First I read WHITE PRIVILEGE. Then I read Statements of Concept. Then I read Acknowledgements. Then I read part of STRANGERS. Then I read part of (B):First I read WHITE PRIVILEGE. Then I read Statements of Concept. Then I read Acknowledgements. Then I read part of STRANGERS. Then I read part of (B): An Alphabetical List of Significant Manic Pixie Dream Girls. Then I Googled "Manic Pixie Dream Girls". Then I read E-DEATH #4. Then I read THE METAMODERNIST MANIFESTO. Then I re-read Statements of Concept. Then I read DEFEAT AT KRASNY BOR. Then I read JAMES FRANCO BY JAMES FRANCO BY SETH ABRAMSON. Then I watched television. Then I re-read part of (B): An Alphabetical List of Significant Manic Pixie Dream Girls.Then I started writing a review on Goodreads. Then I abandoned a review on Goodreads. Then I wrote a poem. Then I posted the poem on Facebook, and someone replied: "Ermmmmm?"Then I showed someone else (B): An Alphabetical List of Significant Manic Pixie Dream Girls. Then I discussed (B): An Alphabetical List of Significant Manic Pixie Dream Girls. Then I wrote a poem inspired by (B): An Alphabetical List of Significant Manic Pixie Dream Girls. Then I Googled "Seth Abramson". Then I Googled "Metamodernism". Then I Googled "British Metamodernism". Then I updated my blog links. Then I searched for "Seth Abramson" on Amazon. Then I ordered "Best American Experimental Writing 2015" from Amazon. Then I watched television. Then I read REVOLUTION FOR SOME. Then I read LOVE STORY. Then I read MID-AMERICA. Then I re-read Statements of Concept. Then I read BATTLE OF THE BANDS. Then I re-read Statements of Concept. Then I re-read BATTLE OF THE BANDS. Then I Googled "Fuck The Facts". Then I Googled "The Barlow Girl". Then I Googled "Burning Airlines band". Then I Googled "Samantha Fox Touch Me Lyrics". Then I copied-and-pasted the lyrics to "Touch Me" by Samantha Fox into a Word file. Then I Googled "Word randomizer programme". Then I copied-and-pasted the lyrics to "Touch Me" by Samantha Fox into a Word randomizer programme. Then I pasted the results into a Word file. Then I deleted the results. Then I switched off the computer. Then I went to bed....more
I liked this bit. I really liked this bit. I thought this bit would be my favourite bit until I got to this bit. I thought I understood this bit, but theI liked this bit. I really liked this bit. I thought this bit would be my favourite bit until I got to this bit. I thought I understood this bit, but then I read this bit, which made that bit more confusing. This bit lost me. I explained this bit to a friend, but later realised I had explained this bit incorrectly. I really don't get how this bit could go in the same book as, for example, this bit. I had to do some of Googling after this bit, and it didn't really help. I found this bitreally helpful. Ultimately, I kept going back to this bit: it's the most exhilarating bit I've read in quite some time....more
There are those who would have you believe 2015 was an annus horribilis for Kenneth Goldsmith, the conceptual provocateur chased into social media hidThere are those who would have you believe 2015 was an annus horribilis for Kenneth Goldsmith, the conceptual provocateur chased into social media hiding by the outrage which pursued his reading of the autopsy of Michael Brown, the American teenager shot by police in Ferguson in 2014, at a poetry event in Providence in March. Listen to some - chiefly poets Cathy Park Hong and Elena Gomez - and it was not merely Goldsmith's decision to expose and to some extent re-contextualise a freely available (though admittedly controversial) public document which deserved derision. Goldsmith's choice was, they argued, symptomatic of an inherent racism inside the conceptual writing movement itself. Gomez suggested that by its very nature - meaning, presumably, its removal of the singular voice and thus, by extension, the voice of protest, conceptual writing can speak only for those who neither appreciate, understand or need such channels: ergo, the middle-aged white male. Goldsmith does not need sticking up for. Anyone who can turn up at a White House poetry reading and proceed to read from a series of merged traffic reports in front of the First Lady is evidently robust enough to deflect the barbs of those who seek to deride his art. As it happens, Goldsmith retreated to an uncharacteristic almost-silence before returning eight months later with his epic, 928-page CAPITAL: New York - Capital of the 20th Century. CAPITAL turns the words of Goldsmith's critics - or more specifically, the critics of the broader genre of conceptual writing - upside-down. It teems with voices: often disenfranchised, occasionally opinionated, even inconsequential. They clamour over one another. They push and barge and shout. They coalesce into a sprawling work of unfinishable magnitude; its bibliography alone suggesting countless new avenues into which the reader may conceivably disappear. Yet nothing is original. The entireity of the text is appropriated and stolen, cut-and-pasted, from other existing works: a suitable homage to Walter Benjamin's unfinished 19th century Arcades Project, which paid similarly exhaustive attention to Paris. As ever, the beauty and extraordinary effectiveness of Goldsmith's work is not be found in stark originality, but in collage and recontextualisation; the skittishly organised sub-sections - from Sex to Smell to Subway, Dirt to Downtown to Death - encapsulating the city's organic nature far better than any work of conventional fiction ever could. It is as if Goldsmith has slit open the stomach of the whale-like behemoth of the city, then stood right back and allowed us to pick through the entrails. Far from being inherently racist, one might propose that CAPITAL is in fact, in its utter refusal to be judgemental, refreshingly post-racial. So much of Goldsmith's work - the transcript of a radio report into Michael Jackson's death in "Seven American Deaths and Disasters", even the Michael Brown autopsy - hinges on an understanding of Goldsmith's central conceit that it is more powerful if we allow these forces (in two cases cited above, respectively, the shock-jocks or the institutionally racist forces of law and order) to simply pour out their bluster. In his book "Uncreative Writing", Goldsmith makes the case for countering the political platitudes of a G8 meeting by reproducing its transcript unchanged: "Let the text speak for itself. In the case of the G8, they'll hang themselves… through their own stupidity." In CAPITAL, instead of being gagged or, worse, ushered to the back-section of the book-store, the under-represented are given their voice. Here they can stake their claims, uncensored, against pre-accepted notions concerning the continued evolving of their city. The anonymity which Hong and Gomez imply must curtail any sense of individual protest is in fact its power - bit-part performances building into a symphony of unchallengable truths. Some, it's true, are afforded more space than others, not least Warhol and his various muses, and the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, whose rise and fall reflects the ebb and flow of the city's fortunes. Smatterings of the Brett Easton Ellis novels "American Psycho" and "Glamorama" blur the line between truth and fiction, but barely hint at the further undiscovered city which is that which exists solely in the minds of its inhabitants. Nevertheless, CAPITAL nails the soul of city. It's a vast, psychogeographic jungle, designed in the best traditions of the original Situationist conceit for spells of sporadic, random wandering. It challenges our very ideas of reading, and makes much of what passes for conventional reportage seem wholly inadequate by comparison. Every community - every town and village, every holler and hamlet - should have its own. Whisper it quietly to those critics who have long since made up their minds, but Goldsmith has produced something for everyone: truly, his seminal work.
I discovered this book via a reference from Paul Theroux, who wrote the foreword to the translated 2000 edition, in which he described it as a "wonderI discovered this book via a reference from Paul Theroux, who wrote the foreword to the translated 2000 edition, in which he described it as a "wonderful novel - beautifully constructed, vivid and persuasive" and "a bravura display of passionate ethnography". It's surely fair to say it's Azerbaijan's most famous novel - originally published in German in 1937 by a then-anonymous author who used the pen-name Kurban Said. It's ostensibly a love story between Ali, a Muslim, and Nino, a Christian Georgian girl. In reality it's so much more: their story acts as a metaphor for the story of their (then short-lived) nation around the time of the end of the First World War. It remains relevant today as Azerbaijan increasingly skyscrapers towards the west but roots its soul still firmly in the east. The book's incredible spectrum sweeps across the region's teeming religions, politics, geography and traditions. Ironically, probably its most enthralling section is not set in Azerbaijan, but in bordering, mountainous Dagestan, with its ancient history of blood feuds and bridal kidnaps. Read almost eighty years on, it is a section which serves to show just how far modern Azerbaijan has come (despite continuing human rights concerns). The novel is a perfect introduction to Azerbaijan, and Baku in particular - much more than an introduction, in fact - and its echoes can still be found in strolls around the capital's bewitching old town. Plus, the fact there's 'Ali & Nino' bookshops still scattered across the city selling countless re-produced and re-translated copies of the original bears ample testament to its enduring importance in the development of a genuinely fascinating nation....more
Something is stirring in South Sudan, and it’s more than the natural exuberance which must surely come with being just over two years into its existenSomething is stirring in South Sudan, and it’s more than the natural exuberance which must surely come with being just over two years into its existence as the world’s newest independent nation. There’s clearly been a cultural upheaval too, as evidenced by a new English-language anthology of short stories recently published by McSweeney’s: neighbouring nations in existence for centuries can still offer less. In this respect, of course, South Sudan has benefited enormously from the involvement of McSweeney’s supremo Dave Eggers, who maintained his interest since presenting the excellent ‘What Is The What?’ – a semi-fictional biography of Sudanese ‘Lost Boy’ Valentino Achak Deng in 2011, around the time the nation first broke free of its northern cousin. At 96 pages, 'There Is A Country' is intended to serve very much as an introduction to South Sudan and its nascent literary talent. The result of a call for manuscripts by the former refugee and now American-based academician Nyuol Lueth Tong, which yielded “dozens” of submissions from “mostly young” prospective authors, ‘There Is A Country’ consists of seven short stories and a final poem. You might skip through in not much more than an hour, but the insight the collection provides into both the horrors of the independence struggle and the tantalising promise of freedom will linger much longer. One of the strongest stories, Victor Lugala’s ‘Port Sudan Journal’, is published in its entireity on the McSweeney’s website. Inevitably, war is a consistent aspect of the narrative, but with the exception of the short, sharp ‘Holy Warrior’, it is largely fought at a distance: my personal favourite is ‘Light Of Day’ by Samuel Garang Akau, in which a young couple find love by the village water-pump.
She was a girl of considerable height, dark and smooth-skinned. He could only gaze sheepishly as he watched her walk toward the water pump, with that bundle of yellow jerricans slung from her shoulders. She was unsuspecting, totally immersed in her own thoughts. Her hips, slightly burdened by the empty water cans, kept swaying left and right. Mayom thought she was the most phenomenal woman he had ever seen.
There’s an irresistible simplicity – almost a naivety – about these stories that certainly makes one wish for more. Two years into its existence, South Sudanese fiction evidently has a lot of things going for it: a rich, tumultuous recent history; the sponsorship of a literary titan in Eggers, and most importantly, a bunch of young writers who can really write. Thoroughly recommended....more
Alessandro Baricco’s short, intense tale of an obsession shared and nurtured by four Catholic schoolboys is a book which brooks inevitable comparisonAlessandro Baricco’s short, intense tale of an obsession shared and nurtured by four Catholic schoolboys is a book which brooks inevitable comparison with Jeffrey Eugenides’ ‘The Virgin Suicides’. Equally inevitably, perhaps, it comes off worst. While Eugenides’ extraordinary work provided a rich, warm, tragic peaen to adolescence and its countless torments, ‘Emmaus’ is deeply philosophical, acutely religious and a more difficult work to love. The object of the boys’ obsession is a local girl called Andre, who has tried to kill herself and is reknowned for going with local men. Unlike the six tragic figures in Eugenides’ epic, Andre is far from off limits, at least in a physical sense. The boys, led by The Saint, who intends one day to be a priest, have rendered themselves outcasts by the strength of their faith: they play in a church band and volunteer in the urology ward of a local hospital where they change the catheter bags of dying old men. Yet this is a faith which Andre’s very availability forces them to question. As you would expect from one of Italy’s top novelists, Emmaus is a fine, sharply written story, scattered with moments of devastating simplicity. But it lays on the religious quandary a little too thick, saddling these boys with an often barely believable burden. Where Eugenides let emotions do the talking, Baricco wades deep into issues of faith and dogma which in my view somehow misses the point, bleeding it of the youthfulness which made ‘The Virgin Suicides’ so great. It’s a shame, because the book’s prologue promises something all together more alluring:
The red sports car made a U-turn and pulled over in front of the boy. The man in the driver’s seat maneuvered calmly; he seemed to be in no hurry, to have no thoughts. He wore a stylish cap, the car’s top was down. He stopped, and with a graceful smile said to the boy, Have you seen Andre? Andre was a girl. The boy misunderstood, he thought the man wanted to know if he had seen her in general, in life – if he had seen how marvelous she was. Have you seen Andre? Like a thing between men. So the boy said yes. Where? the man asked. Given that the man continued to smile, in a way, the boy continued to misunderstand the questions. So he answered, Everywhere. Then it occurred to him to be more precise, and he added, From a distance.
Frankly, if 'The Virgin Suicides' didn’t exist, I think I would have admired this book a lot more. It’s readable, thought-provoking and relatively satisfying. But I would still have finished with the nagging feeling that ‘Emmaus’ had not made the most of its opportunity. In Andre, Baricco has created a fantastic character who deserved a much greater chance to shine....more
If one thing becomes clear as you wade through Colum McCann’s sweeping, many-centuries, Booker-longlisted novel Transatlantic (pub. Bloomsbury) it’s tIf one thing becomes clear as you wade through Colum McCann’s sweeping, many-centuries, Booker-longlisted novel Transatlantic (pub. Bloomsbury) it’s that the author can’t half write. His sharp, punchy sentences are equally adept at invoking the crippling famine that strangled rural Ireland in the mid 19th century as they are summoning the grief of those whose families have been torn apart by the Troubles more than one hundred years later. McCann’s Ireland is wild country. Broken fences. Ruined Castles. Stretches of bogland. Wooded headlands. Turfsmoke rose from cabins, thin and mean. McCann weaves a number of initially unconnected narratives, starting with the first trans-Atlantic flight made by John Alcock and Teddy Brown in 1919, hurtling back to the ex-slave and social reformer Frederick Douglass on his visit to Ireland in his quest for freedom, then forward again to Senator George Mitchell and the tortuous final discussions which will eventually result in the Good Friday Agreement. McCann treads a fine line between fact and fiction and he does so successfully, although it is perhaps inevitable that the more recent events sometimes struggle for momentum. Beautifully written and fascinating as it generally is, there is an awful lot of set-up about this book, the narrative strands seemingly tied together by the flimsiest of threads, and it is only around midway that the story’s whole becomes clear: that of four generations of women in a family, from the Irish housemaid who was inspired by Douglass’s visit to set out for the United States, to her great-granddaughter, now in old age herself, back in Ireland and contemplating an unopened letter passed down through the family, which may or may not unravel some historical myths. There are moments of true brilliance in this novel: here, for example, is a first sight of 19th century New York: It’s a primitive city, aware of its own shortcomings, its shirt stained, its teeth plaqued, its zip open – and later – New York appeared like a cough of blood. But I couldn’t help but finish with the feeling that Transatlantic is a novel to be admired rather than adored. As one of its characters opines before the end: What was a life anyway. An accumulation of small shelves of incident. It is this premise, perhaps, that ultimately renders Transatlantic something just that little less than whole....more
Jhumpa Lahiri's 'The Lowland' is a book which rewards persistence: spooling out over oceans and lifetimes, from the fiery origins of West Bengal's NaxJhumpa Lahiri's 'The Lowland' is a book which rewards persistence: spooling out over oceans and lifetimes, from the fiery origins of West Bengal's Naxalite movement in the late 1960s, to Autumnal New England academia. As you would expect from an author whose previous work has earned her the Pulitzer Prize, 'The Lowland' is written with absolute assuredness; a stubborn refusal to follow conventional plot paths which might have turned this novel into something quite different. Because much as the gripping opening section of 'The Lowland' might indicate otherwise, this is not overtly a book about Maoist terrorism: merely one about characters whose lives are shaped irrevocably as a result of it. Two brothers, Subhash and Udayan, grow up inseparable in a suburb of Calcutta known as Tollygunge, a place half-submerged in ponds of water hyacinth. As they grow older their paths diverge: Udayan is increasing drawn to the creeping insurgency; Subhash escapes to college in America. Ultimately, Udayan's pursuit of the cause will come to affect all those closest to him, from his ageing parents to his new wife, Gauri, and the child he will never see. Both Subhash and Gauri are forced to make extraordinary choices as they try to come to terms with events which hurl them together in a most unlikely alliance. The majority of this novel is about the consequences of those choices in the decades that follow, as Subhash and Gauri forge new lives in America, still inexorably bound to and influenced Udayan's tragic fate. 'The Lowland', then, turns into something quite different to what it says on the tin. Those expecting some sort of left-wing polemic will be disappointed: there is much more Joyce Carol Oates here than Arundhati Roy. Early reviews like this one in the Independent (though beware, it contains a ridiculous amount of spoilers) have questioned the depth of Lahiri's characters and the plausibility of their motives, and while it may be true that individual characterizations are not the book's strong point, the author's ability to immerse the reader into their chaotic, confused minds - to make the implausible entirely plausible - is second to none: it makes the final third of this novel, in which the remaining central characters drift towards old age, its most persuasive. Like I say, this is a novel to stick with. There are occasional moments when the momentum threatens to stumble, particularly as it swings from its Naxalite roots to its entirely different setting across the Atlantic, but the result is deep and thought-provoking; a concluding shift back to West Bengal completes the perfect circle. It's easy to see why 'The Lowland' has made it onto this year's MAN Booker Prize longlist. It's the most accomplished of those I've seen or read so far, and I wouldn't be at all surprised to see it go further....more
There is one significant flaw at the heart of Eve Harris’ debut novel, 'The Marrying Of Chani Kaufman'. It is one which will have no end of academicsThere is one significant flaw at the heart of Eve Harris’ debut novel, 'The Marrying Of Chani Kaufman'. It is one which will have no end of academics wringing their hands in exasperation; Folio founders sighing with relief that their new Prize actually has a point. And it is this: ‘The Marrying Of Chani Kaufman’, Harris’s story of the imminent marriage of two young Haredi Jews, is far, far too readable. It is carry-round-the-house too readable. It is stay-up-way-too-late too readable. It is absolutely, undoubtedly, MAN Booker Prize longlist too readable. Two years ago, an awful fuss was raised over the ‘readability’ of the Booker Prize longlist. The argument got so heated a bunch of literary types went off in a huff: hence the Folio Prize was born. There were fears the Booker Prize would heed the warning and stockpile its lists with impenetrable introspection from hereon in. Not so. The inclusion of ‘The Marriage Of Chani Kaufman’ on this year’s longlist is a victory for all those who refuse to cast clumsy, generalised judgements often before they have even turned a page. This is a book which deserves to be on the list for a number of reasons: chiefly, that it is no less than bloody good. Chani Kaufman is approaching her marriage to Baruch Levy, a boy who glimpsed her at a different wedding, and pursued her according to ultra-orthodox protocol over a handful of awkward, strictly-no-touching dates. The pair’s real fears – of suitability and, mainly, sex – form the central narrative of the novel, which explores each of the characters’ complex predicaments in turn, and not always chronologically. Other threads include the compelling life story of Rivka Zilberman – the Rebbetzin, or Rabbi’s wife – through her introduction into the Haredi faith in Jerusalem, her marriage to the ambitious, increasingly conservative Chaim, and her problems coping with family tragedy in the context of such an hermetic existence. Following the same broad theme, their first son, Avromi, is struggling to reconcile his belief with the shapely distractions of his study at a secular university. Together, those threads weave a complex, proud portrait of a faith which, like any of what we might dare call ‘closed societies’ brings fresh problems with each generation, not least the coming-of-age. But genuinely fascinating as it is, it is not just its insider detail – Harris taught for a year at an ultra-orthodox school – that lifts this relatively ordinary love story into the realms of something quite unique. There is deft humour running throughout this book, and Harris’ characterisations are superb: the impish, ever-so-slightly mischievous Chani; the well-meaning, cautiously defiant Baruch; the contrasting sets of parents, from Chani’s down-at-heel Hendon suburbanites to Baruch’s pompous pair, not least his garishly obnoxious mother who deviously seeks to destroy their alliance. She is the subject of a number of glorious set-pieces: another relates the tale of a school field trip which is accidentally led astray to the cusp of a nudist camp. Occasionally, just occasionally, the dialogue lapses too much into the tell-not-show variety, and a couple of cliches crept past the editors’ pens. But this book is so devour-able that that is really nit-picking. I put down after its immensely satisfying ending, and immediately yearned for more. Sod the readability-police. Isn’t that what good books should be all about?...more
We Need New Names starts with the story of ten-year-old Darling in a Zimbabwe slum. Mugabe's so-called land-grabs are in full effect, all opposition iWe Need New Names starts with the story of ten-year-old Darling in a Zimbabwe slum. Mugabe's so-called land-grabs are in full effect, all opposition is being brutally supressed, and the sense of hopelessness is palpable. Amid such hell, Darling and her friends - among them, boys called Bastard and Godknows - scour rich suburbs for guavas and play 'country games' which facilitate their dreams of escape. NoViolet Bulawayo's first novel plunges deep into the eroding and increasingly abused culture and tradition of the region, from the crazily-drawn Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro to a faith healer called Vodloza who claims to cure all ailments from AIDS and epilepsy to BAD LUCK GETTING VISAS ESPECIALLY TO USA AND BRITAIN. When they are not squatting in agony from gorging on too many guavas - a fruit notorious for causing constipation - Darling and her friends create new games in a graveyard called Heavenway. I used to be very afraid of graveyards and death and such things, says Darling, but not anymore. There is just no sense being afraid when you live so near the graves; it would be like the tongue fearing the teeth. The device of telling a truly horrific tale of a nation through the prism of a young and innocent narrator is of course nothing new. But Bulawayo utilises it to excellent effect, steering the reader into becoming a sort of supporting cast for Darling and her crew of rascals, and making the horrors, when they do arrive, all the more devastating for the naïve incomprehension with which they are described. Unlike her friends, Darling does have an escape route: an aunt who is already ensconsed in the United States, or, as Darling describes it, Destroyedmichyegan. As she enters her teenage years, Darling's story switches across the Atlantic and becomes one of one of an innocent expatriate struggling to adapt in a land of plenty: again, nothing new, but told with no false notes and a touching simplicity which renders even everyday adjustment more powerful in light of what happened before:
When the microwave says nting, TK takes out a pizza and eats it. When the microwave says nting again, he takes out the chicken wings. And then it's the burritos and the hot dogs. Eat eat eat. All that food TK eats in one day, me and Mother and Mother of Bones would eat in maybe two or three days back home.
I have one issue with the book. I'm a huge fan of interlinked short stories which add up to a novel-whole: the most obvious example being Jamil Ahmad's utterly magnificent The Wandering Falcon. But Bulawayo's book seems caught a little between two stools in that respect: Darling's life unfurls in eighteen stand-alone chapters, yet as they are almost entirely chronological there doesn't seem a lot of point: all it really does it break up the natural narrative. That said, We Need New Names is a very touching book told from the heart by an author whose own journey from Zimbabwe to the United States mainly mirrors that of her subject. And while I'm a little surprised to see it on the Man Booker Prize longlist, I'm also delighted to see it get its due. Like Darling herself, this is a book you really can't help cheering on from the sidelines.