Saturday, September 04, 2004

Book Review Compendium

A fair few months' worth of reading to get through, so no time to waste and straight on to The Director's Cut by Nicholas Royle. I reviewed Royle's latest, Antwerp, last month and The Director's Cut, published in 2000, features three characters (the film critic Frank Warner, his girlfriend, and a shady jeweller) that become prominent in his newest book. Not that The Director's Cut doesn't work on its own merits, being an effective page-turner of a thriller centering on the discovery of a dead body in a disused West End building that is found mummified in celluloid from Nicolas Roeg's Bad Timing. Royle uses flashbacks and multiple perspectives to disorienting effect, exploring the effect the discovery has on four men, who as aspiring film-makers in the early '80s, agreed to film a dying man's suicide as a 'breakthrough' project. There are some glaring plotholes if you think about the storyline too carefully, but it's nevertheless compulsive reading, and some of his observations on early 80s films and cinemas had me nodding my head like Paula Radcliffe on steroids. A word of warning, though, reading any of Royle's books leaves you scurrying to Amazon to re-build your DVD collection so cut up your credit cards before opening that first page.

Another effective chiller is In The Miso Soup by Ryu Murakami which features a 20-year-old sex-trade fixer escorting an odd middle-aged American on a three-day tour around Tokyo fleshpots. The older man's lies, contradictions and mood changes soon lead his young guide to believe that the gaijin is responsible for some recent grisly murders in the area. Is it all in his mind or is his life and that of his young girlfriend in danger? Murakami (no relation to Haruki) manages the neat trick of fashioning a taut, edgy thriller while still generating a fascinating sense of milieu and allowing for acerbic observations on the decadence and moral paralysis prevalent in modern culture. I was reading a proof copy via Paulos, and the book will be published in the UK in February 2005 (import copies may be available through the usual outlets, however).

The prediliction of middle-aged men towards teenage girls is the central premise of Girls the debut novel by Nic Kelman which blows apart the art/pornography debate by being both. It's art because of the stylish, witty writing and ferocious imagination at work, but it's also pornography in the strictest sense, as the graphic depictions of sexual trysts are clearly designed to excite and provoke. Like Houellebecq, there is an argument that Kelman's writing is fuelled by anger at the way the world works underneath an apparent relish of its surface pleasures, but nevertheless this isn't a book for the prudish. For everyone else, though, it's must-read stuff.

Another book fearlessly treading onto controversial territory is Boy A by Jonathan Trigell, which places the reader into the terrified mind of a young childkiller as he tries to forge a new identity for himself in the outside world on his release. Trigell muddies the moral waters further by dropping several hints as to the exact extent of Boy A's involvement in the initial murder, destabilising our prejudices further as we become involved in the young man's first forays into work, friendship and love. But the more he starts to enjoy his new life, the greater the paranoia builds that his sham identity will be exposed and the tabloid wolves will be let loose on his fragile happiness. Not exactly a feel-good read, then, but it's certainly compassionate and provocative and a promising debut from Trigell.

Yellow Dog, of course, isn't a debut novel but the umpteenth effort from Martin Amis, and one that took quite a critical savaging on its release, even to the point of being publicly sniggered at by certain Booker Prize judges. And with its' outrageously showy vocabulary, dreadful puns, dodgy morality and painfully contrived jokes there's no doubt at all that Yellow Dog is rubbish literature, and yet it remains pretty much highly entertaining reading throughout. Rumours of Amis' demise has therefore been exaggerated, his career isn't over but it's clearly Wilt-ing, for his book reminds me (with its 'comedy' names and broad satirical swipes) of none other than Tom Sharpe. Also, like Kelman's Girls, but much less convincingly, Amis tries to eat his pussy and have it by tacking on an epilogue lecturing us about the use of bodies for anything other than procreation, which all seemed a little rich after all that had gone before it. A brave, but flawed book, then, but perfectly readable if you can get past the first thirty pages or so (which contain the crassest of the author's indulgences).

A much more rewarded dog has been Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-Time by Mark Haddon, the much-celebrated 'kids book that adults can read too!' featuring a boy with Aspergers Syndrome trying to figure out who stuck a garden fork in his neighbour's canine chum. The first half of the book is as clever, intriguing, imaginative etc. as has been claimed, but then the whodunnit gets solved and the second half was all a bit 'ET phone home' for my liking. A great premise, but something of a missed opportunity by my reckoning, although given the book's sales, I'm clearly in the minority on this one.

Happier news on Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre, last year's Booker Prize winner, which by contrast gets better, faster and funnier as the book proceeds. A tale set in America by an itinerant author may seem a strange choice to win the Booker, and its premise (an unfortunate young man falsely believed to be responsible for a school shooting) and targets (fat Americans, hypocritical evangelists, the crassness of the media) may seem fairly obvious and hardly fresh, but in the titular character Pierre has fashioned one of the most appealing and funniest figures in recent literary history. As a result, it's a book you feel that you can recommend to just about anybody without fear of recrimination.

And if you enjoy Vernon God Little you might want to take a look at Glyph by Perceval Everett. The vocabulary and intellectual content are much more highbrow (Everett gives Amis a good run for his money in terms of permanent intent on reminding you how much smarter he is than you) but we can forgive him such excesses when he produces books as entertaining and hilarious as this adventure of a highly intelligent, talking baby being kidnapped by assorted ne'er-do-wells. You have to marvel at Everett's ability to weave a fairly compelling narrative, throw in some great lines, move you at times close to tears and still have time to attach several intellectual knobs on within just over 200 pages. All in all, a pretty impressive achievement.

William Gibson's Idoru is a cyberpunk thriller from 1996 which features a variety of characters converging on a near-future Tokyo as a rock legend plans to marry his 'virtual' girlfriend. It's fascinating reading with plenty of the brain-nutrition you'd expect from Gibson, but I felt that the story as a whole was a little superficial, and I suspect that a lot of these cyberpunk books (where foreign travel, hi-tech gadgetry and luxury hotels are an absolute given) are little more than glorified airport thrillers, a sort of Harold Robbins with added intellectual accoutrements and surface 'cool' for the pristine Mac brigade.


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