Friday, August 17, 2018

the last book I read

The History Of Luminous Motion by Scott Bradfield.

Philip (who is seven as the novel starts) and his mother are on an extended road trip. It's not entirely clear why, but most likely they are fleeing from Philip's Dad who has committed some unspecified offence. Probably just being A Guy, right, ladies? Anyway, they drive around California, Mom hooks up with random guys periodically, makes use of their credit cards for a while, things go sour, Mom and Philip move on. Well, it's a living.

A living that suits Philip very well, as it happens, Philip not being the sort of boy well suited temperamentally to cosy domesticity and routine, or at least not that sort of routine. So when Mom shacks up with Pedro and they stop their peripatetic existence to move in with him, Philip is a bit agitated. Now usually a slightly agitated seven-year-old would just throw a few tantrums, refuse to eat his chicken nuggets, that sort of thing. Not Philip, though, who perpetrates some sort of murky atrocity on Pedro using Pedro's own toolkit. Mom seems fairly sanguine about this but decides, probably wisely, that they should move on.

They soon settle again, though, not with a man this time but just seemingly on Mom's whim, in a rented house from where Philip starts to make some friends, most notably twelve-year-old Rodney and his sort-of-girlfriend Beatrice. Neither of these are necessarily a good influence and Philip gets involved with underage drinking, burglary and joy-riding. Meanwhile, Mom has withdrawn into herself and rarely emerges from her room. Then, unexpectedly, Philip's Dad turns up and tries to impose some order. And a good thing too, as it transpires that Mom is pregnant, though it's not clear who by.

Once again, though, Philip balks at the idea of domesticity and order, and goes increasingly off the rails with encouragement from Rodney. Or is it the other way round? Either way, Dad had better look out. Sure enough, one evening, with some help from Rodney, Philip trusses Dad up and gets to work with the toolkit again. This time, though, Beatrice has got wind of things and tipped off the police, who arrive and cart Philip off before he can do something irrevocable like saw Dad's head off.

Philip winds up in a correctional facility where he is probed and analysed by a whole team of psychiatrists, before they deem him worthy of release, whereupon he is reunited with Mom and Dad and the new baby. But how rehabilitated is he?

One way of answering that last question is: how reliable are Philip's first-person accounts of his supposed crimes? Are we perhaps in Patrick Bateman territory where it's not clear at the end of the novel whether any of the events really happened at all? Well, Dad genuinely appears to be recovering from some injuries when we re-encounter him at the end. But what happened to Pedro? And what happened to Mom to make her retire to her room and scarcely ever speak again?

Well, answers are not really forthcoming to any of that. We are meant, I guess, to simply revel in the transgressiveness of having an eight-year-old (Philip ages a year or so over the course of the novel) do some weird psychotic shit, though it's hard to imagine that we're meant to find Philip personally appealing or engaging. The problem is that Philip's actions might have a slight ring of truth (or at least plausibility) if he were, say, fourteen rather than eight - I kept wondering whether I'd missed a narrative time-jump wherein six years had passed and Philip's Jim Beam consumption, ability to drive a car (and see over the dashboard) and sexual fantasies about Beatrice made any sense, but nope, he's barely eight-and-a-half at the end.

It sounds terribly condescending to say it (yeah, come back when you've had your first novel published, bucko) but there is a definite whiff of First Novel about this (and it was indeed Scott Bradfield's first published novel, in 1989) - it just seems to be trying a bit too hard to be shocking and original and what's described ends up not feeling "real" somehow. This is tricky territory, obviously, since the events described in any novel are by definition not real, but there is some sense in which even the most outlandish stuff has to make sense within the boundaries of the novel's own logic. So the same basic criticisms could also be made of, for instance, The Wasp Factory, but that seemed to "work" in a way that this doesn't. So, you know, it's not uninteresting, I daresay he's written better things since, but I'm not sure I'd recommend it. But, then again, what do I know, since someone deemed it interesting enough to make into a film (with the cut-down title Luminous Motion) in 1998, starring among others Deborah Kara Unger who I remember from the film of JG Ballard's Crash.

Friday, August 03, 2018

the last book I read

Me And The Fat Man by Julie Myerson. 

Amy is just a regular girl in a provincial town (a thinly-disguised Bath by the look of it) trying to get by, with all the mundane day-to-day problems we all have: grumpy unsatisfying marriage, boring job as a waitress in a local bistro, lucrative side-business picking up punters in a local park and taking them off to a rented room for some perfunctory handjob/blowjob action. I mean, we've all been there.

One day during a shift at the bistro a man called Harris walks in and claims to know her from when she was a child. Amy has only the dimmest recollections of her early years, which were spent with her mother Jody on the fictional Greek island of Eknos (a thinly-disguised actual Greek island, for all I know) and which ended when Jody drowned in the Aegean in dimly-remembered but mysterious circumstances, whereupon Amy was re-homed in the UK with foster-parents Brian and Eileen.

Anyway, Harris claims to be an ex-boyfriend of Jody's from her pre-Greece days, but also to have visited Jody and Amy and her little brother Paul on the island. Wait, Paul? It turns out Paul also died in slightly mysterious circumstances when he was very young, and Amy hardly remembers him at all. Back in the present, though, Harris has a young friend slash ward slash flatmate called Gary that he's very keen for Amy to meet. Harris's story is that he also knew Gary's mother and has been fulfilling some sort of vaguely paternal role for the last twenty years or so, though Gary seems quietly dubious about some of this.

Harris is keen for Amy to come on a trip to Eknos with him, though it's not clear what he's hoping to get out of it. In any case, there is a spanner in the works: Amy and Gary have struck up a relationship and Amy finds herself pregnant. Amy and Gary set up house together (Amy's estranged husband having been brought up to speed with events by this point) and have a baby boy, Jimmy. Things are tough; Gary works in a bookshop and Amy has kept up with the waitressing (though not with the prostitution) so there's a bit of money coming in, but not much. But then baby Jimmy dies while having a nap in his pram and Amy goes off the rails somewhat, stealing his still-warm corpse from the hospital morgue, zipping it into a holdall and fleeing on a budget flight to Eknos. After narrowly avoiding the rapey attentions of her taxi driver (by bashing him over the head with a rock) she arrives in the village of Diakofti where she lived as a young girl. But, whoa, hang on a minute, what's Gary doing here already?

All is not as it seems, says Gary. No shit, Sherlock, says Amy. Don't rush off in a huff, says Gary, I've got to do my Basil Exposition bit and then we can discuss what's in that stinky holdall. So it appears that Gary has in fact been Greek all along, and was taken under Harris' wing in rather different circumstances from those originally described. Harris really did know Jody, and indeed appears to have been the father of Amy's younger brother Paul, but Jody apparently killed little Paul (at least semi-accidentally) and then herself shortly afterwards by some Reggie Perrin-style walking into the sea.

So what does all this mean? What were Harris' motivations in any of this? What does it mean for Amy and Gary's future relationship? Where are they going to bury Jimmy's malodorous remains? Should they give the holdall a rinse before using it for the return trip? None of that is completely clear (well, they do successfully bury Jimmy) since I'm not completely sure any of the plot knitting-together at the end really makes sense - that something bad happened to Paul, that it was probably Jody's fault and that her death probably wasn't an accident are all clear fairly early on; all the additional stuff about Gary and Harris is neither remotely plausible nor especially important. The key unresolved plot point we're presumably meant to muse on is: did Harris kill Jimmy? He was alone with him in the house while Amy was sleeping and gone when she woke up to find Jimmy dead, so he could have; but why? Long-delayed revenge on Jody for killing his son? Who knows?

As with A Man In Full these minor quibbles aren't that important; the important thing here is the general atmosphere of slightly spooky dread which is kept up throughout, a bit like in Richard Adams' The Girl In A Swing but without the explicitly supernatural elements. As with Laura Blundy (which was considerably more baffling) and also Sleepwalking and Something Might Happen Myerson conjures up a female protagonist whose motivations are rich and complex and opaque but involve fierce and intense feelings about sex and motherhood; obviously men regularly write female characters and vice versa but these are female characters it would be hard to imagine a man having written, or not nearly so convincingly anyway.

This is a pretty short book - 217 pages, small format - and zips by quickly, but leaves a strange and lingering impression. It's probably not as good as, say, Something Might Happen (which is quite a bit longer) but is well worth a read, especially if as I did you can pick up a copy for a pound from the splendid little second-hand bookshop tucked away round the side of Tredegar House.

Thursday, August 02, 2018

the second-last book I read

A Man In Full by Tom Wolfe.

Heeeeere's Charlie! Charlie Croker is a larger-than-life real estate mogul based in Atlanta, Georgia. Sixtyish now, he has a long and colourful history of college sports fame, real-estate wheeler-dealering, massive building projects and the obligatory ditching of the supportive original spouse for a leggy younger model. Resonance with present-day events, you say? Tell me more! The best bit is, Charlie has over-leveraged himself on, among other things, a ludicrous vanity high-rise project called Croker Concourse at the unfashionable end of Atlanta and now his creditors are coming after him. Summoned before the loans team at PlannersBanc, to whom he owes countless hundreds of millions, he faces the prospect of losing his country estate, his fleet of Gulfstream business jets and limousines, even his big mansion in the fashionable part of old Atlanta. Meanwhile, disgruntled PlannersBanc drone Ray Peepgass, who's involved in the Croker case, has some ideas about picking up some of Charlie's assets on the cheap via a not-strictly-legal series of shenanigans involving various shell companies and much smoke and mirrors.

It's not all about old Charlie, though. Here's Roger White, an up-and-coming black lawyer, speeding to a meeting with his old college pal Wes Jordan, who just happens to be the current Mayor of Atlanta. Wes has got wind of a potential scandal and wants Roger's help managing the fall-out. A local college footballer, Fareek Fanon, is accused of raping a white girl, Elizabeth Armholster, whose father is a prominent local businessman. Wes doesn't want the incident to result in racial unrest in the city and, regardless of the frights and wrongs of the case, would really just like it to die down and go away as quietly as possible.

At the other end of the social and economic pecking order, here's Conrad Hensley, who works as a picker in the massive freezer warehouses of Croker Global Foods in the Bay Area of San Francisco. It's tedious, gruelling and occasionally dangerous work, shifting massive boxes of frozen stuff weighing tens of kilos onto forklifts, but Conrad is conscientious and good at his job. That isn't enough to save him, though, as there's some ruthless downsizing afoot to help the Croker organisation reduce its costs, and they operate a strict last in, first out policy. So Conrad gets laid off. From this point indignities are heaped unrelentingly on him: having to report for job interviews he squeezes his car into (as he sees it anyway) the end of the legal parking zone, only to come back to find it being towed; on reporting to the pound to retrieve it he has to queue interminably and is then hit with some supplementary charges he can't afford to pay for. At this point he loses the plot, dashes off and breaks into the car pound to liberate his car, beats up a security guard and is subdued and thrown in jail.

Seasoned novel-readers will see where this is going: all these seemingly separate plot strands are going to come together in some way before the end. Charlie Croker and Roger White's stories intersect as follows: Mayor Jordan has decided that it would help defuse some of the feverish speculation over the Fanon case (not that there is a "case" as such since Elizabeth Armholster has declined to file charges) if former Georgia Tech alumnus and football superstar Charlie Croker gave a public statement describing the pressures young high-profile sportsmen are under and calling for calm. If he found it within himself to be able to do this, the city of Atlanta might find it within their power to intercede with PlannersBanc and get them to do something a bit less draconian with Charlie's crippling debts. The trouble is, Charlie moves in the same business and high-society circles as Elizabeth's father Inman, which would make things a bit awkward between them if he was seen to be sympathetic to Fareek Fanon. But, man, he really loves his country estate....

But wait, what of Conrad? Well, he's in prison, trying to keep his head down and not attract any attention from the various gangs of black, Hispanic or white supremacist types who might take over-prolonged eye contact as some sort of slight, or, worse, decide that he's got a real pretty mouth. Meanwhile thanks to a cock-up on the book-ordering front he's been landed with a book of the writings of Epictetus to read; not your standard thriller fare but actually he's really getting into a bit of the old Stoicism. After using a bit of the old philosophy, as well as the massive hands and forearms developed throwing eighty-pound boxes of frozen chicken around, to humiliate white supremacist head honcho Rotto, he is saved from the inevitable retaliation by a massive earthquake in the dead of night that splits his wing of the prison open like a ripe watermelon and allows him to escape. Via a couple of contacts from his days lugging frozen shit around he acquires a new identity and a job working as a care assistant in the Atlanta area, during the course of which he gets a gig looking after this old rich guy who's just had a knee replacement operation, a guy by the name of Charlie Croker.

So we come to the climactic tying-up of plot strands bit: will Charlie agree to make his speech? will his newly-minted friendship with Conrad and their conversations about Stoic philosophy have any bearing on the content? will he still be forced to surrender all his property to his creditors? will Ray Peepgass (who has struck up a bizarre relationship with Charlie's ex-wife Martha) get to execute his nefarious insider-trading scam and get filthy rich?

All of those questions are answered, though not in the way that one might expect, nor, one might argue, in a way that is particularly satisfying or really makes any sense. In a way this doesn't really matter, though; when the cake is as rich and filling (742 pages) as this it doesn't really matter if the last mouthful is a bit crusty and hasn't got very much icing on it. Inevitably (stretching the metaphor a bit) the ingredients in the rest of the cake aren't completely evenly distributed either - the fairly unnecessary sub-plot involving Ray Peepgass (and Charlie's ex-wife Martha, for reasons that are never particularly clear) contains a lot of stuff about how the scam operates and all the corporate smoke and mirrors which is no doubt meticulously researched but fairly uninteresting. It's the same sort of thing as all the Sumerian mythology in Snow Crash or (going back considerably further in my book-reading life) the lengthy sections dealing with the plotting and financing of the African coup in Frederick Forsyth's The Dogs Of War - I've spent months doing all this bloody research so I'm bloody well going to shoehorn it in somewhere, even if it does grind the narrative to a halt. By contrast the prison sections featuring Conrad (who is himself a bit of a problematic Mary Sue in an otherwise unmitigated sea of arseholes) are buttock-clenchingly thrilling, which is great but makes them seem like they've been parachuted in from another work altogether, most likely either The Shawshank Redemption or Tim Willocks' Green River Rising (which I see I've recommended here at least twice before).

I suppose what I (and a lot of heavyweight reviewers, at even more tedious length than me) am saying is: it's huge, flawed, but still hugely entertaining and easy to read despite its intimidating bulk. Very much like, in other words, its predecessor The Bonfire Of The Vanities, with which it shares some major plot points, principally a fascination with the lives and trappings of the super-rich and the device of having one of them, the central character (Charlie Croker here, Sherman McCoy there) brought down and humiliated by his own hubris and extravagance. It was a bit cheeky of Christopher Hitchens to start his review of A Man In Full with a snippet featuring drunken journalist Peter Fallow from The Bonfire Of The Vanities without acknowledging that Fallow was rumoured to have been at least partly modelled on him, as well as Anthony Haden-Guest and no doubt a few others. Indeed Wolfe seems to have a generally low opinion of his journalistic colleagues, most of the ones featured in A Man In Full being badly-shaven scruffy hungover shambling hacks. Perhaps this is just to throw his own real-life penchant for spiffy white suits into sharp relief.

Anyway, it's good, but definitely (just by virtue of its hugeness) falls into the category of books I like to call Projects; others in this list that occupy that category would obviously include Infinite Jest, plus a couple of others on the shelves I really should get to soon. I'd had A Man In Full on the bookshelves for probably the best part of a decade before being nudged into reading it by the prospect of an upcoming holiday with a bit of reading time, but also by Wolfe's death in May of this year. Wolfe thereby avoids the Curse Of Electric Halibut by a few months. Wolfe's only previous mention on this blog was during the course of this post about TC Boyle's The Tortilla Curtain.