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Posts tagged ‘Book Reviews’

Parrot and Olivier in America

parrot-olivier-ausJust a quick note to say my review of Peter Carey’s new novel, Parrot and Olivier in America, is available on The Australian’s website.

It’s been interesting speaking to people who’ve read the piece, not least because it’s difficult to escape the feeling Carey’s burned through some of his goodwill in recent years. The reasons for that seem to be complex – certainly there’s a view the last few books have been a bit patchy – but I also suspect changing literary fashion has left his brand of big, rough-hewn post-modernity looking a little awkward in the contemporary landscape (I’d say something similar about Doctorow and Rushdie, though I have to say I think Carey’s streets ahead of either of them). Of course that’s always a problem for writers as distinctive as Carey, but I do hope it won’t stop readers seeking out this new one, not least because it’s his best book in years, and definitely up there with early masterpieces like Illywhacker. Nor am I alone in this judgement: in Saturday’s Sydney Morning Herald Andrew Reimer calls it a tour de force (not online), and Jennifer Byrne says something similar in Saturday’s Age.

And if you’re interested in reading more about Carey you might like to check out this piece I wrote for Meanjin a while back. It’s a bit long in the tooth these days but it’s got some good moments.

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Literary Bloodsport Part 3: The Writers Strike Back

Star-Wars-The-Empire-Strikes-BackI’ve been meaning to do a follow-up on my post about literary hatchet jobs for a while now, but the story in yesterday’s Gawker about Alice Hoffmann’s colossal dummy-spit (or is that dummy-twit?) is so hilarious I can’t hold back any longer. As the story explains, Hoffman took great exception to what sounds like a classic “mixed” review, and proceeded to slag off the reviewer on Twitter, even going so far as to twit the reviewer’s phone number and suggest people ring her up and set her straight. Hoffman is now backtracking, but it’s a little difficult to come back from “Now any idiot can be a critic”.

What’s particularly striking is that it’s only one of several cases of writers losing their cool about reviews in recent weeks. Last week MediaBistro reported that Alain de Botton (who I once heard a middle-aged lesbian describe as the thinking woman’s crumpet) took violent exception to Caleb Crain’s review of his new book, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, taking time out from his clearly hectic schedule to blast Crain in the comments section of Crain’s blog, Steamboats are Ruining Everything (Botton’s killer barb? “I will hate you till the day I die and wish you nothing but ill will in every career move you make”). And in a rather more succinct comment upon a review of her new book, author Ayelet Waldman twitted, “May Jill Lepore rot in hell. That is all”.

Of course there’s a long and (ig)noble tradition of authors slagging off critics. But I suspect there’s a good chance these rather undignified displays say as much about people’s unfamiliarity with the technology as anything. With any new form of communication it takes a while to learn what’s smart and what’s not (ask yourself how long it too you to learn not to email when angry, or to reply all carelessly). And if there was ever a technology for which the old adage, flame in haste, repent at leisure was appropriate, it’s Twitter (at least with Facebook status updates you have some control over who’s listening, and you can quietly delete them if you think you’ve gone too far). Certainly the rapidity with which the story of Hoffman and de Botton’s dummy-spits has spread is a reminder of the capacity of the online world to regulate itself, and of the democratizing nature of the net more generally. Indeed I suspect Hoffman and de Botton’s real crime isn’t being intemperate, but assuming their status as authors gave them the right to be uncivil (that and the fact they look ridiculous).

Of course I would say that. I’ve always cleaved to Disraeli’s famous dictum, “Never explain, never complain”, and while I’ve had plenty of reviews I could have done without, my general view is that it’s not just undignified to get into a stoush with a reviewer, it’s a fight you’re almost guaranteed to lose. At best you’ll give a bad review oxygen, at worst you’ll look petulant and egomaniacal.

Of course de Botton and others might argue that in the new media environment the relationship between writers and critics is altering, and there’s now a place for more direct discussion and engagement. And they’d probably be right, at least with respect to non-fiction, though as I’ve observed above, authors who assume their status as authors grants them any particular cultural authority are likely to be pretty quickly disabused of that notion. Indeed at a very crude level the shift from physical books and newspapers to electronic books and websites is eroding the distinction between the cultural authority of different media, and promoting a situation where what matters is the quality of your commentary, not the publishing house behind you, or your visibility on bookshop shelves.

But I think the situation is very different with fiction. I’ve spent years avoiding explaining my books in interviews (contextualize, expand upon, talk about process, but never, if you can help it, explain them) partly out of a deep, and essentially uncritical unease with doing so, and partly out of a view that to do so reduces them somehow. However often my views about other aspects of writing change, I’ve always believed novels and stories are living things: mysterious, ineffable, prismatic, and that while writers may be required to promote them, ultimately the book will take on its own life separate from them. It’s possible our culture is increasingly inimical to that sort of indeterminacy, but take it away and a work of fiction is inevitably, and fatally, reduced.

For those wanting to read more about the Hoffman/de Botton imbroglio, Salon’s Mary Elizabeth Williams has a few choice words to say on the subject, and later, on Ayelet Waldman’s intemperate remarks. The Literary Saloon also has views on the matter, as do The Afterword and Edward Champion (thanks to GalleyCat for the links). Likewise Motoko Rich has some interesting reactions in The New York Times. And if you want to see Alain de Botton repenting at leisure, you can read the excerpts from his twitterfeed at The New York Observer.

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The Gone-Away World

NIck Harkaway

Nick Harkaway

First a quick apology for the slightly sporadic posting over the past week. I’ve been a bit overwhelmed with work, and though I think I can see the light at the end of the tunnel (which excitingly means I might manage to snatch a few days to work on my novel before I go on holiday the week after next) I’m still about 5,000 words from freedom, so the patchy posting may continue for a while yet. Once I’m back online and have a bit of time to spare I’ve got some things coming I think people will like – a review of Caprica and a long piece on The Day of the Triffids (you know you want to know why), as well as some thoughts about (not) teaching the canon – but for the time being it’s all work, work, work in my world.

Anyway – having pieces spiked is an occupational hazard for reviewers. You slug your way through a book, write a review, and then for some reason – space, time, budget pressures – it doesn’t run. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does you can guarantee it’s a piece you either spent quite a lot of time on or you thought was pretty good (which may say something about my judgement, but we won’t go there).

The piece below is one of those pieces. It was written to coincide with the hardback release of Nick Harkaway’s The Gone-Away World last year, but in the end it didn’t run. At the time that seemed a pity, not least because the book is, in its own mad way, both ambitious and interesting (certainly as picaresque romps go, it beats Steve Toltz’s A Fraction of the Whole hands down for sheer energy and inventiveness). So, since the paperback has just been released, I thought it might be worth giving the piece a run here.

For anyone who’s interested, Harkaway has a pretty classy website, and runs a blog. The site also has some videos of him reading from the book. He’s also written about the complicating fact of his (extremely famous) father’s identity here.

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The Gone-Away World
Nick Harkaway

I once had a conversation with the adult son of a famous writer. He was a nice guy – bright, funny, thoughtful – but when I asked him what I wanted to do with his life he froze. ‘Write,’ he said in a small voice after a moment, ‘though it’s sort of weird when I try to’.

It was a conversation that came back to me while reading Nick Harkaway’s debut, The Gone-Away World. Because as anxiety of influence goes, Harkaway – the son of David Cornwell, or John Le Carré – must have had it in spades.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, in interviews Harkaway seems to strike a slightly uneasy balance between filial affection and a desire to distance himself from his famous forebear, no doubt seeking to have his book assessed in its own right: a famous father is, as Harkaway discovered after the novel sold for a staggering £300,000, inevitably something of a double-edged sword. Yet faced with the book itself, in all its joyous, exuberant improbability, there can be little doubt Harkaway’s success is of his own making and no-one else’s.

Something like a cross between The Road and Kung Fu Panda, The Gone Away World is a crazed, shaggy-dog post-apocalyptic picaresque, with more than enough brio and cheek to leap its improbabilities in a single bound. Insofar as it lends itself to précis, it begins in a near-future in which Cuba has entered into a political union with Great Britain, thereby creating the United Island Kingdoms of Britain, Northern Ireland and Cuba Libré, or, as the wits would have it, Cubritannia (a move which delights the Cubans for its economic and political possibilities and the British because it guarantees “an influx of well-trained, educated people of pleasing physical appearance who have rhythm”).

In this future the narrator – who for reasons which become clear later in the book remains nameless – and his best friend Gonzo Lubitsh grow up in sleepy Cricklewood Cove, a place mostly notable for being home to Assumption Soames’ Soames School for the Children of Townsfolk, and the academy of Master Wu, of the Way of the Voiceless Dragon.

When a flirtation with university politics and Zaher Bey, the leader in exile of the tiny Central Asian country of Addeh Katir leads to the narrator’s arrest by a privatised extra-legal but government-sanctioned anti-terrorist squad and leaves him virtually unemployable, the narrator finds himself working in a high-tech special forces and weapon research unit. Under the command of Professor Derek, this team has invented the Go Away Bomb, a device which strips the information out of the matter comprising its target, converting it into what they think is undifferentiated nothing, but is really – as the narrator and the rest of the world discover when the Go Away Bomb is simultaneously (and surprisingly) deployed by most countries in the world at once in a good old-fashioned bout of what used to be known as MAD, or Mutually Assured Destruction – actually converts it into Stuff, a denatured form of matter which has the unfortunate tendency to take on whatever form flits through the mind of the creatures closest to it. In the ruined and depopulated world left behind, the only refuge from the nightmares that spring from Stuff is found along the edges of the Pipe, a conduit laid by the mysterious Jorgmund Corporation.

In the hands of a lesser – or at least a less confident – writer, such a plot might seem ridiculous, but Harkaway approaches his subject matter with such joyous abandon and good humour it’s impossible not to respond in kind. And while the novel’s influences – which run the gamut from Don Quixote to Fight Club, and The Karate Kid to William Gibson and take in almost everything in between – are clear, it never feels freighted down by them, or derivative.

None of which is to say it all works. Certainly the book’s weakest section is its final 50 pages, though that is as much a function of the picaresque form’s natural lack of interest in narrative closure as any weakness in the novel itself – but for the most part it does, bouncing with the sort of careless ease that necessarily belies the authorial control underlying it from digressions about the nature of politics to self-mocking kung fu parables, from bawdy Harry Potteresque university high-jinks to a chilling vision of a world gone mad.

Yet underpinning it – and if one was looking for an echo of Harkaway père this might be it – is an unswerving moral clarity. For all the geekish delight Harkaway takes in his inventions, The Gone-Away World’s comedy is rooted in a powerful sense of the corrupted and corrupting nature of power, and of its indifference to individual freedom, or even existence. And it is in this respect that The Gone-Away World’s picaresque pleasures most truly, and most brilliantly repays its debt to the steely satire of Fielding and Swift and even Rabelais.

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Literary Bloodsport Part 2: The Lure of the Hatchet Job

hatchetEarlier today I linked to Louis Nowra’s devastating and very funny review of Bob Ellis’ And So It Went: Night Thoughts In A Year Of Change. As my post probably made clear, I’m no fan of Ellis myself, so Nowra was really preaching to the converted, but it got me wondering what other people think about this sort of literary bloodsport. As spectator sports go literary hatchet jobs are up there with cage-fighting, but are they actually a good thing?

For what it’s worth, I think the brutal review is usually a young person’s vice. In my early days as a reviewer I wrote more than one review I still wake in the night feeling sick about (Victor Kelleher and Justin D’Ath, wherever you are, I’m sorry). And I’m not alone in this view. Martin Amis, who in his early years as a writer carved out a career as one of the most terrifying literary hitmen of all time, has observed, “[e]njoying being insulting is a youthful corruption of power. You lose your taste for it when you realize how hard people try, how much they mind, and how long they remember”.

I’m aware, as I write this, that this question blurs into a related one, about what constitutes good reviewing, and what exactly constitutes the right balance between emphasizing the positive and pointing out the faults in a given book, but I don’t think that’s quite what I’m talking about here. There’s a difference between stringent criticism and even a really bad review, and the deliberate attempt to destroy a book or a reputation people such as Dale Peck have made into an art form. And I think there’s also a difference between the deliberately mean-spirited criticism of someone like Lionel Shriver and the energy and excitement that makes a really good hatchet job sing.

My own feelings on the matter are complicated. If nothing else the world is a livelier and more exciting place for a bit of biff. And like any writer I’ve got a few contemporaries I think are frauds or shits (not many, I hasten to say, but definitely a few) and seeing them get a dose always gives me a nasty little thrill. And a really considered hatchet job, like Nowra’s of Ellis, Brian Dillon’s of Michael Ondaatje’s Divisadero, or John Banville’s of Ian McEwan’s Saturday (or indeed almost anything by Dale Peck) is a thing of beauty in its own right. But as a writer I’m also aware of just how awful it is to be on the receiving end of bad reviews (or indeed really nasty blog comments), and not just because I know how hard it is to write any book, good or bad, but because I know how incredibly exposed and vulnerable you make yourself by putting yourself and your work out in the world, and how hard it is for those who don’t do it to relate to that vulnerability.

Perhaps in this context it’s worth returning to Amis. His line about how hard people try and how long they remember is justly famous, but what’s less well-known is what comes after it. “Admittedly there are some critics who enjoy being insulting well into middle age,” he says, before going on to ask why this spectacle seems so undignified, and answering his own question with the observation that it’s because it’s mutton dressed as lamb. But it’s what he says next that’s really important, when he says that looking back, “I am also struck by how hard I sometimes was on writers who (I erroneously felt) were trying to influence me: Mailer, Roth, Ballard”.

What Amis is really talking about is the essentially Oedipal anxiety of influence every writer feels. But he is also drawing our attention to the need for the new to make space for itself. And as he rightly discerns, much of his brilliant, incendiary early criticism (and indeed that of Julian Barnes) was about killing the old lions so they could take over the pride.

I think it’s fair to say that slightly uneasy need to make space for oneself is what drives a lot of really brutal reviewing, especially by younger critics. Certainly one detects more than a touch of the disillusioned disciple in James Wood’s attacks upon the late John Updike. But unlike really brutal reviews of younger writers, which can destroy careers (or even, I suspect, lives) these sorts of reviews serve an important function. There’s a real tendency for established writers to become unassailable, their books lauded no matter what their flaws. One example might be the rise and rise of Peter Carey’s international reputation since the publication of True History of the Kelly Gang, a rise which seems to have been in inverse proportion to the rapidly declining quality of the books themselves. But it’s even more pronounced in the case of writers such as Delillo, who occupy the literary stratosphere. In their case it can be difficult to find ways of saying their new work is not up to scratch, and not just because of the weight of their reputation. Instead a sort of feedback loop begins to exist, a circular argument which declares that the new Delillo (for instance) must be good because Delillo has become one of our models of great writing, and his writing is, therefore, necessarily, great writing.

In this context the hatchet job is important because it helps break that loop, and demand we step back, look again, and ask ourselves what we’re really seeing. And that process isn’t always destructive, not just because the body of work behind such writers is usually robust enough to withstand that sort of assessment, but because a more nuanced eye is likely to reveal things our earlier assumptions were obscuring.

But enough about me. What do others out there think?

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