ties them together is a sense of disconnection – sometimes as an overt consequence of a language barrier (many of the stories oscillate around characters that are hearing-impaired), but more often as a subtle discord that seems to resonate off the page. It made me think about how the ways in which we communicate shape our personalities – and made me yearn for other selves that I could inhabit through other languages.

ALI SMITH’S SUPERSONIC SEVENTIES – ALI SMITH. My first taste of Smith in a skinny pamphlet, and what a way to whet an appetite. Sparkling, lucid, containing yearning and shot through with hope – I need more of that kind of prose in my life.

STATION ELEVEN – EMILY ST. JOHN MANDEL. Mandel’s tale is about a post-apocalyptic society: one in which a pandemic has drastically reduced the population and decimated society as know to Westerners. It has warmth, optimism (the central action follows a theatrical troupe that tour from village to village) and a host of interesting characters. If Oryx and Crake is the definitive pandemic disaster story, then Station Eleven is its fluffy we-won’t-reject-our-humanity counterpart.

THE DAYS OF ABANDONMENT – ELENA FERRANTE. A brutal novel about a woman staring into the abyss after her husband leaves her and their two children. A hurricane of emotion, and a finely wrought unravelling vie for supremacy, and the fallout affects Olga’s children, her dog and her downstairs neighbour. I still wince when I think about it, about how close it seemed to bring me to the brink even as observer.

THE POLISH BOXER – EDUARDO HALFON. Tonal similarities between Halfon and Diaz might just be a symptom of proximity, but both take an obvious joy in prose that is sexy and cheeky. The Polish Boxer skips a line between fact and fiction, between reality and representation. But in spite of its intellectual prowess, it’s a highly readable, emotionally engaging collection of linked stories that explores what we seek in fiction, and the way it helps us to connect and make meaning in our lives.

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Nostromo: for those whose hearts sink at the thought…

Here’s a thing. My friend and I had agreed to read Nostromo for book club. Neither of us wanted to. We decided to tag team. We split the book into chunks, and the rule was to read and send summary, by text, within 72 hours. This is what happened *contains spoilers*.

1.1: Sulaco Bay introduced. Rumour of treasure in the mountain. Across the bay are the Isabels – three islets. 1.2: OSN introduced – responsible organisation for trade that ‘never make mistakes’. Nostromo introduced – feared seaman, railwayman. 1.3: Nostromo staying at Casa Viola. Some riot occurs, which we understand through the limited view of the people in Casa Viola.

1.4: Describes the family running Casa Viola, but mostly the military history of old Georgio and his esteem for Garibaldi (the man not the biscuit). 1.5: Local politics of various people trying to get a railway built. 1.6: Some backstory for Charles Gould. Father forced to buy deelict silver mine so Government could keep charging him. Loses perspective, goes on about vampires, dies. Son thinks he should make something of the mine instead so returns from Europe with promisingly nice wife and gets investors. Too much description of furniture!

1.7: Mrs Gould admired as unfatiguable (as good as one of their own). Charles pays bribes and understand listening to ‘deplorable balderdash’ is also a cost he must bear. 1.8: The mine is descrobed as a stabilizing influence upon the region. Don Pepe knows all that goes on. The treasure mountain moans (?). Details about the protection and governance of the mine. Ha – and all that background for Sir John to turn up wanting Gould’s favour. Nostromo is a git. 2.1: Don Jose Avellanos survived the fifty year war. His daughter now cares for him. A vote goes in his favour to redeem the national credit.

2.2: ‘Antonia could hold her own in a discussion with two or three men at a time’. So consensus was that it would take a foreigner to marry her! 2.3: Enter faux-whimsical Parisian cynic Decoud. Amused to be invited as Executive Member of small arms committee held behind war minister Montero’s back. Stays on as propaganda journalist. 2.4: Parade. 2.5: I think Decoud proposes, but she ‘seduced his attention’ and they just move right along to talking about politics! He then antagonises the priest, who does seem like a proper mardy-arse. A lot of beards described in these sections. Possibly allusions to character??

2.6: Nostromo (Capataz de Cargadores) tells Decoud of a rumour that a two-day battle has seen the Ribierists defeated, so he tells Mrs Gould who is anxious. [Aside, I gotta say I don’t trust that phantom Nostromo. I’ve only read a few paragraphs about him]. Decoud implores Mrs Gould not to speak to Charley, an idealist. He suggests not all is as it appears at mine. He motions an uprising, a separation of Sulaco from west. He says his motive is love. The scene is set for an ambush on the silver coming down the mountain the following day, that perchance might be enacted by the robber Hernadez. 2.7: A fracas. Decoud writes about the uprising to his sister, entrusting the pocketbook to Mrs Gould before taking a boat with Nostromo (the shipment of silver as cargo). They float and row the boat in the dead of night and finally get the lighter to the Isabels, where they hope to hide. Cliffhanger: they think they are alone but hear sobbing, and eventually clasp hands on the body of a man – asleep, in a faint, or dead. [Decoud claims that someone’s argument fails because he has a crap beard. Thought you might like that detail].

2.8: So the guy is just some cowardly merchant (Hirsch) playing dead. A government steamer is hijacked by Sotillo, the commandant of Esmerelda and his drunken soldiers and tries to find them in the dark. Ridiculous whispered argument about whose fault it was that they hadn’t thrown Hirsch overboard. Steamer hits lighter. H hangs on to anchor and gets dragged off with steamer! Lighter makes it to island, they bury the silver then Nostromo sails back but leaves Decoud by agreement, sinks boat and swims to shore. D is satisfied that N is ‘made incorruptible by his own vanity’. 3.1: Various members of Gould’s posse head out of town and to the mine for safety. Gould still cool as a cucumber. The doctor and chief engineer chat about everyone’s character at Casa Viola as Teresa Viola is waiting to die. 3.2: Captain Mitchell waits up in the harbour to reflect on his part in the silver heist. Sotillo returns and they capture him and lock him up in the custom house. He is more concerned that they have pinched his watch. Dr, Chief Engineer and G. Viola also nabbed. Shock killed Teresa. Hirsch has garbled story of lighter, so they think it sank and N is dead, though Sotillo doesn’t want to believe this.

3.3: Pfft. Captives released by Sotillo. Some skirmishes described, but unclear when they happened of who involved. Don Jose dead (possibly?) Gould makes a pact with some representative of Hernandez, who the Ribierists made General. 3.4: Don Juste is shaved – “Gould could not help noting the revealed ineptitude in the aspect of the man”. Banal back story for Dr Monygham. He respects Mrs G. He visits Casa Gould where wounded are recovering, to tell them Decoud & Nostromo are dead. The bells sound & everyone at the house goes mad fearing massacre. 3.5: Montero arrives. He’s narked cos he wants a soft bed and a kip.

3.6: Don Pepe talks to Father Roman about Montero’s attempts to negotiate with him for surrender of the mine. Pepe is proud that everyone knows he will destroy it if need be, but then starts getting excited about the idea of leading an attack from the mine and leaving the priest to blow it up! 3.7: Gould refuses to show any deference to Montero and states that the mine or any investment would die with him. This works. The doctor goes to find Sotillo and resigns himself to heroic duplicitous death. 3.8: Nostromo wakes up and has an identity crisis with no one to respect or admire him (and a vulture starring him out) so feels betrayed. Bumps into the doc at the Custom House where they discover Hirsch tortured and shot dead. Doc is too caught up planning to send N as a messenger to the mine to notice he is crushing his ego and fuelling sense of being used even more. N still lets him believe that the treasure is sunk.

3.9: Sotillo feigns the flu so he v doesn’t have to deal with Montero’s emissary. Then he tortures and shoots Hirsch. Doc still being dunderhead about Nostromo. Doc decides to tell Sotillo treasure is on great Isabel to buy some time; Nostromo deflects attention from docs uncanny guess, suggests he tell S the treasure is sunk in the bay. N makes his way to Casa Viola, where the old man has been sitting since his release. 3.10: Flash forward – Mitchell parades around Sulaco with visitors and tells of the upshot of the conflict. Gould was taken out to be shot, but was saved. Sotillo bought the story about the silver, so didn’t join forces with Montero. Doc was almost hanged on the boat searching for the silver, but it is come upon by Barrios from the sea, so he’s also lucky. Nostromo is the man, though, who boards a train the doc sweet talks the engineer into running, then gallops from the end of the line to accrue an allied force (Barrios). He goes with them by boat, until he sees the dinghy floating by the Isabel’s and jumps out to sea. N notices a stain in the dinghy and goes in search of Decoud. D is missing, along with 4 silver ingots. Some speculation that D’s fate will never be known, but then we find out anyway that 10 days of sleeplessness and isolation drive him potty. He pockets the ingots in a trance, then rows out in the dinghy and shoots himself. N ‘knows’ D is dead and decides he must get rich slowly. 3.11: another view into the future. The Goulds return from an extended stay on Europe. Doc visits, still aflame for Mrs G. Says Viola is keeper of lighthouse on great Isabel, that N visits daily. Mrs G realizes she will never reclaim Charles from the mine.

3.12: It backed up a bit to describe Nostromo’s incremental approach to taking the silver and pretending to earn it as a seaman. Then his panic at the building of the lighthouse, and solution in having Captain Mitchell appoint Viola as the keeper. Then he decided that he loved the passive, pretty younger daughter Giselle, but somehow bottled it and let Georgio assume he was asking to marry the stroppy older daughter Linda, who had loved him for years. Straight after (literally next off) L wanders off, V goes to cook some eggs and N tells Giselle that he actually loves her and is a thief, so they plan to run off together when he has collected enough loot. He realises he can’t even make himself tell her where the treasure is by this point, and his soul dies. 3.13: So it turns out Linda can see what is going on, but pities then resents Giselle alternately, which somehow leads to her biting G’s neck and them pretending that this isn’t weird. Georgio sees nothing as he regards N as his son and sees Teresa’s wishes fulfilled. Thinks Ramirez is after Giselle. N always thinks they need more treasure, but decides on one final night raid on the stash. Unfortunately, Georgia thinks he is Ramirez and shoots him. They boat him to the mainland and the doc goes to fetch Mrs G at N’s request. He wants to tell her where the treasure is and explain why he hates it and feels betrayed but she hates it too and is filthy rich anyway so doesn’t want to know. Doc wants his suspicions about N confirmed but she won’t tell him and he sees that as N’s final victory. N dies. Georgio goes cold (dies?) and Linda wails in passion across the bay (that contains his ‘conquests of treasure and love’) when doc confirms N is dead.
The end!

So you see, sometimes two heads are better than one! Harder than you think to write that as text messages, though – especially when predictive text insists on changing Nostromo to nostril.

They come in nines…

Another batch of nine books that have accompanied me though the winter – and seeing them lined up makes me not a little proud that there are two works in translation, a host of small presses, a work of non-fiction, a collection of short stories and both a novel heartily recommended and a novel received as a gift.

FRANCES AND BERNARD – CARLENE BAUER. As soon as I’d finished this book, I wanted to read it again. I picked it up from the library a few hours after Andy Miller recommended it, and was immediately enthralled. Epistolary in nature,  it perfectly captures the intense and seductive power of the letter as a vessel for feelings and meditations on the complexity of life. Frances and Bernard are writers, and the exquisite agony of their vocation is explored, as well as deep interrogations of faith and love. Frances and Bernard – as characters, as a pitch-perfect experience – will stay with me forever. Thank you, Andy, for a superb recommendation.

H IS FOR HAWK – HELEN MACDONALD. The themes – losing a father, hawking – seemed to make this the perfect birthday gift for my Dad, but when he started asking questions, I decided I should read it as he did. It’s a tremendously potent and surprisingly wild account of Helen dealing with the sudden death of her father, and deciding, in those early weeks, to buy and train a goshawk. Yes, it’s a tale of grief, but it’s also a tale about what separates us from the wild: how remote and yet incredibly close it is. Elegantly crafted and vital.

THE END OF VANDALISM – TOM DRURY. I was uneasy about reading this so soon after Plainsong – because on the surface they inhabit a similar world. But the resonance is totally different: The End of Vandalism charms and tickles, it seduces and it strays. The characters that people Grouse County are fallible and touchingly human and their laughter, misunderstandings and misfortunes mean they go on living after the reading ends. I can’t wait for Hunts in Dreams, which comes out in July, with an introduction by Yiyun Li.

MAYBE THIS TIME – ALOIS HOTSCHNIG. An altogether unsettling collection of short stories that seem to pierce the veneer of society and expose the cogs beneath: all broken toothed, disconnected, spun raw. That this collection was published as part of the theme ‘Male Dilemma: the Quest for Intimacy’ is no surprise, though the peculiar sense of being somehow untethered from the world applied just as well to me. It can hardly be described as a pleasurable read, but it was certainly haunting – both in the feeling it evoked, and in the way each sentence seems to linger, creating a shadow of itself.

GOLD – DAN RHODES. A touching antidote to facing that feeling of a dearth of belonging is this tale about a woman of habit, holidaying, as she does every year, on the East Coast. We meet the regulars in the local pub – those that have come to welcome her over the years, though they still don’t know her name. It’s a light and lovely tale of friendship and love.

MY BRILLIANT FRIEND – ELENA FERRANTE. This book, without doubt, contains the most pile-driving ending sentiment that I’ve ever read – almost as though the entire four hundred odd pages were building to this one fiendish moment. It’s expansive and compelling, drawing the reader in to a complex world of childhood friendships, of scholarly competition, of puberty, of poverty, of industry and of the very particular socio-political context of Napoli re-establishing itself after World War II. But the book really sings in the details, skipping a beautiful line between the weight of the personal and the scope of the political. Emboldened by the success of gift that was ‘Nowhere ending sky’, this was another gift from Mr LRB-Reader.

ORYX AND CRAKE – MARGARET ATWOOD. I thought I’d read this, some years ago. I couldn’t find it in by book journals, which stretch back to 2003. The only thing I remembered were the pigoons. I concluded I must just have heard about it. But now, some weeks after finishing it, the details once again fade from memory: maybe that’s just the way this one goes. The story is sobering if only because the future it presents is so close to being possible. We may even be walking that path now, 12 years after it was first published. If so, we’re fucked.

10:04 – BEN LERNER. Where ‘Leaving the Atocha Station’ fooled me into thinking it was non-fiction, 10:04 is more overt in its side-switching between reality and fiction. It questions the notion of ‘living through history’ and the way we recompile our experience of an historic event after the fact. For that, it’s interesting. It’s also fascinating in the way it portrays Lerner – as a man with anything but aplomb, and yet that’s what the writing has, in buckets. Lerner, I’m learning, is a master at undermining the very thing he is setting up, and that enigmatic agency makes him impossible to ignore.

FRANCIS PLUG HOW TO BE A PUBLIC AUTHOR – PAUL EWEN. Having gotten so close to reading the entire list of Booker Prize winners, I thought I might feel a touch of empathy with Francis Plug. Plug, though, is an utterly unique creation: you won’t know anybody like him. Hapless, ceaselessly inebriated and endearingly optimistic about his novel, Plug attempts to understand the phenomenon of the modern writer, public figure. What do we learn: that not all writers should be public figures. It’s funny and excruciating and subtly clever in a way that rewards those who have trodden that same bookish journey.

It’s all about those books

The clutch of books that started my year, and a very special event:

Let’s start with the event, though, just in case all those doomsayers are right about attention spans. A week tomorrow, that’s Thursday 26th February 2015, Bookseller Crow will be hosting a very special event, launching the UK publication of The End of Vandalism by Tom Drury. What you need to know about this book, from the mouths of three men I greatly admire:

“If you read The End of Vandalism you will become one of those people who try to foist it upon other people, your eyes shining with the unsettling delight of having lived through it.”   JON MCGREGOR

“I’ve just read The End Of Vandalism by Tom Drury. FUCKING HELL. It is INCREDIBLE. Ben Fountain levels of brilliance.”   SAM JORDISON

“This is very special. One of the finest writers in America… Many things are described as once in a lifetime, but this one genuinely is.”   JONATHAN MAIN

The last is referring to the event as once in a lifetime – Jonathan has been effusive about Tom Drury in person, and that enthusiasm obviously rubbed off on the peeps over at Old Street Publishing who are responsible for the new UK publishing of Drury’s trilogy. So, what are you waiting for? Book. It’s free.

Now, onto the books. Finished in this order…

THE NARROW ROAD TO THE DEEP NORTH – RICHARD FLANAGAN. It’s not that it was bad, it’s just that it didn’t grip me. A dramatic love affair fizzles into a scene like ships passing in the night; hero status becomes a gauze obscuring a person; war elicits honour, and thereafter men are stripped of purpose. So much of the book pits life, in all its chaotic permissiveness, with the exacting conditions of conflict – and life leaves the protagonist floundering, bereft of his purpose to be an example to his men – to hold it together so that they have a chance to.

THE BRIDGE – IAIN BANKS. I was being provocative when I opened bookclub saying that The Narrow Road… and The Bridge were essentially the same book. But the themes – how people respond to arresting trauma; the different guises of the self; the vagaries of reality – are surprisingly similar. The reading experience, however, is not. The Bridge is imaginative and undermining: just as we begin to get a handle on a world, it mutates and challenges our assumptions. It’s part ridiculous, part seductive and ineffably vital.

THE BALLAD OF PECKHAM RYE – MURIEL SPARK. This short, stylish novel is a curious mix of domestic drama and symbolic prose. Featuring a host of characters, and stamped firmly in the late 1950s, the story begins and ends with a wedding. What happens in between is attributed by the community to the impact that ‘Art man’ Dougle Douglas has on those he meets. Or is that Douglas Dougle? There’s a con that is hilarious, and characters that are deftly drawn and compelling – but the novel works best for me as a metaphor for ‘cold feet’, having no reference point for the reality that infuses the ballad.

DEPT. OF SPECULATION – JENNY OFFILL. A powerful, compact and punchy story about the texture of love and the nature of holding together a monogamous relationship. It was close to the bone – suggesting that a deeply reflective disposition does not for contentment make. It was also slippery, seemingly an expression of mutability: passages that had meant one thing as I read them seemed to mean something else if I came back to them. This book is definitely one to be experienced, rather than related.

NOWHERE ENDING SKY – MARLEN HAUSHOFER. Given to me with a note of ‘I’ve been reading the LRB for three years, and I finally found something I think you will like’, Nowhere Ending Sky didn’t disappoint. It’s a dense and evocative hymn to a self-proclaimed unruly child, growing up in rural Austria. It paints a vivid picture of a girl with an active imagination and a tensile bond with nature – one who makes friends with the inanimate. Glorious and terrifying, ending as it does with the precipice of pubescence.

THIS SHOULD BE WRITTEN IN THE PRESENT TENSE – HELLE HELLE. Another compact and crafted tale of a woman at odds with her life, but utterly different in texture to Dept. of Speculation. Dorte is a drifter, who has convinced herself and others that she is studying at university. But Dorte is without drive, and life blows her this way and that. Interspersed with her days alone in a flat outside Copenhagen, we learn about her past and begin to assess her present as lovelorn.

PLAINSONG – KENT HARUF. A stunning, moving depiction of a small-town US community told through the lens of four sets of characters: Guthrie – whose wife is ailing and ultimately absent; Ike and Bobby – Guthrie’s young sons; Victoria – a senior at high school, whose Mother kicks her out when she learns she is pregnant; The MacPhersons – cattle farmers and brothers who have lived together for fifty years since their parents died. The book presents a journey for all of them – sometimes gentle, sometimes wrenching – which carries the reader right into the heart of the town.

BY THE LIGHT OF MY FATHER’S SMILE – ALICE WALKER. Cementing Walker’s reputation as one of my all time favourite writers is this tale of an estranged family. Positing an unashamed connection with our sexuality as one of the core components of strength and self-belief, the story contrasts the life of two daughters – one denied sexual expression of a deeply felt affection; the other denied a relationship with her father. It has incredible sex scenes, ghosts and a host of observations about a wholesome spiritual life. Phenomenal.

LEAVING THE ATOCHA STATION – BEN LERNER. It took me a while to work out this was fiction, which changed my reading of it in a fascinating and as yet inexplicable way: self-doubt in an actual person seems endearing, but the same in a fictional character? Questionable. Anyway, that weirdness aside, I think it’s a commendable exploration of the torture of creation, and the elevation of soul, spirit and intellect (with all the problems that brings) in the consideration and production of art. I understand completely why Auster is quoted on the back, but I also observe that my appetite for intellectual gymnastics is not what it once was. What I did love about it, though, was the way the narrative dwelled in the gaps between languages, between tongues, between motivations. Every thing is up for grabs…

The ecstasy of influence

2014 has been a hard year and a pulverising interview experience a couple of weeks ago threw the difficulty into sharp relief: what I’ve missed is the opportunity to feel and exert influence.

In February, I bought Jonathan Lethem’s collection of essays entitled ‘The Ecstasy of Influence’ for a friend of mine. It seemed the perfect title for a gift, speaking volumes about the basis of the friendship; mutual influence, and the ecstasy of engaging deeply with, and challenging the assumptions of, another. Ironically, soon after, the friendship dwindled.

It’s the story of 2014: the number of people I’ve been in contact with over the year has steadily reduced. I’m now unemployed for the first time since I was 17, so I have no colleagues to speak of, and being out in the wilds of London has also impacted on how regularly I see close friends and family. I’ve largely been muddling along, with just myself for company.

Pile onto that solitary scene the horror of both dealing with the DWP through the job centre – the sole purpose of which seems to be to discourage people from claiming job seekers allowance because they are ‘filthy scroungers’ – and the compound terror of repeated job applications and successive knock-backs (or worse, the excruciating pain of silence): I think that gives a flavour of a horrible year. It’s against this rising tide of rejection that I came out of that recent interview convinced that I don’t have the power to influence anybody, which limits my professional prospects considerably.

The funny thing is, though, that everybody that I know would reject this conclusion absolutely. I might not regularly declaim, nor ‘win people round’ but friends and former colleagues have suggested that the influence I have is of an altogether more quiet and pervasive kind – kind words remembered many years later, crucial advice at the start of a career freelancing, a commitment to honesty that means I’m ‘go-to’ for constructive feedback. The belief that people have shown in me – people I have utmost respect for – is astounding, and it’s the reason I have to keep picking myself back up to try again.

What I realise is that influence, the kind that elicits ecstasy, is predicated on trust and on two-way traffic. The influence I hope to exert will always be centred on the individual, on their specific circumstances – it isn’t about me, it’s about what my experience might be able to lend to them. It depends on knowing people, and when I get to know people, I’m invariably influenced by them.

So I look to bid good riddance to 2014, holding firmly and gratefully to the friendships and experiences that have made the year bearable. I enter 2015 with renewed resolve that I don’t want to be at the centre of things, with people flocking to my banner; I want to be part of the firm foundations that enable those I love and respect to flourish. With luck, there’s a job for me somewhere that will mean I can do just that.

Randall, meet What I Loved

Some time ago, I was blown away by Siri Hustvedt’s astounding achievement, in What I Loved, of creating, and containing, an artistic practice in a novel. I wrote:

Hustvedt brings to life numerous bodies of work that are conceived and created, that are critiqued and dissected, that are received and reviewed, that fester and mutate… and it strikes me that this as authentic and ‘real’ as art gets. There is so much work that can’t be touched or viewed ‘in the flesh’, that operates on a premise of concept: the legend of a piece is bound by language and permeates cultural society through media that often belie the fact that the work existed to the point that it is inconsequential whether it did.

I thought the feat was utterly unique. Until now.

Jonathan Gibbs’ Randall is an ‘alternative’ view of the phenomenon of the Young British Artists (YBAs) that we all know, and love or hate to varying degrees, from the nineteen-nineties. It’s alternative because, though it draws primarily on fact, Damien Hirst is notably absent (accidental death) and his void is filled by Randall, the figure around whom the novel revolves. Gibbs brings this startling, rambunctious, and borderline offensive character to life with a deft drawing that teeters between narcissism and pseudoism – a drawing conducted through unlikely friend, Vincent Cartwright.

The artistic practice that Gibbs invents is gloriously wicked and clever – ranging from the scatological to the destructive – and it embodies countless art school debates that I’ve either overheard or (to my minor embarrassment) been a part of. These arguments get boiled down, repeatedly, into ‘Randallisms’: Contemporary art: art you don’t have to see to get; art you don’t have to like to buy. Gibbs plays with the reader with these pithy statements that seem contemptuous in tone – it’s impossible to know if celebration or denigration is the point. This Schrodinger’s box, this keeping the lid on the simultaneous possibilities of futility and vitality, is mirrored superbly in a scene later on in the book, when Vincent recalls one of Randall’s arguments about daily encounters with artwork – at your workplace, at home – the work is physically in stasis, but its effectiveness, its meaning, alters with the gaze, with the myriad emotions and preoccupations of the viewer that colour the encounter. The work holds all those possibilities – it is objective – and the viewer opens the box in the moment of looking.

So far, so brilliant. What makes this an extraordinary novel though, and something else it has in common with What I Loved, is that it is essentially about friendship. About how a shared passion, a point of contention, can be fertile soil for friendship. Vincent writes of Randall:

He shaped me. There, if you were looking for one, is my definition of friendship. If knowing someone doesn’t change you as a person, then they’re not a friend, they’re an acquaintance.

The book interweaves Vincent’s attempts to record the man and the work, with action in the present – a discovery, by Randall’s widow, and Vincent’s former lover, Justine. This layer of the story is totally compelling, and provides a counterpoint to Vincent’s recollections that is full of tenderness, muted agony and frustration. If Randall, in life, is unpredictable, then in death he becomes a seemingly immoveable obstacle to gleaning understanding. This foray that Vincent and Justine take into the hinterland is precariously poised – a maelstrom of doubt, of fear and of contradictory desires – and it is no surprise that Randall’s progeny (both his vindictive paintings, and his wilful son) bring a host of possibilities crashing to earth in one inevitable trajectory.

What I loved (sorry, couldn’t help it) about Randall, though, is the sense of vulnerability that resonates between the lines, between the characters, between the ‘doing’ and the ‘doer’ of art. Vincent is an art novice (at times, I think this is the absolute best kind of audience) and Randall takes him under his wing, educates him. Vincent is aware of this inequity, aware of his role as ‘douchebag’, that he’s been bestowed this friendship precisely because he will ask what it all means. We have momentary glimpses that Vincent realises the potency of being a blank canvas for Randall, allowing him to impart his intentions in their purest form. In the main, Vincent consciously plays the part of dupe, valuing his role as insider, but he is at a loss when this is challenged by the discovery that Justine makes. She asks:

Are you angry with Randall because of his paintings, so you don’t want to be his friend any more, or are you angry at yourself because you were tricked?

Echoing Lily Briscoe’s thoughts as she’s painting in the third section of To the Lighthouse, we see Vincent struggling to accept that even after their death, our friends, and friendships, are still mutable.

What I Loved, by contrast, concentrates on the friendship between two respective ‘experts’ and their families. Over the course of the book, the painter’s career comes to eclipse the achievements of his friend the art historian, but this is less critical than the way in which their friendship develops through a mutual wrangle with art. But, being so heavily invested in ‘the scene’, these characters are less able to convey its precariousness – are further from the dalliance with invective than we get from Randall and Vincent.

The experience of reading these two books, despite their similarities, was wildly different, even if they engaged similar memory muscles of artistic debate. What I Loved stimulated an intellectual, discursive and reflexive side of me. But Randall burrowed into the core of me, bypassing taste, rejecting solitude, and directing my gaze not at the monstrous jokes we can have at our own expense, but at the compulsion to push at the boundaries, to find meaning where there seems only a vacuum.

 

Booker Scheming

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As the end of my mission to read all the Booker winners comes into focus (insofar as it can ever end), I’ve been thinking about ways to mark the five-year achievement, and to make some sense of the books as a collection. I spent a playful evening trying to group books by the theme(s) that I found most prevalent in each book, and I reordered the chronological list into order of preference. I fixed on the idea that I could graphically represent my Booker journey through a schematic akin to the London Underground Map, designed by Harry Beck.

The paper play convinced me that this will be a fun and light-hearted translation of an epic reading endeavour, at a glance!

Graphic version to come when I’ve finished Schindler’s Ark, The Famished Road, The Inheritance of Loss, The Luminaries and one of the current Booker shortlist!