Saturday, 19 December 2009

Books & Christmas

I have been mostly reading recently. All good stuff.

First Paul Auster: he is my kind of author, engaging, intelligent, enquiring and playful.

I have read his The New York Trilogy and The Book of Illusions.

The New York Trilogy starts with City of Glass in which a writer, Daniel Quinn, once a promising poet, now a hack writing under a nom du plume, has successfully created a popular crime fiction character. Quinn, who has all but lost a sense of self, identifies most strongly with the detective, the creation of his alter ego. Quinn's isolation is disturbed when he receives urgent calls that insist he is Paul Auster, private investigator. And so the road to madness is laid.

I have to admit I giggled as I read the beautifully witty way in which Auster, the author, unapologetically announces his intent: 'I,' he says, 'am going to play around with notions of identity. Yours as reader, mine as author.' [My quote.]

The second in the trilogy, Ghosts, scrubs all notion of personal identity by referring to individuals purely by colour, as Quentin Tarantino does in Reservoir Dogs. (I presume much comment must already exist as to whether or not Tarantino appropriated the idea from Auster.) The plot could not be simpler, one anonymous individual is commissioned by another anonymous individual to watch a third. Echoes of events that occur in City of Glass are faintly heard but their source is hard to pinpoint.

The final is The Locked Room, a reference to those mysteries where the victim is found dead in a room locked from the inside. In this context, it refers to the relationship of the reader and the text. Who is locked in, the reader to the text, the text to the reader? The plot follows the moral dilemma of a reasonably successful writer who becomes the literary executor of the as yet unpublished work of an old school friend, Fanshawe, an exceptional author, someone who has long vanished and is presumed dead. The writer identifies so strongly with his former friend, he marries his former wife and adopts his child as his own - he even allows the rumour that he is the author of Fanshawe's work to float unchallenged.

Fanshawe re-emerges - he is not dead - and asserts that he had long planned for his friend to follow the route he has taken. In this work, Auster rides his usual hobbyhorse of identity but spurs it with his other interest, one that examines the issue of coincidence. How are we to read coincidence? In the novel, coincidence is a useful device to move the story on; in life we apportion it a worth beyond its value - or do we? Is it another straw we grasp at to make sense of the senseless? Dependent on our view is how we deploy it in our writing.

Auster, to my mind, like Coetzee, and Hemingway or Camus of an earlier era, is a bare-bones writer. He explores the issues in the best fictive manner; one that is stripped of hyperbole; of over-manipulation of emotion through misuse of adjective, adverb, metaphor or simile; he treats the reader as an intelligent subject of an on-going debate through the medium of an engaging story.

Under strict instructions of Nicola Morgan, I bought Stephen King's On Writing. I am not one to buy do-it-yourself books. Ninety-nine point nine percent are crap. If you cannot work it out for yourself you do not have the interest, so save your money.

On Writing is the point nought point one percent.

I have never read Stephen King. He writes of stuff of which I am not interested. That said, I have watched many of the films that have spun off from his work - mostly because I admire the directors.

I was not immediately impressed by On Writing. King writes, at least here, in a folksy manner that annoys me intensely. It is a particular nuance of American writing, one that traces its attitude back to Mark Twain, another author I rejected at a young age for assuming, through its avuncular style, that we are all one big, happy family based on chummy Christian values. Bollocks, I say.

To be contrary, King's style allows you to skip through the first half of the book, a percentage devoted to the reasons why he chose to write - am I interested, no. It is a form of self-abuse where he, on the basis of his huge success, tells us how he managed an orgasm. Of more interest, would be an account of how he had failed. Of course, there are many writers who have failed; but who hears of them? The famous exception is John Kennedy Toole, who, sadly, killed himself because of his failure to get his work, A Confederacy of Dunces, published. With his mother's graft, it went on to win the Pulizer Prize for Literature after his demise. His drive I would be interested in.

The second half, King devotes to what he has learnt, or, for US readers, learned. This is interesting. Not that, if you happen to be someone who has written for years, you will learn much, but because it affirms what you have learnt/learned. Either way, it crystallises your thoughts. You are not alone in this strange business of ascribing words to page.

Stieg Larsson: I have just finished reading the first two in his Millenium Trilogy, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played with Fire.

The first is so much better than the second.

Both are designed to be block-busters, but in Dragon Tattoo, Larsson concentrates on the story, one, which of its genre, is full of twists and turns and wholly page-turning.

In the second, Larsson resorts to the tricks of the genre to such a degree that they become interfering; the backstory of every minor character is spelt out over pages to pad out the novel. It is clumsy, which is not to say the plot itself is not engaging. However, I shall not read the final of the trilogy. It has had mixed reviews and Rebecca, my daughter and doma matrix of book reviewers, tongue-lashed it.

In between, I have been reading various anthologies of short stories. I am writing - sounds too positive - have been writing a story that I know is good, but can I write it? No. It WILL happen.

Love and Happy Christmas to all my subscribers.

You can each, individually, win $1billion if you can identify the bank and code in Switzerland of my personal account and secretly transfer the monies to your PayPal account.

Offer open only to those over eighteen. People who are very clever at maths are ineligible. Those who have a weakness for red wine may suffer from a lack of concentration. Anyone who tries to seduce the judges will be looked at again, provided they are a) female b) hopelessly sex-obsessed. Entries from MPs and MEPs will be closely examined for flaws in their personal accounting systems - though we will accept it perfectly reasonable to claim £23,000 p.a. to feed the squirrels. Published authors are not eligible on grounds of total envy. Any agent who offers a contract, no matter how corrupt, bankrupting or feeble, will immediately be granted the code. The cost of posting this missive was half my brain; however, we do expect it to raise several brain cells in the interests of the Labour Government over the next decade.

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