Sunday, November 9, 2014

American Tabloid, by James Ellroy

James Ellroy is best known for his L.A. Quartet:  Black Dahlia, L.A. Confidential, The Big Nowhere, and White Jazz. I've been reading a fair amount of Nordic noir over the past few years, but this is my first foray into American noir. In this massive novel, Ellroy takes on all the shady characters of the Kennedy years -- gangsters, molls, CIA and FBI agents, Cubans of both the pro- and anti-Castro varieties, and of course, the Kennedys themselves. The majority of characters in the novel are historical figures, so the line between fact and fiction is hard to discern at times, but the overall effect is wildly vivid.

I was 20 months old when JFK died on 22 November, 1963. What sense I have of that era is what I've cobbled together from bits and pieces. Camelot, to Kennedy's supporters, was a time of innocence and youthful exuberance. Ellroy eviscerates the Camelot myth. Innocence? Even if I give Ellroy some creative license, his novel makes it abundantly clear how many individuals and groups had vested -- very vested -- interests in demolishing Camelot.  And they were so interconnected!  The Italian mobsters lost a fortune in casinos when Castro took over Cuba; they supported anti-Castro refugees. Howard Hughes had connections to the mob, oodles of money, a drug addiction that needed to be fed, and an insatiable lust for lurid gossip. Bobby Kennedy had it out for organised crime, seemingly oblivious to the fact that it was his father's underworld connections that had put his brother in the White House. JFK mishandled the Bay of Pigs invasion, leading to a wholesale slaughter of the Cubans who were trying to take their island back, and this infuriated the Cuban refugee community, the CIA (which had secretly backed and funded it), and the Mafia. J. Edgar Hoover had connections to nearly everyone and manipulated them all like chess pieces.
John Kennedy, J. Edgar Hoover, Robert Kennedy
The Kennedy political circle was every bit as corrupt as those before and after it.

As I said, this genre is new to me, so I can't compare Ellroy to other writers, but I would venture to guess that no one does gangsters like he does.  He seems to catch exactly the right tone without crossing the line into cliché or parody. Herschel Meyer (Heshie) Ryskind is one of Ellroy's creations, but he's clearly modelled on members of the Kosher Nostra -- Meyer Lansky, maybe.

An historical colleague is Jack Ruby (born Jacob Leon Rubenstein). Ellroy portrays Ruby as an ardent dog-lover (in the bestial sense) who is constantly surrounded by a variety of pooches in the sleazy nightclub he runs. I think the dog fancy may be purely fiction, but it's a vivid detail in Ellroy's picture of a weasel-like low-life who will cooperate with anyone who beats the stuffing out of him -- whether it's an Italian mobster or a CIA agent, to whom he describes the sex life of Heshie Ryskind.
Ruby said, "Heshie loves blow jobs. He gets blow jobs exclusively, 'cause he says it's good for his prostate. He told me he hasn't dipped the schnitzel since he was with the Purples back in the '30s and some shiksa tried to schlam him with a paternity suit. Heshie told me he's had over ten thousand blow jobs. He likes to watch "The Lawrence Welk Show" while he gets blown. He's got nine doctors for all these diseases he thinks he's got, and all the nurses blow him. That's how he knows it's good for his prostate."  
J. Edgar Hoover, head of the CIA, wants to keep his job, and Bobby Kennedy, Attorney General and
Jimmy Hoffa, Teamster Union boss
head of the Justice Department, is just as keen to depose him, vowing that Hoover will be fired when his brother is re-elected. Hoover is in cahoots with the mobsters when it suits him and when it serves his battle against RFK,  The Jewish and Italian mobsters are collaborators or foes, depending upon the circumstances, but they are united in their opposition to the Kennedys.  An inconvenient truth, however, is that Irish immigrant Joseph Kennedy, Sr. had very tight connections to both gangster communities.

Ellroy credits the Mafiosos with more brawn than brain-power. While this may be underestimating them (Jimmy Hoffa was in fact a law school graduate), it's entertaining, at least.
Hoffa said, "It's the handing down of grand jury indictments that bothers me. My lawyer said the Sun Valley thing is unlikely to go my way, which means indictments by the end of the year. So don't make Joe Kennedy sound like Jesus handing God the Ten Commandments on Mount Fucking Vesuvius." ...
Rosselli said, "It's Mount Ararat, Jimmy. Mount Vesuvius is in fucking Yellowstone Park."
Three characters -- all Ellroy creations -- weave through the whole novel like serpents, colluding with and opposing each other and every other character.  Pete Bondurant is essentially a thug-for-hire, and he's worked at some point for nearly every faction. Kemper Boyd is a former CIA man who still has ties within the agency, but he is equally comfortable in the Cuban refugee community, and he's enamoured of Jack Kennedy. He has so many irons in the fire that, when muddled, he can no longer remember which lies to tell. Ward Littell, a CIA agent, goes in and out of favour with Hoover, Boyd and Bondurant. At first charmed by Bobby Kennedy, he's soon disillusioned and joins forces with the underworld goons who would like to thwart him at least, or better still, to eliminate him altogether.
RFK, image of Fidel Castro, JFK
This change of heart puts Littell squarely back into Hoover's good graces. ("I will not comment on the attendant irony," as the Director is fond of saying.)

The skullduggery connected to the Cuban crisis is staggering. If Ellroy is even close to historically accurate, the CIA (probably with Mafia help) funded training camps to build invasion forces with anti-Communist refugees, and later -- when JFK had softened his stance on Castro -- to train teams of marksmen who would go to Cuba and assassinate him.

Silly me.  I'd thought drugging mercenaries was a recent phenomenon.
Pete meandered. The camp was Disneyland for killers. 
Six hundred Cubans. Fifty white men running herd. Twelve barracks, a drill field, a rifle range, a pistol range, a landing strip, a mess hall, an infiltration course and a chemical-warfare simulation tunnel. Three launch inlets gouged out of the Gulf a mile south. Four dozen amphibious crawlers rigged with .50-caliber machine guns. An ammo dump. A field hospital. A Catholic chapel with a bilingual chaplain. 
Pete meandered. Old Blessington grads waved hello. Case officers showed him some good shit. Dig Néstor Chasco--staging mock-assassination maneuvers. Dig that anti-Red indoctrination workshop. Dig the verbal abuse drills--calculated to increase troop subservience.
Dig the corpsman's amphetamine stash--pre-packaged preinvasion courage. Dig the action in that barbed-wire enclosure--peons flying on a drug called LSD. Some of them screamed. Some wept. Some grinned like LSD was a blast. A case officer said John Stanton hatched the idea-- let's flood Cuba with this shit before we invade.
Langley co-signed the brainstorm. Langley embellished it: Let's induce mass hallucinations and stage the Second Coming of Christ!!!!! Langley found some suicidal actors. Langley dolled them up to look like J.C. Langley had them set to pre-invade Cuba, concurrent with the dope saturation.
As Attorney General, Robert F. Kennedy went on the warpath against organised crime. This has always baffled me, because it's well-known that his father had long-standing connections to the underworld, and that the Mafia had in fact pulled strings to get JFK elected. Ellroy's characters don't seem to understand it any better. Ward Littell, fictional CIA agent, goes on his own anti-corruption initiative and captures the account books of a secret "pension fund" which was essentially used for loan-sharking. He finally -- after an appalling chain of violence and death -- gets his hands on the account books and interprets the code in which the entries are written.
Among the Teamster Central States Pension Fund lendees: Twenty-four U.S. senators, nine governors, 114 congressmen, Allen Dulles, Rafael Trujillo, Fulgencio Batista, Anastasio Somoza, Juan Perón, Nobel Prize researchers, drug-addicted movie stars, loan sharks, labor racketeers, union-busting factory owners, Palm Beach socialites, rogue entrepreneurs, French rightwing crackpots with extensive Algerian holdings, and sixty-seven unsolved homicide victims extrapolatable as Pension Fund deadbeats. 
 The chief cash conduit/lender was one Joseph P. Kennedy Sr. 
Vivid, gritty and dirty. There's not a single clean character in American Tabloid. No one has spotless hands, and few make it out of the book alive. Absolutely none of them is trustworthy, except perhaps James Ellroy, whose voice is always dead sure.  

Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell

Illustration by Pieter van Eenoge for the
NY Times review of '
The Bone Clocks'
I adore David Mitchell. Each of his novels has left me flabbergasted, and I'm wondering what ailed the Man Booker Prize committee this year when they left The Bone Clocks off the short list.  (Mind you, I haven't yet read any of the novels that did make it onto the short list, so this is unadulterated, uninformed favouritism on my part.)  If they are as or more stunning than this book, I'd better get to reading them.

As with most of his previous novels, The Bone Clocks is a stunning example of literary architecture. In an interview on the radio show, To the Best of Our Knowledge, Mr. Mitchell says he is basically a writer of novellas. By breaking his novels into short pieces that span centuries and continents, he's able to indulge this need to write shorter, very diverse bits of fiction, which he then links together with overlapping themes or characters.  The link in The Bone Clocks is Holly Sykes, who appears as a teen-aged runaway when the book opens in 1984 and as an elderly grandmother in a very grim 2043 when it ends.  Various characters -- some human, others supernatural and "atemporal" -- come into and leave Holly's life in the book's seven chapters.

All of David Mitchell's architectural wizardry would seem contrived and pedantic if he didn't people his stories with characters who reel us in. The voice of Holly, who's run away from her working-class family in Gravesend, is so real that it makes me wonder where the persona of David Mitchell went when he was channeling her. Holly, after finding her older boyfriend in bed with her best friend, takes off on foot and ends up finding work on a strawberry farm.
Blue sky, fresh air, aching back but three pounds richer than I was when I picked my first strawberry. At eight-fifty, we start picking again. At school right now, Miss Swann our form teacher'll be taking the register, and when she reads out my name, there'll be no reply. "She's not here, miss," someone'll say, and Stella Yearwood should start to sweat, if she's got half a brain, which she has. If she's bragged about nicking my boyfriend, people'll guess why I'm not at school, and sooner or later the teachers'll hear and Stella's going to get summoned to Mr. Nixon's office. Maybe a copper'll be there too. If she's kept schtum about nicking Vinny, she'll be acting all cool like she knows nothing but she'll be panicking inside. So'll Vinny. Sex with a bit of young fluff's all well and good, I s'pose, as long as nothing goes wrong, but things'll look pretty different pretty quickly if I stay at Black Elm Farm for a couple more days. Suddenly I'm an underage schoolgirl whom Vincent Costello seduced with presents and alcohol for four weeks before she vanished without a trace; and Vincent Costello, twenty-five-year-old car salesman of Peacock Street, Gravesend, becomes a chief suspect. I'm not an evil person or anything, and I don't want Jacko or Dad or Sharon to lose sleep over me, specially Jacko, but putting Vinny and Stella through the mangle at least a bit is very, very tempting."

In the second section, we make an abrupt shift to Cambridge, and the narrator is a sociopathic student named Hugo Lamb. He's brilliant and amoral, a hedonist and womaniser. Perhaps it's his lack of empathy that makes him completely oblivious to the fact that the gorgeous woman who materialises in a pew across the aisle is not quite... normal. In any sense. They will meet again, but not under the sort of circumstances Hugo might have wished for.

Benjamin Britten's 'Hymn to the Virgin' launches, chasing its echoey tail around the sumptuous ceiling before dive-bombing the scattering of winter tourists and students sitting there in the chancel in our damp coats. For me, Britten's a hit-and-miss composer; prolix on occasion but, when pumped and primed, the old queen binds your quivering soul to the mast and lashes it with fiery sublimity...
The hairs on my neck prickle, as if blown on. By her, for example, sitting across the aisle. She wasn't there when I last looked. Her eyes are closed to drink in the music so I drink her in. Late thirties --vanilla hair, creamy-skinned, beaujolais lips, cheekbones you'd slice your thumb on.
Hugo jets off for a ski holiday at the Swiss chateau of one of his wealthier classmates. The four young Cambridge men haunt the posh clubs and bars at night, which is where Hugo meets a bar maid named Holly (with whom he's inexplicably smitten) and scores some first-class cocaine from the club owner.
I deposit the last of my coke in a swirl on the mirror and -- kids, don't try this at home, don't try it anywhere, Drugs Are Bad -- toke it up my left nostril in a powerful snort. For five seconds it stings like a nettle being threaded down my throat via my nose, until -- We have liftoff. The bass is reverberating in my bones and godalmightythat'sgood ...
Tiny lights I can't quite see pinprick the hedges of my field of vision. I emerge from the cubicle like the Son of God rolling away the stone, and inspect myself in the mirror -- all good, even if my pupils are more Varanus komodoensis than Homo sapiens.
(Yes, that is a reference to a Komodo dragon. Hold that thought.)  Meanwhile, Hugo returns to his group's table to find that his three companions have found some lovely African women to keep them company. They deride him for declining the company of a fourth one, but he, for once, steers clear. The following morning, his intuition proves to have been keen as the women demand enormous sums of cash in payment. When the three lads get stroppy about it, the women ring up their pimps.  Hugo pockets the cash he'd won from them in poker games (ignoring their calls up the stairs to him to give the money back to pay off the knife-wielding goons) and jumps out the window.  Back in the village, he buys a paper, orders a coffee and watches the scene at the ATM machine across the street from his seat at the cafe where Holly works.
Here Quinn makes three withdrawals with three different cards, before being frog-marched back. I hide behind a conveniently to-hand newspaper. A Normal would feel guilt or vindication; I feel as if I just watched a middle-of-the-road episode of Inspector Morse. "Morning, Poshboy," says Holly,
What did you do to your ankle? You're limping."
"I left my old accommodation a la Spiderman."
"And landed a la sack-of-Spudsman."
"My Scout pack did the Leaping from Buildings to Escape Violent Pimps badge the week I was away."
Holly, although she sees through Hugo's flirtations, somewhat grudgingly offers him shelter during the approaching blizzard. What she does not see at first is that, for once, Hugo's interest is genuine.
I watch her fingers, her loopable black hair, how her face hides and shows her inner weather. This isn't lust. Lust wants, does the obvious, and pads back into the forest. Love is greedier. Love wants round-the-clock care; protection; rings, vows, joint accounts; scented candles on birthdays; life insurance. Babies. Love's a dictator. I know this, yet the blast furnace in my ribcage roars You You You You You You just the same, and there's bugger-all I can do about it. The wind attacks the window.
Unfortunately, the associates of the beautiful woman in the Cambridge chapel are also genuinely interested in Hugo, and he disappears before he can pursue any rings or joint accounts with Holly.

The following chapter is narrated by Ed Brubeck, a childhood friend of Holly's, now the father of their young daughter, Aoife. Ed is a war reporter, and he and Holly are at odds -- he's addicted to his work, and she wants him to spend more time at home. Aoife, not surprisingly, is precocious and articulate. Much like David Mitchell, who blithely tosses a Komodo dragon into another chapter.
"Mummy wants to be a dolphin," says Aoife,"because they swim, talk a lot, smile, and they're loyal. Uncle Brendan wants to be a Komodo dragon, 'cause there're people on Gravesend Council he'd like to bite and shake to pieces, which is how Komodo dragons make their food smaller. Aunty Sharon wants to be an owl because owls are wise, and Aunt Ruth wants to be a sea otter so she can spend all day floating on her back in California and meet David Attenborough."
While attending a family wedding in the UK, Ed's thoughts continually flash back to the war in Iraq, which he describes with a clarity that was notably lacking in the politicians who organised it. Lacking, in fact, in some of the "soldiers"who fought it remotely.
A drone circled above us. It would be armed. I thought of its operator, picturing a crewcut nineteen-year-old called Ryan at a base in Dallas, sucking an ice-cold Frappuccino through a straw. He could open fire on the clinic, kill everyone in and near it, and never smell the cooked meat. To Ryan, we'd be pixellated thermal images on a screen, writhing about a bit, turning from yellow to red to blue.
Making his way back to Baghdad after a trip to Fallujah with his Iraqi photographer and fixer, Ed detours to see an American helicopter that's just been shot down. Arriving just after them, a group of Marines orders all the onlookers flat onto the ground, and Ed fears for his Iraqi colleagues' lives. He announces himself as a British journalist, and the commanding officer gives him a dressing-down that's a pointed warning against black & white sympathies.
Major Hackensack looked at the black marine and shook his head, then turned a malevolent gaze my way. "You just see a sewer-mouthed military man, don't you? You just see a cartoon character and a platoon of grunts. You think we deserve this" -- he nods at the wreckage -- "just for being here. But the dead, they had children, they had family, same as you. They wanted to make something of their lives, same as you. Hell, they were lied to about this war, same as you. But unlike you, British journalist, they paid for other peoples' bullshit with their lives. They were braver than you. They were better than you. They deserve more than you. So you and Batman and Robin there, get the fuck out of my sight."
Now we jump to a literary festival at which irascible "bad boy of English letters" Crispin Hershey is at war with reviewer Richard Cheeseman who has just flamed his latest novel.  Hershey is a bitter, angry egomaniac who can rarely be bothered to learn anyone's name, but at the signing he learns -- and will never forget -- the name of the fellow author at the next table.
The place is pullulant with punters, cordoned by festival heavies into a snaking queue of Crispin Hershey faithful. Look on my works, Richard Cheeseman, and despair! They'll be reprinting Echo Must Die by the weekend and a V2 of money is headed straight for the House of Hershey! Victoriously, I gain my table, sit down, knock back the glass of white wine served by the Festival Elf, unsheathe the Sharpie -- and realize that all these people are here not for me, God sod it, but for a woman sitting at a table ten feet away. My own queue numbers fifteen. Or ten. More frumpet than crumpet. Editor Oliver has turned the colour of elderly chicken slices, so I scowl at Publicity Girl for an explanation. "That's, um, Holly Sykes." Oliver's color returns. "That's Holly Sykes? Jesus."
I growl, "Who in the name of buggery is Holey Spikes?"
"Holly Sykes,"says Publicity Girl, falling down the sar-chasm.
Over the years, Crispin develops an odd friendship with Holly, who seems to fill his own sar-chasm with a heightened sense of humanity. He accepts a position at a college in upstate New York, teaching creative writing. Suddenly, I wondered, is David Mitchell channeling the voice of Crispin, or vice versa?
For most digital-age writers, writing is rewriting. We grope, cut, block, paste, and twitch, panning for gold onscreen by deleting bucketloads of crap. Our analog ancestors had to polish every line mentally before hammering it out mechanically. Rewrites cost them months, meters of ink ribbon, and pints of Tippex. Poor sods. ...
"A writer flirts with schizophrenia, nurtures synesthesia, and embraces obsessive-compulsive disorder. Your art feeds on you, your soul, and, yes, to a degree, your sanity. Writing novels worth reading will bugger up your mind, jeopardize your relationships, and distend your life. You have been warned." My ten postgrads look sober. So they should. "Art feasts upon its maker," I tell them.
The sixth chapter is narrated by one of the Horologists, the small group of atemporals who find themselves reincarnated repeatedly throughout time. It's always a bit shocking to them to run into each other again in later incarnations. The narrator, Dr. Marinus, is a middle-aged female psychiatrist. Another character remembers having met her in 16th century Japan, which is, coincidentally, where a Dr. Marinus appeared in very different form in one of David Mitchell's earlier novels, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.
"God's blood! Marinus -- the doctor, on Dejima. Big man, red face, white hair, Dutch, an irascible know-it-all. You were there when HMS Phoebus blasted the place to matchwood."
I experienced a feeling akin to vertigo. "You were there?"
"I watched it happen. From the magistrate's pavilion."
"But -- who were you?"
Although this sort of play is great fun, The Bone Clocks is not pure whimsy. The interviewer on To the Best of Our Knowledge asked David Mitchell why he chose to mix genres in this novel (and most of his others), and why he elected to introduce supernatural aspects. This proved to be a question that Mitchell has heard all too often and is weary of. I don't care about sticking to one genre or another, he replied. I just want to write the best novel I can. If it crosses genre lines, so be it.

By introducing atemporals -- beings who are either immortal or reincarnated repeatedly -- he was able to consider how we might treat the world if we knew we were going to be in it for longer than one human lifetime. We would certainly not, he suggested, treat it with such callous disregard. His vision of the 'Endarkenment' makes the 14th century look like a picnic, and worse, it feels all too plausible.

An elderly Holly narrates this final chapter, set in 2043.
Five years later, I take a deep, shuddery breath to stop myself crying. It's not just that I can't hold Aoife again, it's everything: It's grief for the regions we deadlanded, the ice caps we melted, the Gulf Stream we redirected, the rivers we drained, the coasts we flooded, the lakes we choked with crap, the seas we killed, the species we drove to extinction, the pollinators we wiped out, the oil we squandered, the drugs we rendered impotent, the comforting liars we voted into office -- all so we didn't have to change our cozy lifestyles. People talk about the Endarkenment like our ancestors talked about the Black Death, as if it's an act of God. But we summoned it, with every tank of oil we burned our way through. My generation were diners stuffing ourselves senseless at the Restaurant of the Earth's Riches knowing -- while denying -- that we'd be doing a runner and leaving our grandchildren a tab that can never be paid.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Not My Daughter, by Barbara Delinsky

The premise of this novel caught my attention, but it promised more than it delivered.  Four girls, seniors in high school in a Maine town and close friends, make a pact to become pregnant, and three of them succeed. Their decision shocks their parents and, in fact nearly everyone in town -- these girls are at the top of their class, on a track for top-rated colleges, not teen motherhood. To complicate matters, the mother of one of the girls is the principal of the high school, and she comes under attack from the school board, whose conservative members are displeased with her handling of the media storm inspired by the pregnancy pact and find her (a single mother herself) a less than upstanding role model.

The three girls, despite their ostensible intelligence, didn't seem to consider that their behaviour would disrupt their social lives at school, cause a firestorm in the community and put their parents in tenuous positions, both socially and professionally.These girls are from upper middle-class, but more important, loving and grounded families. They are not having babies to fill emotional voids. When asked why on earth they've willfully decided to get pregnant at 17, the only answer any of them can proffer is that they all like babies. None of it is believable. Their parents, friends and neighbours can't get their heads around it, and neither can we readers.

It all ends happily -- the principal keeps her job and marries the father of her daughter (and the grandfather of their new grandson).  The three girls deliver three lovely, healthy babies, although one of them has a scare during the pregnancy, wailing that it had never occurred to her that she could have anything but a perfect baby. Again, I could only shake my head and resist the urge to throttle my Kindle in lieu of the naive, irresponsible, clueless girl.

I know that pact behaviour amongst adolescents is an alarming thing, whether they're suicide pacts, pregnancy pacts, drinking & drugging pacts, or whatever. This novel brought me no closer to understanding the dynamics of teen pacts, and the happily-ever-after ending certainly whitewashed any negative effects in this case. All's well that ends well? So it would seem. What can I say? I'm just happy that none of Ms. Delinsky's feckless teenagers is my daughter.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Songbird, by AJ Adams

If you've been reading this blog for a while, you well know that erotic organised crime thrillers aren't the genre that I reach for first.

Many moons ago, I worked in the publishing industry. In possession of a BA in Linguistics from an elite women's college in the eastern US, I went to work for a small publisher in Boston, editing gay men's porn, predominantly S&M. (This item never featured in my college's alumnae news, rest assured.) I learned a great many things in that job, most of which one doesn't mention in polite company. Here, though, was the central lesson: Good writers write good books, regardless of the subject. A talented writer will take you into a genre you'd not otherwise consider and make you glad you went there.

Now, many decades later, I'm living in Phnom Penh. I mentioned to a friend that I'd love some part-time work. She recommended that I set up a gig on Fiverr, a web site that allows all manner of freelancers to offer their services in $5 increments. As my friend writes erotic fiction, she suggested that I offer editing services specifically for erotica. She's found it challenging, she said, to find editors who will take on sexually explicit manuscripts.  I have no shame.  I set up one gig to edit general text and another for editing erotica.

The amount of work that has streamed in via this site has amazed and delighted me. Between the two gigs, I've drafted and edited web site copy for a Mallorca construction company, promo copy for a boudoir photography studio, a non-fiction book on women's orgasm, marketing materials for a new app to connect fitness nuts with gyms and trainers, and an application essay for a seminary in California. I relish the contact with the customers around the world and the diversity of the things they write and care about.  A few manuscripts have left me cold or put me off altogether, but thankfully, it's been only a handful.

The manuscript for Songbird was the longest submission  I've received since resuming my editing career, and it was an absolute treat.

Solitaire is the plucky and far-from-angelic heroine who falls in with the Princeton-educated boss of a Mexican cartel. There's plenty of sex, violence and a collection of Spanish epithets you're unlikely to pick up anywhere apart from a Guadalajara fish market. The key, though, is the two edgy, intelligent protagonists drawn by a very savvy author.

AJ Adams deftly mixes black humour and verbal quips with the darkness and intensity of her subject matter. Arturo, the cartel boss, says of a dirty London cop, "I now owned Davis from dandruff to bunions, but I still didn’t trust him a fucking inch." This novel is escapism with brains. It's gruesome in places, and it's funny. The sex is torrid. It's a really well-crafted novel that stands far above most of the others in its genre.  (And, I'm chuffed to tell you, it now has nary a comma nor an apostrophe out of place!)

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Blazing World, by Siri Hustvedt

I didn't finish this novel. I frequently glanced at the title and thought of setting it on fire, but that, I suppose, is one more selling point for paper books. I'm not prepared to throw my Kindle on the flames just to incinerate one book.

Some time ago, I made a vow that I would stop reading a book at a certain point if I grew too frustrated. I've really struggled with this. I feel that quitting a book shows a lack of endurance, and I also worry that the fault lies with me and not with the book.  By the time I decided to quit The Blazing World, I'd grown angry about having spent so much time on it. I wanted it to live up to what I thought it had promised. I wanted to like this book, but one evening, I noticed that I was staring vacantly at the Kindle screen and pressing it intermittently to advance the pages.  My eyes weren't even moving over the lines of text -- my mind was worlds away.  I just wanted to reach the end of the book, no longer caring what happened in the meantime.

One of the reasons I selected this book was that it was on the Man Booker Prize long list this year. I've heard readers say that they pay no attention whatever to book awards, usually with their noses slightly elevated. I do pay attention to the awards, their long lists, short lists and winners, simply because someone thought these particular books worthwhile. There aren't any proper bookshops in Phnom Penh, certainly no libraries. Browsing is not an option, so I look to on-line reviews and lists to get ideas of what to read. Of course the Man Booker panel is comprised of human beings, each with his or her own prejudices, preferences and axes to grind.  If they pick 10 or 15 books for the long list, they necessarily exclude thousands.  Generally, though, I think the books that make the award lists are noteworthy. The Blazing World didn't make it onto the short list, and it certainly got bumped off any list of mine, but making an effort to read a novel and failing is perhaps educational in its own way.

Harriet (Harry) Burden is a frustrated, embittered, widowed  New York artist. Although she'd been married to a prominent NY art dealer, Harriet's work had achieved little or no renown. After her husband's death, she concocts a plan to show her own work under the names of three different male artists.

I liked the premise. I could see some interesting plot twists had the male artists' shows been wildly more successful than Harriet's own efforts.  But they weren't.  Harriet Burden is an erudite woman, and she appears to manipulate the younger, less intellectual male artists with whom she's ostensibly collaborating. If she felt victimised by a sexist arts scene, I felt that she victimised these young men no less.

As I gave up on this book, I also thought about all the reviews I've read (and ranted about), in which the reviewer says, "None of the characters in this book is likeable!"  Likeable? Who says that characters need to be likeable to be captivating?  I certainly didn't like Harriet Burden (or any other character in this book), so had I fallen into a category of reviewers that I scorned?

No. I can think of many books whose characters I disliked, and yet I respected the books themselves. Richard Yates' Revolutionary Road pops into my head.  I didn't like either of the main characters, but I could empathise with both of them in one way or another. I wanted to see what they would do next, fearing that they'd disappoint me (and they did!). Harriet "Harry" Burden was simply burdensome.  She annoyed me. I didn't care whether she came to a bad end or redeemed herself.  For several hundred pages, she had proved nothing more than tendentious, tedious and self-absorbed. Are women slighted in the New York arts scene? I'm not even sure of that. Did Harriet have any notable talent? That's not clear, either.  Harriet, like so many other New Yorkers, spent far too much time for my liking thinking solely about herself and finding herself far more interesting and relevant than I could find her.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Patrick Melrose novels, by Edward St. Aubyn

Edward St. Aubyn is the antidote to the BBC depiction of the British aristocracy. Still sighing and swooning after watching your Brideshead Revisited DVDs for the tenth time? The Patrick Melrose novels will snap you out of it.

I first heard of Edward St. Aubyn when Guardian writer Mariella Frostrup interviewed him for her 'Books and Authors' podcast. If his accent hadn't convinced me of his place in the English social hierarchy, his remark about his family owning its estate in Cornwall since the Norman Conquest did the trick. As he talked about his highly autobiographical fiction, riddled with incest, psychological violence and substance abuse, though, he began to sound more like a contemporary Edward Gibbon, documenting the decline and fall of the British Empire. When he read an excerpt, it struck me that he shared Gibbon's droll sense of humour that made the psychological carnage so much more bearable.

Recording family and childhood tragedy with humour is fraught with risk -- get it wrong, and you sound bitterly sarcastic or frivolous and superficial.  Edward St. Aubyn got it right: his wit never trivialises his characters' suffering -- it adds some levity to a tale that might well otherwise be relentlessly black.

In Never Mind, we experience one day in the life of five year-old Patrick.  This is our first introduction to his mother, Eleanor.  (Patrick had been conceived when her husband, David, raped her on a staircase.)
Eleanor Melrose stormed her way up the shallow steps from the kitchen to the drive. Had she walked more slowly, she might have tottered, stopped, and sat down in despair on the low wall that ran along the side of the steps. She felt defiantly sick in a way she dared not challenge with food and had already aggravated with a cigarette. She had brushed her teeth after vomiting but the bilious taste was still in her mouth. She had brushed her teeth before vomiting as well, never able to utterly crush the optimistic streak in her nature...
She imagined vodka poured over ice and all the cubes that had been frosted turning clear and collapsing in the glass and the ice cracking, like a spine in the hands of a confident osteopath. All the sticky, awkward cubes of ice floating together, tinkling, their frost thrown off to the side of the glass, and the vodka cold and unctuous in her mouth. 
Eleanor is the daughter of a wealthy American industrialist; she tries to recall what attracted her to her dreadful husband and concludes that it was a quality that sets British aristocrats apart from the rest of the world.
When she had first met David twelve years ago, she had been fascinated by his looks. The expression that men feel entitled to wear when they stare out of a cold English drawing room onto their own land had grown stubborn over five centuries and perfected itself in David’s face. It was never quite clear to Eleanor why the English thought it was so distinguished to have done nothing for a long time in the same place, but David left her in no doubt that they did...  He was also descended from Charles II through a prostitute.
Eleanor concedes that David was not born a sadist -- he'd been moulded into one by his father.
There had been a time when she admired the way that David became a doctor. When he had told his father of his intention, General Melrose had immediately cut off his annuity, preferring to use the money to rear pheasants. Shooting men and animals were the occupations of a gentleman, tending their wounds the business of middle-class quacks. That was the General’s view, and he was able to enjoy more shooting as a consequence of holding it. General Melrose did not find it difficult to treat his son coldly. The first time he had taken an interest in him was when David left Eton, and his father asked him what he wanted to do. David stammered, ‘I’m afraid I don’t know, sir,’ not daring to admit that he wanted to compose music. It had not escaped the General’s attention that his son fooled about on the piano, and he rightly judged that a career in the army would put a curb on this effeminate impulse. ‘Better join the army,’ he said, offering his son a cigar with awkward camaraderie. 
David, however, had given up his career when he married a wealthy wife, choosing to devote all his energy to making her life a living hell.
He had stopped his medical practice soon after their marriage. At the beginning, there had been talk of using some of her money to start a home for alcoholics. In a sense they had succeeded. 
David Melrose is an angry, cruel man, always on the lookout for victims. Unfortunately for them, Eleanor and Patrick are the most highly available ones. Just before lunch, David feels a rush of rage overcoming him, and he bellows for Patrick to report to his bedroom, to be punished for some unknown (at least to Patrick) wrong.  St. Aubyn treats the sexual molestation of five year-old Patrick with tremendous skill -- the child essentially has an out-of-body experience, transporting himself into a gecko he watches on the wall as his father abuses him. As for David, he feels perhaps a small pang of guilt, but it doesn't interfere with his hearty lunch, and he justifies his actions as a routine part of his approach to child-rearing.
David’s methods of education rested on the claim that childhood was a romantic myth which he was too clear-sighted to encourage. Children were weak and ignorant miniature adults who should be given every incentive to correct their weakness and their ignorance. Like King Chaka, the great Zulu warrior, who made his troops stamp thorn bushes into the ground in order to harden their feet, a training some of them may well have resented at the time, he was determined to harden the calluses of disappointment and develop the skill of detachment in his son. After all, what else did he have to offer him? 
In the late afternoon, guests begin to arrive at the estate for dinner, retiring to guest rooms to rest, bathe and dress. David's friend Nicholas is one of the few who can keep up with his acerbic wit, having shared the same privileged upbringing and education. Nicholas' latest squeeze is a bit of a rough girl, but Bridget is shrewd in her own way.  The two of them wander in and out of the subsequent novels, but not together. After spending a few minutes on a page with David and Nicholas, Bridget feels like a breath of fresh air, just a wee bit cloudy with pot smoke.
Bridget looked critically at Nicholas’s body as he clambered to his feet. He had got a lot fatter in the past year. Maybe older men were not the answer. Twenty-three years was a big difference and at twenty, Bridget had not yet caught the marriage fever that tormented the older Watson-Scott sisters as they galloped towards the thirtieth year of their scatterbrained lives. All Nicholas’s friends were such wrinklies and some of them were a real yawn. You couldn’t exactly drop acid with Nicholas. Well, you could; in fact, she had, but it wasn’t the same as with Barry. Nicholas didn’t have the right music, the right clothes, the right attitude. She felt quite bad about Barry, but a girl had to keep her options open. The thing about Nicholas was that he really was rich and beautiful and he was a baronet, which was nice and sort of Jane Austeny.

At the beginning of the second novel, Bad News, the adult Patrick receives word of his father's death. That's the good news. The bad news becomes evident as he packs for the trip to New York to collect his father's ashes, checking to be sure he's remembered all the right stuff -- Qaaludes, cocaine, sleeping pills -- all the while thinking if or when he might score some good heroin.  As  often as he tells himself that he won't do it, won't touch the heroin this time, it becomes clear that it's taken ownership of him.
No, he mustn't think about it, or indeed about anything, and especially not about heroin, because heroin was the only thing that really worked, the only thing that stopped him scampering around in a hamster's wheel of unanswerable questions. Heroin was the cavalry. Heroin was the missing chair leg, made with such precision that it matched every splinter of the break. Heroin landed purring at the base of his skull, and wrapped itself darkly around his nervous system, like a black cat curling up on its favourite cushion. It was as soft and rich as the throat of a wood pigeon, or the splash of sealing wax onto a page, or a handful of gems slipping from palm to palm. The way other people felt about love, he felt about heroin, and he felt about love the way other people felt about heroin: that it was a dangerous and incomprehensible waste of time. What could he say to Debbie? "Although you know that my hatred for my father, and my love for drugs, are the most important relationships in my life, I want you to know that you come in third."
Patrick rings up his trusted NY dealer, a French man named Pierre. No answer. He goes out and scores from his street dealer, Chilly Willy, who, alas, cannot also provide a clean syringe. Chilly's girlfriend grudgingly hands over a used one, warning that the needle is really too big, but it's all she's got. The scene in which Patrick tries to get the drug into his vein -- and misses -- is both a stomach-churning image and a testament to his incredible need. At last he reaches Pierre and sets an appointment to buy some better stuff.
"You score off the street!" barked Pierre disapprovingly."You fucking crazy!"
"But you were asleep."
"You shoot with tap water?"
"Yes," admitted Patrick guiltily.
"You crazy," glared Pierre."Come in here, I show you." He walked through to his grimy and narrow kitchen. Opening the door of the big old-fashioned fridge, he took out a large jar of water. "This is tap water," said Pierre ominously, holding up the jar. "I leave it one month and look!" He pointed to a diffuse brown sediment at the bottom of the jar."Rust," he said, "it's a fucking killer! I have one friend who shoot with tap water and the rust get in his bloodstream and his heart -- " Pierre chopped the air with his hand and said, "Tak: it stop."
"That's appalling," murmured Patrick, wondering when they were going to do business.
Pierre also sells cocaine, which Patrick likes to inject before the heroin.
Unlike Pierre he preferred to take coke on its own until the tension and fear were unbearable, then he would send in the Praetorian Guard of heroin to save the day from insanity and defeat.
I have never used either heroin or cocaine and have no intention of doing so, but I've long felt that "Just say NO to drugs" is a simplistic and ineffectual approach. Many people I talked to in Malaysia viewed drug abuse and addiction as a moral failure, blind to the reasons people turn to narcotics and stimulants.  I would like to assign all these folks to read Bad News.  I've yet to find anyone who can relate the wonders and the horrors of heroin better than Edward St. Aubyn.
Taking no risks, he stuck the spike into a thick vein in the back of his hand. The smell of cocaine assailed him and he felt his nerves stretching like piano wires. The heroin followed in a soft rain of felt hammers playing up his spine and rumbling into his skull. He groaned contentedly and scratched his nose. It was so pleasurable, so fucking pleasurable. How could he ever give up? It was love. It was coming home. It was Ithaca, the end of all his storm-tossed wanderings. He dropped the syringe into the top drawer, staggered across the room, and sprawled on the bed. Peace at last. The mingling lashes of half-closed eyes, the slow reluctant flutter of folding wings; his body pounded by felt hammers, pulses dancing like sand on a drum; love and poison evacuating his breath in a long slow exhalation, fading into a privacy he could never quite remember, nor for a moment forget. His thoughts shimmered like a hesitating stream, gathering into pools of discrete and vivid imagery. He pictured his feet walking through a damp London square, his shoes sealing wet leaves darkly to the pavement. In the square, the heat from a heap of smouldering leaves syruped the air, and billows of yellow smoke skewed the sunlight like a broken wheel, its spokes scattered among the balding plane trees. The lawn was littered with dead branches, and from the railings he watched the sad and acrid ceremony, his eyes irritated by the smoke.

In the aptly titled third novel, Some Hope, Patrick seems to have kicked his drug habit, and as he did in the first two books, St. Aubyn focuses on one episode. This time it's a lavish birthday party, which is gathering the nobility, the aristocracy, and the affluent from all over England.  While en route to the country estate with his friend, Johnny, Patrick discloses for the first time the abuse his father meted out during his childhood. Johnny listens and responds sympathetically, but when he starts to mingle with the party guests, Patrick realises that he cannot demonise his father entirely. At least not in these social circles.
"Do you know, it's a funny thing," he went on in a more serious tone, "hardly a day passes without my thinking of your father."
"Same here," said Patrick,"but I've got a good excuse."
"So have I," said Bunny."He helped me at a time when I was in an extremely wobbly state."
"He helped to put me into an extremely wobbly state," said Patrick.
"I know a lot of people found him difficult," admitted Bunny, "and he may have been at his most difficult with his children -- people usually are -- but I saw another side of his personality. After Lucy died, at a time when I really couldn't cope at all, he took care of me and stopped me drinking myself to death, listened with enormous intelligence to hours of black despair, and never used what I told him against me."
"The fact that you mention his not using anything you said against you is sinister enough."
"You can say what you like," said Bunny bluntly, "but your father probably saved my life." He made an inaudible excuse and moved away abruptly...
Even when he had gone to New York to collect his ashes, Patrick had not been completely convinced by the simple solution of loathing his father. Bunny's loyalty to David made Patrick realize that his real difficulty might be in acknowledging the same feelings in himself. What had there been to admire about his father? ... All of David's virtues and talents had been double-edged, but however vile he had been he had not been deluded, most of the time, and had accepted with some stoicism his well-deserved suffering. It was not admiration that would reconcile him to his father, or even the famously stubborn love of children for their parents, able to survive far worse fates than Patrick's...
Simplification was dangerous and would later take its revenge. Only when he could hold in balance his hatred and his stunted love, looking on his father with neither pity nor terror but as another human being who had not handled his personality especially well; only when he could live with the ambivalence of never forgiving his father for his crimes but allowing himself to be touched by the unhappiness that had produced them as well as the unhappiness they had produced, could he be released, perhaps, into a new life that would enable him to live instead of merely surviving. He might even enjoy himself. Patrick grunted nervously. Enjoy himself?
In the same reflective mood, Patrick considers his mother, Eleanor, who was completely unequipped to deal with her husband's cruelty, never mind protecting their son from his depradations.
It would probably be better if women arrested in their own childhood didn't have children with tormented misogynist homosexual paedophiles, but nothing was perfect in this sublunary world, thought Patrick, glancing up devoutly at the moon which was of course hidden, like the rest of the sky during an English winter, by a low swab of dirty cloud. His mother was really a good person, but like almost everybody she had found her compass spinning in the magnetic field of intimacy.
Some Hope, however, is not consumed with Patrick's contemplation of his hellish childhood. St. Aubyn has gathered all the great and the good to this one over-the-top party so that he, like Waugh and Wilde before him, can poke fun at them.  In a bold bit of lèse-majesté, he even brings Princess Margaret to the table and mocks both her hauteur and the toadying of the other guests. Patrick's friend Johnny is unruffled, which in turn irks "PM".
"And who are you?" she asked Johnny in the most gracious possible manner. "Johnny Hall," said Johnny, extending a hand. The republican omission of ma'am, and the thrusting and unacceptable invitation to a handshake, were enough to convince the Princess that Johnny was a man of no importance. "It must be funny having the same name as so many other people," she speculated. "I suppose there are hundreds of John Halls up and down the country."
"It teaches one to look for distinction elsewhere and not to rely on an accident of birth," said Johnny casually.
"That's where people go wrong," said the Princess, compressing her lips, "there is no accident in birth." She swept on before Johnny had a chance to reply...
"Jesus," sighed Anne, surveying the room, "what a grim bunch. Do you think they keep them in the deep freeze at Central Casting and thaw them out for big occasions?"
"If only," said Patrick. "Unfortunately I think they own most of the country."

As the evening wears down, however, Patrick realises that the storied stiff upper lip of the British aristocracy is not simply a testament to great inner strength but also to a developed callousness that is passed on to subsequent generations.  Patrick's father, David, had suffered and survived, and so, Patrick tells a friend, he simply continued in the traditional belief that a brutal upbringing would only improve his son.
"What impresses me more than the repulsive superstition that I should turn the other cheek, is the intense unhappiness my father lived with. I ran across a diary his mother wrote during the First World War. After pages of gossip and a long passage about how marvellously they'd managed to keep up the standards at some large country house, defying the Kaiser with the perfection of their cucumber sandwiches, there are two short sentences: 'Geoffrey wounded again', about her husband in the trenches, and 'David has rickets', about her son at his prep school. Presumably he was not just suffering from malnutrition, but being assaulted by paedophiliac schoolmasters and beaten by older boys. This very traditional combination of maternal coldness and official perversion helped to make him the splendid man he turned into, but to forgive someone, one would have to be convinced that they'd made some effort to change the disastrous course that genetics, class, or upbringing proposed for them."

The fourth novel in the series, Mother's Milk, was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2006. In it, we return to the child's point of view, but this time it's Patrick's first son, Robert.  Patrick's wife, Mary, has devoted herself entirely to motherhood, giving all her attention to their sons, Robert and the younger Thomas, leaving Patrick feeling neglected. Patrick, however, has his own maternal concerns: His own mother has decided to will the lovely French house in which Patrick grew up to a new-age foundation that will be run by a shifty Irish conman named Seamus. While Patrick rages, Robert finds the whole affair bewildering.
He loved it down here at his grandmother's house. His family only came once a year, but they had been every year since he was born. Her house was a Transpersonal Foundation. He didn't really know what that was, and nobody else seemed to know either, even Seamus Dourke, who ran it. "Your grandmother is a wonderful woman," he had told Robert, looking at him with his dim twinkly eyes. "She's helped a lot of people to connect."
"With what?" asked Robert.
"With the other reality."
Sometimes he didn't ask grown-ups what they meant because he thought it would make him seem stupid; sometimes it was because he knew they were being stupid. This time it was both.
Eleanor, Patrick's mother, is increasingly susceptible to Seamus' schemes as her mind slips away and her speech fails her (as it always had).  Patrick, Mary and the boys come to visit her in the nursing home, and as they drive home, Robert is the silent witness in the back seat to his father's tumultuous feelings.
"I thought Eleanor did very well," said his mother. "I was very moved when she said that she was brave."
"What can drive a man mad is being forced to have the emotion which he is forbidden to have at the same time," said his father. "My mother's treachery forced me to be angry, but then her illness forced me to feel pity instead. Now her recklessness makes me angry again but her bravery is supposed to smother my anger with admiration. Well, I'm a simple sort of a fellow, and the fact is that I remain fucking angry," he shouted, banging the steering wheel.
On a family trip to visit Eleanor's wealthy relatives in the United States, Patrick's anger at his mother bubbles through at every turn. Unlike his own father, Patrick doesn't take out his rage directly on his sons, but his bitterness still splatters them.
"I liked the Park," said Robert.
"The Park's nice," his father conceded,"but the rest of the country is just people in huge cars wondering what to eat next. When we hire a car you'll see that it's really a mobile dining room, with little tables all over the place and cup holders. It's a nation of hungry children with real guns. If you're not blown up by a bomb, you're blown up by a Vesuvio pizza. It's absolutely terrifying."
"Please stop,"   said Robert.
As he sees the wealth enjoyed and stewarded by his mother's family in America while Eleanor is passing her own inheritance to a dodgy charity is more than Patrick can bear.
Beyond the wood they passed a hangar where huge fans, consuming enough electricity to run a small village, kept agapanthus warm in the winter. Next to the hangar was a hen house somewhat larger than Patrick's London flat, and so strangely undefiled that he couldn't help wondering if these were genetically modified hens which had been crossed with cucumbers to stop them from defecating. Beth walked over the fresh sawdust, under the red heat lamps, and discovered three speckled brown eggs in the laying boxes. Every plate of scrambled eggs must cost her several thousand dollars. The truth was that he hated the very rich, especially since he was never going to be one of them.
Of course the wealthy in the United States have their own woes -- perhaps slightly different than those stinging their British counterparts. Patrick's wife, Mary, tries to locate his cousin Sally at one of her many residences.
When she rang Sally there was no answer in Long Island. Eventually she found her in New York. "We had to come back to the city because our water tank burst and flooded the apartment downstairs. Our neighbours are suing us, so we're suing the plumbers who only put the tank in last year. The plumbers are suing the tank company for defective design. And the residents are suing the building, even though they're all on vacation, because the water was cut off for two days instead of two hours, which caused them a lot of mental stress in Tuscany and Nantucket."
"Gosh," said Mary. "What's wrong with mopping up and getting a new water tank?"
"That is so English," said Sally, delighted by Mary's quaint stoicism.

And then, At Last -- the fifth and final novel, in which Eleanor has died, and the usual suspects gather for her funeral.  Nicholas, the snide family friend whom we first met in Bad News, turns up.  He reminisces with Nancy, Eleanor's sister, as she recalls her own mother's property acquisition skills.

"But you can't pretend that your mother was a fan of the common man. Didn't she buy the entire village street that ran along the boundary wall of the Pavillon Colombe, in order to demolish it and expand the garden? How many houses was that?"
"Twenty-seven," said Nancy, cheering up. "They weren't all demolished. Some of them were turned into exactly the right kind of ruin to go with the house. There were follies and grottos, and Mummy had a replica made of the main house, only fifty times smaller. We used to have tea there, it was like something out of Alice in Wonderland." Nancy's face clouded over. "There was a horrible old man who refused to sell, although Mummy offered him far too much for his poky little house, and so there was an inward bulge following the line of the old wall, if you see what I'm saying."
"Every paradise demands a serpent," said Nicholas.

Nancy herself married well and carried on in the lifestyle to which she'd become accustomed.  To which, in fact, she couldn't seem to do without.
When the Crash came, lawyers flew in from America to ask the Craigs to rack their brains for something they could do without. They thought and thought. They obviously couldn't sell Sunninghill Park. They had to go on entertaining their friends. It would be too cruel and too inconvenient to sack any of the servants. They couldn't do without the house in Bruton Street for overnight stays in London. They needed two Rolls-Royces and two chauffeurs because Daddy was incorrigibly punctual and Mummy was incorrigibly late. In the end they sacrificed one of the six newspapers that each guest received with their breakfast. The lawyers relented. The pools of Jonson money were too deep to pretend there was a crisis; they were not stock-market speculators, they were industrialists and owners of great blocks of urban America. People would always need hardened fats and dry-cleaning fluids and somewhere to live.
Because Patrick seems too muddled and conflicted to manage it, Mary arranges Eleanor's funeral, doing her keep it in line with what Eleanor might have wished. Alas, the result is not what most of the mourners would have liked.  Nancy, for one, is abjectly unimpressed with the whole affair.
All these readings from the Bible were getting on Nancy's nerves. She didn't want to think about death -- it was depressing. At a proper funeral there were amazing choirs that didn't usually sing at private events, and tenors who were practically impossible to get hold of, and readings by famous actors or distinguished public figures. It made the whole thing fun and meant that one hardly ever thought about death, even when the readings were exactly the same, because one was struggling to remember when some tired-looking person had been chancellor of the exchequer, or what the name of their last movie was. That was the miracle of glamour. The more she thought about it, the more furious she felt about Eleanor's dreary funeral. Why, for instance, had she decided to be cremated? Fire was something one dreaded. Fire was something one insured against. The Egyptians had got it right with the pyramids. What could be cosier than something huge and permanent with all one's things tucked away inside (and other people's things as well! Lots and lots of things!) built by thousands of slaves who took the secret of the construction with them to unmarked graves. Nowadays one would have to make prohibitive social-security payments to teams of unionized construction workers. That was modern life for you. Nevertheless, some sort of big monument was infinitely preferable to an urn and a handful of dust.
Read as fiction, the Patrick Melrose novels are a marvel. Reading them as slightly fictionalised autobiography, I marvel that Edward St. Aubyn survived the effects of his childhood, and what's more, seems to have broken out of the family mould. I suppose writing these books was both catharsis and revenge, and I hold him in equal parts brilliant and heroic.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Sloth and torpor

The internet is conspiring to scold me today. Over the past few months, I haven't been reading as much as I normally do. Sure, studying Khmer for several hours each week takes some time away from my Kindle, but I could still read more than I do.

I feel guilty about this, because I have mountains of excellent books at hand.  I'm not wasting my time reading rubbish.

I am just spending too much time sitting at the computer.  Too much time, in fact, looking at cute cat pictures which in turn chastise me for not reading good books.

Discipline! What I need is discipline. It wouldn't hurt to have a sad-eyed black cat like the Bear (above) instead of my resident voluptuary, Crumpet, who considers napping the highest form of self-improvement.

No more excuses -- I will finish the Patrick Melrose novels by Edward St. Aubyn by the end of this week. I love reading, and these books are superb. It's pure laziness on my part. Switching off the computer now.