Saturday, October 29, 2011

Making tracks

Amazingly, three and a half weeks in the US have gone, and it's time to make tracks back to Blighty. It's been a lot of fun, but back now to an English winter...

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey

I remember once writing a story in Boot Camp that I was very pleased with. It resembled a swinging sixties movie – multiple viewpoints, dizzying jumps in perspective and point of view, narratives all over the place, timeframes all but unfathomable. Anyone familiar with the Boot camp environment will readily anticipate the beasting that story got. And rightly, too.

I was put in mind of this by Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America, which is a rollicking yarn and highly entertaining, finely written and beautifully characterised but, my God, it chooses a convoluted way to present itself. Firstly it’s narrated by two people, the eponymous Parrot and Olivier, the former a nineteenth century jack-the-lad with a distinct skill for engraving and the latter a hilariously haughty remnant of the ancien regime, Olivier de Garmont. Now there’s nothing unusual about this: contrasting narrators have a long and noble history. But, in addition to this, Carey chooses also to switch about his time frames so that, for example, we have been with Parrot for some considerable time in America before we realise that between then and the time we had previously seen him, in England, he had been not only in France but had spent seven years of penal servitude in Australia. Overall, it works, but nonetheless the playing about with timeframes feels a trifle tricksy to me – postmodern experimentation for the hell of it. I don’t think the novel needs it.

However, let’s not quibble. This is great entertainment. Of the two mains, the first to attract is undoubtedly Parrot, the put-upon, lowly English boy who has a talent for engraving and forgery that is greater than even he realises. He is a free spirit and witty and, despite his youth, a bit roguish. In comparison, Olivier de Garmont is a horrendous snob, scion of a family devoted to the French royalty throughout the periods of tyranny, but not a boy or man given much to bravery or thoughts of anyone other than himself. It is to Carey’s credit that, by the end, we have come to like this difficult, arrogant man. So much so, in fact, that it comes as a relief when the increasingly fractious and self-pitying Parrot’s sections of the novel conclude and we can return to the French master and his increasingly complex travails.

The two men, reluctant master and even more reluctant servant, are despatched, for mostly political reasons, from France to America, ostensibly to make a study of the American management of penal institutions. Garmont, born into a life of indolent luxury, is incomprehending of the brash new Americans, with their grand ideas and obsession with making money. He is a man lost, far removed from anything which he can understand or respect or aspire to. And then he meets Amelia Godefroy, an American gal with stunning good looks, a forthright nature and the temperament of a minx. He falls in love. His life changes. That is one of those cliches of romantic fiction, of course, but in this case it is true: Amelia does change Olivier, but not in the way either he or we might expect. It makes him a grander person. Still impossible, of course, still congenitally unable to see anything from another’s perspective, but nonetheless slightly, movingly, humbled.

This is a very funny book. The interplay of the two characters, so different, initially so antipathetic, is wonderfully done. Of course, over time, they come to an accommodation that is almost affectionate. It works very well. Garmont softens, his experience in America instilling in him an unexpected regard for the possibilities of democracy. But only to an extent, of course: a complete transformation in a man so steeped in privilege and class would be impossible. Accordingly, near the novel’s end, this is brilliantly and hilariously drawn out when what otherwise could have been a mawkish reconciliation scene is rendered both funny and poignant by onrushes of Garmont’s overweening sense of entitlement, much to the indignation of the newly landed Parrot.

At times Carey uses the novel to make cheap pot-shots at American culture, using the benefit of anachronism to plant prophetic statements into the mouths of his protagonists. But he’s an Australian living in New York, so I guess he’s allowed. And some of those comments are telling. Democracy is a wonderful thing, but it contains inherent dangers. And, since the novel is intended to be an improvised account of the life of Alexis de Tocqueville, that seems a worthy avenue to explore.

I just wonder whether it needed such a tortuous narrative form?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Attention to detail

The one place you really want attention to detial is at a tattoo parlour.

Texas wildlife

The birds are kind of intimidating here in Texas...

It kindly stepped out of the way for me, but if it hadn't I was quite prepared to climb off the road myself to get past...

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

And the Booker winner is...

Congratulations to Julian Barnes on winning this year's Booker prize.

Readers of this blog will know I wasn't (and am still not) of the opinion that this is prize winning literature.

I have two big reservations. Firstly, a plot development which is absolutely crucial is, in my opinion, an absolute clunker. The main character is left something highly personal in a will. This is such a strange thing it makes one ask questions. But if one does ask the crucial question there is really only one answer, and it ruins the ending. I saw the ending a mile off.

Secondly, the character of the female lead is beyond strange. She acts in such an irrational way it completely pulls me out of the fictive dream. Her behaviour is so far from reasonable it simply doesn't work. Remember, the events which brought about the situation that informs the novel's conclusion happened many years before. So she's not suffering from shock. No, she does not strike me as in any way a credible character.

It's a pity, because there's some beautiful writing in The Sense of an Ending, as you would expect from Julian Barnes. He really ought to have won it for Arthur and George, the year the prize disappeared up the pompous arse of John Banville.

Monday, October 17, 2011


This is Woody Guthrie's The Ballad of Tom Joad, based on John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath:

Although Steinbeck appreciated Guthrie's abilities, on the subject of this song he is reported as saying: “Took me years to do Grapes of Wrath and that little squirt tells the whole story in just a few stanzas.”

It's hard not to be sympathetic with Steinbeck. This song is simply remarkable in the way it distils a huge novel into a mere six or so minutes. In this, Guthrie's effort is similar to those nameless singers who gave us the legacy of the muckle sangs, the big songs in the folk repertoire. Listen to The Ballad of Tom Joad, and then to some of the muckle sangs like Glenlogie,or Tam Lin and you can see the same literary skill at work. These are the product of genius. The concision is extraordinary.

There are only two flaws in Woody's song. Firstly, the lack of Ma Joad. She is the absolute centre of the novel, but she only appears in passing in the song. That's probably not surprising, however, because I suspect the character of Ma Joad was far before her time. Indeed, Steinbeck intended Tom Joad to be the central character of Grapes of Wrath, not Ma, but it was she who stole the novel: women weren't meant to be the dominant ones in the 1930s (and have things changed that much? Probably not) but this woman simply burst through the novel and took it over.

And secondly, that ending. How could you not include the ending, when Rose of Sharon, previously a petulant, selfish, self-absorbed child, becomes a figure of salvation, a woman of honour, a beacon of hope. It is an extraordinary scene, and it should have been included.

Of course, Woody based the song on John Ford's film rather than Steinbeck's novel, and he probably never read the novel. I haven't seen the film so I don't know if that ending is reproduced in it. Anyone know?

Space and signs

Two things about America - wide roads and lots of advertising hoardings.

Texas morning

Ever get the feeling you're being watched?

Huck Finn - alive and fishing

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The new Murakami

After reading the absolutely dreadful After Dark, and before that the pretty awful Kafka on the Shore, I promised I wouldn't read any more Haruki Murakami. But I'm a recidivist, I admit it. His new novel, in three volumes, comes out this week and I'm itching to get at it. I'll have to wait, though, since I'm in the States at the moment and, even if it's published here at the same time, I don't think I want to carry it all the way back home with me. So why am I so interested?

Well, I absolutely adored A Wild Sheep Chase when I first read it. Admittedly, when I re-read it I wasn't so enamoured, but I'm happy to stick with my first emotional response to it. And Norwegian Wood was beautiful, heartbreaking. And when I first read Wind-Up Bird Chronicle I was gobsmacked. The second time I read it I still thought it was amazing. That's the benchmark. And that's why I was so hugely disappointed by Kafka on the Shore, which read like a nobody trying to write like Murakami. And After Dark, similarly, was like someone trying to re-write Norwegian Wood.

So can he do it again, or will he still be stuck in Murakami-pastiche-land, complete with cats and wells and an enigmatic girl/woman and temporal disturbances and Japanese recipes? The sheer scale of 1Q84 makes me hopeful that this will be something meaty.

There's an interview with him in the Guardian today. There are a couple of interesting points:

To Murakami, built like a little bull, [writing is] a question of strength. "It's physical. If you keep on writing for three years, every day, you should be strong. Of course you have to be strong mentally, also. But in the first place you have to be strong physically. That is a very important thing. Physically and mentally you have to be strong."

I think there's something in that. My writing tutor, Alex Keegan, has always forced on his students the mantra of write, write, write. Murakami wrote this 1000 page novel in 3 years. That's a slog. Most aspiring writers simply couldn't come close to it. It's hard work, writing. And Murakami goes on:

"Every day I go to my study and sit at my desk and put the computer on. At that moment, I have to open the door. It's a big, heavy door. You have to go into the Other Room. Metaphorically, of course. And you have to come back to this side of the room. And you have to shut the door. So it's literally physical strength to open and shut the door. So if I lose that strength, I cannot write a novel any more. I can write some short stories, but not a novel."

This is more than simply the hard graft of writing. This is about opening yourself up to what it is you want to write about, or what you need to write about. Going back to AK, he talks about the sentinels, those parts of your subconscious defence mechanisms which try to stop you from probing the stuff you really need/want to explore. This is the same concept as Murakami's big, heavy door. How much do you want to let go? That's the really big question for a writer. How much of a risk do I want to take? The big risk-takers could become great writers. Those who don't take the risks probably won't.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Drought, what drought?

The easy answer to the drought which has beset Texas for the past five months: send a Scotsman there on holiday. The night before I arrived the rains began...

Big place, Arkansas

Taken from a Greyhound bus (in which I had the pleasure of spending 25 long hours...):

Our friend Sut?

Outside the bank in Knoxville, home of Buddy Suttree, fisherman:

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Bert Jansch

Bert Jansch has died. A giant of British folk music, it's hard to estimate how influential he was. A superb guitarist, a singular singer.

This was the best song on his last album, recorded back in 2006.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West

Modernism, eh, what’s it all about? For Marinetti art is violence, cruelty and injustice. Fellow Futurists Zdanevich and Larionov described painting as the newsman, recording the ephemeral change of us all. For Eliot, the poet must remove his own personality from the work. Kandinsky the expressionist accused people of being blind and resistant to the new. Ortega y Gasset wanted the dehumanisation of art. Max Nordau said we were in the middle of a severe mental epidemic, with “clubs of suicides” in every city. For Rimbaud, the poet was the thief of fire and language contained everything. All of them fighting against something, all of them seemingly standing outside everything. After all that, that forced and enforced and forceful alienation, what is left of art, literature, the mimetic interpretation of human life? Is the human still there, beneath the stylisation, the despair, the isolation? Or is modernism a self-fulfilling prophesy of human loss and fractured community?

Modernism seems to be characterised by a surfeit of straining. Everything must be presented in terms of the battle between life and art, or life and death, or nature and humanity, or nature and religion or something-this and something-that. Modernism is life made binary, and within the limiting poles of that binary reduction, emotion is rendered into struggle. Fear in a handful of dust, a crowd flowing over London Bridge, so many undone by death, so many.

Some of that can be seen in the works of Nathanael West, and yet, for me, he transcends the limitations of other modernist writers. How? I’m not sure, but I think it is by his insistent satirical bent. There is nothing arch about his satire. It hasn’t mutated into the tedious knowingness which blights post-modernism, for example. Nor, for all the violence in his novels, is there outright cruelty in the satire. And there is, above all, something human about it: his characters, grotesques and caricatures though they may be, devoid of rational thought, unable to see beyond their own limitations, still somehow manage to feel human. You care about the almost catatonically passive Homer Simpson in The Day of the Locust. You probably shouldn’t, but you do. Likewise Faye Greener, who appears to have few redeeming features other than her great beauty, but who still instils in the reader something more than mere priapic desire. Where, in other modernist works, characters become subsumed within the debased culture which is being examined, so that they become as flat and debased as that culture itself, in Nathanael West’s fiction his characters seem to be on lonely crusades for something – decency perhaps, hope, aspiration. And the reason that happens, I think, is the insistent humour which pervades the work, humour derived from the author as narrator but also from the characters as protagonists. West, like James Purdy, is simultaneously funny on different levels.

Oddly, though, a bald summary of the plot would not give the impression of a humorous novel. Rather, it would suggest a novel of great loneliness, of fractured ideals and ambitions. Individually, the characters are a ragbag of losers: Tod Hackett is an artist who struggles between the naturalism of his training and a sense of “moral indignation” which he wishes to portray, in the manner of Goya or Daumier, through works like the apocalyptic Burning of Los Angeles. He is hopelessly in love with Faye Greener, an aspiring but failed actress, luminously beautiful but impossibly vacuous, reduced, finally to prostitution. Her father is Harry Greener, another failed actor, hamming his way through life as a door-to-door salesman, whose best performance may or may not be the heart attack he may or may not be experiencing. Homer Simpson is an accountant whose connection with reality appears to have been severed, whose idealism and naivety makes him the perfect foil for charlatans and neer-do-wells. We also have Texan Earle Shoop, a man short of intelligence or charisma or charm; Abe Kusich, a dwarf with a vile temper and tendency to repel those who wish to help; and Miguel, the Mexican with criminal leanings, taking advanatage wherever possible, drawing Homer and Faye among others, under his spell. As you see, then, not an impressive array of characters. The community of broken dreams and broken people in The Day of the Locust is as extreme as may be found anywhere in fiction. I began by asking if modernism is a self-fulfilling prophesy of human loss and fractured community. Well perhaps. The end of The Day of the Locust gives us:

all those poor devils who can only be stirred by the promise of miracles and then only to violence. A super "Dr. Know- All Pierce - All" had made the necessary promise and they were marching behind his banner in a great united front of screwballs and screwboxes to purify the land. No longer bored, they sang and danced joyously in the red light of the flames.

It is not a great stretch to see, from this, a descent into Nuremberg and its rallies, or to extend into the future and see, once the dance is over, the nothingness of McCarthy’s The Road. So am I arguing that this is a pessimistic novel, that its message is one of unmitigated despair? No. I don’t believe that, and I don’t feel it when I read Nathanael West. Why is that?

There is a sense of pathos running throughout the novel. You don’t pity the characters, as such – that would be distancing, creating a barrier between them and the reader. But a generalised sense of pity, or regret, or basic sadness seems to infest them, and their humour and the humour that surrounds them becomes bittersweet, poignant. While laughing at the situations, you wish they weren’t so; while enjoying the characters, you wonder how they could get more pleasure from life if they could step outside their illusions. You cannot help these people but, given the chance, you might wish to try. It is the Pinnochio principle, perhaps. These puppets want to be real and that, the only real thing about them, is what makes them so endearing.

And here, West turns some alchemical magic on the reader as well, because we become complicit in the characters’ dreams. They won’t change: West knows that, we know that; like Jacques the Fatalist, whatever plot diversions life may throw at them, they will finally veer back on to the same, lonely by-road down which they were always destined to travel. That is the way of all of us, perhaps, but, through his sad and lonely characters, Nathanael West allows us the luxury of dreaming otherwise, if only for a little while.