Note: I have, for reasons professional (deadlines), private (distracted by picture making) and transcendental (all the recent politics), delayed this post for a couple of weeks. But as it regards reading – for pleasure – it makes no difference.
The Complaint: reading purgatory
There’s that patch when you feel you really want to read something – you must read something or you’ll break some glassware – but nothing, not any of the surrounding hundred books will really do. You know the feeling …
It ‘s hard to read sometimes. You have to set out the Welcome mat — sincerity isn’t enough, you have to want this author, desire this guest in your head. Make a welcoming headspace. Come in, come in, very pleased to have you here.
When simultaneously, perversely, all you want is to be left alone. Eg, watching TV is like being alone in company. But reading a book is like being there, responsible for your actions and reactions; and most of all, responsible for carrying on. An episode of The Wire goes on all by itself. But a book flops, a dead bunny, for lack of readerly energy. Someone said something like: reading all night, in a rapture, with a small swelling headache. Sontag or Joyce Carol Oates. That’s what I wanted but couldn’t have. (Odd how it’s always the full triple: Joyce Carol Oates.)
Nothing will do. Not Non-fiction — say Peter’s Sutton’s zeitgeist book on the Aboriginal situation, The Politics of Suffering (eye-glazing and badly needing an editor, if unimpeachably worthy); or Robin Boyd’s classic The Australian Ugliness, which I was reading to design the cover for a new edition — cutting and still relevant, timely even, and funny (I found myself reading bits out loud), but was profoundly not in the mood for. And there were the unsuitable memoirs and meditations by Hilary Mantel (maybe I should have read her Bookered Wolf Hall) and Kim Cheng Boey (too too quiet). They’re just the ones I recall, or haven’t returned to the stacks.
And worse, when dear old Fiction won’t turn the trick. I picked up a new author (as it were), or at least unknown to me, at the library. (Love my local library; I’d vote for it.) This was Adam Thorpe, an English fella with a string of acclaimed books. He was obscure enough to have a stash of his titles neglected on the STA-TON shelves. Marvelous! Someone I could have all to myself, for months. I took out the most accessible looking, Between Each Breath, about a contemporary composer trying to save his soul in the mammoneserie of Blair’s Britain – music and middle-class politics, perfect!
But, alas, to quote Grace Jones’ lyric counterpoint: “I’m not perfect, but I’m perfect for you.” I wasn’t perfect for the book; it closed in my hands before page 60 (and Thorpe’s good, it’s obvious). In retrospect I should have taken up one of his harder-looking novels; sometimes it’s hard that one needs. I bought a Barry Maitland mystery, but I’m a fan who couldn’t get past the cover; it felt like all the unread books at my bedside beamed together into a unliftable — in Carver’s word, “unbearable” — leadweight, a muscle-busting solid block of osmium, a heavy metal package for the deaf. What else? Not the multi-million selling Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Not Philip Hensher’s Englishly acclaimed 600+page Booker-listed The Northern Clemency (not hard, but too hard).
I was dogged. Frothing for release.
But then – and it had been almost two months of readerly fretting (though I did read stuff for work; one has to be professional about anxieties), I stumbled on the keys.
1) Poetry (pshaw, tsk, you say). Well, poems really;
2) Nicholson Baker’s new novel, The Anthologist; and
3) Iain Banks’ new not-quite-genre novel, Transitions
1) Poetry: Carver said
The reason, Raymond Carver once said, that he started writing short stories and poems was because they were the only things he could bear to read (a remark in a piece collected, I think, in Fires) – from memory, in one of his short stories: “… he put it down, like he would out down anything unbearable.” They were short, he could get in, get out.
Carver, then, didn’t have a writer’s block, or a reader’s block. He had a life block. A liver block too. But that’s the beauty of a book of poems – any page you flip to, you can start something, start anew. And end it within sight. With a novel, or a not-novel, you have to start on page 1 … and stay to the end. And sometimes that’s the last thing you want. It beats you, defeats you, it bullies you and worries you. But with poems, if you don’t like it or don’t get it, you just move on.
I didn’t read Carver’s poems, but I had Wallace Stevens; Kay Ryan, the current US laureate; the Australian Justin Clemen’s Villain; the global Staying Alive anthology. It was Stevens who did it though. Some of his stuff I find impossible, some of it seems to me exactly what poetry is made of.
But here is a Carver poem:
What The Doctor Said
He said it doesn’t look good
he said it looks bad in fact real bad
he said I counted thirty-two of them on one lung before
I quit counting them
I said I’m glad I wouldn’t want to know
about any more being there than that
he said are you a religious man do you kneel down
in forest groves and let yourself ask for help
when you come to a waterfall
mist blowing against your face and arms
do you stop and ask for understanding at those moments
I said not yet but I intend to start today
he said I’m real sorry he said
I wish I had some other kind of news to give you
I said Amen and he said something else
I didn’t catch and not knowing what else to do
and not wanting him to have to repeat it
and me to have to fully digest it
I just looked at him
for a minute and he looked back it was then
I jumped up and shook hands with this man who’d just given me
something no one else on earth had ever given me
I may have even thanked him habit being so strong
2) Fiction: Nicholson Baker: writing like thinking, like talking
Nicholson Baker is a crank and an amazing writer. His short first novel, The Mezzanine, was about the thoughts of a white collar man as he rides an escalator up to a mezzanine. That’s it. It’s uncompressibly brilliant – a plotless meander of meditations on ordinary matters, with long footnotes – paper cartons, buying shoelaces, men’s urinals: the banal world upturned and defamiliarised. When I told a publisher friend about reading it (20 years ago, when it came out) she thought I was trying to impress with my cutting edge taste. But I was just gobsmacked by the writing (which seems clearly an influence on the sainted David Foster Wallace).
As it happens, I have not read another Baker book till now. Not his notorious novel about phone sex, Vox (which Monica Lewinsky gifted Bill Clinton). Not the erotic The Fermata. Not the lapidary confessional about his idolisation of John Updike, U and I. Nor last year’s provocative, shit-hitting-the-fan, bestselling “history” Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization in which Baker wonders if the Allies started the war.
His new novel, The Anthologist, is about Paul Chowder, a fiftysomething semi-regarded American poet who was rumoured to have been (as in has-been) on the list of possible poet laureates — who has hit a road block, a rhyme block. He believes in rhyme, but can only write in free verse. He is unable to write an introduction for an anthology he has been commissioned to edit, Only Rhyme. His bank account is at rock bottom. Finding it all unbearable, his girlfriend, Roz, has moved out. The Anthologist is also full of theories – cranky, half-baked theories about poetry and poetics.
A loser, crank poet. Man! So how come The Anthologist was so funny, so buoyantly readable (over two sunlit days), and yet remain entirely credible and rather unsentimentally touching? (The reception has been divided: on one hand, say, the ex British poet laureate Andrew Motion in his schoolmasterly dismissal, on the other, Simon Schama thinks it’s tops.)
I’m guessing it’s because the book doesn’t read like it is being consciously written. It’s just that the guy, Paul, talks. He is talking because he can’t write, can’t go a-rhymin’. He is talking to himself – and to the reader, who is addressed, but as if a friend who is absent. The narrative is barely attended to – in between rehearsing his ideas about poetry for the introduction he can’t write – he drops in a chronology of eating, or talking to a neighbour or going down to the river with a folding chair to think, or offering to help the (attractive) neighbour do her flooring. Or buying books and stuff he can’t afford.
The language is a tour de force; it’s anti-poetic, avoiding the kind of diction that drives people spare who don’t like poetry or, rather, the idea of poetry. The voice jumps and hops, and sings snatches of pop songs and strolls (bars of music notes are supplied).
How he begins:
“Hello, this is Paul Chowder, and I’m going to try to tell you everything I know. Well, not everything I know, because a lot of what I know, you know. But everything I know about poetry…”
Here he is, jigging as he beats up iambics:
“People are going to feed you all kinds of oyster crackers about iambic pentameter. They’re going to say, Oh ho ho, iambic pentameter! The centrality of the five-stress line! Because ‘pent’ is five in Babylonian, and five is the number of fingers on your hand, and five is the number of slices of American cheese you can eat in one sitting.”
About poetry in the New Yorker (he’s obsessed with being published in the New Yorker):
“You can tell it’s a poem because it’s swimming in a little gel pack of white space.”
On the terrible inevitability of the vanishing week:
“… suddenly, you’re driving under that huge tattered banner, with that T and that H and that U and that frightening R and the appalling S – THURSDAY – and you slide down the steep slope toward the clacking shredder blades that wait on Sunday afternoon.”
“I woke up after a nap. It was dark and very late. I found a pen and turned to the back of Mary Oliver’s book of poems, and I wrote: ‘People I ‘m jealous of.’ I wrote;
— James Fenton
— Sinead O’Conor
— Billy Collins.
“Billy” Collins indeed. Charming chirping crack whore that he is. No that’s incorrect — I know nothing about him. I know only my own jealousy. I’m not jealous of Merwin, though, and I’m not jealous of Mary Oliver. And I’m not jealous of Howard Moss. And I’m not jealous of Elizabeth Bishop. They’re beyond all jealousy.”
… and one large paragraph later, he’s singing the blues:
“Oh plot developments. Plot developments, how badly we need you and yet how much we flee from your clanking boxcars. I don’t want to ride that train. I just want to sit and sing to myself. I want everything to be all right.
What if sometime Roz let me hold her breasts again? Wouldn’t that be incredible? Those soft familiar palm-loads of vulnerbility — And I get to hold them? That’s simply insane. Inconceivable.”
3) Fiction: Iain Banks: imagination’s best boy
I feel a defence of “genre” fiction coming on, the pre-emptive apologetics. But see the *PS below.
I read the new Iain Banks on a recent, receding holiday on the glorious Fleurieu Peninsula, surrounded by the vineyards of McLaren Vale and perched on the glittering, just pre-heatwave littoral that rolls west and northwards to Adelaide. See the picture above, or you can see that gorgeousness buttered all over the Scott Hicks’ film, The Boys are Back, apparently. Banks’ debut novel, published 25 years ago, was the unnerving The Wasp Factory, a story about mental illness and murder, which immediately gave Banks a hardcore rep.
Transition is about – well, there’s this chap who is part of a secret organisation called the Concern whose job is to do things to people – that is, he is a secret agent – who begins to doubt the ethics of his employers. This is rather like describing 1001 Arabian Nights as a woman telling her husband a story every night to save her life. (Transition reviews: The Guardian‘s: “This is an airport novel … You’re welcome to take that for as much of a recommendation as you choose.” The Independent‘s: “Transition is a book that makes you think, one that makes you look at the world around you in a different light, and it’s also a properly thrilling read. If only more contemporary fiction was like it.”)
Anyway, to read Iain Banks is to be reminded of the vast terrains of the imagination, where most of us so rarely visit. (You may have heard him roll his Scottish Rs about this novel on Radio National’s Book Show — it’s on podcast if you missed it.) Banks is, to borrow a Disneyism, an Imagineer. His books are palaces built with freewheeling invention and stuffed with baroque extraordinararia. Bonus points: he is a literate writer — proper folk can carry his books without shame or guilt. He does all the litbiz – love, loss; pain, sorrow; nostalgia, ruthlessness. Murder, betrayal. And so on. But the crucial thing is: he’s bloody entertaining. He unslumped this reader’s prosaic ennui.
*A PS on the cavils about “genre” fiction:
I’m not even talking about his other authorial self, Iain M. Banks. M stands for Magic (alright, it’s Menzies) – for when he dons on his sci-fi cape and trips the spacetime-continuum in his “Culture” novels. Iain Banks has written 11 books; Iain M. Banks, also 11. These alternate novels, his “genre” books – whose covers provoke shame and guilt in proper folk – are wild and unseemly explorations of human ingenuity and dastardry across the universe; they’re great. That science fiction as novelistic vehicle has become entirely kosher and driving in the middle of the road – never mind Calvino, Borges and Co; lately, obviously: Atwood, Rushdie, Cormac McCarthy, Ishiguro, Chabon, Winterson, Niffenegger, Lethem, Buffy – ok maybe not Buffy, but J K Rowling, S Meyer, S King, D Brown – doesn’t cut the mustard with the old realist readers, but that’s another rambler for another day.
PPS: It occurs to me that today poetry and science fiction (or “speculative fiction”, for the delicate) might be described as marginal reading matter, one too other-worldy, the other off-world. That makes sense — to elude ennui, one has to take the path less travelled.