The New Yorker Stories -Andy and Ann share a moment (48 moments, to be precise)

October 2, 2015

So here we are in October, about to discuss August’s book, which was supposed to be some other month’s book, while December’s book is now September’s book because – nevermind. Ah, the joys of blogging.

Ann Beattie was born in 1947, which means she turned 18 in 1965, which sounds like a grand year to be turning 18. I turned 18 in 1987. Fuck that for a game of soldiers.

Apparently early in her career (mid 70s to early 80s) there was talk of a “Beattie Generation”. Beattie Generation – Beat Generation. Do you see what they did there? There wasn’t really a generation of writers who emulated or imitated Beattie’s style, and in fact she has placed herself firmly within the (male-dominated, obvs) American tradition that includes Hemingway and Carver, writers that both Netty and I hugely enjoyed. And for both of us Raymond Carver remains the high-water mark for short-story writers over eight years of the reading challenge.

Ann Beattie, though, is seriously up there.

newyorkerThe New Yorker Stories is a 500-page-plus collection featuring every story Beattie had published in The New Yorker from 1974 to 2006. And it’s a hugely impressive accomplishment. There were a handful of times – actually less than a handful, since by my perverse reckoning a “handful” is exactly five, and I can only think of two or maybe three – when I finished a story and thought OK, that did not work. But the majority are quietly spectacular.

Of the contemporary white, female, American short-story writers Netty and I have read over the past few years (Lorrie Moore, Mary Gaitskill, Lydia Davis, Beattie – there’s also Flannery O’Connor, who was awesome, but she doesn’t quite count here because, y’know, she’s kind of old n dead n shit) I probably enjoyed Gaitskill a little more than Beattie, but for arguably puerile reasons. Beattie is easily the best writer of the four (again, not counting O’Connor, because, y’know…). This may seem simplistic, but: Beattie does first and third person and she can do both superbly (although if memory serves she never attempts second person, which some of the other writers mentioned might). She mostly does female voice, and most of those female voices are roughly the age she was at the time she was writing; but she can do female voices at different ages, and she can do male voice, at various ages, and be convincing at all of it. And of course she can do past tense and present tense and mix them up, but she can also, more subtly and delicately than many, blend the present with the past, ironically but compassionately contrasting a grim, regretful today with a sunnier, hopeful yesterday.

And while there may never have been a Beattie Generation, she has for the four decades represented in this collection been a wry, ironic observer of her own generation – middle-class America, liberated or debilitated (or both) by the sixties, fond of their cigarettes and their marijuana and their booze and their music and their dogs and their infidelities and their divorces and their ex-wives or ex-husbands and their ill-judged decisions to shake life up and move elsewhere; rarely terribly fond of their children (Is that harsh? That might be a bit harsh. Actually sometimes not that fond of their exes, either. Or their neighbours).

Unlike many American short-story writers (and I have Gaitskill in my sights when I say this) Beattie is not afraid to experiment with the length of her stories. Gaitskill sometimes gives the impression that she has a word count to meet and by christ she will meet it. Beattie’s stories, like Carver’s, although let’s not raise the Lish word, are all over the shop. She has a story to tell and she tells it, and when the story is told the story ends. Lorrie Moore and Mary Gaitskill don’t necessarily pad, but… well, maybe they pad. And Lydia Davis is basically incomprehensible to me, no matter how long or short her fucking stories are. No, sorry, not incomprehensible, just… irrelevant. I seem to remember Netty asking, after we’d read Lorrie Moore’s stories (which are mostly very impressive) if we’d found the female Carver. The question now strikes me as slightly misogynist – and I’m supposed to be the literary sexist of this challenge. As a writer – female, male or otherwise – Carver trumps Beattie. But you know what? Only just.

Half a dozen recommendations: Dwarf House (bizarre, hilarious, touching), Colorado (ironic and insightful), The Lawn Party (cynical yet moving), The Burning House (best last two pars of a short story you’ll ever read), Home to Marie (great plot twist less than a third of the way through), The Confidence Decoy (last story, still resonating).

Top stuff.


In which Netty tells you why you should drop everything you are doing right now and read Half Of A Yellow Sun …

September 2, 2015

Half Of A Yellow Sun is the best book I have read so far this year. Hell, come year’s end, it may end up being the best book I have read all year.

half-of-a-yellow-sunIt is the second novel by Nigerian-born author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, published in 2006, and set in the 1960s before, during and immediately after the Nigerian civil war. Until now, if you’d said to me, “Biafra”, I would have replied, “Jello” (turns out the lead singer of The Dead Kennedys did name himself after the fledgling country that formed out of the Nigerian civil war and existed for a brief but extremely tumultuous three years from 1967 to 1970).

I’m not sure if it’s a blight on my public school education, or on me, that I was completely clueless about this period of modern African history until now. Towards the end of this novel, one of the main characters, English expat Richard – who has started reporting from Biafra for the international press – meets two American foreign correspondents. Richard, who has been in the country since its inception and even considers himself Biafran, is dismayed and repulsed by the pair. Their questions centre on news of one dead white expat and they show little interest in the tens of thousands of black locals who have lost their lives, most in horrific circumstances.

“Richard would write about this, the rule of Western journalism: One hundred dead black people equal one dead white person,” Adichie writes, pointedly. It is a “rule” that still plays out today, across all forms of western media, and ultimately that may be why someone like me – caucausian, western, and well-educated – still remains ignorant of a tragedy like Biafra. I am horrified and chastened in equal measure.

But let’s go back to the beginning.

Half Of A Yellow Sun’s 400-plus pages are split into four sections – the early 1960s and the late 1960s, and these are spliced together. Which is just as well, because the late 1960s are such a harrowing read that it was a relief to be momentarily spared halfway through and transported back to the pre-war period. Adichie also uses this as a device to explain events not fully elaborated upon in the initial time shift. It is told from the point of view, in a third-person narrative, of three of the main characters, Ugwu, Olanna, and the aforementioned Richard.

As the novel opens, young village boy Ugwu has just taken up the post of houseboy to Odenigbo, a mathematics professor and socialist-leaning intellectual. Odenigbo soon persuades his partner Olanna, a sociology professor, to leave London and live with him in Nsukka. Olanna is the daughter of Chief Ozobia, a highly influential businessman of dubious professional and personal morals based in Lagos. She has a twin sister, Kainene, who moves to Port Harcourt to look after her father’s business interests with her partner Richard, an Englishman and would-be author who is interested in Igbo-Ukwu art.

The two early 1960s sections of the book explore the relationships between the main characters, and the many secondary characters, and set the domestic and political scene in Nigeria during that period, hinting at the developing turmoil between the Igbo, Hausa, Yoruba, and Fulani people that eventually explodes into civil war.

No spoilers from me on the late 1960s sections of the novel, except to say that amongst all the many, hideous horrors of conflict, Adichie also manages to capture the sheer banality of life during wartime – the desperation and exhaustion of trying to find adequate food, water and shelter, of the daily task of merely trying to stay alive. She paints vivid portraits that will stick in your head long after you’ve read the last page. And which may make you look at the nightly news grabs of current wars in a very different light.

There is no doubt Adichie is writing about what she knows – the history of her family and its larger community, indeed, the country. An Igbo born in 1977 – seven years after the war ended – she was raised in Nsukka, the university town where the pre-war sections of this book are set, the daughter of academics. The novel is dedicated to her grandparents – her grandmothers survived the war, but her grandfathers did not. In doing so, she has created a remarkable document of a conflict and time that she doesn’t want relegated to the footnotes of African history. One day we can only hope that another writer will do the same for Rwanda.

Andy half-jokes in his blog that he is almost out of therapy after reading Half Of A Yellow Sun, and I can definitely see his point. This novel will take you on an uncomfortable journey made all the more so for knowing that what is being written – and Adichie does not hold back on the horrific, graphic reality of this war – actually happened. DO NOT LET THIS DETER YOU. Great fiction, great novels, should sometimes be uncomfortable, difficult and emotionally draining. This is not a bad thing: this is what promotes our personal knowledge and, hopefully, our compassion and empathy. After all, as the adage goes, those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.

In the afterword of my edition, Adichie speaks about finding an “emotional truth” in fiction writing; she also notes that she factually depicts the central events: “If fiction is indeed the soul of history, then I was equally committed to the fiction and the history”. She achieves it, and then some. This is beautifully and meticulously crafted writing from an astonishingly talented young writer (she was in her very late twenties when it was published). Like Andy, I intend to read her other books (she has written two and a collection of short stories).

You must read this book. You just must. That is all.


Half of a Yellow Sun – Andy will be out of therapy any time now

August 30, 2015

I like Patrick White (“OK, so he begins a post on a novel about Africa written by a living black African female writer by referring to a dead white Australian male writer who only ever wrote about Australia” … I know what you’re thinking. Stick with me). I have read three of White’s novels and enjoyed them all, and appreciate his contribution to that mysterious entity known as “Australian literature”. But: crikey, he didn’t half take himself seriously, did he? White’s writing reeks of a desperation to be considered “important” – he didn’t want his work to be “Australian literature”, he wanted to contribute, and significantly, to “literature”, full stop. And he did. He’s still the only Australian writer to win the Nobel prize, more than 40 years on. But: that desperation to be “important” is on every page of his I’ve read.

yellowsunI’m sure Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie takes herself seriously as a writer – and she should, because she is a serious, and a seriously good, writer. Half of a Yellow Sun is a serious, and a seriously good, book. But it’s also important. And I think Adichie will come to be regarded, if she isn’t already, as an important writer. I got a third, maybe close to halfway through this book and I thought “I am reading something important here.” By the time I’d finished this was a conviction, not a thought. But: does “importance” and “seriousness” scream from every page? Do you get the sense that Adichie has a bit of an inferiority complex, that she’s trying to use her writing to make up for her perceived deficiencies? No. And I wonder if she isn’t a better writer than Patrick White.

Netty mentioned at lunch when we discussed this book that she feels her high school education let her down – she was unfamiliar with the Biafran secession from Nigeria and the resulting civil war. I was almost as unfamiliar – I knew there’d once been a country in Africa called Biafra, I knew there’d been a famine, but because I’d grown up in the shadow of famines in the Horn of Africa I’d assumed Biafra was somewhere near Ethiopia, or Sudan, or – you know, one of them. I had no idea Biafra was on the other side of the continent and for three years was a separate country to Nigeria, its secession recognised by only a handful of countries and its food supplies deliberately cut off by Nigerian authorities in collusion with the former colonial powers in London – and a little help from the Yanks and a bunch of other fuckers.
Half of a Yellow Sun is serious and important. It’s also horrifying and traumatising. There were times the iPad had to be put aside as I took a few deep breaths and tried to fathom what I was reading. It’s educational, in that – without you noticing she’s doing it – Adichie gives you knowledge and understanding of events you’ve never heard of. On occasion it’s hysterically funny, although more often it’s desperately sad. It’s also frustrating – Adichie’s sympathies are clearly on the side of the Biafrans and understandably so, but she’s not afraid to satirise the bullshit people tell themselves and others in the absolute conviction that not only are they right, but they will win.

Half of a Yellow Sun is not a metafictive novel, but Adichie employs a single metafictive technique to expose her readers’ unspoken and unidentified racism (although, admittedly, she does nudge us in that direction). I won’t give it away, because it provides an unexpected moment of warmth and reward towards the end of what is a harrowing read.

I’ve just realised I’ve told you basically nothing about the book, other than Biafra, Nigeria, civil war, famine. Not a single character’s name. Oops. Ok, let’s remedy that – Ugwu. There you go. I’ll let Netty fill in the gaps.

I have read one other of Adichie’s books – a collection of short stories called The thing around your neck. She has also written a couple of other novels, and I plan to read them both. And basically everything else she ever writes. Half of a Yellow Sun is  a stunning contribution to that mysterious entity known as “literature”. The end.


Kids in America – Gore Vidal, Edmund White, Armistead Maupin

August 17, 2015

Ok, ok – the first line of Tales of the City tells us Mary Anne is 25, and most of the other characters in the book are that age or older. But, c’mon – kids, yeah?

A couple of things I meant to say in my last poofter-books blog: On the back cover of Dancer from the Dance, novelist and critic Edmund White is quoted saying the book “accomplished for the 1970s what The Great Gatsby achieved for the 1920s … the glamorization of a decade and a culture”. Bollocks. A sub-editor should have replaced “accomplished” and “achieved” with “did”, and what the writers have in common is their foreboding about what the future held.

And: It amused me to find, in The Lost Language of Cranes and a story in The Penguin Book of Gay Short Stories, a reference to Anais Nin (a writer Netty and I have discussed before) living in a squalid “walk-up” (New York slang for a high-rise without a lift). David Leavitt wrote Cranes a few years before he edited the anthology but I’m guessing he noticed the reference in Gary Glickman’s story (Buried Treasure), and I’m guessing Glickman had read Cranes before he wrote his story. Or maybe all that’s irrelevant and it’s common knowledge among the Gotham glitterati that Nin once lived in squalid walk-up. Anyway.

Maybe that walk-up is where Gore Vidal schtupped her.

Yes, I have the shitty TV tie-in edition of Tales of the City. Bah.

Yes, I have the shitty TV tie-in edition of Tales of the City. Bah.

Vidal’s The City and the Pillar wasn’t “the first gay novel”, but I’m guessing it was one of the first to be a best-seller on both sides of the Atlantic. “The world-famous novel of unconventional love”, according to the front cover of my 1978 edition, bought secondhand in London (“Anne St Lawrence, 20 November 1984, London” scribbled on the first page). Vidal’s third novel was originally published in 1948 but the book we read today (and I read in London 20 years ago) was Vidal’s substantially rewritten version dating from 1965. Most obviously and most famously he rewrote the ending.

The title  is a reference to Sodom and Gomorrah, destroyed by God in the Bible because they were all homo n shit (or “lacking in hospitality”, if you adhere to modern Christian interpretations. Modern Christians are SO funny). It’s the story of Jim Willard, a not-terribly-affluent late-teens country boy who is in love with Bob Ford, a dirt-poor late-teens country boy. As America nudges its way out of the Depression these two share a weekend of forbidden sensuality in a shack by a river, before Bob moves to New York to look for a job on a boat. Jim, who is insistent that he is not queer or homosexual at all, then spends a number of years being very queer and very homosexual and even “gay”, once the novel’s action moves to New York in the last years of World War II. After years apart Jim, who vaguely comes to terms with his sexuality, encounters the love of his life once again. But Bob is now a married man – and let’s just say it doesn’t end well.

Vidal is – was – is magnificent. I’ve just realised I almost certainly own more of his books than any other writer, although that’s mostly because he wrote so many. The only thing about him that annoys me is his insistence – and he carried it to his grave, in 2012 – that we’re all bisexual. We’re not, as the science is increasingly indicating, and as Vidal’s own novel demonstrated decades ago. The City and the Pillar is the story of a young gay man. He might not like being called queer, or homo, or even gay, but that doesn’t stop him being sexually attracted only to men. Vidal might not have seen it but I, and plenty of other readers, certainly do.

The other slight glitch is Vidal’s refusal to acknowledge the autobiographical elements to the story. He may have done this later in life – they are so obvious – but in his afterword to 1965’s rewritten version, as well as his pallaver about bisexuality, he was adamant it was not autobiographical. Most of it isn’t, but Jim’s love for Bob is clearly a reflection of Vidal’s love for a boy called Jimmy Trimble, who died at Iwo Jima in 1945. Vidal’s 1996 memoir Palimpsest (in which he claims to have schtupped Anais Nin – and Jack Kerouac, actually) dwells much on his unrequited love for a long-lost teenager – the last of many, many photos in the memoir is of Trimble’s gravestone.

A Boy’s Own Story, on the other hand, is undeniably autobiographical. It’s one of the few of Edmund White’s books that I enjoyed (and I thoroughly enjoyed re-reading) – its sequel, The Beautiful Room is Empty, is as good, while the last in the trilogy, The Farewell Symphony, is enjoyable, but arguably a slide (and not properly edited – it’s maybe three times as long as its predecessors). The three books that precede his trilogy – Forgetting Elena (about Fire Island, apparently), Nocturnes for the King of Naples and Caracole, are worthy but dull and confusing, while the only post-Symphony book of his I’ve read – Jack Holmes and his Friend – is terrible.

A Boy’s Own Story, though – the book that hid beneath my seat at an early-‘90s Amy Grant concert in Melbourne – is superb. It is among the finest pieces of gay fiction I’ve read. Set in the ‘50s (White is 20 years younger than Vidal), it is the story of a teenage boy with a bit of a sex life – there is “cornholing”, there are hustlers, there is a very queasy threesome – and a clear understanding that he is attracted to men, and men alone. In The City and the Pillar, Jim Willard doesn’t want to acknowledge his identity, and at one point even tries to have sex with a woman, but ultimately he knows what he likes. White’s unnamed narrator understands that his attraction to men is societally unacceptable, and he tries to do something about it – seeing an astonishingly dodgy therapist – but he knows what he likes, and he knows what and who he is.

White’s narrator is self-aware, and predatory, and slightly creepy. He is as aware of his liking for books as he is of his liking of men – and in ‘50s America neither of these would have been considered healthy. There is guilt and there is paranoia, there is a desire to change the unchangeable, but coursing beneath these negatives is a confidence that comes (pardon the pun) to its head (pardon the pun) in the book’s last pages. That the cost of this triumph is the betrayal of a relative innocent (although, look, “relative” is, um, a relative term) has always sat a little awkwardly with me. And I’m not sure about the narrator’s icky obsession with finding a rich daddy figure to control and abuse. Nevertheless, this was one of the first, perhaps the first, pieces of gay literature I read, and my god it’s good.

There are those who would say Armistead Maupin doesn’t deserve serious consideration. They would say Tales of the City and its sequels are amusing enough but qualify only as “popular fiction”.

And look, they may have a point, but … Actually, you know what? Fuck off.

I have enjoyed all of the books I’ve read so far for this individual mini-challenge (or maxi-challenge, maybe, except that sounds like a feminine hygiene product) but none of them has given me the joy Tales of the City did. I’d forgotten how good a writer Maupin was at the beginning, in the ‘70s – having read his three post-millennial Tales novels in the last few years, I knew how good he eventually got. It was an unexpected pleasure to read about these characters, back at the start of it all. Some of the things people gripe about – the “product placement”, as it would be called today – chafes, and some of those references are incomprehensible (do new editions of Tales have “notes”, like Penguin editions of Victorian novels, explaining outdated cultural references?). But some of the other objections – particularly the Dickensian criticism that he relies too much on coincidence – are rubbish. The City and the Pillar is excellent. A Boy’s Own Story is excellent. Neither of them is huge fun. Tales of the City is.

Tales is also interesting in its depiction of gay men at a particular point in time. Maupin is gay, obviously, and Michael Tolliver – Mouse – is arguably Maupin’s main character throughout his nine Tales novels – and, especially in the later books, a reflection of Maupin himself. Unlike Vidal’s Jim Willard in the ‘40s, unlike White’s narrator in the ‘50s, Maupin’s Mouse is shamelessly, proudly, riotously gay. There are emotional hangups, sure, mostly concerning romance, but hey – this was the ‘70s, and everybody was having a ball, and nobody gave a thought to the cataclysm that was to come.


In which Netty reads Houellebeq’s Atomised and wonders what’s French for “not my cup of tea” …

July 29, 2015

So when you think about France, what comes to mind? For me, it’s the Eiffel Tower, baguettes, jaunty berets, the River Seine, Champagne, cheese, the Champs D’Elysee … so basically, landmarks and the culinary. All the usual clichés.

Not necessarily someone you'd expect to have a ripsnortingly fun night out with ...

Not necessarily someone you’d expect to have a ripsnortingly fun night out with …

Andy says it was his idea to read Michel Houellebecq’s Atomised, but I do recall I was equally enthusiastic – the French author having been reasonably high up my to-read list for a while now. (It’s a pretty long list.) I was under the impression – not incorrect – that he was the enfant terrible of modern literature in that country; to my mind a French version of, say, Will Self. Or Chuck Palahniuk. I was sort of right – Houellebecq, to this reader, lacks the dark, sly wit and audacious verve, respectively, of the former pair.

Or maybe’s it my old bete noir – the whole “lost in translation” thing (for the record, Atomised was translated by Irishman Frank Wynne, who shared the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award with Houellebecq for this work.)

But I suspect not. Because there is something else that springs to mind when one thinks about all things Francophile – and that is Satre-styled existentialism. There’s more than a bit of that going on in these pages. But, you know, they’re French. It’s in their DNA, non?

Actually, Sartre has been tossed around by Andy and me as a possible ANRC candidate for a few years now. He usually ends up getting rejected – by me – on the grounds that it’ll be too hard. I attempted to read Nausea at high school but gave up. Perhaps it would have been easier if I’d tried to read it in English (boom! tish!)

OK, so we’ve established Andy didn’t like the book, and didn’t even hate it enough to like it. You can read his hilarious put-down here. As for me, I wouldn’t say I particularly liked it either – I found it quite dark, unremittingly bleak, incorporating an extremely pessimistic world view and devoid of hope for mankind in the future. Now, that is not necessarily a deal-breaker for me – after all, I am a HUGE fan of The Cure – but this novel left me feeling a bit depressed. For about a nanosecond – I’ve always been a glass half-full kinda gal. But if you’re not, either don’t read it, or up your Xanax prescription before you do. Which does kind of defeat the purpose.

Interestingly, Houellebeq’s mother Lucie Ceccaldi, from whom he is estranged, published her own book in 2008 (Atomised, his second novel, was published in 2001) to publicly correct perceived wrongs in the latter about the character she believes to be based on herself.

It appears she’s not off target on that assumption. Because Houellebeq has not only given one of his two main protagonists his name, he has also given the character his own back story. And in Atomised, the mother “character” (who shares Houellebeq’s mother’s surname) does not come out of things smelling like les fleurs, to put it mildly. In fact, she’s a selfish, pleasure-seeking narcissist only too keen to offload her two young sons in pursuit of her own desires. Houellebeq skewers 1960s hippie culture, its forebears and its offspring at every given opportunity throughout these pages. Some people go to a shrink to sort out the mess of their upbringing; others air their family’s dirty laundry among the pages of a book. No prizes for guessing into which camp the Ceccaldi/Houellebeqs fall …

Back to the book then. It is essentially the story of two half-brothers, Michel Djerzinski and Bruno Clement, set against the backdrop of the mid-to-late 20th century, and then, in the epilogue, casting forward into the future. As the novel opens, Michel, a fortysomething molecular biologist at the forefront of his field, is having something of a mid-life crisis, so he takes a year off his position to “think”. His older half-brother Bruno (they share the same mother), a divorced ex-schoolteacher, is also in the throes of a mid-life crisis, one which he is handling in the more traditional way.

The brothers, both of whom were brought up by their respective grandmothers – Michel by his paternal grandmother, Bruno by his maternal grandmother – do not meet until it is engineered by their parents when the boys are in their mid-teens. Extremely different in personality, theirs is an uneasy, yet consistent brotherly relationship.

Neither man has a successful personal life. Michel is essentially asexual, not having lost his virginity until his 30s, despite having had a great, largely one-sided, unconsummated teenage love affair with Annabelle, who reappears in his adult life. Bruno, meanwhile, is a sex-obsessed libertine who rarely has his interest reciprocated, despite the number of new-age sex camps he attends – until he meets his match in Christiane. But by this advanced stage of the book, the reader can guess – correctly, and I don’t think that’s a spoiler – that there can be no happy endings for these characters.

Late in the novel one character tells Michel: “In the end, life breaks your heart. Doesn’t matter how brave you are, or how reserved, or how much you’ve developed a sense of humour … there’s just the cold, the silence and the loneliness. You might say, after that, there’s only death”. And therein lies the raison d’etre of this novel: essentially, that life is fucked, people are fucked, and we’re all going to die. That’s it – it’s a joke without a punchline.

I don’t know – call me a perpetual optimist, but I prefer at least a glimmer of hope at the end of the tunnel.

Then, as Andy points out, Atomised gets all weird and meta and futuristic and science fiction-ey, and the reader learns the truth about Michel’s life’s work in molecular biology and where science may eventually lead the human race.

Look, I’m sure this book is someone’s idea of fun, to quote the aforementioned Will Self, but it wasn’t mine. But, you know, whateves. Books can be a crap shoot sometimes. C’est la vie.


Atomised – Voulez vous doucher avec Andy ce soir? Non? Pas pense

July 26, 2015

Michel Houellebecq’s International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award-winning Atomised was my choice. I’d read a bit about the writer, renowned as a politically incorrect, misanthropic, misogynist writer with a taste for filth and the grimmer, grimier outposts of continental existentialism. Maybe we’ll hate it, I said to Netty, maybe we’ll hate it but maybe we’ll enjoy hating it. Maybe we’ll LOVE hating it! What fun!


Funnily enough I think the Irish do a much better job of having fun with the grimmer, grimier outposts of continental existentialism than the French. Ireland, funnily enough, being where Hollaback or whatever his name is lives. Or was living when my edition of Atomised was published.

Yes, making fun of people’s names is racist and cheap and offensive – and more importantly, unoriginal. But I’m afraid, once again, you’ve mistaken me for someone who gives a fuck.

atomisedAtomised is the story of – oh Christ, do I even have to do this?  So it’s half-brothers who first meet in late adolescence (I think). One of them turns out to be some sort of extremely clever sciency sort of person with a totally fucked-up personal life. The other one turns out not to be some sort of extremely clever sciency sort of person with a totally fucked-up  personal life. By which I mean he isn’t sciency, but he does have a totally fucked-up personal life.

Michel (Oh goodness! Someone else has that name! Who was that again?) is the extremely clever sciency one, and that’s all you need to know about him. Bruno is the not-sciency one and it’s Bruno’s fucked-up personal life that gives this novel its single redeeming feature. Not for the reason Hoolahoop intends though – the sexual debaucheries and depravities Bruno stoops to (or imagines himself stooping to) are supposed to show modern humanity in all our excretal, meaningless, content-free humiliation. What they actually show is that once in a while the French write something just amusing enough to keep their readers interested. Or just interesting enough to keep their readers amused. Either way: just.

And then, in his novel’s closing pages, Hackensack decides he’s a science-fiction writer. Really? No. Fuck off, merci.

It’s conceivable that I might have responded more positively to Hobblestock’s ,most highly regarded work if its cover, at least the cover of the edition that I bought secondhand for ten bucks TEN FUCKING BUCKS THAT’S A FUCKING PINT FOR FUCK’S SAKE didn’t feature a picture of a semi-naked naif (or possibly nymph, or possibly nymphomaniac) wearing a pair of extraordinarily unfashionable underpants and boasting a pair of quite possibly quite decent (if you like that sort of thing) knockers, nipples obscured by the book’s title. Conceivable, in that not-remotely-conceivable sort of way.

I didn’t hate Atomised. It isn’t worth hating. I even got some vague. perverse pleasure out of some of it. But to be frank the French (do you see what I did there?) made a more substantial contribution to world literature with Ca plane pour moi = and Plastic Bertrand was Belgian, and he didn’t even sing the song. Which is the sort of wry meta-existential fact (if “wry meta-existential fact” isn’t an oxymoron) (actually no, it’s just bad English, sorry) that leaves me with a smile on my face. Something I’m afraid Haagendasz, or whatever his name is, did not.


Andy reminisces – Holleran and Leavitt

July 16, 2015

So to stop myself drinking wine from 7 in the morning (this is a pissweak joke by the way, there is no chance of me drinking wine before 8 in the morning) I’m re-reading a heap of the “gay stuff” I read 20-plus years ago. First up:

I thought I was capable of taking better photos than this,

I thought I was capable of taking better photos than this,

In his introduction to 1994’s Penguin Book of Gay Short Stories editor and writer David Leavitt quotes a young friend: “It’s the first gay book most young gay American men read, and I can’t think of another that’s done as much damage.” They were talking about Dancer from the Dance by Andrew Holleran, a novel about gay New York in the mid-’70s, and while the reaction is extreme I can see where they’re coming from (Leavitt has a good old crack at the novel elsewhere in his introduction). The book focuses on Sutherland and Malone and their lives in the gay clubs and bathhouses and on the beach (and dunes) of Fire Island in the years after the Stonewall riots and before AIDS. Malone is a stunningly handsome young man, while Sutherland has a small dick and can only get his jollies in the loos at Grand Central Station. This for the most part is the basis of Leavitt’s criticism of the book – sex (or “love”, as Holleran curiously styles it) is available only to the beautiful and those with big schlongs.

This seems a bit harsh to me. While Leavitt grudgingly acknowledges Holleran’s irony and mockery he plays it down a bit much. The whole novel, it seemed to me when I first read and perhaps even more so on re-reading, is a critique of gay New York’s obsession with sex and beauty. An affectionate critique perhaps, but critique nonetheless. At one point in the novel Sutherland decides he’s going to act as Malone’s pimp, not apparently needing Malone’s say-so to transform his friend into a hustler. And later still Malone himself becomes increasingly disenchanted and disheartened by the scene he’s a star of.

Most disturbing, given the cataclysm that we now know had already begun when this book’s characters were getting their thing on in the mid to late 70s, is its prescient focus on the dual obsessions of sex and death. “I’m beginning to think cancer is contagious,” one character writes to another early on. Dancer from the Dance was published in 1978, about the same time a group of New York doctors started treating young gay men for kaposi’s sarcoma; they published their research three years later, in 1981. I’m sure the “contagious cancer” reference is merely a literary flourish on Holleran’s part, but I still remember my shock on first reading it long ago.

Leavitt’s point, and it’s a fair one, in criticising Dancer from the Dance was that gay men do not just live the sorts of lives Malone and Sutherland lead – trawling clubs and parks and saunas for sex, on their knees in train station dunnies, obsessing about their looks and their dicks. For many gay men this is and was as far from their reality is it would be for a straight married dude. Leavitt wanted to illustrate that through the anthology of stories he edited, and he succeeded. The Penguin Book of Gay Short Stories was not the first collection of its kind, but its publication in 1994 did feel like a bit of a watershed moment. And it’s a terrific collection, taking in legends like Isherwood and Forster,Edmund White and Larry Kramer, as well as a handful of straight writers who were happy to write about gay characters (Ann Beattie, William Trevor – although Graham Greene’s May We Borrow Your Husband, funny as it is, jars a little with the slightly homophobic depiction of a predatory gay couple). It also contains some devastating stories about AIDS, including one by Kiwi writer Peter Wells. There are a few misfires, most obviously some of the irritating pomo guff from the late 80s and early 90s, but for the most part re-reading this collection was a very rewarding and enjoyable experience.

Leavitt’s first novel, The Lost Language of Cranes, inhabits a very different New York to Dancer from the Dance. it was published in 1986 and while it’s not a novel “about” AIDS the risk of illness and death hovers over the lives of the gay characters. Most obviously, though, it depicts a reality about the lives of most gay men that is almost completely absent from Holleran’s vision; gay men might be gay, but they are also members of families, sons, brothers, sometimes even husbands and fathers. Bars, clubs and sex are aspects of their lives, but they’re not central. As such it was quite refreshing after the dusky murk of Holleran’s (albeit slyly mocking) gay Gotham. And while it might sound irrational there’s something wonderfully rewarding about the lack of resolution at story’s end – all of the storylines, and the characters themselves, are to some extent left in limbo. We’re left to imagine their fate for ourselves.

It was a bit of a relief to re-read these, books I first read in my 20s, and not be disappointed. They are excellent books, and I’m glad I chose to spend my time reading them rather than hoeing into the cab merlot by mid-morning.


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