Tuesday, August 1, 2017

July consumption diary



The Ask by Sam Lipsyte (novel)

I’d been wanting to read this book since it came out (it had a buzz). When I finally got around to it, I couldn’t quite believe that it was published in 2010. Has it really been seven years? But also, in the way it seems to wallow in the downswing of the American Empire, it seems very NOW.

You can date it in some ways, like:
  • the passage about social media being about moving from one platform to a newer one (like Myspace to Facebook), rather than the splintering that occurred (something I’m guilty of myself in a story that occurs in A Man Melting, also published in 2010)
  • the way people ‘open’ their phones.
As Geoff Dyer put it in his review of the book in The Guardian:
The test for the obsessive prose stylist who lacks an instinctive gift for storytelling is always the same: what’s the minimum amount of plot you can get away with and still function within the parameters of a novel?... So if it takes little time to sketch the plot of Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask, that’s a backhanded way of saying it’s a stylistic tour de force.

Or, as my wife would put it, this is a “ranty” book. Which means it keeps company with Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Vladimir Nabokov, the fun half of every Jonathan Franzen doorstop, Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Martin Amis – so, just the swinging dicks of the last 75 years. Not bad company. Not for everyone, but definitely for me in certain moods.

This is the kind of book I wanted to write when I started writing seriously (...stops to do the maths…) fourteen years ago, when all I really knew were the swinging dicks. Now? I think it has definitely challenged me to ensure each page of my current novel is funny. Is tight. (So much of the humour comes from the concision.) My book won’t have the same level of verbal pyrotechnics – though there are already;  some controlled, localised events, like public displays for Guy Fawkes and New Years.

The New Animals by Pip Adam (novel, NZ)

*Warning: may be slightly spoilery, but probably no more than a half-decent review*

*Reminder: this is not a review but a personal reflection on a temporarily revived, low-traffic blog*

A very different proposition to Lipsyte… or is it? There are verbal pyrotechnics here, but it’s the kind where a spark has set off everything inside a warehouse that stockpiles fireworks and you are across town and you maybe hear something, start wondering, see some smoke drift across the city five minutes later, check online, check again in the morning and only then read about the carnage as set down by some tired scribe.

There’s humour here, too. And an uber contemporary feel. But again, somehow it’s the opposite of Lipsyte’s showy sort.

The first two-thirds of the novel follow a day and late night in the life of a newish, smallish fashion house in Auckland, run by three Millennial males but supported by the labour of female Gen-Xers Sharona (pattern-cutter cum miracle worker), Carla (contract hairdresser) and Duey (Carla’s friend and hair-cutting better). And in the middle of this is young makeup artist Elodie. In the middle in terms of love triangle/polyhedron action, but she’s to the side of most of the text until the switch is flicked at the 2/3rds mark and suddenly, uh, woah, this is different.

To talk about the novel purely as a machine constructed to perform this shift is too reductive. I mean, it’s not about doing something apparently different for the sake of it. There’s something else at play here: the way the first part and the second (I should note there are no official “parts”, not even any chapters, just double line breaks when the perspective shifts between characters) interact/fire off each other is in the aid of an overall effect.

And, I mean, haven’t we all started out trying to explain something from the world today in straightforward terms and then, 2/3rds of the way through, gone: you know what, maybe the truth is more like THIS.  Where THIS is an extended, surreal monologue, told with the cadence of a joke that continues to elude its punchline.

I’m not sure how I feel about learning that Elodie is effectively the daughter of John Key (poor kid with Jewish mum turned successful moneyman turned bland politician). I didn’t like it at the time, but probably because one of the models of my cult leader (in a hopefully non-obvious way) is John Key, and I was, on some cosmic level, butthurt.

But the ‘Elodie Key’ thing is just one of the many side-mystery/reveals in the novel that provide its momentum, where the main plot seems tailor-made (baddum-boosh) to provide little in the way of traditional thrust. I mean, the clock is ticking, the garment will be shot tomorrow, but the only one this really impacts is Sharona, and she’s done it all before. No, the novel gets you through on the back of little mysteries like:

Where did Carla go away to, and why?


What’s up with Duey, her look, her relationship with Carla?

And these are answered, or part-answered, in the Elodie section, and it’s all askew, but also helluva satisfying to be skewered in this way.

Thank You For Being Late: An optimist’s guide to thriving in the age of acceleration by Thomas L Friedman (non-fiction, audiobook)

Oh man. I don’t know how Thomas Friedman gets so much (the rapid pace of change of technology, the nightmares of climate change, demography, economic and political destabilisation) and yet comes out the other end as an optimist. I mean, I follow his logic every time, but it takes some fricken fortitude to stare into the omni-headed monster and prescribe the right dental regime to tame the stank and calm the beast.

I fear I’m becoming one of those middle-aged, middle-income, white dudes who loves non-fiction and wants to foist the latest book they’ve read on other people as it’ll explain the way the world is now. Because I had such thoughts with Thank you for being late. But then, when I was all in on fiction, I never went around foisting novels or story collections on people. So maybe it’s just this book / this moment?

I do think, if you’re going to read it, read it now. 2018 will be too late. The world will have moved on, and I fear Friedman’s optimism may be even harder to comprehend.

The Saint, the Surfer and the CEO by Robin Sharma (“novel”, audiobook)

Another deliberate hate-listen. See Alain de Botton in May's diary
On one level, this is the easily the worst novel I’ve read since, um, high school. It’s basically a self-help book dressed up as a novel-length parable, except the outfit is so flimsy, and the thing tries to be a novel rather than a parable, that you get all the characters speaking like the guru Sharma thinks he is, as if in front of a packed auditorium, except it’s two guys on a beach in Hawaii.

The main character, I’ve already forgotten his name, is your classic neutral, know-nothing narrative vessel, except he frequently breaks into ‘profound’ reflections, either in narration or dialogue, that he couldn’t possibly have at that point in the story. He gets some things too quickly, then asks his interlocutor to better explain other things that were perfectly well put the first time to allow Sharma to double-back and double-down when he needs to cram one more metaphor from his notebook into the text.

With all that said, is it so easy to dismiss the “teachings” within the book? As with anything that seeks to help people, make em better human beings, Sharma’s terrible novel gets points for positivity. I’m sure there’s lots folks could take away from this book. I personally don’t think the universe is perfectly designed and all about bringing things into harmony. I find it a troubling middle-and-upwards class concept.

Sharma’s is the kind of philosophy that seems customised for a highly individualised, neo-con, capitalistic society. And that can all get a bit icky if you stop and think about it, or anyone but the people you interact with on a daily basis.

If you’re looking to better yourself, might I recommend Thank You For Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to thriving in the age of acceleration by Thomas L Friedman instead?

The Gathering by Anne Enright (novel, audiobook)

First half hour: yeah, I can see how this won the Booker (over our very own Mr Pip).

The rest: *looks at watch*

Can you tolerate this? by Ashleigh Young (non-fiction/essays, NZ)

This took me a couple of months to finish. That’s not a criticism. It’s one of the good things about collections.

One of the reasons I stopped reading was because I left my copy on chair at the university while I made a thermos of tea (in theory this means I can have 3.5 hot cups of tea without having to leave my office, but my bladder normally runs out of patience before my thermos runs out of tea), and when I returned, it was gone. This was just after Young won the Windham-Campbell Prize and bookstores had run out of the second print run and a third was on its way. Peak Young, so to speak. Naturally I thought someone had nicked it, but a week later I found someone had handed it in at reception (this person had acted to protect the owner from having it nicked!). So I got it back, read the next essay, moved on to something else, returned, read another couple, left, returned, and finally finished in July.

Most of these essays I enjoyed, but each for their own reasons. Some were smart, some were brave, some were smart and brave. A small number did nothing for me, but that's to be expected from anything proclaiming to be a collection of "Personal Essays".

It's great to see any NZ book being in demand and at risk of being nicked - doubly great that it's something as seriously different as this.


Drinking Buddies – easily my favourite watch this month
The Double (2013)
GLOW Season 1 (abandoned at ep 5 to watch...)
GLOW: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling
See No Evil, Hear No Evil*
And all the kids stuff like Trolls, Monsters University, Ratatouille, Shrek 1-4 (including Shrek 2 a bazillion times), with one eye on the TV/kid, the other on my phone (bad, bad parent!)*****


No comments: