Friday, April 30, 2010

What I've Been Reading: Month Two

Books Bought: Mother Tongue: The English Language - Bill Bryson

Books Borrowed: Love Sick - Frank Tallis , Forgotten Book About Arts Funding, The Death of Bunny Munro - Nick Cave

Books Read: How The Light Gets In - M.J. Hyland, The Death of Bunny Munro - Nick Cave, Love Sick - Frank Tallis[unfinished], Iris - John Bayley, The Royal Court Theatre Inside Out - Ruth Little and Emily McLaughlin [unfinished]

Know that feeling when you realise the book you're reading is good? When you know that it’s superbly crafted, well written and honest. And, when you’ve got over feeling jealous about the damn quality of the novel and how dare someone write something which is obviously so good, you realise that you’re not actually enjoying it. Brain says, oh that’s nice. And then gets bored and thinks, oh I wish I was reading Bridget Jones’s Diary because at least that was fun.

I’m sure it makes me some sort of philistine but that’s exactly how I felt about M.J. Hyland’s How the Light Gets In. On paper me and HtLGI should have had a beautiful relationship – a brilliantly created first person narrator, achingly sparse prose teeming with subtext, a novel which – when I have bookshelves plentiful enough to arrange my books by thematic preoccupations – should sit right next to Catcher in the Rye and The Bell Jar. But, if I’m telling the truth, I really didn’t like Lou, the 16 year old talented, messed up narrator. Not in the manner of I didn’t like how she was written, I just didn’t like her. I tutted at her, and rolled my eyes and, at one point, actually found myself saying – if you do this then you are entirely, arrogantly stupid. Go home, stop smoking and – whatever you do – DO NOT stay out with that boy. In short – M J has a brilliant creation and I am turning into my mother. But, even when I’d caught myself and set out the mitigating factors I couldn’t bring myself to like Lou. It worries me that if I were to go back to the Salinger or the Plath, over a decade after I first read and loved them, I’d have a lost the empathy I once had and find them bleak and distressing and would want to punch Holden Caulfield in the face. So I won’t be re-reading them. And I was sort of glad when HtLGI was over and it could stop making me feel unhappy.

After HtLGI, if I’d been sensible, I would have done something life affirming like re-reading I Capture The Castle but instead I did the literary equivalent of jumping from the frying pan into the fire and embarked upon Nick Cave’s The Death of Bunny Munro. Bunny was the part of Breakfast Club Boy’s Christmas present that didn’t have anything to do with Dawson’s Creek (long story) and I had at least had the decorum to wait until March before I snaffled it back to read. Now - let me set out my bias. Cave is a brilliantly talented, if some times often darkly odd, lyricist – like Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen I’d quite happily call him a Poet (even before I was force fed Cave and thought him simply a craggy voiced disturbed man I couldn't question the poetry of his lines). It soon became clear he is not a brilliantly talented novelist. Given that Bunny is the central character and the title rather gives away where the novel was ultimately going (death and whatnot) the success or failure was always going to be what happened on the ride. Quite literally since the majority of the novel is concerned with an increasingly desperate road-trip around the South Coast of England taken by Bunny and his son, the imaginatively titled Bunny Jr.

In what I sensed might be the reading theme of the month I didn’t like the central character. This time, however, that seemed okay – Bunny is an anti-hero, I’m not meant to like him. But – and this was the clincher - it quickly became apparent that Cave had some writer’s tick that requires him to refer to Bunny’s penis in every single chapter. Reading about Bunny’s penis became very dull, very quickly. Around chapter five I remembered that Cave had been shortlisted for the ‘Writing Sex Scenes Badly’ award and was forced to conclude that he was robbed of the win. By chapter fifteen I was despairing and tried to get some reassurance that this preoccupation was, please I’m begging, going to finish. Instead of reassurance Breakfast Club Boy helpfully pointed out that not only is the novel penis obsessed Cave cannot go more than two sentences without writing either ‘Bunny Munro’ or ‘Bunny Jr’. I’d not clocked this but, alert to it, it began to drive me slowly, and quietly, insane. What was the book’s editor doing? NOT EDITING THE BOOK.

Perversely, I was actually enjoying Bunny much more than I had enjoyed HtLGI. Which, given that I was stabbing things into my eyes every so often, probably says more about how depressing I found Hyland’s novel. But it remains, Cave can write a line. And the last thirty pages or so, when Cave abandons the traditional road-trip story and goes all surreal and morality tale on us was unexpectedly meaty and interesting. Which made me wonder what this book might have been if someone had told Cave to stop writing a ‘novel’ and just to write.

Probably in the need of reassurance that I shouldn’t give up entirely on men the moment I was done with Bunny (one chapter, of less than a page, was mercilessly free of a penis reference) I launched into Iris, John Bayley’s memoir of Iris Murdoch. Well, it was either for that reason or to assuage the guilt of last month’s unread purchase. I admit I was instantly charmed – Oxford, with good reason, looms large, and Murdoch was teaching at St Anne’s (my college) when Bayley first met her so he pretty much had me at the first mention of Woodstock Road. But that would be doing a disservice to Bayley because Iris is one of the most moving, flawed, elegant love letters (life letters?) I have ever had the pleasure to read. I could just sit here and type a list of superlatives until my fingers hurt and you feel the need to vomit from the saccharine-ness of it all. But I won’t, I’m sure you can get the message from my not exactly sub-textual inferences.

I got the distinct feeling that I might not have exactly liked Murdoch - another main character to complete this month's thesis. For Bayley she was unquestionably magnificent in everything she did, himself a mere mortal walking with a God. For me it’s Bayley and his made up scrabble words every time. Normally I dislike writing that doesn’t pick a structure (or anti-structure) and then run with it, and here three quarters of the book is memoir told in retrospect, one quarter diary told in the present and yet it works, it works so much that I can’t imagine the story being told in any other way. The reality of Bayley caring for Murdoch is so intensely, jaggedly painful – and yet presented as if this is, obviously, the only way it could ever be – that even if I hadn’t had my own Grandmother’s Alzheimer’s as a touch stone I think it would have broken my heart a little. But the heartbreak seems almost incidental. In the great thematic book shelving system of 2015 this one’s going under “love (or whatever that means)”.

Amongst the angsty, the bizarre and the sublime there was a couple of brief forays into a book about arts funding (written in the mid-nineties and oddly quaint in its author’s pre-1997 doubts about Tony Blair) and an aborted attempt at Love Sick, which proved to be only as interesting as the metaphors (“love is merely a madness” and all that) which I already knew. In the midst of moving, and looking for something that didn’t require commitment I dipped into The Royal Court Theatre Inside Out and was once again mollified by the fact that making theatre is as messy at the Royal Court as it is everywhere else.

We just won't mention that I bought Bill Bryson’s Mother Tongue when I was supposed to be giving things to charity shops rather than buying them from them.

No comments: