first quarter reading list 2013

sex drugs & madness

Narcopolis, Jeet Thayil

Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis: not my book of the quarter

January

Albert Camus, Exile and the Kingdom
William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury
William Burroughs, Naked Lunch
Jeet Thayil, Narcopolis

February 

David Sandison & Graham Vickers, Neal Cassady: Fast Life of a Beat Hero
Antonio Melechi, Fugitive Minds
Hermann Hesse, The Prodigy

March

D. H. Lawrence, Sons & Lovers
Tom Robbins, Skinny Legs and All

Sex, drugs, and madness was how I began the year. Literary wise, if not otherwise, but probably a little otherwise too. But in reality, it probably was more literary than any of the other three (or the other three combined).

Albert Camus’ collection of six stories, Exile and the Kingdom, packed a punch, which is what I hope from a short story; and they surprised me by feeling considerably different than any of the three novels I’ve read (The Stranger, A Happy Death, The Plague). At once starker, more direct, and more light-hearted. Flicking back through I wanted to pick one out as having made the biggest impression but found I could not. The six stories are really too different for that kind of comparison, and it’s impressive to find such a variety of style and contrast. ‘The Adulterous Woman’, I remember, struck me with it’s beauty and the quietness of the drama that unfolds in it. ‘The Renegade’, on the other hand is not subtle: the back cover describes it as ‘the great French novelist at his most intense,’ and it is pretty ugly, disturbing stuff. ‘The Silent Men’ and ‘The Guest’ both had socio-political overtones, well done. ‘The Artist at Work’ I suppose impressed me least, perhaps because it felt the most typically like a short story, which means I felt that the device it turned on felt contrived, or if not ‘contrived’, then not subtle and mysterious enough. I feel the short story should speak in subterranean language; the punch should be internal. I blame Ernest Hemingway who impressed us all with the cleverness of his six-word story. In general, cleverness in fiction feels, too me at least, a little obnoxious. Finally, ‘The Growing Stone’, with atmosphere and a surreal quality that placed me in the jungle. I had to read it several times to understand it, I’m still not sure that I do, but in a good way. Like the others, it moved something inside.

I’m going to have to expand on this, the subject of understanding, in fiction and otherwise, at another time, because I’d quite like to get my thoughts about it in order.

Briefly through the next three: The Sound and the Fury by William Faulker I enjoyed a lot, lot more than I had anticipated. I’m not sure the back cover, describing it as ‘a novel about lovelessness’, sold it right to me. That’s not what I got from it at all. I enjoyed the language and the unfolding immensely. The first chapter is dense and hard, but I enjoyed perhaps most of all the anticipation of understanding, which I (correctly) felt sure would come later. Good lord I can’t talk about William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. I’ll have to read it at least another two times to understand what the hell was going on. Visceral sex scenes and insanity, garbled quality, confusion, are what sticks in my mind now. Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil was the new book I bought this quarter, and highly anticipated since the reviews I had read were so very very glowing. But I was disappointed. ‘A rich, hallucinatory dream of a novel’ is what it is described as, and ‘immersive’, but I did not find it to be enough so of any of those things. Moments of exquisite beauty, particularly in the contemplation of death, but the narrator felt out of place, an accessory, superfluous, and drove me out of place the novel sought to evoke. I wanted more colour, more poetry, more tangles and weaves. It felt relatively mundane, ordinary, compared to what I wanted, so perhaps that’s the trouble with such high hopes and good reviews – but I’m not sure I’d have enjoyed more even without. I’ll never know, but will let you know if I change my mind on the second reading, whenever that might be.

I took a moment’s break from the drugs, sex, and madness, to read about a hero of mine, Neal Cassady. I wrote about it previously so I’ll not revisit, but I’ll direct you to a photographer named Mike Brodie  who captures train-hopping youths with a Polaroid, because those photographs, the idea of it, encompasses a lot of what I feel toward Cassady. Even his name, dammit, is heroic, a cowboy name.

I returned to the theme of madness to a favourite non-fiction work of mine, which I revisit every so often: Fugitive Minds by Antonio Melechi, which explores various ‘twilight afflictions’. This book is particularly prized because I found it one night walking home on a (first) date with a boy in Wales. We came across an enormous pile of books in someone’s front garden, and it was beginning to rain. I made him wait while I dug through them, and this was one of the books I retrieved from ruin, along with one about the American West and another about Wittgenstein (neither of which I’ve read yet). I often regret not making him wait/abandoning him to search longer, but hell he was really very cute. And I just really like this book. Morbidly or not, I find madness utterly fascinating, and Melechi draws on literature (like Mr. Burroughs but others less obvious too) as well as William James, Sigmund Freud, and many others. I guess what I like about it is that it occupies that space in literature/academics, where many fields meet, an academic similar to what I felt I encountered with Arthur Koestler, whose ideas in The Sleepwalkers and The Ghost in the Machine I found, I don’t know, a little suspect (due to my lack of thorough knowledge of the fields they expound), but nevertheless exciting and challenging, resonant with my thought.

And so the final three.

Hermann Hesse’s The Prodigy, I’ve already discussed so I’ll not linger on it. The book itself is not exactly a bad thing; I think more than anything I have expired what Hesse has to offer me and I’m tired of his formula (and his novels are very formulaic. Ordinarily this is okay, because of the variety of approaches to the same subject which is a thing in itself; the variety of sameness the real value, but this novel I found substandard and therefore grew impatient). Mostly I didn’t get on with The Prodigy because Hesse’s pitiful treatment of female characters became suddenly all that I could think about and see in it.

But swiftly on from a writer who can’t write women, to a writer who is probably best known for his extraordinary talent for writing about women and sex, which is exactly what I did – move swiftly on I mean. Of course I’m talking about D. H. Lawrence, who awed me with Lady Chatterley’s Lover. And even though I was disappointed by Women in Love, I turned straight from The Prodigy to Sons and Lovers, curious as to which of those two novels it would resemble more, and sure that at the very least I would see some believable characters.

I thought after the first few chapters that it probably would be the most impressive book I was going to read this quarter, and in a way it was. I wanted to see believable characters, and what I got were complex, subtle relationships, and intensely credible, flawed characters. I was utterly struck with admiration. Did I say admiration? I mean huge, abominable envy. D. H. wrote Sons and Lovers in his ‘mid-twenties’ apparently, so I guess around the age I am. But oh I could bloody wish to be so fucking good.

HOWEVER. Though the brilliance of his characters sweeps the book through its first third, thereafter it begins to drop off, and when it ends, you feel the climax was probably reached quite some time ago, everything since then, just fading. And so I was impressed, but also disappointed, and it was not my favourite book of the quarter.

Tom Robbins’ Skinny Legs and All was. It is full of rough, rugged humour. Characters nearly (I say with some cowardice; nearly) worthy of D. H. (but who probably take themselves less seriously) whose development throughout the novel is utterly compelling. Robbins, it seemed to me, got men and women, and the relationship between the sexes, completely right, but rather than being laced with tragedy (as in, D. H.) it’s laced with humour, light heartedness; you laugh at the silliness of the two sexes (ahem. Interlude. Being from Brighton I say ‘two sexes’ vaguely and for convenience only.) and the gulf between them.
It’s a weird novel; weird enough that I was even almost put off by the first page, worrying that it was going to be a novel ‘like that’. Pretentious, difficult, I mean. But what’s even better is the way everything begins to make sense as you carry on reading, and that’s a thoroughly enjoyable sensation in a novel.

For instance, in the first chapter or so, the narrative talks about a ‘turkey’. We’ve no idea what the hell is meant by this turkey until a couple of chapters later, and then it’s lovely and wonderful. The novel also features the characters Spoon, Can o’ Beans, Dirty Sock, Conch Shell, and Painted Stick. And they are those things; objects that is. The novel includes the sentence, ‘Welcome to the modern world, Painted Stick.’, which I was sure was the best line I’d read in ages.

The basic premise is that a newly-wed couple set off for New York for the bride, and protagonist of the novel, Ellen Cherry, to pursue her art career. She finds herself working in a restaurant positioned opposite from the United Nations building, the restaurant being owned by an Arab and a Jew. Underlying this is a religious theme, particularly pertaining to Revelation, but also of the nature of religions, on differences and similarities, holiness and dogma, and brilliantly, sexuality. Skinny Legs and All is the most entertaining book I have read in a long while, though it’s not perfect. I would have liked to see a slightly longer ending. As it was, it felt somewhat hasty, not all the ends you’d have liked to seen tied got to be so; not every character got the ending I felt they deserved. This is one novel I could definitely see to be longer, though it’s understandable why it isn’t.

Certainly it’s by no means a perfect novel. But of all the books I’ve read this quarter it was easily the most entertaining, the one I got the most unqualified pleasure from. As a pretty academic reader, and a writer, that can be rare. I read books intensely, and picking them as I go, whether because I want to learn a technique, what the author’s doing to make it successful, or because I’m trying to learn from it in a didactic sense, or because I enjoy pulling apart a flawed novel. I read Skinny Legs and All in a state of joy, and that’s to my mind more than enough to make it Gulls of Brighton’s Book of the Quarter. Gobboq.

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