Many posts refer to a "twist", knowing which would make it pointless reading the book. But if I'd known it from the start, I'd have been ten times morMany posts refer to a "twist", knowing which would make it pointless reading the book. But if I'd known it from the start, I'd have been ten times more interested - it's a much better premise than a blah family saga by the author of The Jane Austen Book Club, which is what I'd been ploughing through until 27% into the book. ((view spoiler)[Up to the age of 6, the narrator's parents raised her and her older brother with a chimpanzee living in the household as their sister, the chimp being identical in age to her, and then the chimp was suddenly taken away. (hide spoiler)])
I wouldn't have read WAACBO if it weren't for the Booker Prize, but I'm more surprised that it was on the shortlist for the Nebula Prize. [As said in an earlier status update] I may not have read much space opera as an adult, but I have read enough of other types of SFF for it to be my biggest read category on GR - since amalgamating the comic and serious subtypes - and I do not consider basically-realistic popular fiction about an entirely plausible life science experiment, similar to real ones, to be any kind of SFF. There isn't even any magic realism in here FFS. Not all fiction about science is science fiction. Surely.
Another fairly common criticism of this book is that it's manipulative - a term I've usually only seen in cultural discussions when they're about schmaltzy films of the Pay It Forward ilk. I didn't think WAACBO in the least bit manipulative: it's a question of where you stand already. People who've had close bonds with animals, and vegetarians and vegans, are unlikely to feel manipulated here. One character's extreme actions make complete sense in the context of his personal experiences, and the narrator does mention that the issues concerned aren't easy, and that she often tries not to think about them on a larger scale.
The book's greatest strength is its understanding of psychology, especially attachment, loss and implicit / physical memory. The paragraphs in which Rosemary, the narrator, talks about these aspects of her experience are brilliant. Although she is very chatty and instinctive, and never as methodical and detached in her discussion as I'd have expected given that her father was an academic psychologist. (This was most likely a deliberate choice connected to the "twist", but I think it leans unrealistically too far one way and doesn't give enough weight to what she would have picked up from him - she could have been both ways.) She is not really an "unreliable narrator" of the usual sort: simply a person telling you things when she feels ready to, although in the early part of the book there is a certain predictable artificiality to it - the sort of thing that means I'd almost always rather read a memoir by a real "difficult" character than a novel narrated by a made-up one.
The self-aware / psychology episodes were oases: otherwise this isn't a cultured book and the lack of references and intellectual playfulness bored me. It opened promisingly with a spine-tingling run down of the events of 1996, but thereafter the characters were in a local vacuum. The narrator is near my own age and it was weird and dreary to hear about her university years devoid of any music, fashion, films, non-course books, news. The only song mentioned was the MOR, catchily okay but waiting for something better to come on the radio, 'One of Us' by Joan Osborne. Although Rosemary's experiences made her interesting, I couldn't click with her outside of the discussion of psychology. Mid-western, middlebrow, often I couldn't wait to get out of there. The writing is quality popular fiction with the occasional slightly incongruous, "big word" stuck in for good measure.
It's a book that's becoming more interesting to remember than it was to read: the bits that stick in the mind were very worthwhile, and the padding is easily forgettable. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Whilst St Aubyn's books were mentioned quite a bit in the Sunday papers when I was a teenager, I'd since forgotten about him or, rather, conflated himWhilst St Aubyn's books were mentioned quite a bit in the Sunday papers when I was a teenager, I'd since forgotten about him or, rather, conflated him with Augusten Burroughs - until last summer when a friend's reviews reminded me.
I have to agree that most of this book is far from enjoyable in the general sense, but it is very good. (I found it nowhere near so intense and draining as some Bergman films, however, and for a moment couldn't decide whether to write this or start the next instalment that very minute.)
The location of this family horror was unanticipated: late 60's - early 70's French countryside, long before the British middle class hordes got the idea from Peter Mayle ... I started imagining it set in the same locations as Claire's Knee, which film now seems more innocent than it did before. I became, briefly, fascinated with pinpointing when Never Mind was set: 1968-1973, the only time when posh hippie flibbertigibbet Bridget could be buying both Oz and the Furry Freak Brothers comics at the same time. (Unfortunately I couldn't find when the Arles Progressive Jazz festival started, which could have narrowed it further.) Melrose is, then, some years younger than his author - perhaps simply because it's easier to remember a cultural milieu from when you're a bit older.
St Aubyn captures some common experiences from unhappy families - which can in some ways be alike, despite Tolstoy - even if many are not so frightful as his own. The very first pages introduce a character partly via another's carefully honed tactics to avoid him; there is the damned if you do, damned if you don't paradox: "[Eleanor] would never know what to say because whatever she said would be wrong". And is it common at the age of around five, I wonder, to experience revelation about a parent's intentions? This is not the first time I've heard it. Patrick Melrose's is truly dreadful: "although he realized that his father wanted to hurt him as much as possible, he refused to believe it." The horror of which is somehow pitch black compared with the epiphany I remember,'you've no idea what the effect of this is and you never understand attempts to communicate it'.
Patrick's father, David Melrose is singularly chilling: almost everything he does is sociopathically calculated with the intention of eradicating caring, connection and love. People who merely fly off the handle or fail to understand seem almost welcome by comparison. One of the more remarkable aspects of this book, which elevates it therapeutically just as it does as literature, is St Aubyn's narration of some parts of the story as each of his parents, alert to the complexities of all individuals and that even the most awful people do things which are harmless and possess some separate interests. Even if this were fiction (let alone the typical "Painful Lives" volume) many authors would be content with the outline of a sadistic villain.
Having the book's action take place in one day and including dinner party guests as significant characters not only demonstrates the way Patrick is frequently an inconvenience to his family, but it is done so well that I didn't realise until quite late that it's also a way of providing background to the Melroses and of creating another layer of commentary on the social milieu and on Patrick's experiences.
In particular the irony with which the reflections of Victor, the philosopher, are presented, that the unconscious " will seem as quaint as medieval map-making when we have an accurate picture of how the brain works" is even more remarkable given that the book was written in 1992 and that the limbic system and implicit memory (and their role in trauma) were only just starting to be popularly connected with the idea of the unconscious that decade. Likewise putting a statement like "Nothing that really happens to you as a child really matters" into the mouth of Tim Not Nice But Dim, Nicholas, on such a day, contradicts Pinker's The Blank Slate before it was even published as well as commenting on a common traditional upper class view of child-rearing. St Aubyn's account of dissociation is so very effective that it was actually absorbing and calming to the reader, not only a coping mechanism for Patrick himself in the midst of the book's nastiest episode. The whole book is very well-informed psychologically but always with a light touch that integrates it perfectly into the story.
I was most impressed with St Aubyn's metaphor's and similes which build his characters' world by employing their likely experiences: "like a spine in the hands of a confident osteopath"; a place of refuge "like a consulate in a strange city"; an old fashioned farmer who "had the sullen air of a man who looks forward to strangling poultry". And such attention to detail: having Bridget read Tatler reminded me of something I'd read years ago that it was supposed to be a little more "vulgar" and "nouveau" than Harper's.
Some have found the child's point of view episodes unconvincing, but I must disagree and I enjoyed most of the accounts of Patrick's escapes and games in the first half. (And even then he's not always a very nice little boy - he isn't quite as sympathetic as some writers would have painted him in these circumstances, and correctly so. If a kid doesn't have anyone significant to learn kindness and good manners from, it's hardly surprising if he has a slight shortage of both.)
Aside from these bits, the rest of the book is perfectly chilly. Like rooms in big houses which are too big ever to get properly warm, or where it would be vulgar to turn the heating on full, or for very long. The more I think about it, the more impressed I am with the apt ways in which this unpleasant tale is told....more
All The Madmen is billed as an exploration of the influence of mental illness - and to a lesser extent, drugs - onGreat idea; shame about the writer.
All The Madmen is billed as an exploration of the influence of mental illness - and to a lesser extent, drugs - on the British music scene c.1968-75. Though in practice, what we get is an entwined biography of the musicians mentioned in the sub-title, with an emphasis on nervous breakdowns, plus a few digressions about R.D. Laing and a couple of short chapters on the history of madness in England at the end.
As he's a very experienced rock biographer, I would tend to assume that Clinton Heylin has mostly got his facts right, and so I did learn a bit from this book. (And also spent longer reading about Fleetwood Mac and The Who than I ever thought I would in my life.) What I will mostly take away from it is the understanding that Ray Davies had his fair share of demons, which wasn't terribly obvious from the lovely pop tunes of The Kinks; how serious and frightening Nick Drake's near-catatonic depressive state evidently was, when you read about it as an adult, not a naive 15-year-old with a stack of music papers; and what a bastard Roger Waters was. According to some, still is. I'd long found the classic 70's Pink Floyd albums to be rather chilly, detached and alien; and knowing that their guiding force was this cold-blooded, unempathic, exploitative man, it seems to make so much sense now. *shiver*
Heylin drives the narrative like a competent Mojo reporter. Or "journo"; his overuse of the latter word set my teeth on edge. He enjoys his alliterative stylistic flourishes, but half the time they turn into pratfalls. I cringed plenty of times, in the same way as I often do in looking at a review or blog post I wrote a few days earlier; it sounded potentially clever at the time, but it's actually just bad and embarrassing and needs to be edited. Given the number of typos in the book, style isn't the only thing which could have done with better subbing.
He clearly likes the music itself, but doesn't have a lot of praise for many of the people involved, which makes for an uninspiring read; surely a book like this should fill you with fascination and enthusiasm. There's quite a bit of subtle denigration of the states musicians got themselves into with drugs, for the ways their mental health issues made them a bit annoying. He too-rarely looks into what they were suffering and why, whether it's from an emotional point of view - or the reductive pathologising stance; but perhaps we should be glad he doesn't dehumanise his subjects further by labelling.
I know a few people who are passionate and knowledgeable both about the music of this era and about mental health. I expected to be recommending this book to them, but I shan't embarrass myself or bore them because they are better writers than Heylin and would have a wiser and more sympathetic approach to the psychological topics.
Rightly or wrongly, I get a whiff of stale-bedsheets laziness about this book. It's like the reasonably competent end-of-term essay dashed off overnight for a low 2:1 when more effort - or simply a different student - could have produced something of far higher, shinier quality. So frustrating because there must be people out there who could write an amazing book about this. Heylin seems to rest on the laurels of his classic rock knowledge whilst not doing anywhere enough research and thinking about psychology and mental health. He probably thought this was a clever idea for a twentieth book to churn out to his publishers, without it being a topic for which he feels deep affinity.
His brief history of madness in England alludes repeatedly to an archaic idea (mooted especially in the eighteenth century) that "too much" political liberty leads to a greater incidence of mental health problems in the population. In implying we should be glad to have put the libertine excesses of the 60's and early 70's behind us - also stopping off to criticise the excesses of punk - and that drugs were too freely available and destroyed or impeded a lot of talented musicians, he seems to be essentially agreeing with this ancient thesis without thorough and sensible discussion. Whilst I have a bit of a libertarian slant politically, I am definitely no fan of drugs on a personal level and have seen how they can mess up great people; I don't think you should write a 400 page book on a topic like this and conclude it without nuance and qualification though. Rock, as it ages, too often seems to become conservative and almost opposed to its spirit of origin, and the author of this book seems to be a case in point. More sympathetic understanding of human complexity is needed here; it shouldn't have been just another mildly snarky rock bio. ...more