Stuff I’ve Been Reading: May 2005
- Sleep Towards Heaven—Amanda Eyre Ward
- Dr Seuss: American Icon—Philip Nel
- In Cold Blood—Truman Capote
- A Cold Case—Philip Gourevitch
- Like A Rolling Stone—Greil Marcus
- How To Be Lost—Amanda Eyre Ward
Earlier today I was in a bookstore, and I picked up a new book about the migration patterns of the peregrine falcon. For a moment, I ached to buy it—or rather, I ached to be the kind of person who would buy it, read it, and learn something from it. I mean, obviously I could have bought it, but I could also have taken the fifteen pounds from my pocket and eaten it, right in the middle of Borders, and there seemed just as much point in the latter course of action as the former. (And before anyone gets on at me about Borders, I should point out that the last independent bookshop in Islington, home of the chattering literary classes, closed down a couple of weeks ago.)
I don’t know what it was about, the peregrine falcon thing. That’s some kind of bird, right? Well, I’ve only read one book about a bird before, Barry Hines’s heartbreaking A Kestrel for a Knave, later retitled Kes to tie in with Ken Loach’s film adaptation of that name. (You, dear reader, are much more likely to have read Jonathan Livingston Seagull than Kes, I suspect, and our respective tastes in bird books reveal something fundamental about our cultures. An Amazon reviewer describes Jonathan Livingston Seagull as “a charming allegory with a very pertinent message: DON’T ABANDON YOUR DREAMS.” I would not be traducing the message of Kes if I were to summarize it thus: ABANDON YOUR DREAMS. In fact, “ABANDON YOUR DREAMS” is a pretty handy summary of the whole of contemporary English culture—of the country itself, even. It would be great to be you, sometimes. I mean, obviously our motto is more truthful than yours, and ultimately more useful, but there used to be great piles of Kes in every high-school stock room. You’d think they’d let us reach the age of sixteen or so before telling us that life is shit. I read Hines’s book because it was a work of literature, however, not because it was a book about a bird. And maybe this book will turn out to be a work of literature, too, and a million people will tell me to read it, and it will win tons of prizes, and eventually I’ll succumb, but by then, it will have lost the allure it seemed to have this afternoon when it promised to be the kind of book I don’t usually open. I’m always reading works of bloody literature; I’m never reading about migration patterns.
This month, my taste in books seems to have soured on me: every book I pick up seems to be exactly the sort of book I always pick up. On the way home from the bookstore, as I was pondering the unexpectedly seductive lure of the peregrine falcon, I tried to name the book least likely to appeal to me that I have actually read all the way through, and I was struggling for an answer. Isn’t that ridiculous? You’d have thought that there’d been something, somewhere—an apparently ill-advised dalliance with a book about mathematics or physics, say, or a history of some country that I didn’t know anything about, but there’s nothing. I read a biography of Margaret Thatcher’s press secretary once, but my brother-in-law wrote it, so that doesn’t really count. And I did struggle through Roy Jenkins’s enormous Gladstone, which reduced me to tears of boredom on several occasions, but that was because I was judging a non-fiction prize. I would like my personal reading map to resemble a map of the British Empire circa 1900; I’d like people to look at it and think, How the hell did he end up right over there? As it is, I make only tiny little incursions into the territory of my own ignorance—every year, another classic novel conquered here, a couple of new literary biographies beaten down there. To be honest, I’m not sure that I can spare the troops for conquests further afield: they’re needed to quell all the rebellions and escape attempts at home. But that’s not the attitude. When you turn to these pages next month, I swear you’ll be reading about peregrine falcons, or Robert the Bruce, or the combustion engine. I’m sorry that the four books I read these last few weeks seem to have brought all this on, because I loved them all. But look at them: a cute, sad literary novel, a couple of elegant true-crime stories, and a book about Dylan by one of America’s cleverest cultural commentators—chips off the old block, every one of them. I can hardly claim to have pushed back any personal frontiers with any of these.
Recently the Polysyllabic Spree, the fifteen horrifically enthusiastic young men and women who control the minds of everyone who writes for this magazine, sent an emissary to London, and the young man in question handed me, without explanation, a copy of Philip Gourevitch’s A Cold Case. I felt duty-bound to read it, not least because the Spree frequently chooses enigmatic methods of communication, and I presumed that the book would contain some kind of coded message. In fact, the purpose of the gift was straightforwardly cruel: the security tag was still attached to it, and as a consequence I was humiliated by store detectives whenever I tried to enter a shop with the book in my bag. I don’t really know why the Spree wanted to do this to me. I suspect it’s something to do with the recent discovery that I have one reader (a charming and extremely intelligent woman called Caroline—see the March issue) whereas there is still no evidence that they have any at all. I’ve tried not to be triumphalist, but even so, they haven’t reacted with great magnanimity, I’m afraid.
A Cold Case is a short, simple, and engrossing ac-count of a detective’s attempt to solve a twenty-seven year-old double homicide—or rather, to find out whether the prime suspect is still alive. The detective’s renewed interest in the case seems almost alarmingly whimsical (he happens to drive past a bar which re-minds him of the night in question), but his rigor and probity are unquestionable, and one of the joys of the book is that its characters—upright, determined detective, psychotic but undeniably magnetic villain—seem to refer back to the older, simpler, and more dangerous New York City. In one of my favorite passages, Gourevitch reports verbatim the conversations he overhears in the office of a colorful lawyer with a lot of Italian-American clients:
[Enter Rocco, a burly man with a voice like a cement mixer]
RICHMAN: Your father and I grew up together…Your mother is a beautiful lady.
ROCCO: She sure is…
RICHMAN:Your uncle—the first time I had him, he was thirteen years old.
RICHMAN: I represented Nicole when she killed her mother, when she cut her mother’s throat.
ROCCO: Yes, yes, I remember that.
The end of this exchange raises the alarming possibility of an alternative version, wherein Rocco had for-gotten all about Nicole cutting her mother’s throat. And though I do not wish to generalize about the people or person who reads this magazine, I’m sure I speak for all of us when I say that we would have retained at least the vaguest memory of an equivalent occasion in our own lives.
I was shamed into reading In Cold Blood at one of Violet Incredible’s London literary soirees. I think I may have mentioned before that I know Violet Incredible of The Incredibles personally. Anyway, ever since the success of that film, she has taken to gathering groups of writers around her, presumably in the hope that she becomes more literary (and, let’s face it, less animated) by osmosis. I don’t know why we all turn out. I suppose the truth is that we are none of us as immune to the tawdry glitter of Hollywood as we like to pretend. At the most recent of these events, most of the writers present suddenly started enthusing about Truman Capote’s 1965 nonfiction classic. And though it goes without saying that I joined in, for fear of incurring Violet’s disapproval, I’ve never actually read the thing.
It makes a lot of sense reading it immediately after A Cold Case, and not just because they belong in the same genre. Philip Gourevitch thanks David Remnick in his acknowledgments, and Truman Capote thanks William Shawn; this is New Yorker true crime, then and now (ish), and the comparison is instructive. Capote’s book is much wordier, and researched almost to within an inch of its life, to the extent that one becomes acutely aware of the information that is being concealed from the reader. (If he knows this much, you keep thinking, then he must know the rest, too. And of course anyone constructing a narrative out of real events knows more than they’re letting on, but it’s not helpful to be re-minded so forcefully of the writer’s omniscience.) Gourevitch’s book is short, understated, selective. And though A Cold Case doesn’t quite attain the heights that In Cold Blood reaches in its bravura, vertiginously tense, unbearably ominous opening section, Gourevitch clearly reaps the benefits of Capote’s groundbreaking work. In Cold Blood is one of the most influential books of the last fifty years, and as far as I can tell, just about every work of novelistic nonfiction published since the 1960s owes it something or another. But the trouble with influential books is that if you have absorbed the influence without ever reading the original, then it can sometimes be hard to appreciate the magnitude of its achievement. I loved In Cold Blood, but at the same time I could feel it slipping away from me as a Major Literary Experience—A Cold Case seemed to me simultaneously less ambitious and more sure-footed. I mean, I’m sure my impression is, you know, wrong. But what can I do?
I read Amanda Eyre Ward’s lovely How To Be Lost after a warm recommendation from a friend, and it’s got the mucus, as P. G. Wodehouse would and did say. (“The mucus” was to Wodehouse’s way of thinking a desirable attribute, lest people think this is some kind of snotty snark.) How To Be Lost isn’t one of those irritatingly perfect novels that people sometimes write; it has a slightly ungainly, gawky shape to it, and slightly more plot than it can swallow without giving itself heartburn. But it has that lovely tone that only American women writers seem to be able to achieve: melancholic, wry, apparently (but only apparently) artless, perched on the balls of its feet and ready to jump either towards humor or towards heartbreak, with no run-up and no effort. How To Be Lost has a great set-up, too. Narrator Caroline, a New Orleans barmaid with a drinking habit, has/had a sister who disappeared without trace when she was a little girl. Just as Caroline’s family is about to declare Ellie dead, Caroline spots a photo in a magazine of a woman in a crowd whose face contains an unmistakeable trace of the child she knew, and she sets off to track the woman down. Good, no?
How To Be Lost is about all the usual stuff you read in literary novels: grief and families and disappointment and so on, and I was interested in what Ward had to say about all of these things. But as far as I was concerned, she’d earned the right to sound off because she’d lured me into her book with an intriguing narrative idea. It doesn’t hurt, that’s all I’m saying. The Kate Atkinson novel I read a few weeks back had a long-time absent little sister in it, too. But where Case Histories (and Atkinson is English) differs from How To Be Lost is….Are you going to read either of these? Perhaps you will. Well, remember the bird books, and choose accordingly.
The last book I read that contained the wealth and range of cultural references on show in Greil Marcus’s Like A Rolling Stone was Bob Dylan’s Chronicles. Those of you who’ve read Dylan’s breathtakingly good memoir might remember that one of the many, many names (of writers, artists, historians, musicians) in there was that of Marcus himself, and there is no reason why Marcus shouldn’t have helped Dylan to think about culture in the same way that he’s helped many of us think about culture.
For the second time this month I found myself envying the advantages that being an American can bring, although on this occasion I envied only those who live and think in America; you can’t envy those who live in America and don’t think (although you could argue that those who don’t think aren’t really living anyway). One of the things that Marcus’s book is about is the slipperiness of meaning in the U.S.; any major American artist, in any idiom, can change the way the country perceives itself. I’m not sure this is possible here in England, where our culture appears so monolithic, and our mouthiest cultural critics so insanely and maddeningly sure of what has value and what doesn’t. If we have never produced a Dylan, it is partly because he would have been patronized back into obscurity: we know what art is, pal, and it’s nothing you’d ever have heard on top 40 radio. I didn’t always understand Like A Rolling Stone (and I can’t for the life of me hear the things that Marcus can in the Pet Shop Boys’ version of “Go West”), but my sporadic bafflement didn’t matter to me in the least. Just to live in the world of this book, a world of intellectual excitement and curiosity and rocket-fuelled enthusiasm, was a treat.
STOP PRESS: Since I began this column, a friend has had an idea for a literary genre I’d never touch in a million years: SF/Fantasy, of the non-literary, nerdy-boys-on-websites variety. He’s right, and already my heart is sinking in a gratifying way. Do I have to? I’m already wishing I’d shelled out for the peregrine falcon book.