What do you do when you are trapped in a book you hate?

I used to finish them, always. But in 1995 that all changed for me. I was given a Perec to read (in English). The one with no letter ‘e’. It was making me miserable, and when I discovered (having not noticed until I read the back cover) that it was artificially conceived and then even worse, translated with the same artifice in place, I decided it could be discarded with impunity.

It was the start of my new life as a non-finisher of books. Surely the thing a book should do, the most general thing it should do, is make you want to pick it up. If you are picking it up like it’s something you’d prefer not to, gingerly, with the tips of your fingers, that’s the message right there. Stop! You are going to die before you read all the wonderful books out there. Why read this one? Stubbornness is rarely a virtue in a reader.

 

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The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas

Having sat on my to-read shelf for years, I took this on a plane trip recently. I expected to leave it abandoned in my seat pocket for another person. Instead I found it hard to put down.

The premise of the story would never happen in reality – at a party of adult friends and their children, Hugo, a four year old, goes to wack another child with a cricket bat and the father of the target stops this happening by slapping Hugo on the face. The parents of Hugo insist on police involvement and the police take it to court. Because there is so little crime in Australia, that this stands out as a good use of police time and court resources. Not. It just wouldn’t happen.

But let’s pretend it could, because it makes for a great story, as the relations between the various adults are tested by the way in which Hugo’s parents behave and expectations by all concerned. A story gripping enough that not only was an Australian TV series made, but the US made its own – I’m almost curious to see what they did to it. Every main character in the story is ghastly. I’m truly impressed with the author’s ability to make such a readable story out of such shits as they all are. Young and old, they are all materialists whose high points are buying clothes, getting haircuts, drinking and drugging, getting bikini waxes and making entrances. The women are ghastly, the men, the Australians, the Indians, the Greeks, the young, the old. But having said that, the fact is that they are all utterly ordinary. People muddling through life in a self-centered – I, closely followed by my family, are what matters – way.

Tsiolkas is no great prose stylist. Why does he split his infinitives I wonder? Why does his editor let him? But it doesn’t matter. Mostly it is his characters speaking and their voices are all believable. The structural gimmick used – successfully, it might be added – is to unfold the story line through each character’s perspective. My friend Peter on GR wanted it to end with Aisha and I see the logic of that.  I recommend his review. But I can’t help admiring Tsiolkas’ ability to squeeze out of this fuckup of a story the hint of a happy ending, and this is done by ending with one of the teenagers. I said every character is ghastly, but in truth Richie was almost likeable and the nearest thing to a person for whom one wishes the best.

The story is very Australian, and very Greek. It all rings totally true. Looking at reviews on GR, I’m fascinated to see that non-Australians can’t cope with the book at all, whereas Australians love it. As they should.

 

Now You Know by Michael Frayn

The last Michael Frayn novel I read was Skios and I spent the book feeling like I was reading a movie pitch (albeit a long one). Maybe it would have made a good movie, but it failed as a book, perhaps because of these conflicted purposes.

The other day I discovered, sitting in the bookshelves, unread as yet, Now You Know. Written (or rather, published) twenty years before Skios, and shortly after the splendid A Landing on the Sun, I had great expectations. Which were unmet.

Why did you start doing this, Mr Frayn? Having your cake and eating it. Writing novels with an eye to the stage? Don’t write novels if that’s your plan. I read this, thinking just like Skios, that it was the detailed plan for a play. A play this time, not a movie, which was more the sense I got with Skios, maybe because it had an exotic location. This time felt wrong because the characters spoke in some way characters speak in a play and not in a novel. I can’t say exactly what that means, it’s just my intuitive reaction. I kept seeing some stalwart of English TV playing the main character. I kept wanting to speak his lines out loud – see, lines. That’s how it felt. And at the same time, none of the characters took form in my mind’s eye the way they should in a book. It’s like I need to see the play in order to flesh them out.

And sure enough, now that I’ve put the book down and checked, it did become a play not long after. And sure enough, it didn’t work as a play either.

Okay, okay. Frayn is a wonderful writer who has churned out fantastic stuff in many walks of the printed medium. They aren’t all going to be Landings on the Sun. This one’s a bit of a trick, if you ask me. It is hard to put down and yet at the end you feel like the rabbit’s disappeared and you still want to know how.

 

 

 

A Landing on the Sun by Michael Frayn

This piece was written in 2009.

When I read this book I could see nothing in it but the idea that you have been given this gift of life and you have to do the right thing by it. That to give up on finding love and happiness is to scorn this gift.

And yet…maybe the very opposite is true. Maybe what I should have seen is the idea that you should stay where you are, that the miserable life you know is better than the unknown dangers of the happiness and love you could choose to seek.

And yet…maybe it is simply thus: the best whodunnit ever.

There is a sex scene. Even though I’ve read the book twice, I forgot this until rereading it a third time today:

I got back into my own bed. The point is that you raise your hand if you can see someone else with red hair. Serafin raises her hand. Summerchild raises his violin. I raise my trombone. I begin to play with great pleasure. The secret, I discover, is in the long, regular strokes of the slide. I laugh as I play – it’s so easy and so delightful. The sunlight flashes on the bell of the instrument. It swells in the lovely warmth, and pulses, and melts, and all the sweetness of the world comes bursting out…

I am wide awake as I get out of bed this time, and the appallingly cosy warm wetness around my shrinking genitals turns soberly chill as the night air strikes it. I look very levelly at myself in the bathroom mirror as I wait for the water to run warm, and the same old face I went to bed with looks levelly back at me. My beard is trim and grey again, not wild and red. I think we are both shocked and surprised, my face and I. This hasn’t happened to us for a number of years. What’s going on? The great muddle of the world, the great muddle of the past, is reaching out for us, reaching into us, and we don’t like it.

My face has stopped looking at me, though, I realise. I think it’s thinking about something else. About how insidious, how overpowering, how irresistible that forgotten sweetness for one moment was.

Generally I’m pleased that Frayn has so much to say that he can leave the sex altogether for the many writers who face the daunting task of empty pages and not nearly enough to put on them. Yet I read this and think even sex is something he could make better than it is.

Having thought about this book for months, and reread it several times against my own principles, I fail to see an adequate way of reviewing it.

I have this strong sense it is an important book that everybody in the world should read. Perhaps the bottom line is that if you are miserable and wish to stay where you are, it will comfort you. It won’t make you feel less miserable, but it will make you feel like you are better off than the crazy people. If you are miserable and believe that you should seek love and happiness, it will make you see with clarity and certainty that anything is worth that.

And if perchance you are one of those lucky people who is quite content with his lot, you will nonetheless be delighted by a charming and amusing account of human nature.

I have this strong sense that the world would be a better place if everybody read this book. But maybe I have to feel like that, having given up one life in search of another. Mostly I believe in the optimism I took from it. But there are days when I sit and wonder, Jesus, Michael Frayn, what the fuck have you done to me?

On those days I want to reword the definition of happiness as put forward by Summerchild as he and Serafin set upon an investigation into the nature of happiness. Eventually it becomes simple and clear to them. Summerchild says:

I should say that happiness is being where one is and not wanting to be anywhere else.

Yes. To be sure. If you are happy that is so clearly true. And yet….there are these days where I wonder if it is enough to say happiness is not being where you don’t want to be? Would that do instead?

Skios by Michael Frayn

This is the only novel I’ve read by Frayn which has somewhat disappointed me and I think I know why. It isn’t a novel. It’s a play, or more likely, it’s a screen play.

One of the very finest things Frayn does (and that is high praise indeed) is frantic farce. He does Fawlty Towers better than John Cleese did it. The human disposition for disaster is something he explores hilariously in Noises Off and again in Clockwise. Not for the first or last time I rue the ignorant critical reception this movie got. It made A Fish Called Wanda look like the made-for-Americans-trash it was and yet Clockwise was panned. After the hit and miss – if nonetheless cult – way in which Fawlty Towers just managed to fill up 30 minutes at a time, Clockwise did this hilariously for a sustained movie. That is truly amazing.

And this is what Skios is. I kept reminding myself as I read it ‘It’s a movie, it’s a movie, it’s a hysterically funny farce of a movie’. Well. I hope it becomes such, I imagine it deserves to be and that it is the millieu in which it will work.

Am I being too critical? Or too generous? I could stand corrected on either count.

Fine Just the Way it is by Annie E Proulx

I’m such a lazy person. Too often I write really quite the best reviews in the world in my head – and that’s enough for me. I move on. They never see the light of day.

I read this at the same time as I read my first book of Alice Munro stories and my first inclination was to write something where something of a shadow cast over Munro would be to the benefit of Proulx, a writer who has never disappointed me and I’ve read all of them. Checking, I see that I’m talking about early 2014 – over four years ago, and this book by Proulx has been sitting in my queue, waiting for a mention and she’s coming out now, courtesy of my spring clean.

When I wrote about Munro’s Dear Life collection, I make comparisons with Lessing and Tyler and left Proulx right out of it. I no longer really recall why. I also rarely have a good memory for books these days past a short period post reading it. But I’m left with an impression that I was happy to read it even though I thought better of the comparison I’d intended to make with Munro. I will just make the comment now, however, that I suspect Proulx is the more rounded writer, able to go from long, to short, to somewhere in between (thinking there of Brokeback Mountain).

At any rate, both these writers are like Anne Tyler, old slippers that one keeps putting on, one opens to the first page, the first lines and yes…..there we are again….

My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk

Almost three years ago I wrote on GR about this book:

Whilst I attempt to get my own thoughts in order, for those curious about this book, I strongly recommend reading both Nandakishore’s review and Whitaker’s here.

The fact that the reviews are so very different in content, attitude, the lot surely has something to do with the book.

More later.

But I simply couldn’t think of anything good to say. I’ve discovered, however, that I have company, I’m not the only person in the world who has an aversion for this book. Discovering that has given me the strength to move on without feeling like it must be my fault or that I should be feeling guilty. As much as I loved Museum of Innocence, I dislike this.

There, I’ve said it. And do go to the reviews referenced above to read erudite discussions of this book.