Stuff I’ve Been Reading: September 2007

Stuff I’ve Been Reading: September 2007

Nick Hornby
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  • Skellig—David Almond
  • Clay—David Almond
  • Tom’s Midnight Garden—Philippa Pearce
  • Queuing for Beginners: The Story of Daily Life from Breakfast to Bedtime—Joe Moran
  • The Road—Cormac McCarthy
  • Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance—Atul Gawande
  • The Rights of the Reader—Daniel Pennac


  • Skellig—David Almond
  • Clay—David Almond
  • Sharp Teeth—Toby Barlow
  • The Road—Cormac McCarthy
  • The Brambles—Eliza Minot
  • Queuing for Beginners—Joe Moran
  • American Born Chinese—Gene Luen Yang

I had all sorts of clever introductions to this month’s column written in my head, opening paragraphs that would have provoked and inspired and maybe even amused one or two of you, if you were in a really good mood. When I read the Eliza Minot novel, I started working up this riff about the joys of uncannily accurate impersonation; when I read the David Almond novels, I was going to tell you all to abandon adult fiction and turn to books written for kids and teenagers. And then I read the Cormac McCarthy novel, and they all seemed inappropriate, like trying to tell New Yorkers about my news first on September 11, 2001.

As you probably know by now—and more than eight million of you voted for it in the Believer Book Award—The Road may well be the most miserable book ever written, and God knows there’s some competition out there. As you probably know by now, it’s about the end of the world. Two survivors of the apocalypse, a man and his young son, wander through the scarred gray landscape foraging for food, and trying to avoid the feral gangs who would rather kill them and eat them than share their sandwiches with them. The man spends much of the book wondering whether he should shoot his son with their last remaining bullet, just to spare him any further pain. Sometimes they find unexpected caches of food and drink. Sometimes they find shriveled heads, or the remains of a baby on a barbecue. Sometimes you feel like begging the man to use his last bullet on you, rather than the boy. The boy is a fictional creation, after all, but you’re not. You’re really suffering. Reading The Road is rather like attending the beautiful funeral of someone you love who has died young. You’re happy that the ceremony seems to be going so well, and you know you’ll remember the experience for the rest of your life, but the truth is that you’d rather not be there at all.

What do we think about when we read a novel this distressing? The Road is a brilliant book, but it is not a complicated one, so it’s not as if we can distract ourselves with contemplation; you respond mostly with your gut rather than your mind. My wife, who read it just before I did, has vowed to become more practical in order to prepare herself for the end of the world; her lack of culinary imagination when handed a few wizened animal gizzards and some old bits of engine has left her with the feeling that she’d be an inadequate mother if worse comes to worst. And I ended up thinking about those occasional articles about the death of the novel—almost by definition, seeing as our planet hasn’t yet suffered this kind of fatal trauma, you cannot find a nonfiction book as comprehensively harrowing or as provocative as this. Most of the time, however, you just experience an agonizing empathy, especially, perhaps, if you are a parent, and you end up wondering what you can possibly do with it, apart from carry it around with you for days afterward. “It is also a warning,” one of the reviews quoted on the back of my paperback tells me. Well, after reading this, I definitely won’t be pushing the button that brings about the global holocaust.

It is important to remember that The Road is a product of one man’s imagination: the literary world has a tendency to believe that the least consoling worldview is The Truth. (How many times have you read someone describe a novel as “unflinching,” in approving terms? What’s wrong with a little flinch every once in a while?) McCarthy is true to his own vision, which is what gives his novel its awesome power. But maybe when Judgment Day does come, we’ll surprise each other by sharing our sandwiches and singing “Bridge over Troubled Water,” rather than by scooping out our children’s brains with spoons. Yes, it’s the job of artists to force us to stare at the horror until we’re on the verge of passing out. But it’s also the job of artists to offer warmth and hope and maybe even an escape from lives that can occasionally seem unendurably drab. I wouldn’t want to pick one job over the other—they both seem pretty important to me. And it’s quite legitimate, I think, not to want to read The Road. There are some images now embedded in my memory that I don’t especially want there. Don’t let any-one tell you that you have a duty to read it.

So here’s the introduction about mimicry. It goes something like this. Ahem. Believe it or not, I am not a good mimic. I can only do one impersonation, an actually pretty passable stab at Mick Jagger, but only as he appears in the Simpsons episode in which Homer goes to rock and roll fantasy camp. It’s not much, I admit, but it’s mine, and when I pull it off, my children laugh—simply, I guess, because it sounds so like the original, rather than because I am doing anything funny. (I never do anything funny.) Some of the considerable pleasure I drew from Eliza Minot’s The Brambles was her enviable ability to capture family life with such precision that… Well, you don’t want to laugh, exactly, because The Brambles is mostly about how three adult siblings cope with a dying father, but there is some-thing about Minot’s facility that engenders a kind of childlike delight: How did she do that? Do it again! One conversation in particular, in which a mother is attempting to explain the mysteries of death to her young children, is so loving in its depiction of the mess you can get into in these situations, and so uncannily authentic, that you end up resenting the amount of inauthentic claptrap you consume during your reading life. The Brambles isn’t perfect—there’s a plot twist that ends up overloading the narrative without giving the book anything much in return—but Eliza Minot is clearly on the verge of producing something special.

It’s been a pretty significant reading month, now that I come to think about it. I read a modern classic that took away whatever will to live I have left, discovered a couple of younger writers, and then came across an unfamiliar genre that, I suspect, will prove of great significance for both my reading and my writing life. I recently completed my first novel for or possibly just about young adults, and my U.S. publishers asked me to go to Washington D.C., to read from and talk about the book to an audience of librarians. One of the writers on the panel with me was a guy called David Almond, whose work I didn’t know; a couple of days before I met him, his novel Skellig was voted the third greatest children’s book of the last seventy years. (Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights was top, and Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden came in second.)

I read Skellig on the plane, and though I have no idea whether it’s the third greatest children’s book of the last seventy years, I can tell you that it’s one of the best novels published in the last decade, and I’d never heard of it. Have you? Skellig is the beautifully simple and bottomlessly complicated story of a boy who finds a sick angel in his garage, a stinking, croaking creature who loves Chinese takeaways and brown ale. Meanwhile, Michael’s baby sister lies desperately sick in a hospital, fluttering gently between life and death.

The only problem with reading Skellig at an advanced age is that it’s over before you know it; a twelve-year-old might be able to eke it out, spend a little longer in the exalted, downbeat world that Almond creates. Skellig is a children’s book because it is accessible and because it has children at the center of its narrative, but, believe me, it’s for you too, because it’s for everybody, and the author knows it. At one point, Mina, Michael’s friend, a next-door neighbor who is being homeschooled, picks up one of Michael’s books and flicks through it.

“Yeah, looks good,” she said. “But what’s the red sticker for?”

“It’s for confident readers,” I said. “It’s to do with reading age.”

“And what if other readers wanted to read it?…. And where would William Blake fit in?… ‘Tyger! Tyger! Burning bright / In the forests of the night.’ Is that for the best readers or the worst readers? Does it need a good reading age?…. And if it was for the worst readers would the best readers not bother with it because it was too stupid for them?”

Now that I come to think about it, Mina’s observations might well summarize what this column has been attempting to say all along.

For the first time in the last three or four years, I read two books in a row by the same author, and though Clay isn’t quite as elegant as Skellig, it’s still extraordinary, a piece of pre-Christian mythmaking set in the northeast of England in the late ’60s. And suddenly, I’m aware that there may well be scores of authors like David Almond, people producing masterpieces that I am ignorant of because I happen to be older than the intended readership. Is The Road better than Skellig? That wouldn’t be a very interesting argument. But when I’d finished Clay I read an adult novel, a thriller, that was meretricious, dishonest, pretentious, disastrously constructed, and garlanded with gushing re-views; in other words, the best readers had spoken.

Meanwhile, the hits just kept on coming. Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese is a clever, crisply drawn graphic novel about the embarrassment of almost belonging; Toby Barlow’s Sharp Teeth is a novel about werewolves in Los Angeles, and it’s written in blank verse, and it’s tremendous. I can’t remember now if I’ve ever cried wolf, as it were, and recommended other blank-verse werewolf novels—probably I have. Well, forget them all, because this is the one.

I was sent a proof copy of Sharp Teeth, and when I saw it, I wished it well, but couldn’t imagine actually reading it, what with it being a blank-verse novel about werewolves and all. But I looked at the first page, got to the bottom of it, turned it over, read the second page, and… You get the picture, anyway. You’re all smart people, and you know the conventional way to get through a book. All I’m saying is that my desire to persist took me by surprise.

I had suspected that Sharp Teeth might not be serious—that it would turn out to be a satire about the film industry, for example (sharp teeth, L.A., agents, producers, blah blah). But the beauty of the book is that it’s deadly serious; like David Almond, Toby Barlow takes his mythical creatures literally, and lets the narrative provide the metaphor. It’s stomach-churningly violent in places (they don’t mess around, werewolves, do they?), and tender, and satisfyingly complicated: there’s an involved plot about rival gangs that lends the book a great deal of noir cool. The blank verse does precisely what Barlow must have hoped it would do, namely, add intensity without distracting, or affecting readability. And it’s as ambitious as any literary novel, because underneath all that fur, it’s about identity, community, love, death, and all the things we want our books to be about. I’m not quite sure how Barlow can follow this, if he wants to. But there’s every chance that Sharp Teeth will end up being clasped to the collective bosom of the young, dark, and fucked-up.

It seems years ago now that I dipped into Joe Moran’s engaging Queuing for Beginners: The Story of Daily Life from Breakfast to Bedtime. Externally, I have only aged a month or so since I picked it up, but in the meantime I have endured an Altamont of the mind, and my soul feels five hundred years old. Post-McCarthy, it’s hard to remember those carefree days when I could engross myself in anecdotes about the Belisha beacon, and short social histories of commuting and the ciga-rette break. (Eighty-nine percent of Englishmen smoked in 1949! And we were still a proper world power back then! My case rests.) And I suppose a sense of purpose and hope might return, slowly, if I read enough P. G. Wodehouse and sports biographies. I have nearly finished the Joe Moran, and I would very much like to read his final chapter about the duvet. But what’s the point, really? There won’t be duvets in the future, you know. And if there are, they will be needed to cover the putrefying bodies of our families. Is there any-thing funny on TV?

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