July 2017 Books


Books bought:

From Idle Time Books in Adams Morgan:

  • Portrait of a Celibate, Alec Waugh
  • Prater Violet, Christopher Isherwood
  • Sowing, Leonard Woolf
  • Growing, Leonard Woolf

And from Castle Hill Press, for a somewhat embarrassing amount of money:

  • Correspondence with E. M. Forster and F. L. Lucas, T. E. Lawrence

Books read:

  • Helena, Evelyn Waugh
  • Satin Island, Tom McCarthy
  • War of the Encyclopaedists, Christopher Robinson & Gavin Kovite
  • The Flame Alphabet, Ben Marcus
  • The Alteration, Kingsley Amis
  • Put Out More Flags, Evelyn Waugh

Having just blasted through Nick Hornby’s The Polysyllabic Spree (more on that in the August books post, maybe), I’m tempted to ape his style here1, minus the enforced postivity. But let’s not get too optimistic about my writing abilities and their flexibility.

In composing my mid-year media review at the end of June, I had the horrific realization that I’ve been reading too much non-fiction to be considered an interesting person, at least by the standards to which I hold others. In my defense–at least that non-fiction isn’t pop science. I mean, pop science does have its appeals as a genre, especially in comparison to academic science, which is boring as shit. Still–people whose reading lists are primarily composed of recent non-fiction bestsellers…I ought not to judge them, but man, I do.

And then I saw some lists of Best Novels of 2017 (So Far) posted elsewhere, so in addition to already feeling boring about the non-fiction thing, I started to feel super unhip about how out-of-touch I am with the Contemporary Literary Scene. Not that it matters, but some day I might actually start talking to people again, and I imagine the people I will eventually talk to will be the type of people who have Opinions on the Man Booker Prize, even though that sounds pretty unbearable. But since I also resent being told to consume popular things, it wouldn’t be as easy as just picking books off of lists. So I went to the library and forced myself not to immediately go for the Ws (Waugh, Welsh, Wharton, Woolf, etc.) but instead pick books at semi-random based on cover, title, and bookjacket summary rather than name-recognition; trying to recreate the experience of being a kid in the school library, picking up whatever looks cool2, not knowing what it signifies to be reading x or what the critical reputation of y is.

But first, I read Evelyn Waugh’s Helena, and man, that is a weird one. Maybe not the book itself, but all of the context surrounding it? Waugh is writing a piece of religious/historical fiction and basically playing it straight–there’s still a little bit of social satire, probably, but it’s not really reveling in ridicule the way that Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies, Scoop, The Loved One, etc. do, if that makes sense? He’s portraying the life of Saint Helena from her initial meeting with future-husband Constantius to the (alleged) discovery of the True Cross.

Waugh makes an interesting stylistic choice in having the characters speak in contemporary (i.e. 1950s British) dialect rather than the stilted, generically old-timey lingo that we often see in historical fiction. Interesting, since we usually only see that in comedic contexts (e.g. The Little Hours, the main appeal of Drunk History, etc.), but on reflection, the alternative also seems absurd–what type of English would “authentically” represent 3rd-4th century Greek? Or Latin? I don’t actually know what language the historical figures in question would be speaking. (Let’s just note that this a period of history and religious lore that I know absolutely nothing about.)

Since the search for the cross only really happens in the last chapter or two it’s kind of unclear what the “point” of this was. A religious passion project, definitely. But I don’t know that it penetrates deep enough into Helena’s psychology to make the journey to the cross-finding worth it? And I mean, how well can a 20th century man really understand the motives and driving forces of a 3rd-4th century woman? Is the human element that universal? The 20th century British dialect and using the–apparently unlikely–tradition that Helena was a British princess may have been attempts at relatability, which do sort of work, I guess.

Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island was the first of my semi-random library choices, although less random than the others, because I have actually heard of Tom McCarthy–or at least, I’ve heard of The Remainder. I should try a month of reading only books by authors with the surname McCarthy; it probably wouldn’t be the worst thing. Anyway, I’m not sure what the deal with Satin Island is–Tom McCarthy is definitely Literary Fiction, and Satin Island was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2015, so there’s presumably something to it. A novel about a 21st century anthropologist that is also meant to serve in some ways as an anthropological study of the 21st century? Certainly the way activities like browsing the internet and opening up windows/tabs on a laptop were described felt like a very intentional touch. And rare, no? It’s the type of usage detail that would be meticulously described if it were fictional tech in a sci-fi novel, but real technology in a contemporary novel is usually just glossed over or not mentioned at all. I don’t know whether that’s because it’s so integrated into daily life that it needs no describing (like using the bathroom) or because it’s an aspect of modern life that doesn’t feel very “novelistic.” In either case, it means that someone trying to get a sense of 21st century first-world life from a novel is going to be missing some key aspects…unless they read Satin Island, I guess.

Overall: an enjoyable enough writing style, but I feel like I was too dumb to truly Get it. So many recurring elements that drew attention to themselves and were clearly meant to signify, again, something. No idea what Madison’s story about being a protester in Italy or the ending with the Staten Island ferry were supposed to mean: probably something about 9/11, though, right?

War of the Encyclopaedists–such a compelling title, and the book jacket summary makes it seem like Wikipedia will play a prominent role (spoiler: it didn’t really), which obviously appealed. The book itself–compelling, but not especially Good or satisfying. A lot of cliched elements–the listless English PhD student finding himself intellectually out of his depth for the first time in his life, the “complicated” artsy chick, the soldier discovering that “wow, the situation in Iraq sure is more fucked up and nuanced than we were led to believe, isn’t it?”–that had the potential to come together in a refreshing way, but…didn’t really, which was a shame. And then the ending tried way too hard to be Deep and Literary in a way that was completely transparent, didn’t fit in with the tone of the rest of the book, and didn’t even really say anything apart from “oh shit we need to wrap this up and we don’t know how.”

God, save me from these fictional English lit grad students and aspiring writers who have seemingly only chosen this life path because the author can’t imagine any other. I like to think Corderoy’s (the listless PhD student) personal statement for applying to grad schools was just “I don’t know what to do after college, but I like reading and I have a trust fund (for now). Plus, my creator was told to write what he knows, so.” Because he doesn’t seem to have any especially strong or novel opinions on literature, and I don’t think he was even trying to be a writer, although, admittedly, it’s been a few weeks since I read this and I can’t remember. But ugh, what an awful dude and unclear how intentional his awfulness was.

The third of my semi-random library picks: Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet, which I found really upsetting. The main conceit is that there’s a mysterious epidemic whereby adults are sickened by the speech of children. At first, it seems like the sort of thing parents will read and feel smug about and their (adult) children (i.e. me) will read and feel really shitty about–like, “oh god, is this actually how my parents see me?” But then it brings in some alternate-universe details and all forms of communication gradually become toxic to adults, so there’s…more to it than just “man, teenagers sure are toxic burdens, am I right?” Like, some weird shit with Judaism as well. The fact that it had such an impact on my mood may mean that it was Good, but it also made me temporarily say Fuck That Noise to 21st century literary fiction.

So I picked up some Kingsley Amis and Evelyn Waugh on my next library trip. Not much to say about either, except that they were delightful. The Alteration takes place in alternative history 1970s England, where, I guess, the Protestant Reformation never took place? It’s clever about revealing the alternative historical details–we get a lot of the background from a group of boys discussing Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, which in this universe is an alternative history novel exploring, among other things, what would have happened if Catherine of Aragon hadn’t borne an heir by Arthur Tudor and had married Henry VIII after his death (crazy, right?). The actual plot revolves around a gifted boy soprano trying to avoid castration, so…yeah. Delightful.

I liked Put Out More Flags a lot, but I also recognize that a lot of the more stairical Waugh novels provide a pretty emotionally detached reading experience. Somehow, I think the best point of comparison is the Rich Dicks sketches from Kroll Show? Like, I don’t care what happens to the characters–I want to find out, because it’s probably going to be funny, but I’m not invested in the outcome itself. It doesn’t make a difference to me if [insert character name here] dies or finds love or gets rich, and it totally would in another book–even a “trashier” book, like, say, Me Before You. For a romance novel to be successful, it should make you need to see the characters get together. A successful detective novel should make you need to see the killer caught and his motives revealed. But something like this can, I guess, succeed without filling the reader with that need.

(Also Basil Seal–way better potential Jack Whitehall role than Paul Pennyfeather.)

Selected quotes:

The Flame Alphabet, Ben Marcus:

She spoke to us and to others, into the phone, out the window, into a bag. It didn’t matter. Nice things, mean things, dumb things, just a teenager’s chatter, like a tour guide to nothing, stalking us from room to room. Blame and self-congratulation and a constant narration of this, that, and the other thing, in low-functioning if common rhetorical modes, in occasions of speech designed not particularly to communicate but to alter the domestic acoustics, because she seemed to go dull if she wasn’t speaking or reading or serving somehow as a great filter of words.

Put Out More Flags, Evelyn Waugh

For years now, whenever things were very bad with Basil, he had begun writing a book. It was as near surrender as he ever came and the fact that these books—two novels, a book of travel, a biography, a work of contemporary history—never got beyond the first ten thousand words was testimony to the resilience of his character.

Ambrose had always rather specialized in manifestoes. He had written one at school; he had written a dozen at the University; once, in the late twenties, he and his friends Hat and Malpractice had even issued the invitation to a party in the form of a manifesto. It was one of his many reasons for shunning Communism—that its manifesto had been written for it, once and for all, by somebody else.

1. That would be an interesting application of stylometry, if I were at all willing to do any coding projects outside of work–to see if and how much one’s authorial voice changes in response to the unconscious influence of whatever one is currently reading. ^
2. The epitome of that, from elementary school: The Chimes of Alyafaleyn, a book which I every so often have to remind myself actually exists and wasn’t just some strange fever dream. ^


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