Stuff I’ve Been Reading: April 2004

Stuff I’ve Been Reading: April 2004

Nick Hornby
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  • Hangover Square—Patrick Hamilton
  • The Long Firm—Jake Arnott
  • American Sucker—David Denby


  • Hangover Square—Patrick Hamilton
  • The Long Firm—Jake Arnott
  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time— Mark Haddon
  • True Notebooks—Mark Salzman

Last month I was banging on about how books were better than anything—how just about any decent book you picked would beat up anything else, any film or painting or piece of music, you cared to match it up with. Anyway, like most theories advanced in this column, it turned out to be utter rubbish. I read four really good books this month, but even so, my cultural highlights of the last four weeks were not literary. I went to a couple of terrific exhibitions at the Royal Academy (and that’s a hole in my argument right there—one book might beat up one painting, but what chance has one book, or even four books, got against the collected works of Guston and Vuillard?); I saw Jose Antonio Reyes score his first goal for Arsenal against Chelsea, a thirty-yard screamer, right in the top corner; and someone sent me a superlative Springsteen bootleg, a ’75 show at the Main Point in Bryn Mawr with strings, and a cover of “I Want You,” and I don’t know what else. Like I said, I loved the books that I read this month, but when that Reyes shot hit the back of the net, I was four feet in the air. (The Polysyllabic Spree hates sport, especially soccer, because it requires people to expose their arms and legs, and the Spree believes that all body parts must be covered at all times. So even though I’m not allowed to talk about Reyes at any length, he does look to be some player.) Anyway, Patrick Hamilton didn’t even get me to move my feet. I just sat there—lay there, most of the time—throughout the whole thing. So there we are, then. Books: pretty good, but not as good as other stuff, like goals, or bootlegs.

I spent a long time resisting The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time because I got sent about fifteen copies, by publishers and agents and magazines and newspapers, and it made me recalcitrant and reluctant, truculent, maybe even perverse. I got sent fifteen copies because the narrator of The Curious Incident has Asperger’s syndrome, which places him on the autistic spectrum, although way over the other side from my son. I can see why publishers do this, but the books that arrive in the post tend to be a distorted and somewhat unappetizing version of one’s life and work. And what one wants to read, most of the time, is something that bears no reference to one’s life and work.

(Twice this week I have been sent manuscripts of books that remind their editors, according to their covering letters, of my writing. Like a lot of writers, I can’t really stand my own writing, in the same way that I don’t really like my own cooking. And, just as when I go out to eat, I tend not to order my signature dish—an overcooked and overspiced meat-stewy thing containing something inappropriate, like tinned peaches, and a side order of undercooked and flavorless vegetables—I really don’t want to read anything that I could have come up with at my own computer. What I produce on my computer invariably turns out to be an equivalent of the undercooked overcooked stewy thing, no matter how hard I try to follow the recipe, and you really don’t want to eat too much of that. I’d love to be sent a book with an accompanying letter that said, “This is nothing like your work. But as a man of taste and discernment, we think you’ll love it anyway.” That never happens.)

Anyway, I finally succumbed to Mark Haddon’s book, simply because it had been recommended to me so many times as a piece of fiction, rather than as a recognizable portrait of my home life. It’s the third book about autism I’ve read in three months, and each book—this one, Charlotte Moore’s George and Sam, and Paul Collins’s Not Even Wrong—contains a description of the classic test devised to demonstrate the lack of a theory of mind in autistic children. I’ll quote Paul Collins’s succinct summary:

Sally and Anne have a box and a basket in front of them. Sally puts a marble in the basket. Then she leaves the room. While Sally is gone, Anne takes the marble out of the basket and puts it in the box. When Sally comes back in, where will she look for her marble?

If you ask ordinary kids, even ordinary three-year-olds, to observe Sally and Anne and then answer the question, they’ll tell you that Sally will look in the basket. An autistic kid, however, will always tell you that Sally should look in the box, because an autistic kid is unable to imagine that someone else knows (or feels, or thinks) anything different from himself. In The Curious Incident, Christopher attempts to solve a murder-mystery, and one would imagine that of all the career-paths closed off to autists, the path leading to a desk at the FBI is probably the least accessible. If you are profoundly unable to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, then a job involving intuition and empathy, second-guessing and psychology is probably not the job for you. Haddon has Christopher, his narrator, refer to the theory-of-mind experiment, and it’s the one moment in the book where the author nearly brings his otherwise smartly imagined world crashing about his and our ears. Christopher talks about his own failure in the test, and then says, “That was because when I was little I didn’t understand about other people having minds. And Julie said to Mother and Father that I would always find this very difficult. Because I decided it was a kind of puzzle, and if some-thing is a puzzle there is always a way of solving it.”

“I decided it was a kind of puzzle….” Hold on a moment: that means—what?—that every Asperger’s kid could do this, if they so chose? That the most debilitating part of the condition—effectively, the condition itself—could be removed by an application of will? This is dangerous territory, and I’m not sure Haddon crosses it with absolute conviction. The Curious Incident… is an absorbing, entertaining, moving book, but when truth gets bent out of shape in this way in order to serve the purposes of a narrative, then maybe it’s a book that can’t properly be described as a work of art? I don’t know. I’m just asking the question. Happily, the detective element of the novel has been pretty much forgotten by the second half, and one description—of Christopher trying and failing to get on a crowded tube train, and then another, and then another, until hours and hours pass—is unforgettable, and very, very real.

In an online interview, Haddon quotes one of his Amazon reviewers, someone who hated his novel, saying “the most worrying thing about the book is that Christopher says he dislikes fiction, and yet the whole book is fiction.” And that, says the author, “puts at least part of the problem in a nutshell.” It doesn’t, I don’t think, because the Amazon reviewer is too dim to put anything in a nut-shell. I suspect, in fact, that the Amazon reviewer couldn’t put anything in the boot of his car, let alone a nutshell. (Presumably you couldn’t write a book about someone who couldn’t read, either, or someone who didn’t like paper, because the whole book is paper. Oh, man, I hate Amazon reviewers. Even the nice ones, who say nice things. They’re bastards too.) But Haddon is right if what he’s saying is that picking through a book of this kind for inconsistencies is a mug’s game, and I’m sorry if that’s what I’ve done. The part that made me wince a little seemed more fundamental than an inconsistency, though.

This comes up again in Patrick Hamilton’s brilliant Hangover Square, where the central character suffers from some kind of schizophrenia. At periodic intervals he kind of blacks out, even though he remains conscious throughout the attacks. (“It was as though a shutter had fallen”; “as though one had blown one’s nose too hard and the outer world had become suddenly dim”; “as though he had been watching a talking film, and all at once the sound-track had failed”—because George Bone cannot properly recall the last attack, he searches for fresh ways to describe each new one.) And of course it doesn’t quite make sense, because he doesn’t know what he’s doing when the attacks occur, except he does, really; and he doesn’t know who anyone is anymore, except he manages to retain just enough information to make Hamilton’s plot work. And it really doesn’t matter, because this book isn’t about schizophrenia. It’s about an exhausted city on the brink of war—it’s set in London at the beginning of 1939—and about shiftless drunken fuckups, and it feels astonishingly contemporary and fresh. You may remember that I wanted to read Hamilton because my current favorite rock-and-roll band is naming an album after one of his books, and if that seems like a piss-poor (and laughably unliterary) reason to dig out a neglected minor classic, well, I’m sorry. But I got there in the end, and I’m glad I did. Thank you, Marah. Oh, and George Bone in schizophrenic mode has a hilarious and unfathomable obsession with a town called Maidenhead, which is where I grew up, and which has been for the most part overlooked, and wisely so, throughout the entire history of the English novel. Bone thinks that when he gets to Maidenhead, everything’s going to be all right. Good luck with that, George!

I bought Mark Salzman’s True Notebooks a couple of months ago, after an interview with the author in this magazine. I am beginning belatedly to realize that discovering books through reading about them in the Believer, and then writing about them in the Believer—as I have done once or twice before—is a circular process that doesn’t do you any favors. You’d probably like to read about a book you didn’t read about a while back. Anyway, as the interview implied, this is a pretty great book, but, boy is it sad.

True Notebooks is about Mark Salzman’s gig teaching writing at Central Juvenile Hall in LA, where just about every kid is awaiting trial on a gang-related murder charge. Salzman’s just the right person to attempt a book of this kind. He’s empathetic and compassionate and all that jazz, but he’s no bleeding-heart liberal. At the beginning of the book, he lists all the reasons why he shouldn’t get involved in this kind of thing. They include “Students all gangbangers,” “Still angry about getting mugged in 1978,” and, even less ambiguously, “Wish we could tilt LA County and shake it until everybody with a shaved head and tattoos falls into the ocean.” Toward the end of the book, he attends the trial of the student he loves the most, listens to all the extenuating circumstances, and finds himself going to bed that night with a broken heart, just as he feared he would. However, his sadness is engendered “not because of what the legal system was doing to young people… I had to wrap my mind around the fact that someone I had grown so fond of, and who seemed so gentle, had been foolish enough to go to a movie theater carrying a loaded gun, violent enough to shoot three people with it—two of them in the back—and then callous enough to want to go to a movie afterwards.”

I don’t want to give the impression that True Notebooks is unreadable in its gray-grimness, or unpalatably preachy. It’s consistently entertaining, and occasionally bleakly funny. “‘How about describing a time you helped someone?’” Salzman suggests to a student who is struggling for a topic to write about.

“‘Mm… I never did anything that nice for anybody.’” “‘It can be a small thing.’”

“‘Mm… it’s gonna have to be real small, Mark.’”

This is one of those books where the characters learn and grow and change, and we’ve all read countless novels and seen countless films like that, and we know what to expect: redemption, right? But True Notebooks is real, so the characters learn and grow and change, and then get sentenced to thirty-plus years in prison, where god knows what fate awaits them. In the acknowledgments at the end of the book, Salzman thanks the students for making him decide to have children of his own. It might not be much when set against the suffering and pain both caused and experienced by the kids he teaches, but it’s all we’ve got to work with, and I’m disproportionately glad he mentioned it: when I’d finished True Notebooks, Salzman’s kids were all I had to keep me going. I’m enjoying The Long Firm, Jake Arnott’s clever and vivid novel about London’s gangland in the 1960s, but I think perhaps True Notebooks spoiled it for me a little. Gangland, gangs, guns, murder… none of it is as much fun as you might think.

Next month I’m going to read David Copperfield, the only major Dickens I haven’t done yet. I’ll probably still be reading it the month after, too, so if you want to take a break from this column, now would probably be the time to do it. I’ve been putting it off for a while, mostly because of the need to read loads of stuff that I can use to fill up these pages, but I’m really feeling the need for a bit of Dickensian nutrition. I don’t know what I’ll find to say about it, though, and I’m really hoping that Jose Antonio Reyes can help me out of a hole. Are thirty-yard thunderbolts better than Dickens at his best? I’ll bet you can’t wait to find out.

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