Reading Notes (Whores, Virgins, Epileptics, Psychotics)

I’ve had a run of great reading lately, and thought I’d share. As is usual for all my commute books, all of these are notable for their ability to keep a very sleepy Michelle awake on the way to work and all but the graphic novel come in handbag-friendly sizes.

Memories Of My Melancholy Whores (Gabriel Garcia Marquez): I’ve read 100 Years Of Solitude and Love In The Time Of Cholera twice each, and with each reread I was amused to find that I’d remembered so little of the plot that it was almost like reading a whole new book. This isn’t a diss, it’s more that his books are so dense with atmosphere and observation that I find myself just living from moment to moment, thoroughly immersed, until I reach the end and wake up from a beautiful, fragrant dream which then fades away as quickly as dreams always do. I think this is the reason some people find it difficult to get through his books, because sometimes you’re just not in the right mental mood for that sort of commitment. Anyway, Whores has a lot of what is wonderful about his writing within a much shorter and more accessible package (assuming you don’t find stories about a 90 year old man engaging a 14 year old prostitute to be inherently inaccessible, that is) so I recommend it to Garcia Marquez fans and newbies alike.

On Chesil Beach (Ian McEwan): I routinely read any new Ian McEwan book, but due to various dissatisfactions I’ve felt with his other books, he’s always been an admired-but-not-favourite writer for me. He’s amazing at taking an incident (usually narrated in vivid, heart-in-mouth detail) and building on it, fleshing out causes and consequences and the inner lives of the people involved with incredible depth and perspicacity, but in my view something else often lets him down – pacing for Black Dogs and Saturday, plot for Enduring Love and Atonement, and just too much obviousness for Amsterdam. I’m undecided on how believable I find the “incident” here – a disastrous wedding night for the virginal protagonists – but its awkward, cringeworthy moments, and how McEwan uses them to elaborate on the lives of Edward and Florence, their love and its sad aftermath, are masterfully done, like a perfect distillation of his best abilities unmarred by any of his previous failings. My favourite McEwan book yet.

Epileptic (David B.): I don’t always get graphic novels, in that I often find the writing decent but don’t feel the drawings have added much to my appreciation of the whole. (Blankets, Jimmy Corrigan, I’m looking at you.) Epileptic is different. The plot is interesting on its own – the author’s brother develops epilepsy in childhood, and his family life becomes dominated by his parents’ efforts to find a cure and the increasingly disruptive manifestations of his brother’s illness – but it’s the complex, surreal drawings which make this extraordinary, and elevate it to my personal graphic novel pantheon formerly inhabited only by Sandman and Watchmen. I can’t describe the richness of artistry that unfolds in these small black-and-white pictures in a way that you can appreciate without experiencing the book for yourself, it would be like trying to describe Guernica to someone who’s never seen a Picasso painting. Just read it.

Stuart: A Life Backwards (Alexander Masters): Masters was working for a homeless charity (not for altruistic reasons, because it paid well) when its directors got convicted for permitting the trafficking of drugs on the premises, even though they had made concerted efforts to prevent this and the same problem afflicted almost any other homeless charity facility. In the course of the campaign against their convictions, Masters met alcoholic, polydrug-addicted, violently psychotic, frequently suicidal Stuart, who was also actually quite a success story of rehabilitation, relatively speaking. The book is the story of Stuart’s life and of the friendship between the two very different men. It’s funny, illuminating, and really sad, and I think it will interest anyone who has ever given a moment’s thought to the problem of homelessness.

Thoughts On Ian McEwan

(Written 14 August)

Amsterdam was the third stop in my summer self-administered crash course in Ian McEwan. I’d decided long ago that he was one of the Famous Authors I Really Should Read But Haven’t, and since the Marine Parade Library has all his books except Atonement, I thought it was as good a time as any to start.

I think most of the impressions I formed of his writing in the first two books I read (Enduring Love and The Child In Time) are borne out quite clearly in Amsterdam. His plots are consistently compelling – I never have difficulty focusing on the read, whereas with, say, Kavalier & Clay (my other most recent read) I often had to consciously commit myself to finishing a chapter. There, it was sometimes hard to figure out the point of what I’d just read, if any, and whether it was going anywhere worth going. A question I often ask myself is why the author’s decided to leave something in, what exact contribution it’s made which enabled it to survive the brutal editorial process.

I don’t have any problems answering these questions with Ian McEwan books, especially Amsterdam. On the contrary, he sometimes seems a little heavy-handed with his Messages; in Amsterdam he repeatedly follows a certain pattern in setting up his morality points: i) man is aware of another person’s misfortune or distress, ii) man briefly considers this, perhaps even experiences a small surge of caring, although it’s probably more accurate to say he’s briefly aware that he should care but doesn’t necessarily actually feel anything, iii) self-absorption takes over and man is caught up in his own needs and interests, iv) man chooses to serve his own interests and rationalizes this to himself without much effort.

There is also almost a fixation with making his characters authors or musicians, but since I like the way he writes about both art forms, this is an observation rather than a criticism.

While I think he’s more pointed than he needs to be sometimes, what really makes the reading worthwhile is the quality of the prose. It’s clean, hardly ever more complex than it needs to be, and effectively conveys an insight that feels very real to me. In the opening chapters of Enduring Love he writes about love the way I feel it. The teetering balance between his characters’ self-immersion and their connections with other people seemed spot-on in Enduring Love and The Child In Time, but Clive and Vernon seemed exaggeratedly narcissistic in Amsterdam. Then again, it may also be because the former two books both dealt with this in the context of the breakdown and reconstruction of romantic relationships, while Amsterdam deals with it in terms of how the characters deal with certain issues of principle. I suppose the point is that I’m more capable of a personal response to his writing about relationships (though I have little experience thus far of the foundering of a happy relationship), whereas Amsterdam’s choices aren’t choices I’ve ever had to directly confront.

Anyways. The reading’s been worthwhile so far, and I’m definitely starting on Atonement when I get back to the UK and can buy it used off Amazon.

Excerpt: Amsterdam (Ian McEwan)

From Amsterdam:

The following day the editor presided over a subdued meeting with his senior staff. Tony Montano sat to one side, a silent observer.

‘It’s time we ran more regular columns. They’re cheap, and everyone else is doing them. You know, we hire someone of low to medium intelligence, possibly female, to write about, well, nothing much. You’ve seen the sort of thing. Goes to a party and can’t remember someone’s name. Twelve hundred words.’

‘Sort of navel gazing,’ Jeremy Ball suggested

‘Not quite. Gazing is too intellectual. More like navel chat.’

Enduring Love For Trail of Dead

The two boxes of books and CDs I sent home in early June, when I didn’t know whether I was staying or going (cue Clash song in the soundtrack of my life, ha ha), have arrived. I didn’t realize how much I’d missed Source Tags And Codes until it started distracting me from Enduring Love, which I’d been hunched over till very late the previous night.

Perhaps it was strange coincidence, but just as the album started getting better, the book started losing its momentum. An uneasy balance between ears and eyes had been maintained for the first five songs, which are “merely” catchy, but then Heart In The Hand Of The Matter came along, with its bells and crashing pianos and amazing drumming, and from then on Trail Of Dead started majorly kicking Ian McEwan’s ass.

By the time Relative Ways began, I’d become thoroughly annoyed with the book’s protagonist for his whining and paranoia, which I do think then begat more reasons for whining and paranoia for him than may originally have been likely, and I was getting depressed by the way the relationship in the book managed to spiral so suddenly out of fairly idyllic conjugal bliss into a minefield of recrimination and bitterness. On a personal level I wasn’t feeling great either. But there was something powerfully persuasive about those It’s okay passages, a sudden hushed drama in the music and the chord changes, a heartfelt earnestness in the vocals akin to how in Tonight Tonight (Smashing Pumpkins) Billy Corgan beseeches us to believe. And I always find myself believing, and so too, yesterday, everything really did feel okay for a while.

Every now and then something always manages to get under my skin sufficiently to manipulate me (even if just temporarily) despite all the cynical rationality I think I epitomize. It’s good when that happens.