Stuff I’ve Been Reading: October 2006
- Field Notes From a Catastrophe—Elizabeth Kolbert
- Imperium—Robert Harris
- Jimi Hendrix Turns 80—Tim Sandlin
- The Zero—Jess Walter
- Fun Home—Alison Bechdel
- Winter’s Bone—Daniel Woodrell
- Will This Do?—Auberon Waugh
- Because I Was Flesh—Edward Dahlberg
- Clear Water—Will Ashon
- My Life with the Hustler—Jamie Griggs Tevis
“What we need,” one of those scary critics who write for the serious magazines said recently, “is more straight talking about bad books.” Well, of course we do. It’s hard to think of anything we need more, in fact. Because then, surely, people would stop reading bad books, and writers would stop writing them, and the only books that anyone read or wrote would be the ones that the scary critics in the serious magazines liked, and the world would be a happier place, unless you happen to enjoy reading the books that the scary critics don’t like—in which case the world would be an unhappier place for you. Tough.
Weirdly, the scary critic was attempting to review a book she did like at the time, so you might have thought that she could have forgotten about bad books for a moment; these people, however, are so cross about everything that they can’t ever forget about bad books, even when they’re supposed to be thinking about good ones. They believe that if you stop thinking about bad books even for one second, they’ll take over your house, like cockroaches. She got distracted mid-review by the Believer, and its decision—which was taken over three years ago—to try and play nice when talking about the arts; some people are beginning to come to terms with it now, not least because they can see that very few pages of the magazine are given over to reviews. (Do we have to do the straight talking even if we’re interviewing someone? Wouldn’t that be rude? And pointless, given that presumably we’d be interviewing someone whose work we didn’t like?)
The scary woman is not a big fan of this column, which is sad, of course, but hardly a surprise. What’s more disappointing to me is that she and I go way back, right to the time when we used to bump into each other on the North of England stand-up comedy circuit, and now we seem to have fallen out. People in Bootle still talk about her impression of the Fonz. Why did she want to throw all that merriment away and become a literary editor? To borrow an old line from the late, great Tommy Cooper: we used to laugh when she said she wanted to be a comedian. We’re not laughing now.
I am unable, unfortunately, to do any straight talking about the books I’ve been reading, because they were all great. The one I enjoyed the least was Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes From a Catastrophe, and that’s because she makes a very convincing argument that our planet will soon be uninhabitable. Usually, devastatingly depressing nonfiction gives you some kind of get-out: it couldn’t happen here, it won’t happen to me, it won’t happen again. But this one really doesn’t allow for much of that. Kolbert travels to Alaskan villages with permafrost experts to see how the permafrost is melting. (Hey, W. It’s called permafrost. It’s melting. Tell us again why there’s nothing to worry about.) She visits Greenland with NASA scientists to watch the ice sheets disintegrating, listens to biologists describe how English butterflies are moving their natural habitats northwards, goes to Holland to look at the amphibious houses being built in preparation for the coming deluge. You couldn’t wish for a cleaner or more concise explanation of the science—Kolbert’s research is woven into her text like clues in the scariest thriller you’ll ever read. There is no real debate about any of this in the scientific community, by the way. Oil companies and other interested parties occasionally try to start a debate by making claims that are clearly and criminally fallacious, on the grounds that we might believe there’s an element of doubt, or that the truth lies somewhere in between, but really there’s nothing to argue about. Climate change is happening now, and it will be devastating, unless unimaginably enormous steps are taken by everyone, immediately.
There is, I need hardly tell you, very little evidence that anyone in any position of authority in the U.S. is prepared to do what is desperately needed. Senator James Inhofe, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, believes that global warming is “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people”; White House official Philip Cooney “repeatedly edited government reports on climate change in order to make their findings seem less alarming,” before quitting his job and going off to work for Exxon-Mobil.
I don’t often have the urge to interview authors of nonfiction, because the book should, and invariably does, answer any questions I might have had on the subject. But I noticed in the author bio on the dust-jacket that Elizabeth Kolbert, like me, has three sons. Has she talked to them about this stuff? How does it affect her morale, her ability to provide the kind of positivity and sense of security that children need? The evidence suggests that our children will be living very different, and much less comfortable, lives than our own; they may well decide that there’s not much point in having children themselves. You may not want to read a book as lowering as this one, but maybe that’s one of the problems anyway, that we don’t want to know. If you don’t want to know, then you need to take your head out of your ass and read Field Notes From a Catastrophe. It’s short, and it’s rational and calm, and it’s terrifying.
I picked up a manuscript of Tim Sandlin’s novel Jimi Hendrix Turns 80 just at the right time: not only is it funny, but it imagines a future, because that’s where it’s set. Sandlin’s characters all live or work in Mission Pescadero, a retirement community in California, in the year 2023; almost all the old folk are pot-smoking, sexually incontinent hippies who have been sleeping with each other, and arguing with each other (quite often about the original line-up of Blue Cheer) for decades. The in-house band that plays covers at the Friday night sock hop is called Acid Reflux, which may well be the most perfect fictional band name I’ve ever come across.
The residents of Mission Pescadero, sick of being tranquillized and denied privileges by the authoritarian staff, stage a revolution and seize control, but Jimi Hendrix Turns 80 is not the sort of satire that loses its soul in an attempt to crank up the pace, and nor does it waste its characters while wrapping up its narrative. And, of course, it would have been unreadable if it had attempted to patronize or poke fun at the old, or the ageing process, but it never does that. Sandlin can see that there is a kind of gruesome comedy in what happens to us, but the humor is never mean, and he loves his people too much not to understand that their grief and nostalgia and frustration is real. This clever novel slipped down easily, and provided real refreshment in this vicious, stupefying (and, Elizabth Kolbert has taught me, probably sinister) London summer.
Imperium is the first novel in my brother-in-law’s projected trilogy about Cicero. I wrote about his last novel, Pompeii, in this column, and was positive that I’d have been sacked by the time his next one came out, but here we are. I won’t say too much about it, other than that I have the cleverest brother-in-law a man could wish for, and that having a clever brother-in-law is enormously and gratifyingly educative. He doesn’t need any help from me, anyway.
OK, I will say this: Robert’s Cicero is a proper, living, breathing politician, and therefore perhaps the best fictional portrayal of the breed I’ve come across. Usually, the narrative in novels about politics goes like this: earnest, committed and naïve young politician is made older and more cynical by the real world. Anyone who was ever at school or college with a politician, however, knows that this narrative only works as metaphor, because people who want to be politicians are never naïve. Those little bastards are sneaky and ambitious even when attempting to be elected as entertainments secretary. (We need our representatives in our respective parliaments, of course we do, but they are the least representative people you could ever come across.) Robert understands this, although he’s a former political reporter, so he likes politicians more than I do, and as a result, Cicero is properly complicated: attractive, devious, passionate, ferociously energetic, pragmatic. This, surely, is how he was, and I suspect our own Prime Minister must have been very similar. Your President, however, is sui generis.
I’ve been waiting to see how Jess Walter followed up last year’s brilliant Citizen Vince, although I wish I’d had to wait a little longer—not because I thought his new book needed the extra time and care, but because he’s not playing the game. Yes, it’s perfectly possible to write a book every year—all you need to do is write five hundred words a day (less than a quarter of the length of this column) for about eight months. This, however, would only leave four months of the year for holidays, watching the World Cup, messing about on the internet, judging book prizes in exotic locales, and so on. So most authors keep to a much more leisurely schedule of a book every two or three years, while at the same time managing to give the impression to publishers that books are somehow bubbling away inside them, and that any attempt to force the pace of the bubbling process would be disastrous. It’s a system that works well, provided that people like Walter don’t work too hard. If the various writers’ unions had any real teeth, he’d be getting a knock on the door in the middle of the night.
It doesn’t help that The Zero is a dazzlingly ambitious novel, a sort of Manchurian Candidate-style satire of post-9/11 paranoia. Brian Remy is a policeman involved in the clear-up of an enormous structure that has been destroyed in some sort of horrific terrorist attack. To his bewilderment, he’s taken off this job and put to work on an undercover counter-terrorist organization, a job he never fully understands—partly because the task itself is dizzyingly incomprehensible, and partly because Remy suffers from blackouts, or slippages out of consciousness, which means that he wakes up in the middle of scenes with no real awareness of how he got there, or what he’s supposed to be doing.
This condition is a gift, for both writer and reader—we’re as compelled and as thrillingly disoriented as he is—but where Walter really scores is in the marriage of form and content. Has there ever been a more confusing time in our recent history? You didn’t have to be Brian Remy to feel that life immediately post 9/11 seemed to consist of discrete moments that refused to cohere into an unbroken narrative. And there were (and are still) pretty rich pickings for paranoiacs, too. Remy keeps stumbling into huge aircraft hangars filled with people poring over bits of charred paper, and one recognizes both the otherworldliness and plausibility of these scenes simultaneously. A couple of books ago, Walter was writing (very good) genre thrillers; now there’s no telling where he’s going to end up. I don’t intend to miss a single step of his journey.
Last month I read nothing much at all, because of the World Cup, and this month I read a ton of stuff. I am usually able to convince myself that televised sport can provide everything literature offers and more, but my faith in my theory has been shaken a little by this control experiment. Who in the World Cup was offering the sophisticated, acutely observed analysis of the parent-child relationship to be found Alison Bechdel’s extraordinary graphic novel Fun Home, for example? You could make an argument for Ghana, I suppose, in the earlier rounds, or Italy in the knock-out stages. But let’s face it, your argument would be gibberish, and whoever you were arguing with would laugh at you.
Fun Home has had an enormous amount of praise ladled on it already, and those of us who love graphic novels will regret slightly the overt literariness of Bechdel’s lovely book (there are riffs on Wilde, and The Portrait of A Lady, and Joyce)—not because it’s unenjoyable or pretentious or unjustified, but because it is likely to encourage those who were previously dismissive of the form to decide that it is, after all, capable of intelligence. Never mind. We’ll ignore them. Fun Home is still as good as the very best graphic novels, although it’s a graphic memoir, rather than a novel, and as such can stand comparison with The Liar’s Club or This Boy’s Life or any of the best ones. Bechdel grew up in a fun(eral) home, and had a father who struggles with his homosexuality throughout his life, and despite these singularities, she has written (and drawn) a book whose truth is instantly recognizable to anyone who’s ever had a complication in their youth or young adulthood. It’s rich, and detailed, and clever even without the literary references.
Fun Home is, I think, a great book, yet someone, somewhere, won’t like it, and will say so somewhere. If you want to do some “straight talking,” do it about the environment, or choose some other subject where there’s a demonstrable truth; Elizabeth Kolbert knows that there’s enough hot air as it is.