Stuff I’ve Been Reading: May 2008
- The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Provence—Martin Gayford
- Gomorrah: Italy’s Other Mafia—Roberto Saviano
- Anonymity: A Secret History of English Literature—John Mullan
- Spike & Co.—Graham McCann
- The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation—M. T. Anderson
- Flat Earth News—Nick Davies
- The Happiest Man in the World—Alec Wilkinson
- Spike & Co.—Graham McCann
- The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao—Junot Diaz
- The Shadow Catcher—Marianne Wiggins
Last month, I wrote about stuff I’d been watching, and while I was writing about stuff I’d been watching, I was thinking about the stuff I wasn’t reading. I wasn’t not reading because of the watching; I was simply not reading. Or rather, I was simply not reading complete books. I tried, several times; I began Martin Gayford’s The Yellow House, about the nine weeks that Gauguin and van Gogh spent as roommates, and Matt Ridley’s Genome, and Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge, and Meg Wolitzer’s The Position, and Irmgard Keun’s Child of All Nations, and Roberto Saviano’s Gomorrah: Italy’s Other Mafia, and John Mullan’s Anonymity, and I read a couple of entries in Clive James’s Cultural Amnesia, and nothing took. None of this, of course, is the fault of these fine authors or their almost certainly brilliant work. I was just itchy and scratchy and probably crusty, too, and I began to wonder whether I had simply lost the habit—the skill, even—of reading. I was beginning to feel that this one long, pained explanation would have to serve as my last in this space, which I would then simply hand over to someone young enough to plow all the way through to the end, or at least the middle, of anything they start. (Although isn’t that supposed to be one of the problems with young people? That their brains have been so rotted by Internet pornography and Nintendo that they are physically incapable of reading anything longer than a cereal packet? Maybe I will prove impossible to replace, and as long as I read a few opening paragraphs every month, this gig is mine forever.) At least I have some facts at my disposal. Did you know that if you wrote out the human genome, one letter per millimeter, the text would be as long as the river Danube? Did you know that the most expensive living artist in 1876 was Meissonier, one of whose paintings went for nearly four hundred thousand francs? These are two of the many things I’ve learned by reading the beginnings of this month’s books. I am beginning to think that this new regime will be ideal for my dotage. I can read the beginnings of a few books, sit at the bar at my local and regale people with fascinating nuggets of information. How can I fail to make friends if I know how long the human genome is?
Just as I was beginning to despair—and let’s face it, a man who is tired of books is looking at an awful lot of Rockford Files reruns—a book lying on a trestle table in a local bookshop managed to communicate to me its desire to be read in its entirety, and I bought it, and I swallowed it whole. Quite why Graham McCann’s Spike & Co., about British comedy writing in the 1950s, should have succeeded in its siren call where scores of others failed remains mysterious. I had absolutely no previous desire to read it—I didn’t even know it existed before the morning I bought it—and though I love a couple of the writers McCann discusses, I hadn’t thought about them in a long while. Maybe the book nutritionists are right (and I’m sure that those of you who live in California probably have book nutritionists working for you full-time, maybe even living in your ubiquitous “guesthouses”): you need to listen to what your soul needs.
Spike & Co. is about a group of writers who formed a company called Associated London Scripts (they wanted to call themselves Associated British Scripts, but the local council turned them down on the grounds that they weren’t big enough) who operated out of offices above a greengrocer’s in Shepherd’s Bush, and went on to change the course of British and American TV and radio writing. Out of these offices came The Goons, John Lennon’s favorite radio show and a direct inspiration for Monty Python, Steptoe and Son, which became Sanford and Son in the U.S., ’Til Death Us Do Part (known to you lot as All in the Family), and the sci-fi series Doctor Who, which is still running, in an admittedly snazzier form, today. I have known and loved these shows for much of my life, and yet I had no idea about the greengrocer aspect of it all, which seems to me extraordinary. Two of my favorite writers—and I’m not talking about writers of TV and radio comedy, but writers of all denominations—Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, met in a TB sanatorium, and I didn’t know that, either. They were both desperately ill teenagers, neither expected to live much into his twenties; they met toward the end of their stay in the late 1940s, and by the mid-’60s had produced Hancock’s Half Hour and Steptoe and Son, two series that have helped form the psyche of contemporary Britain. The chapter on Spike Milligan, meanwhile, provides an invaluable writing tip. “Once he had started work on a script he disliked ever having to stop; he wrote as he thought, and if he came to a place where the right line failed to emerge, he would just jab a finger at one of the keys, type ‘FUCK IT’ or ‘BOLLOCKS,’ and then carry on regardless. The first draft would feature plenty of such expletives, but then, with each successive version, the expletives grew fewer and fewer, until by about the tenth draft, he had a complete, expletive-free script.…” I have found this more helpful than I am prepared to talk about in any great depth, possibly because I can build my own inadequacies right into the page, rather than let them hover around the edges.
I can’t hope or imagine that you’ll enjoy this book as much as I did. Much of it will be incomprehensible to you, and in any case, you’re not me. John Carey points out in his book What Good Are the Arts? that there are millions of tiny decisions and influences, over the course of a lifetime, that help us form our relationships with books and music and the rest of it, and if you shared even half a dozen of them, I’d be surprised. Even if you’d bought the book at the same time at the same store, you couldn’t have spent the previous hour on my analyst’s couch—I would have noticed, because I’d have been lying on top of you. But as a direct result of Spike & Co., two things happened: (1) I bought a signed commemorative Galton and Simpson print off the Internet, and (2) I emailed a friend and asked him if he wanted to have a go at writing something with me, even though neither of us has TB or indeed any life-threatening infectious disease—Spike & Co. is a hymn to the joys of collaboration, and I suddenly became dissatisfied with the solitary nature of my day job. Such is the way of these things that nothing will come of it, of course, but we’re having fun, and it’s not often that you can say that about a day spent at a computer.
I read The Shadow Catcher and Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao because I had to: I agreed to judge the Morning News’s Rooster competition, in which the best books of last year are drawn against each other in a knockout competition. At the time of writing, there is no overall winner, but I can tell you that Diaz unsportingly thumped Marianne Wiggins in my round. He’s twenty years younger and, as far as one can tell from the jacket photos, a lot tougher than Wiggins, but he didn’t let any of that stop him. I hope he’s ashamed of himself. His book, incidentally, is brilliant.
The reading hiatus came during and after all the film watching, but luckily for you, I read a couple of books before it, so you can’t leave just yet. Alec Wilkinson’s The Happiest Man in the World is a study of Poppa Neutrino, and the book’s title worked on me just as it was supposed to: I wanted to know his secret. I was once sent a self-help book called Should You Leave?, which was kicking around the house, in the way that books sometimes do, for months. Visitors would look at it, smile, pick it up, put it down, and then eventually start flicking through it. Nobody actually asked which page contained the answer, but you could see that they were hoping to stumble upon it without looking as though they were trying. It strikes me that anyone caught reading The Happiest Man in the World is owning up to a similar sort of dissatisfaction. I’m not sure, though, that Poppa Neutrino, a kind of Zen hobo who has spent his life rafting across the Atlantic, inventing new football plays, etc., can provide the answers we might be looking for. “He has begun to bleed constantly from his backside, so there is always a dark stripe down his pants….” “The box was six feet long, four feet tall and four feet wide…. He came and went from the box only when no one was around, because he didn’t want anyone to know he was living in it.” I was unable to put myself in Neutrino’s position and imagine myself as anything other than thoroughly miserable, so I quickly gave up on the idea of discovering the route to my future happiness and looked instead for the source of his. This, too, remains elusive—indeed, Poppa Neutrino seems to spend so much time starving, having heart attacks, living in boxes, and bleeding from his backside that you can’t help wondering whether there was a terrible mix-up, and whether the text belonging to this particular title is inside the cover of an altogether less-promising-looking book. And there is a sleight of hand played here, too. The reason that many of us cannot live a life free of grinding obligation is because we have mortgages, children, parents, friends, and so on. Presumably the mortgage payments on boxes are not onerous, but Neutrino certainly has children, few of whom are mentioned at any great length; this raises the suspicion that it’s easier to avoid grinding obligation if one simply chooses to ignore it. Those who read the New Yorker will know that Alec Wilkinson is incapable of writing anything dull, or inelegant, and his obvious fascination with the subject gives the book a winning energy. That fascination, however, is not always entirely comprehensible.
The Happiest Man in the World made me think, though. Mostly I ended up thinking about the nature and value of experiences and memories, although I didn’t get very far. Crossing the Atlantic on a raft or staying in to watch TV… It’s all the same, in the end, isn’t it? There comes a time when it’s over, and all you can do is talk about it. And if that’s the case, then… I’m sorry. If you bother with this column at all, it’s probably because you’re looking for book tips. You probably don’t want to hear that all human endeavor is pointless.
Here’s a tip: M. T. Anderson’s Feed. This is yet another book that can be added to an increasingly long list entitled “YA Novels I’d Never Heard of But Which Turn Out to Be Modern Classics,” and Feed may well be the best of the lot. It’s a sci-fi novel about a world in which everybody is plugged directly into a never-ending stream of text messages, shopping recommendations, pop music, and movie trailers—this is metaphor rather than prediction—and as a consequence Anderson’s characters are frighteningly malleable and disturbingly inarticulate. Even the president of the U.S. has trouble with words! Feed is funny, serious, sad (there’s a heartbreaking doomed romance at the center), and superbly realized; the moment I finished it I bought Anderson’s latest novel, which is completely different. (It’s set in 1775, and it’s about a boy who’s raised by a group of rational philosophers, so it sounds like the author has allowed himself to be seduced by the promise of a quick buck.) I haven’t even read the beginning of it yet, though. It’s a novel, so I very much doubt whether there will be any interesting facts in the opening pages. I rather fear that I’m turning into my father.