Sunday, 16 June 2013

The Pale King, By David Foster Wallace

The Pale King, By David Foster Wallace

(Hamish Hamilton, £20.00stg hardback)

As pretty much everyone who can be bothered even to start reading this review probably knows, David Foster Wallace died in September 2008, aged 46, by his own hand. Thus, The Pale King is a posthumous publication, and an unfinished work. As Wallace’s editor, Michael Pietsch, explains in his Editor’s Note, it was assembled from ‘…a neat stack of manuscript, twelve chapters totaling nearly 250 pages’, found on Wallace’s desk by his widow Karen Green and his agent Bonnie Nadell, two months after his death, plus ‘hundreds and hundreds of pages of his novel in progress’, discovered on further exploration of his office, on or in ‘Hard drives, file folders, three-ring binders, spiral-bound notebooks, and floppy disks’ which ‘contained printed chapters, sheaves of handwritten pages, notes and more.’ In the absence of a detailed outline projecting scenes and stories yet to be written, it is impossible to know just how unfinished what we now have is, or how much more there might have been. Never has Roland Barthes’ concept of ‘The Death of the Author’ displacing authorial intentionality been more ably demonstrated, in the most literal of ways. 
   Publication in this format does give rise to a certain ethical queasiness. The sound of barrels being scraped has been loud since DFW’s demise, with 2009 seeing the publication of his 2005 Commencement Address to students at Kenyon College as This Is Water (one sentence per page, 137 pages, £10.99stg h/b thank you very much), followed last year by his undergraduate philosophy thesis ‘Richard Taylor’s ‘Fatalism’ and the Semantics of Physical Modality’ as Fate, Time, and Language: An Essay on Free Will. The pop cultural analogy (and Wallace was thoroughly immersed in pop culture) would be with the estate of Jimi Hendrix, whose early death at 27, intestate, paved the way for many years of substandard recordings, both live concerts and studio jams/album outtakes, often containing overdubs by the presiding new producer, being issued, until his family finally arrested this situation in the 1990s by taking much tighter control of how the guitarist’s remaining recordings were administered and presented. Well, if there’s an audience… More worrying is that Wallace was, as Pietsch acknowledges, ‘a perfectionist of the highest order’, and would probably have been excruciatingly embarrassed at something ‘not refined to his exacting standard’ hitting the shelves. Pietsch justifies the publication however, arguing, ‘Given the choice between working to make this less-than-final text available as a book and placing it in a library where only scholars would read and comment on it, I didn’t have a second’s hesitation’, adding, ‘David, alas, isn’t here to stop us from reading, or to forgive us for wanting to.’
  Yet the irony is that, while the proper comparison should probably be with his previous novel Infinite Jest rather than, say, the short story collection Brief Interviews With Hideous Men, DFW’s short fiction can often be fragmented and impressionistic, and all of his work has a certain improvisatory, trial piece feel. You are at least a third of the way into the ‘finished’ Infinite Jest before starting to make the connections which hang disparate elements together. (‘A book is never finished. It is only abandoned.’ – Balzac. To which can be added: sometimes in the most irrevocable of ways.)
  So, what’s The Pale King about? To telescope drastically, its professed theme is boredom, allied to the notion that mortal tedium can be overcome by developing our quality of attention. Learn how to concentrate, even on dull stuff, and bliss will be achieved. As Josef Brodsky wrote in his essay ‘Less Than One’: ‘Boredom, after all, is the most frequent feature of existence, and one wonders why it fared so poorly in the nineteenth century prose that strives so much for realism.’ Or, closer to Wallace’s home, one is also reminded of John Berryman’s Dreamsong #14: ‘Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so./After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,/we ourselves flash and yearn,/and moreover my mother told me as a boy/(repeatingly) ‘Ever to confess you’re bored/means you have no/Inner Resources.’’ It turns out that the punk rockers of the late ’70s were wrong: boredom was not caused by dinosaur prog rockers, out of touch with the kids; rather, it is an ever-present feature of life.
  Wallace grounds his abstract speculations in a story about practitioners of the most boring profession (accountancy), who work for the most feared and loathed federal agency (no, not the Federal Bureau of Investigation, but the Internal Revenue Service), set in the Mid-West, during the Reagan era. There are sub-plots about the old guard in the IRS, who see tax payment and collection as civic virtue, versus the new guard, who want to run the service like any private business, maximizing profits; and also about the efficiency of computers versus employees in processing tax returns. It’s a bit like a reality TV show where no contestants get voted out, or an episode of The Office with fewer cringable laughs. But, as Pietsch opines in his Editor’s Note: ‘I had had the enormous honor of working with David as his editor on Infinite Jest, and had seen the worlds he’d conjured out of a tennis academy and a rehab center. If anyone could make taxes interesting, I figured, it was him.’ So, while such a truncated synopsis may make The Pale King seem like the flip side to Infinite Jest’s expansive exuberance, just because it’s about boredom doesn’t mean it’s boring. Because, perhaps rather than boredom, it would be more accurate to say that Wallace’s themes here are what Benjamin Franklin called the only certainties in life: death and taxes. Or, more humanly, how we move money around, supposedly to help each other. As unlikely hero Mr. DeWitt Glendenning Jr., the Director of the Midwest Regional Examination Center, puts it: ‘If you know the position a person takes on taxes, you can determine [his] whole philosophy. The tax code, once you get to know it, embodies all the essence of [human] life: greed, politics, power, goodness, charity.’ To which ‘David Wallace’/David Wallace respectfully adds one more quality: ‘boredom’.
  That ‘David Wallace’/David Wallace flourish is the result of a neat trick ‘Wallace’/Wallace performs in Chapter 9 here, titled Author’s Foreword, in which he introduces the character of David Wallace, who claims The Pale King ‘is basically a nonfiction memoir’, in a tongue-in-cheek effort to bolster its authenticity. It seems this Dave Wallace got thrown out of an Ivy League college for writing term papers for privileged but lazy fellow students, in order to finance his studies, and so wound up taking an entry level IRS job back in his home town of Peoria, Illinois, which provided him with his material. (Meanwhile, the ‘real’ David Wallace apparently took advanced tax accounting classes to further his research.) Thus, Wallace gets to both parody and satirise the popularity of the misery memoir genre, ‘popularity’ in this context ultimately being ‘…a synonym for profitability…in 2003, the average author’s advance for a memoir was almost 2.5 times that paid for a work of fiction.’ Those purveyors of ‘reality hunger’, loudly trumpeting the death of the novel, are simultaneously placated in their erroneous theories and exposed as deluded frauds.
  This author-as-character-in-his-own-fiction device affords Wallace (let’s drop that pesky ‘Wallace’) the opportunity to put the reader right regarding certain structural and stylistic quirks: ‘The idea…is that you will regard features like shifting p.o.v.s, structural fragmentation, willed incongruities, & c. as simply the modern literary analogs of ‘Once upon a time…’ or ‘Far, far away, there once dwelt…’ or any of the other traditional devices that signaled the reader that what was under way was fiction and should be processed accordingly.’ It also gives him the chance to lay bare his thematic concerns: ‘To me, at least in retrospect, the really interesting question is why dullness proves to be such a powerful impediment to attention. Why we recoil from the dull. Maybe it’s because dullness is intrinsically painful; maybe that’s where phrases like ‘deadly dull’ or ‘excruciatingly dull’ come from. But there might be more to it. Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that’s dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there, if only in an ambient low-level way, and which most of us spend nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from feeling, or at least from feeling directly or with our full attention. Admittedly, the whole thing’s pretty confusing, and hard to talk about abstractly…but surely something must lie behind not just Muzak in dull or tedious places anymore but now also actual TV in waiting rooms, supermarkets’ checkouts, airports’ gates, SUVs’ backseats. Walkmen, iPods, BlackBerries, cell phones that attach to your head. This terror of silence with nothing diverting to do. I can’t think anyone really believers that today’s so-called ‘information society’ is just about information. Everyone knows it’s about something else, way down.’
  While on the subject of attention and dullness, Wallace often expressed (in interviews) misgivings about how familiar interviewers and reviewers were with his work, or how closely they had read it. Considering The Pale King was strictly embargoed until its publication on April 15th (American tax returns deadline day, of course) – even if there was a much publicised leak on Amazon – the plethora of reviews which appeared so soon after I received my own review copy made me wonder how many people writing about the book had actually had time to read it.
  Regarding continuity, there are other recognizably Wallacian metaphysical/metaliterary conceits. His penchant for moral dilemmas concerning motivation (cf. ‘The Devil is a Busy Man’ sequence from Brief Interviews) is still very much in evidence. See the above reality/fiction caper; or Born Again Christians Lane Dean Jr. and his pregnant girlfriend Sheri agonising about abortion; or the character of Leonard Stecyk, whose childhood Niceness ‘was actually sadistic, pathological, selfish’. Similarly, stylistically Chapter 14 here reads like Brief Interviews With Disgruntled Tax Return Processors. 
   David Foster Wallace battled depression for most of his adult life, but he will be remembered as a/the writer of, if not quite a fellow of, infinite jest/Infinite Jest. Did writing The Pale King kill him? Or was it just plain old tedium vitae? It’s hard to separate the two, or to judge. But boring it definitely ain’t – unless it’s intentionally so.

First published in The Sunday Independent.

Both Flesh And Not, By David Foster Wallace

 Both Flesh And Not, By David Foster Wallace

(Hamish Hamilton, £20.00 stg, H/B)
Yet another book by David Foster Wallace is published posthumously, so it must suffer from the law of diminishing returns, mustn’t it? Not quite. Although not on a par with his previous collections of essays, 1997’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again and 2005’s Consider The Lobster, there are still enough gems to make it worth the price of admission.
  Let’s get the gripes out of the way first: the relatively large font size, plus the insertion before each piece of selections from DWF’s ‘vocabulary list’ (i.e. words he wanted to learn and took notes on) seem like padding. The word lists, in particular, come off as condescending to the reader. His audience isn’t stupid, and anyway most bookworms jot notes while reading, about previously unencountered words they need to look up. Also, a couple of the inclusions, informative though they are, are little more than end-of-year ‘Best Of’ magazine lists. ‘Twenty-Four Word Notes’, though entertaining, serves only to exemplify how quickly specific incidences of acceptable and unacceptable usage have moved on since some of the entries were written (DWF served on the Usage Panel of The American Heritage Dictionary).
  The collection is not a chronological continuation from where Consider The Lobster left off, and only three pieces are new since 2005: ‘Federer Both Flesh and Not’, which continues Foster’s fascination with tennis, previously seen in pieces about Michael Joyce and Tracy Austin; ‘Deciderization 2007 – A Special Report’, his introduction to the 2007 edition of Best American Essays, which he edited; and ‘Just Asking’, a short thought experiment about whether or not democracy is worth dying for.
  Of the remaining older material, it divides between stuff probably thought too arcane for inclusion in the previous volumes, and stuff thought too slight or just plain not good enough to be there. The former pieces are, obviously, more interesting and, thankfully, predominate.   
  ‘Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young’, which Foster never allowed to be republished in his lifetime, is a forerunner of ideas later developed at greater length and in greater depth in ‘E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction’, from Fun Thing, and is acknowledged as such by the publishers. ‘Borges on the Couch’ brilliantly takes issue with a biography of the great Argentinian writer which reduces the metaphysical universality of the fiction to banal Freudian interpretations of the writer’s private life. But the real find is ‘The Empty Plenum: David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress’, DWF’s discussion of a novel he calls ‘pretty much the high point of experimental fiction in this country’, and which clearly both appealed to and subsequently informed Foster’s own aesthetic.
  For those looking for warning signs of Foster’s eventual suicide, the final two, newer pieces in the book, ‘Deciderization’ and ‘Just Asking’, have an air of desperation about them, of a mind at the end of its tether. It’s known that Foster and his wife considered emigrating from the U.S. after the re-election of George Bush in 2004, and he uses as one of the informing principles for his selection of essays for 2007’s Best American his belief that ‘we are in a state of three-alarm emergency – “we” basically meaning America as a polity and culture.’ Not that he ever becomes simplistically polemical, mind. It just makes him read ‘Best’ as ‘valuable’ in the current situation.
  He is also great here in articulating his dislike for memoir, in a way I’ve often thought, but ne’er so well expressed: ‘With a few big exceptions, I don’t much care for abreactive or confessional memoirs. I’m not sure how to explain this. There is probably a sound, serious argument to be made about the popularity of confessional memoirs as a symptom of something especially sick and narcissistic/voyeuristic about U.S. culture right now. About certain deep connections between narcissism and voyeurism in the mediated psyche. But this isn’t it. I think the real reason is that I just don’t trust them. Memoirs/confessions, I mean. Not so much their factual truth as their agenda. The sense I get from a lot of contemporary memoirs is that they have an unconscious and unacknowledged project, which is to make the memoirists seem as endlessly fascinating and important to the reader as they are to themselves. I find most of them sad in a way that I don’t think their authors intend.’ This would make a nice companion piece to Irish writer Mike McCormack’s hilarious short story ‘The Last Thing We Need’, from his recent collection Forensic Songs, in which two Gardi discourse on the security threat posed by ‘the only man in this jurisdiction not to have written a childhood memoir’.
  ‘Just Asking’, meanwhile, asks some (im)pertinent and uncomfortable questions, around ‘why no serious public figure will now speak of the delusory trade-off of liberty for safety that Ben Franklin warned of more than 200 years ago?’
  What differentiated DFW from many of his po-mo, affectless contemporaries (I’m looking at you, Bret Easton Ellis, the twit who recently tweeted, in an egotistical hissy-fit of literary envy, about the post-suicide canonisation of ‘Saint David Foster Wallace’) is that in the vexed relationship between aesthetics and morality, he never bought the prevailing notion that all aesthetics could be reduced to ideology. Furthermore, he didn’t want art to merely mirror the times, but to offer some ethical corrective, or balm, without being preachy. We are still finding out how much he will be missed.

First published in The Sunday Independent.




1Q84 Books 1 & 2 / Book 3, By Haruki Murakami

1Q84 Books 1 & 2 / Book 3, By Haruki Murakami
(Harvill Secker, £20 / £14.99 stg hardback)
Task: review 63-year-old Japanese novelist’s new 1300 page three volume opus in 700 words, outlining the plot, introducing the main characters, and giving your considered appraisal, in the overall context of his oeuvre. Okay, here goes.
  At heart this picaresque novel has quite a simple narrative arc: boy and girl meet; they fall in love; they lose each other; they find each other again. However, this story line comes freighted with several extravagantly serpentine and surreally bizarre add-ons.
  Set in Tokyo over eight months in 1984, the first two books alternate between the perspectives of that now adult boy, Tengo, a portly maths tutor who secretly agrees to rewrite 17-year-old girl Fuka-Eri’s addictive but inelegantly written novella about a commune of leprechauns, which is then submitted for the prestigious Akutagawa Prize, wins it, and becomes a bestseller; and that now grown-up girl, Aomane, whose embarrassing running joke name literally translates as ‘Green Bean’, a female gym instructor who, with a touch of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, avenges victims of domestic violence. Angry at the suicide of a childhood friend who married a brute, she carries out assassinations on behalf of The Dowager, a widow in charge of a women’s refuge.
  Like much of Pynchon, nearly all Murakami's novels play with the device of a parallel universe into which characters can slip through cracks or portals, and here Aomane, stuck in a traffic jam while on her way to kill a wife-beating oil broker with an ice pick, abandons her taxi and descends an emergency staircase leading down from a city expressway to find things aren’t quite the same. Seeing a news report about the construction of a joint American-Soviet moon base, and then a second moon in the sky, she deduces that she has stumbled into a different dimension, which she christens 1Q84. The ‘Q’ may stand for ‘Question’, although the title is also a pun on Orwell’s own dystopia, playing on the identical pronunciation of the Japanese number ‘nine’ and the English letter ‘Q’.
  Meanwhile Fuka-Eri, it transpires, has fled a religious commune resembling the Aum Shinrikyo cult, which carried out the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995, and about which Murakami has written previously in 2000’s nonfiction Underground, arguing that the attack should not be dismissed as the madness of a tiny brainwashed minority, but rather symptomatic of the problems of mainstream Japanese society.
  The various plot strands being to interconnect because the leader of Fuka-Eri’s Sakigake cult is suspected of raping young girls, and when a distraught 10-year-old turns up at the women’s refuge, Aomane gets a new mission. Also, the success of Fuka-Eri’s novella makes it increasingly difficult for Tengo to keep his ghostwriting fraud a secret. Add to all this the fact that the work of the Little People is not confined to Fuka-Eri’s little book, but starts appearing in the world of 1Q84 as well. But the chief connecting thread is the love between the male and female leads. As 10-year-old classmates, they briefly held hands. Two decades later, Aomane tells a friend that she has never loved anyone expect this long lost boy. Her confidante responds: “If it were me, I’d do everything I could to locate him.” 
  Book Three was published a year after the previous instalments in Japan, and may feel like a bit of a letdown, depending as it does on synopsis and recapitulation. It shifts to a third point-of-view in the shape of Ushikawa, a repulsive private detective on the hunt for Aomame, whose pursuit of his prey can seem like an excuse to summarise what preceded it. It does, however, contain the tactful but moving finale, where Tengo and Aomane are reunited in a playground.
  If all of the above interests you, but you are wary of wading into a tome of such epic proportions (‘Who has time to read fiction of this length, given the busy modern lifestyles of this day and age?’ etc.), you might like to try ‘Town of Cats’, a stand-alone sampler which first appeared in The New Yorker as a discrete short story rather than an extract, but has now, with a few minor amendations, been fully incorporated into 1Q84.  Recounting a day when Tengo visits his dementia-suffering father, whom he hasn’t seen in years and whose paternity he ultimately doubts, it is as bleakly uncanny as anything in Kafka, but tells some very human truths. Of its nature, it is also shorter than the bracing journey of 1Q84.


First published in The Sunday Independent.

The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, Etc. By Jonathan Lethem

The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, Etc. By Jonathan Lethem

(Jonathan Cape, £20 stg, H/B)
Jonathan Lethem is a 48-year-old American novelist and short story writer, who began his career mixing the science fiction and detective genres, and has latterly achieved more mainstream success with novels such as Motherless Brooklyn (1999), The Fortress of Solitude (2003), You Don't Love Me Yet (2007) and Chronic City (2009). The Ecstasy of Influence is a collection of his essays, journalism and reviews. However, unlike many books of this kind, it is not just a ragbag thrown together when a writer’s cuttings drawer gets too full, but also sporadically follows the trajectory of an argument about contemporary life and culture, even if the main cohesive force or binding agent is the author’s sensibility itself.
  He sets out his stall in the Preface: ‘This preface, the title essay, and several of the newer ones (“Against ‘Pop’ Culture,” “White Elephant and Termite Postures,” ‘Advertisements for Norman Mailer,” “Postmodernism as Liberty Valance,” “My Disappointment Critic/On Bad Faith,” “Rushmore Versus Abundance,” and some of the interstitial remarks) makes a sporadic argument about the contemporary intellectual situation for fiction’s writers and readers, but with implications, I hope for other kinds of public thinking and talking. They’re more tendentious than the rest. If you’re in no mood to see me skirmish with injustices less ultimately urgent than hunger, disease, and discrimination you might just want to skip them. (Now he tells us.) There’s plenty else.’ Personally, I don’t find them tendentious at all, but rather the key to that ‘plenty else’. He’s also smart and humble enough to acknowledge that the fact of his being a published novelist means that what for most other people would wind up on blogs gets to reside between hard covers issued by a major corporate publisher.
  “Postmodernism as Liberty Valance” has the air of a manifesto. Essentially it argues that no one can define what postmodernism is because PoMo has lots of different, sometimes incompatible characteristics, and so is all things to all people. ‘You can’t, just for instance, exalt disreputable genres like the crime story and want to do away with narrative.’ (Er, sorry to nitpick Jonathan, but Paul Auster, a fellow Brooklynite conspicuous by his absence from these pages, does just that.)
  Lethem sketches out three main areas that have all been labelled  ‘postmodern’, but which he believes are entirely different things, requiring different names. The first is our sense ‘…that the world defined by the advent of global techno-capitalism’ is not ‘a coherent or congenial home for human psyches.’ He denominates this Kaczynski’s Bad Dream, after the Unabomber. The second substitute term he offers ‘is for the avowed, self-declared postmodernist school of U.S. fiction writers: Robert Coover, John Barth, Donald Barthelme…Pynchon.’ These guys he calls ‘Those Guys’. Lastly, we have ‘…the postmodernism consisting simply of what aesthetic means and opportunities modernism and an ascendant popular culture left in their wake (or not their wake, since both, or at least popular culture, are still around).’ Lethem calls this third principle, for the sake of his allegory, ‘Liberty Valance’, ingeniously imagining this much vilified artistic modus operandi as Lee Marvin's amoral, brutalising character in John Ford’s 1962 film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, who everyone thinks is shot by Jimmy Stewart (representing every orderly ‘realist’ writer from Raymond Carver to Jonathan Franzen), with the critic as John Wayne's hidden, real assassin.
  Yet, avers Lethem, ‘The persistence of the ritual disproves the ostensible result: Liberty Valance is shot, but never dies’, the reason being that ‘…postmodernism isn't the figure in the black hat standing out in the street squaring off against the earnest and law-abiding 'realist' novel.’ Rather, ‘Postmodernism is the street. Postmodernism is the town. It’s where we live, the result of the effects of Liberty Valance’s stubborn versatility and appeal, and the fact of Kaczynski’s Bad Dream.’ But never fear, because ‘…Liberty Valance and Kaczynski’s Bad Dream aren’t the same “postmodernism.” The freedom and persuasiveness of the full array of contemporary stances and practices available to the literary artist aren’t something to renounce even if the Full Now makes us anxious to the verge of nervous breakdown. At its best, one is a tool for surviving the other – the most advanced radiation suit yet devised for wandering into the toxic future.’ It’s an exemplary piece, a high-wire juggling act where all the balls are kept spinning perfectly.
  The title essay, which cocks a snook at Harold Bloom’s ‘The Anxiety of Influence’, argues for the virtues of plagiarism. I looked askance when I recognised that Lethem had ripped an anecdote almost verbatim from the late David Foster Wallace’s essay ‘E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction’, and was ready to adjudge it a step too far. But he had me fooled, as it turns out the entire piece is a patchwork of quotations, all of which are credited at the end. His practice demonstrates his theory, in a feat of imitative form. Odd, though, that he doesn’t mention Kathy Acker, who based her own writing on an extension of Burroughs’ cut-up method which she called plagiarism. (Incidentally, Lethem now does Wallace’s old job at Pomona College, California.)
  ‘My Disappointment Critic’ is a response critic James Wood’s unfavourable review of The Fortress of Solitude. While Lethem previously regarded Wood as ‘the most apparently gifted close reader of our time’, he now marks him as ‘an unpersuasive critic whose air of erudite amplitude veiled – barely – a punitive parochialism.’ His skewering of Wood’s strictures, viz: ‘We never see him (the book’s protagonist) thinking an abstract thought, or reading a book…or thinking about God and the meaning of life, or growing up in any of the conventional mental ways of the teenage Bildungsroman’, are brilliantly lacerating. On ‘God’, for example: ‘As for “thinking about God,” was there ever a more naked instance of a critic yearning for a book other than that on his desk? Can Wood’s own negative capability not reach the possibility that in some life dramas “God” never made it to the audition, let alone failed to get onstage? Pity me if you like, but I can’t remember even considering believing in either God or Santa Claus. The debunking was accomplished pre-emptively, preconsciously. Hence, not a subject in my Bildungsroman. Sorry!’
  Elsewhere, the ‘plenty else’ consists of autobiography and literary gossip – financial aid case Lethem, the son of bohemian hippy parents, was a contemporary of Bret Easton Ellis and Donna Tartt at posh Bennington College, and enjoyed tense, competitive friendships with both before falling out with them. His sense of ‘the blithe conversion of privilege into artistic fame’ alienated him, and he dropped out, hitchhiking across the U.S. to Berkeley, where he worked as a bookstore clerk for ten years, a voracious autodidact writing in his spare time. There are adulatory pieces on his formative influences, literary and non-literary: Marvel comic books, Philip K. Dick, Italo Calvino, J.G. Ballard; and less well-known novelists, mostly American, like Paula Fox, Thomas Berger, Shirley Jackson and L.J. Davis, plus the Chilean exile Robert Bolano. He also writes about music (there are profile/interviews of James Brown and Bob Dylan), sometimes irritatingly subjectively. The fact of his being a mid-’60s kid, reaching musical awareness in the ’80s, leads him to some of the more arcane corners of the Dylan and Stones back catalogues: Under The Red Sky or Emotional Rescue as underrated, anyone? However, my single favourite piece in the book is probably ‘The Fly in the Ointment’, a brilliant meditation on singing in the post-Elvis rock and soul era, where the vocal performance became more idiosyncratic, striving to unearth something the song itself never quite could, rather than obey the pre-rock Sinatra standard of how perfectly the lyric is served.
 Since his elevation, Lethem has become a kind of anti-Pynchon in terms of gregariousness vs. reclusiveness, hitting the conference and book tour circuit with gusto. In this regard he is emulating another of his unlikely enthusiasms, Norman Mailer. Indeed, Lethem tells us that he toyed with the idea of calling this collection Advertisements for Norman Mailer, in homage to the title of that Brooklynite forebear’s collected non-fiction, Advertisements For Myself. The self-aggrandising dangers of such excessive garrulousness are obvious. But the best critical pieces here are a valuable addition to, and elucidation of, his own enjoyable fiction.

First published in The Sunday Independent.


Walking On Dry Land, By Denis Kehoe

Walking On Dry Land, By Denis Kehoe
(Serpent’s Tail, £10.99stg original paperback)
Denis Kehoe scored a palpable hit with Nights Beneath the Nation, his debut novel of three years ago, which oscillated between twin, interconnected narratives set respectively in 1950s and contemporary Dublin. This, his sophomore effort, employs a similar structural device, alternating between Angolan capital Luanda (mostly) in 2006-7, and Lisbon and Luanda from 1965 to 1977.
  The near present-day portion concerns Ana de Castro, a 32-year-old woman raised in Lisbon by her father Jose and stepmother Helena, who has been living in Dublin since late adolescence. Aware from an early age that Helena was not her birth mother, she sets out on a pilgrimage to Luanda, via Lisbon, during the Christmas/New Year holiday season, to locate the woman her father had an affair with over thirty years previously. Armed only with a faded photograph of two women, a name, Solange, and a vague notion that this woman had been and possibly still is a nightclub singer, she stays with her elder half-brother Tiago and his family, while pursuing these clues through several contacts. Eventually, after an internet search and an e mail response from Solagne, mother and long-lost daughter meet up.
  The portion set in the past details Jose and Helena’s courtship and marriage in Lisbon, and their subsequent emigration from Salazar’s Portugal to then-Portuguese colony Angola. The ambivalence of both parties in the early stages of their relationship is subtly rendered: they weren’t exactly crazy about each other, but evidently got along well enough to think they could make a go of it. Of course, most of the atmospheric scenes from thirty or forty year ago can only be imaginative reconstruction or even pure conjecture on Ana’s part: Helena has died of breast cancer, and Jose, now elderly and retired in Lisbon, never gets to make a personal appearance. The accumulation of unanswered questions which persist past the terminal point of the narrative (for example, why would Helena consent to raise a child who was not her own, much less one who is the progeny of her philandering husband?) linger teasingly in the air, lending it a sense of unreality. True, real life doesn’t provide neat closure, but there are some obvious conversations Ana could have to help her on her quest and elucidate her understanding of her origins, which are never allowed to take place, maybe because they would tamper with the novel’s carefully manufactured mystery. 
 Perhaps inevitably, Ana’s discovery of the mother who had no hand in bringing her up, while it answers some questions, proves to be underwhelming. It dissolves in some banal and quotidian observations on romantic relationships between the two women, where they discuss the loss of self which accompanies the compromise necessary for all committed couplings.
  Ana is a PhD student in Film Studies in Dublin, and teaches film in UCD and NCAD, and this professional background sanctions much use of film references. Indeed, the novel is drenched in them. It gives nothing away to say that the last two sentences of the book are: ‘The image turns to a freeze-frame. Frame after frame after frame, as the strip of celluloid film slips out of the projector.’ However, Ana’s constant casting of herself and her parents as screen idols can grow a little forced, and further contributes to that overriding impression of unreality.  
  The tropes of Postcolonial Studies are also well ventilated here, with Jose, who works as a publishing editor, thinking: ‘It’s Africa, Angola, Luanda they’re putting into the Portuguese…these young writers, moulding, manipulating the mother tongue to their own devices. Colonising, civilizing, the shiver of a thrill of a Luandino sentence, Kimbundu words, phrases skittering across history and time, taking their place on the pages of a book in another language. Sometimes he remembers, and sometimes he forgets, those writers who have been sent off to the prison camp of Tarrafal in Cape Verde, because of their political affiliations.’; and Solange later opining: ‘ “…all whites believe they are superior in a way, whether it’s in France or Portugal or the States. They still have that attitude, you know, even after all this time, even after everything that’s happened…But the truth is they just can’t imagine that other people see the world differently, that Africans don’t see it the way they do. That our reality, our way of being in this world, is different.” ’
  But while there are many evocative descriptions of Luanda, and while there is much to admire here, overall the novel feels over-researched, or does not hide its research well enough. Thus, it lacks the stamp of experiential authenticity which informed Kehoe’s first novel. Hopefully he can recapture that more visceral spirit in the future, of which his undoubted talent is more than capable.

First published in The Sunday Independent.


The Map and the Territory, By Michel Houellebecq

The Map and the Territory, By Michel Houellebecq
(Vintage, £7.99 stg, P/B)

The latest novel from the author of controversial and prize-winning works Atomised and Platform is his most normal and conventional outing thus far. But this is Houellebecq, so it is still relatively challenging.
  Essentially it is the life-story of successful French artist Jed Martin, an only child and a solitary adult, whose social and sexual interactions are few and far between. He meets his retired architect father once a year for Christmas dinner (his mother committed suicide when he was a boy). For a time he has an affair with beautiful Russian √©migr√©, Olga. Otherwise his main distraction is the fluctuating state of the boiler in his bachelor pad/artist’s studio. He seems to stumble through life, having the great good fortune that his talent is recognised, and handsomely remunerated, without much obvious self-promotion. Indeed, his Kiplingesque indifference to ‘those two imposters’, and the feeling that his acclaim is as much the result of blind chance as it is of ability and application, is one of his more attractive features.
  He begins his artistic career photographing tools and household objects, but gains attention for his series of photographic recastings of Michelin maps. It is through these works that he meets Olga, who is Public Relations director of Michelin France. After they become lovers, they enjoy weekends away in provincial France, at ‘Charm & Relax’ hotels and Michelin starred restaurants. One could argue that in his caustic observations on the socio-economic demographics of the domestic leisure industry, Houellebecq here does for tourism in France what Platform did for holidays in Thailand. Jed’s mature work, carried out long after Olga has returned to promotion in Moscow, starts out as the Series of Simple Professions, and culminates in canvases with titles like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs Discussing the Future of Information Technology and Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons Dividing Up the Art Market. He photographs things; he paints people.
  The Michelin fixation has a clear antecedent in Roland Barthes’ essay ‘The Blue Guide’ from Mythologies; but it is another, more well-known Barthes work which really informs The Map and the Territory: ‘The Death of the Author’. Jed requests that none other than Michel Houellebecq, the notorious novelist, write the catalogue essay for a retrospective of his work. After meeting the author, he decides to do a portrait of Michel Houellebecq, Writer. So, Houellebecq becomes a character in his own novel, with all the opportunities for satire, self-parody and doubleness that entails. When the author gets bumped off in gruesome fashion, the book takes an unexpected left turn into a police procedural. It also brings the nod to Barthes full circle, and sets up a challenge from the creative to the critical, the literary to the theoretical. Barthes argued for the effacement of authorial biography and intention. Houellebecq’s voice, entangled as it is with his anti-celebrity, and the flatly opinionated tone of his writings, is so powerful that it speaks from beyond the grave.
  Some will say that this is Houellebecq’s least ambitious novel, even if it is the first one to win the prestigious Prix Goncourt in France. Atomised, after all, was dedicated ‘to mankind’.  But, aside from taking a few pot-shots at his detractors among France’s media figures, for the most part Houellebecq avoids the navel-gazing pitfalls inherent in the ‘novelist-as-character-in-his-own-novel’ ploy. Rather like the artist Jed Martin, the writer Michel Houellebecq has achieved both critical and commercial recognition, a combination which can arouse a good deal of professional jealousy and financial envy. The novel does contain some shrewd send-ups of art criticism and the art market. The character Houellebecq, in his exhibition catalogue, opines that all of Jed Martin’s work could be subtitled A Brief History of Capitalism. Perhaps the same is true of Houellebecq’s oeuvre.  At any rate, he can still employ his trenchant talent for amusingly sweeping generalisation to devastating effect, as with, ‘They had several happy weeks. It was not, it couldn’t be, the exacerbated, feverish happiness of young people, and it was no longer a question for them in the course of a weekend to get plastered or totally shit-faced; it was already – but they were still young enough to laugh about it – the preparation for that epicurean, peaceful, refined but unsnobbish happiness that Western society offered the representatives of its middle-to-upper classes in middle age.’ One certainly wonders how far his tongue was planted in his cheek when he has Jed’s father offer this opinion of his work: ‘He’s a good author, it seems to me. He’s pleasant to read, and he has quite an accurate view of society.’

First published in The Sunday Independent.