Stuff I’ve Been Reading: December 2003/January 2004
- Moneyball—Michael Lewis
- Saul and Patsy—Charles Baxter
- Winner of the National Book Award—Jincy Willett
- Jenny and the Jaws of Life—Jincy Willett
- The Sirens of Titan—Kurt Vonnegut
- True Notebooks—Mark Salzman
- No Name—Wilkie Collins
- Moneyball—Michael Lewis
- George and Sam: Autism in the Family—Charlotte Moore
- The Sirens of Titan—Kurt Vonnegut
First, an apology. Last month, I may inadvertently have given the impression that No Name by Wilkie Collins was a lost Victorian classic (the misunderstanding may have arisen because of my loose use of the phrase “lost Victorian classic”), and that everyone should rush out and buy it. I had read over two hundred pages when I gave you my considered verdict; in fact, the last four hundred and eighteen pages nearly killed me, and I wish I were speaking figuratively. We fought, Wilkie Collins and I. We fought bitterly and with all our might, to a standstill, over a period of about three weeks, on trains and aeroplanes and by hotel swimming pools. Sometimes—usually late at night, in bed—he could put me out cold with a single paragraph; every time I got through twenty or thirty pages, it felt to me as though I’d socked him good, but it took a lot out of me, and I had to retire to my corner to wipe the blood and sweat off my reading glasses. And still he kept coming back for more. Only in the last fifty-odd pages, after I’d landed several of these blows, did old Wilkie show any signs of buckling under the assault. He was pretty tough for a man of nearly one hundred and eighty. Hats off to him. Anyway, I’m sorry for the bum steer, and readers of this column insane enough to have run down to their nearest bookstore as a result of my advice should write to the Believer, enclosing a receipt, and we will refund your $14. It has to say No Name on the ticket, though, because we weren’t born yesterday, and we’re not stumping up for your Patricia Cornwell novels. You can pay for them yourselves.
In his introduction to my Penguin edition, Mark Ford points out that Collins wrote the closing sections of the novel “in both great pain and desperate anxiety over publishers’ deadlines.” (In fact, Dickens, who edited the magazine in which No Name was originally published, All the Year Round, offered to nip down to London and finish the book off for him: “I could take it up any time and do it… so like you as that no-one should find out the difference.” That’s literature for you.) It is not fair to wonder why Collins bothered: No Name has lots going for it, including a driven, complicated, and morally ambiguous central female character, and a tremendous first two hundred pages. But it’s certainly reasonable to wonder why a sick man should have wanted to overextend a relatively slight melodrama to the extent that people want to fight him. No Name is the story of a woman’s attempt to reclaim her rightful inheritance from cruel and heartless relatives, and one of the reasons the book didn’t work for me is that one has to quiver with outrage throughout at the prospect of this poor girl having to work for a living, as a governess or something equally demeaning.
It could be, of course, that the book seems bloated because Collins simply wasn’t as good at handling magazine serialization as Dickens, and that huge chunks of the novel, which originally came in forty-four parts, were written only to keep the end well away from the beginning. I’m only guessing, but I’d imagine that many subscribers to All the Year Round between May 1862 and early January 1863 felt exactly the same way. I’m guessing, in fact, that there were a few cancelled subscriptions, and that No Name is the chief reason you can no longer find All the Year Round alongside the Believer at your nearest newsstand.
There are two sides to every fight, though, and Wilkie would point out that I unwisely attempted to read the second half of No Name during a trip to Los Angeles. Has anyone ever attempted a Victorian novel in Los Angeles, and if so, why? In England, we read Victorian novels precisely because they’re long, and we have nothing else to do. L.A. is too warm, too bright, there’s too much sport on TV, and the sandwiches are too big (and come with chips/“fries”). English people shouldn’t attempt to do anything in L.A.; it’s all too much. We should just lie in a darkened room with a cold flannel until it’s time to come home again.
With the exception of The Sirens of Titan, bought secondhand from a Covent Garden market stall, all this month’s books were purchased at Book Soup in L.A. (Book Soup and the Tower Records directly opposite have become, in my head, what Los Angeles is.) Going to a good U.S. bookshop is still ludicrously exciting (unless I’m on book tour, when the excitement tends to wear off a little): as I don’t see American books-pages, I have no idea whether one of my favorite authors—Charles Baxter, for example, on this trip—has a new book out, and there’s every chance that it won’t be published in the UK for months, if at all. There is enough money in the music and movie industries to ensure that we get to hear about most things that might interest us; books have to remain a secret, to be discovered only when you spend time browsing. This is bad for authors, but good for the assiduous shopper.
Mark Salzman’s book about juvenile offenders I read about in the Believer. I met Mark after a reading in L.A. some years ago, and one of the many memorable things he told me was that he’d written a large chunk of his last novel almost naked, covered in aluminum foil, with a towel round his head, sitting in a car. His reasons for doing so, which I won’t go into here, were sound, and none of them were connected with mental illness, although perhaps inevitably he had caused his wife some embarrassment—especially when she brought friends back to the house. Jincy Willett, whose work I had never heard of, I bought because of her blurbs, which, I’m afraid to say, only goes to show that blurbs do work.
I was in the U.S. for the two epic playoff series, between the Cubs and the Marlins, and the Red Sox and the Yankees, and I became temporarily fixated with baseball. And I’d read something about Moneyball somewhere, and it was a staff pick at Book Soup, and when, finally, No Name lay vanquished and lifeless at my feet, it was Lewis’s book I turned to: it seemed a better fit. Moneyball is a rotten title, I think. You expect a subtitle something along the lines of How Greed Killed America’s National Pastime, but actually the book isn’t like that at all—it’s the story of how Billy Beane, the GM of the Oakland A’s, worked out how to buck the system and win lots of games despite being hampered by one of the smallest payrolls in baseball. He did this by recognizing (a) that the stats traditionally used to judge players are almost entirely worthless, and (b) that many good players are being discarded by the major leagues simply because they don’t look like good players.
The latter discovery in particular struck a chord with me, because my football career has been blighted by exactly this sort of prejudice. English scouts visiting my Friday morning five-a-side game have (presumably) dis-counted me on peripheral grounds of age, weight, speed, amount of time spent lying on the ground weeping with exhaustion, etc.; what they’re not looking at is performance, which is of course the only thing that counts. They’d have made a film called Head It Like Hornby by now if Billy Beane were working over here. (And if I were any good at heading, another overrated and peripheral skill.) Anyway, I understood about one word in every four of Moneyball, and it’s still the best and most engrossing sports book I’ve read for years. If you know anything about baseball, you will enjoy it four times as much as I did, which means that you might explode.
I have an autistic son, but I don’t often read any books about autism. Most of the time, publishers seem to want to hear from or about autists with special talents, as in Rain Man (my son, like the vast majority of autistic kids, and contrary to public perception, has no special talent, unless you count his remarkable ability to hear the opening of a crisp packet from several streets away), or from parents who believe that they have “res-cued” or “cured” their autistic child, and there is no cure for autism, although there are a few weird stories, none of which seem applicable to my son’s condition. So most books on the subject tend to make me feel alienated, resentful, cynical, or simply baffled. Granted, pretty much any book on any subject seems to make me feel this way, but I reckon that in this case, my personal experience of the subject means I’m entitled to feel anything I want.
I read Charlotte Moore’s book because I agreed to write an introduction for it, and I agreed to write an introduction because, in a series of brilliant columns in the Guardian, she has managed not only to tell it like it is, but to do so with enormous good humour and wit—George and Sam (Moore has three sons, two of whom are autistic) is, believe it or not, the funniest book I’ve read this year. I’m not sure I would have found it as funny six or seven years ago, when Danny was first diagnosed, and autism wasn’t a topic that made me laugh much; but now that I’m used to glancing out of the window on cold wet November nights and suddenly seeing a ten-year-old boy bouncing naked and gleeful on a trampoline, I have come to relish the stories all parents of autistic kids have.
The old cliché “You couldn’t make it up” is always dispiriting to anyone who writes fiction—if you couldn’t make it up, then it’s probably not worth talking or writing about anyway. But autism is worth writing about—not just because it affects an increasingly large number of people, but because of the light the condition shines down on the rest of us. And though you can predict that autistic kids are likely to behave in peculiar obsessive-compulsive ways, the details of these compulsions and obsessions are always completely unimaginable, and frequently charming in their strange-ness. Sam, the younger of Moore’s two autistic boys, has an obsession with oasthouses—he once escaped from home in order to explore a particularly fine example a mile and a half away. “Its owner, taking an afternoon nap, was startled to be joined in bed by a small boy still wearing his Wellington boots.”
George, meanwhile, is compelled to convince every-one that he doesn’t eat, even though he does. After his mum has made his breakfast she has to reassure him that it’s for Sam, and then turn her back until he’s eaten it. (Food has to be smuggled into school, hidden inside his swimming things.) Sam loves white goods, especially washing machines, so during a two-week stay in London he was taken to a different launderette each day, and nearly combusted with excitement; he also likes to look at bottles of lavatory cleaner through frosted glass. George parrots lines he’s learned from videotapes: “The Government has let me down,” he told his trampoline teacher recently. (For some reason, trampolines are a big part of our lives.) “This would make Ken Russell spit with envy,” he remarked enigmatically on another occasion. Oasthouses, washing machines, pretending not to eat when really you do… see? You really couldn’t make it up.
I don’t want to give the impression that living with an autistic child is all fun. If you have a child of the com-mon or garden-variety, I wouldn’t recommend, on balance, that you swap him in (most autistic kids are boys) for a child with a hilarious obsession. Hopefully I need hardly add that there’s some stuff that… well, that, to understate the case, isn’t quite as hilarious. I am merely pointing out, as Moore is doing, that if you are remotely interested in the strangeness and variety and beauty of humankind, then there is a lot in the condition to marvel at. This is the first book about autism I’ve read that I’d recommend to people who want to know what it is like; it’s sensible about education, diet, possible causes, just about everything that affects the quotidian lives of those dealing with the condition. It also made this parent feel better about the compromises one has to make: “This morning George breakfasted on six After Eights [After Eights are “sophisticated” chocolate mints] and some lemon barley-water. I was pleased—pleased—because lately he hasn’t been eating at all…” In our house it’s salt-and-vinegar crisps.
I can imagine George and Sam doing a roaring trade with grandparents, aunts, and uncles tough enough to want to know the truth. I read it while listening to Damien Rice’s beautiful O for the first time, and I had an unexpectedly transcendent moment: the book coloured the music, and the music coloured the book, and I ended up feeling unambivalently happy that my son is who he is; those moments are precious. I hope George and Sam finds a U.S. publisher.
A couple of months ago, I became depressed by the realization that I’d forgotten pretty much everything I’ve ever read. I have, however, bounced back: I am now cheered by the realization that, if I’ve forgotten every-thing I’ve ever read, then I can read some of my favorite books again as if for the first time. I remembered the punch line of The Sirens of Titan, but everything else was as fresh as a daisy, and Vonnegut’s wise, lovely, world-weary novel was a perfect way to cap Charlotte Moore’s book: she’d prepared the way beautifully for a cosmic and absurdly reductive view of our planet. I’m beginning to see that our appetite for books is the same as our appetite for food, that our brain tells us when we need the literary equivalent of salads, or chocolate, or meat and potatoes. When I read Moneyball, it was because I wanted something quick and light after the 32-oz steak of No Name; The Sirens of Titan wasn’t a reaction against George and Sam, but a way of enhancing it. So what’s that? Mustard? MSG? A brandy? It went down a treat, anyway.
Smoking is rubbish, most of the time. But if I’d never smoked, I’d never have met Kurt Vonnegut. We were both at a huge party in New York, and I sneaked out onto the balcony for a cigarette, and there he was, smoking. So we talked—about C. S. Forester, I seem to remember. (That’s just a crappy and phony figure of speech. Of course I remember.) So tell your kids not to smoke, but it’s only fair to warn them of the down side, too: that they will therefore never get the chance to offer the greatest living writer in America a light.