The Sellout (2016) by Paul Beatty

sellout

That’s the problem with history. We like to think it’s a book, that we can turn the page and move the fuck on. But history isn’t the paper it’s printed on. It’s memory, and memory is time, emotions, and song. History is the things that stay with you.”

I still haven’t found that copy of Dr Zhivago I bought in January and promptly mislaid. Its absence throws all my immediate reading plans into question, not that I’m ever very good at sticking to those plans, but still, it’s the principal of the thing. In the end I gave up the search for the missing book and reluctantly added it to my Amazon wishlist ready for my birthday. You never know, I thought, I might get lucky. In the meantime I decided to focus on some of the books I received for Christmas but haven’t yet got round to reading, beginning with Paul Beatty’s Booker Prize winner The Sellout.

I heard so much about this book in the wake of the prize nomination last year that I felt like I knew the story fairly intimately already. For those not in the know, the novel’s narrator, known affectionately as Bonbon, embarks on a campaign to quietly re-impose segregation on his home town of Dickens. His actions are partly a protest against the swallowing up of his community by the anonymous Los Angeles suburban sprawl but he’s also fuelled by a belief that there might be some tangible benefits to his campaign; when his friends and neighbours are confronted by a ‘Whites Only’ sign on a bus, for example, they’ll be reminded of how much has already been achieved and how much they still have to fight for. It’s not a genuine crusade against the achievements of the Civil Rights movement, more an opportunistic attempt to inspire and unite a lost community.

The Sellout is bitterly, darkly funny and made me laugh out loud quite suddenly and unattractively on several occasions. For the first two thirds of the novel I was enjoying it so much it was all I could do to refrain from reading whole paragraphs aloud to those around me, knowing as I do how annoying I find it when others do the same thing. The combination of Beatty’s shrewdness, his almost confrontational tone and the subject matter make this an uncomfortably entertaining read but it’s so highly entertaining that I can recommend it on this basis alone. My only real problem with The Sellout is with the final few chapters; after promising so much it just fizzles out without really acknowledging the consequences of all that has gone before. It’s almost as if such a perfectly set up plot can’t sustain the cleverness for long and collapses under its own weight. I don’t really know what I was hoping for.

Only a short review this week – that doesn’t do this book justice at all – as I’m a little behind with posts at the moment. I’ve nearly finished Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent and I have a ton of pictures to post from my latest literary travels, which reminds me that I still haven’t posted pictures from our pilgrimage to another author grave way back in December. So many good intentions, so little time…

Advertisements

Midnight’s Children (1981) by Salman Rushdie

midnightschildren1

Knees and nose, nose and knees.

Apparently I first attempted to read this book at the height of my BBC Big Read glory days, sometime c. 2006. I really have no memory of it but know it must have happened because ten pages in I found the address of a house I shared with some friends that year scribbled on a post it note, along with the monthly rent, number of bedrooms and phone number of the letting agent. Clearly I didn’t finish the book then, although I can’t remember why I gave up on it, but having had it languishing on my shelf ever since, judging me, it seemed about time to pick it up again and have another go.

Midnight’s Children is actually a monumentally difficult book to write about and, at times, not an easy one to read either. Rushdie weaves together layers of fact, myth, rumour and prophecy so that you often can’t really tell what you’re reading. It’s beautifully done but it does make writing a succinct plot description quite tricky, partly because, if I’m brutally honest, I’m still not quite sure what exactly happens in this book. I can tell you that Saleem Sinai, our narrator, is the original midnight’s child, born on the stroke of the hour at the very moment India leaves its colonial past behind and emerges as a newly independent state. Saleem’s life story is knitted together with that of India so it becomes part family saga, part historical epic and part magical fantasy. Rushdie presents the reader with real events like presidential coups, the war with Pakistan and Bangladesh’s violent struggle for independence but he also throws in a snake-man, children born with remarkable powers, a spinster aunt who infuses dishes with her own bitterness and a small boy with the most powerful nose in all of history.

As a narrator Saleem is absolutely infuriating at times. He drops massive hints, strays off topic, abandons stories unfinished and occasionally just invents stuff. He admits to a certain amount of fabrication, acknowledging that sometimes his dates don’t add up and that, to outsiders, some of his bigger claims must sound of preposterous. It’s his faults that make him such a compelling narrator and his sense of his own centrality to the history of a nation, his belief that his actions dictate the future of India, make his story a consuming one even if you can’t ever work out how much of it has been invented, misremembered or embellished. Through him you get a strange sense of how overwhelming the past can be.

I confess to finding Midnight’s Children heavy going at times. While it’s sparklingly, beautifully written – I mean seriously, I’m in awe – it’s the kind of book that will tie you in knots if you’re not careful. I found that my own poor knowledge of Indian history let me down on many occasions and I had frequent cause to look up things I didn’t understand (some of my recent google searches: ‘Dacca’, ‘Sanjay Ghandi, ‘shikara’ ). I don’t mind doing that – I tend to do it with lots of books because I don’t like not knowing – but I seemed to be doing it more often than usual here. However, even if I’d had some expertise I think I’d have still found plenty to confuse me. Thankfully I managed to just about hold it all together so that I was never so baffled that I lost myself completely or was tempted to give up. As long as I paid vigorous attention, and had Dr Google to hand, I was never confused beyond endurance. Now that it’s over and my poor brain can relax a little I’m convinced that Midnight’s Children was worth the effort. I didn’t always enjoy it at the time but I can now only wonder at Rushdie’s attention to detail, his skill at layering story upon story and his ability to bring characters, countries and a whole nation’s history to life. It’s quite a feat really.

I had planned to read Dr Zhivago next but I’ve somehow managed to lose the copy I bought at the start of the year. How annoying… Now that I think about it, it’s probably for the best because I think I deserve, and would appreciate, something slightly easier for my next read.

Bookish news #1

VINTAGE TYPEWRITER.jpg

I’m quite conscious that over the past few months I’ve primarily been writing hasty review posts (with the occasional Top Ten Tuesday) and that the gaps between them have been getting longer and longer. This blog started out as a place for me to just chat about books and what interested me generally but as time has gone on I’ve found it easier to just run off a half-baked review post every now and again than I have to put time and effort into writing something decent. Time has been rushing away from me and I’m starting to wonder whether the blue bore has really been getting the attention from me that it deserves. In an effort to address the imbalance I’m thinking about occasionally writing a quick update post like this one every now and again to make myself feel better about neglecting the blog for weeks at a time and really just to inject some much needed life back into the blue bore.

Here’s my first attempt:

1. I’m still plugging away at Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children and have been for a few weeks now. I think I’m enjoying it. I seem to spend a lot of time scratching my head and feeling confused but that’s normal I think…isn’t it?

2. I bought a second hand copy of Dr Zhivago with the sneaky intention of using it for both Around The World in 80 Books and for Fiction Fan’s Russian Revolution Challenge. Now I look at it closely it doesn’t seem to be as long as I expected so I’m wondering whether I’ve unwittingly bought an abridged version. It’d be nicer to read the whole thing.

3. My Amazon wishlist expanded to six times its original size when the finalists for the Man Booker International Prize were released last month. I was really pleased to see an Ismail Kadare book on the list as I’ve been going on and on about reading another of his books for a while now but haven’t actually done anything about it. It’s my birthday in June so fingers crossed.

4. Being generally interested in anything at all to do with Sylvia Plath I was intrigued by the news that several letters she wrote to her therapist in the years leading up to her death had been put up for auction this week. The letters apparently make for grim reading but I was fascinated by this particular article on their potential influence on how we understand Plath’s life. It’s worth a read.

5. And lastly, after enjoying Vile Bodies  so much back in January I had to record the BBC’s new adaptation of Decline and Fall. I haven’t had chance to watch it yet and I’ve not seen any reviews anywhere. Has it been any good?; that’s what I would like to know. Opinions appreciated.

I think that should be enough to bring us up to speed for now and hopefully it won’t be such a long time until I have something more substantial to post. I still haven’t reviewed Monsignor Quixote which I read weeks ago so I’ll aim to get that up here soon.

 

His Bloody Project (2016) by Graeme Macrae Burnet

bloodyproject

I’ve probably mentioned a hundred times before that I’m a sucker for an unusual narrative style and particularly for stories told in letter or diary format. This book caught my eye last year, before it was nominated for the Man Booker Prize, because of its subtitle: “Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae.” Hang on a second there, sunshine. Documents? Just my cup of tea. After that I fully intended to pick this up at the next opportunity but, as so often happens, promptly forgot about it as soon as something else came along. That’s just typical really. I spotted it again during some impromptu bookshop browsing a few weekends ago and then managed to read the whole thing before the weekend was over. That should tell you how daft I was to delay reading it for so long.

“One man can no more see into the mind of another than he can see inside a stone…”

In the preface to his novel Burnet describes this as a true story uncovered while he was researching his own family history in a Scottish archive. I don’t believe that’s actually true but it’s a clever layer to the fiction and adds a certain gravity to the tale he goes on to tell. The story he’s uncovered is that of seventeen year old Roddy Macrae who, we’re told, was charged with a horrific triple murder in a remote Highland crofting community in 1869. In this novel Burnet brings together all the original evidence relating to the trial that followed: the witness statements, post mortems, expert opinions, court transcripts and, most remarkably, Roddy’s own lengthy account of the events leading up to the crime. Roddy’s defence claims that he was suffering from a sort of temporary insanity at the time of the murders but would an insane man know he was insane? And if so, can you really trust anything he tells you?

This isn’t a straight forward crime/detective genre novel. Instead, as Burnet applies layer upon layer of information he leaves the reader to decide how far the evidence can be trusted and whether Roddy was really in his right mind at the time of the murders. I think the ‘documents’ format works really well in this respect as it means the reader can see the same man, and the same crime, from several different angles, each one with its own agendas and prejudices. Burnet’s restraint in handling all these different layers is evident here and it never feels disjointed or jarring. With hindsight I’m not sure that Roddy’s own account of the crime feels quite as historically authentic as some of the other reports but in some ways this works in the novel’s favour. It certainly creates a really atmospheric picture of this tiny, isolated community with its ancient customs, language, feuds and tensions.

It took me a while to realise that Burnet was deliberately leaving the ‘facts’ of the case open to interpretation by providing conflicting opinions and omitting certain details from Roddy’s memoir. One key piece of information mentioned briefly in a post-mortem report had me scratching my head for ages as it didn’t tally with Roddy’s own account, which I wanted to be truthful. It was at his point that I realised that there was clearly more to this tale than initially meets the eye and I spent much of my time from hereon waiting for a twist, a big reveal, that would suddenly make everything fall into place. However, I think by refusing to hold your hand or provide all the answers Burnet makes this a much more gripping, though unnerving, read. It’s the kind of book that will either leave you disappointed by the lack of answers or raking over the details in your head for days following. My response was much more like the latter.

Shylock is my Name (2016) by Howard Jacobson

shylockismyname

There has been frustratingly little reading time this last week or two and I’m trying very hard not to feel a bit down about it. It’d be horrible if reading were to become some sort of competition where I have to read so many books in a year or I’ll feel like a failure…. But at the moment it seems to be taking me a long, long time to finish any books at all. It’s disappointing. I miss reading. It makes my day (and me) a little bit nicer.

“That’s how vilification works. The victim ingests the views of his tormentor. If that’s how I look, that’s what I must be.”

This book was a birthday present from P earlier in the year on the back of a documentary we saw with Jacobson and Alan Yentob in Venice in which they talked about our responses to Shylock. I came away with the impression that this was a sort of retelling of The Merchant of Venice but that’s not quite right; it’s more of a re-plotted, re-imagined tale in which Shylock – not a version of Shylock but the actual Shylock fresh from Venice – strikes up a strange friendship with modern day art dealer Simon Strulovitch in a Manchester cemetery. The two have a lot to talk about and when Strulovitch’s precocious daughter Beatrice becomes entangled with a Nazi saluting footballer, Shylock suggests that Strulovitch exact his ‘pound of flesh’ from the man who has wronged him in a way that will sound eerily familiar.

The conversations between Strulovitch and Shylock form the backbone of this novel. They discuss errant daughters, fatherhood, what it means to be Jewish and how Jews and non-Jews regard each other in the modern world. Their discussions are interesting, funny and challenging enough that they aren’t as tortuous as they would be in the hands of a less clever author. In fact, they’re the perfect mouthpiece for Jacobson to explore Shylock’s place in our world and you get a strange sense that he’s really enjoying doing this. The rest of the novel feels kind of flimsy in comparison and I wondered whether Portia (or Plurabelle as she is here) deserves a bit better than Jacobson is willing to give her; she’s no longer the spirited young woman capable of annihilating Shylock in court but the vapid star of a reality TV show. It doesn’t seem quite fair. Shylock on the other hand is just as disconcerting here as he is in the play; he’s vociferous both in defending his own actions four hundred years previously and in urging Strulovitch towards revenge.

It helps if you have at least a passing familiarity with The Merchant of Venice beforehand. I haven’t read the play but I’ve seen it performed on stage and on film so I was fairly confident that I’d get to grips with this in no time. Within a few chapters, however, I was flicking through The Complete Works of Shakespeare trying to remind myself what the hell the monkey had to do with anything (and then kicking myself for having forgotten that the monkey is the final twist of the knife in Jessica’s attempt to hurt her father; it’s kind of a big deal). I think I kept up with this novel but maybe I’d have appreciated some of the nuances a bit more if I’d had a deeper knowledge of the play. It’s something I’ll have to bear in mind for a future reread. Even armed with a bit of knowledge, I imagine this isn’t always easy going, partly because the conversations between the two main characters require some concentration but also because, while there’s a certain amount of dark humour here, there’s also some bewildering anti-Semitism on the part of some of the other characters. Much like The Merchant of Venice, this isn’t a comfortable experience and although it doesn’t have the same power to devastate I admire the way it’s told.

The Quickening Maze (2009) by Adam Foulds

quickeningmaze

The blue bore was one year old yesterday, as I was helpfully informed by WordPress at six o’clock in the morning. Hurrah! I didn’t really imagine, when I wrote my first post in March 2015, that this blog would still be going twelve months later – it says a lot about my own need to rabbit on about books and about the general loveliness of the online community that we’re still here! Thanks readers. It’s been brill. In honour of the bloggiversary here’s a post about Adam Fould’s novel, The Quickening Maze….

My interest in this book was sparked when I heard that it features everyone’s favourite Northamptonshire peasant poet, John Clare. Clare’s home village isn’t far from here so his poetry was rammed down the throats of all the children at my school from quite a young age. As a result he’s always held his own uniquely special place in my heart. I once, on a work visit, had the chance to hold some original drafts of his poems, written in his own hand, and it was one of the nicest moments in my working life. I felt uncharacteristically giddy at the experience. So, naturally, when I heard about this novel I was all over it like a shark with knees.

By 1837, when this book begins, the fad for rustic poetry that briefly thrust Clare into the limelight had already passed. Unable to sell his poems or readjust to a life back on the land he suffered a mental breakdown that saw him locked up in asylums on and off for over thirty years. The Quickening Maze is set during one of his early incarcerations at an institution in Epping forest run by the reformist Dr Matthew Allen.Allen has an impressive reputation and a seemingly happy family life but when Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s brother arrives at the asylum, Dr Allen sees an opportunity that threatens to unravel everything he’s built up so far. The story is told in a series of short vignettes from the point of view of Clare, Tennyson and Allen. They’re joined by Allen’s lovesick daughter Hannah and another inmate, Margaret, who has retreated into a religious mania to escape the horrors of her abusive marriage.

As you can probably tell from this description, John Clare is actually just one figure in a wider troupe of characters but I can quite understand why all the lore around this novel casts him in the central role. Fould’s Clare is a humble but gifted man who’s slowly losing his grip on who he really is. At various times he believes he’s a prize winning boxer named Jack Randall; on another occasion he redrafts some of Byron’s poems in the firm belief that he is Byron. He dwells obsessively on the life that’s been taken from him: the childhood sweetheart he lost, his wife and children at home, the gracious attention of his rich patrons, his raucous months in London at the height of his fame. These parts of the narrative can be rambling, even erratic at times, but they’re very touching and I think they perfectly convey the rush of thoughts in his head as he rages against all attempts to hem him in.

“He was a village boy and he knew certain things, He thought that the edge of the world was a day’s walk away, there where the cloud-breeding sky touched the earth at the horizon. He thought that when he got there he would find a deep pit and he would be able to look down into it and the world’s secrets.”

The prose is beautifully lyrical but absolutely precise, much like Clare’s poems in fact. Foulds is quite economic with his words – there are no long descriptions and no complex scene setting – but every word is chosen carefully. It feels more intricate, more lavish even, than it probably really is and it’s most noticeable in those chapters devoted to Clare’s narrative.

Sadly, however, Clare was really the only character I connected with and I wonder now whether this had little to do with the writing and everything to do with my existing interest in him. I’m not sure. While I loved his parts of the narrative I thought maybe there was just too much going on overall: too many central characters, too many voices, too many plot strands that didn’t really connect. It meant I could only muster up a vague interest in Allen’s scheme and I found myself a little unconvinced by both Hannah and Tennyson. I still don’t really know what the point of Margaret was. I don’t mind shifting narratives usually but this felt just too unfocussed, too busy, for me. Clare’s narrative was really the best thing in it and the other composite parts never really managed to carry the same sort of weight.

The Booker Prize shortlisters seem to have enjoyed this book far more than I did and all the reviews I’ve since read have been very positive. For not the first time recently I’m left wondering if maybe I am the only person who didn’t enjoy an acclaimed novel. Is there something wrong with me? Or (most likely) am I just in a bit of a reading slump at the moment? Hmmmm. I blame War and Peace.