On the Edge (Edward St. Aubyn)

Edward St. Aubyn’s 1998 novel rather recently got its U.S. release. I bought this book in Powell’s last year and just now got around to it. I have not read his much more well-known Patrick Melrose novels, but after reading On the Edge, I intend to.

This book is a very British lampooning of the excesses of the American New Age, the ruthlessly capitalistic California world of gurus, the fetishization of Native American spirituality, and so forth. Not to say that St. Aubyn is picking on the rich-idiot hippies exclusively -everyone and everything that shows up in this book will have some kind of clever cutting pointed at it if it sticks around long enough. And there are so, so many characters -it takes most of the first half of the book just to introduce everyone… second generation seekers, erotically obsessed beta-male investment bankers, French linguistic philosophers having bad peyote trips, the idle rich and their attendant gurus.

While I would have been more than satisfied with the book without this particular virtue, I was seriously impressed by the way it walked the line of savage mockery and genuine compassion. These new-age seekers aren’t all bad, and the things they have been hurt by are real, and their pain is real. Even challenging characters are often presented to the reader in painfully objective truth, but in such a way as to explain their actions as a coming from their own unique damages. Their dysfunction isn’t excused, but it’s contextualized in such a way as to present them as more than a two dimensional cut-out asshole. This is the first book I’ve ever read that reconciles such hilariously dark and sardonic observations of it’s characters with such a degree of compassion and legitimate happiness. Had you described the workings of this novel to me, I would have been incredibly dubious, but St. Aubyn manages to avoid the saccharine and the banal while still conveying a sense of peace and happiness among broken people working within a bullshit ideology. Damn.

Recommendation: Read it! This is a fantastic book and I can recommend it unreservedly.


Reading Animal Farm with eighth-graders

This particular re-reading of Orwell’s classic novel has been brought to you by my eighth grade English class, who picked Animal Farm over two other books, the names of which I can’t remember right now. The book was almost unilaterally beloved by my class -one girl called it “the exact opposite of a John Greene book”, a comment that she meant as high praise and gave me plenty of chuckles. While not a particularly delicate or subtle piece of satire, I was still very impressed by how much the kids got out of it, considering the lack of knowledge they had of the 20th century political revolutions that informed the novel.

Animal Farm can be a bit heavy-handed, but in light of its fairy-tale sensibilities, this isn’t even a flaw. And it isn’t preachy, which was one of my fears about this re-reading. I loved Animal Farm as a teenager, when I was going through my anarchist and libertarian phases (don’t worry -I never stooped so low as Atlas Shrugged or The Fountainhead). 1984, while more well-known and having had a greater impact on popular culture, didn’t hold up to my post-university criticisms nearly as well. None of the complaints I had about that book apply here.

Animal Farm demonstrates Orwell’s masterful command of simple, Anglo-Saxon prose on a sentence-by-sentence level. Finding a single passage in here that wouldn’t be a good sample paragraph in a creative writing course would be a challenging task. The book is a pleasure to read, and it reads easily. Having read many of his essays recently, this was not surprising to me. What was surprising, though, was his perfect pacing. I’m not throwing around the superlative lightly -in teaching this book, I’ve read it three times, and the progression of the narrative is literally perfect in a way I’ve seldom encountered in any genre of fiction, although literary fiction is notoriously bad in this regard. This book was educational, and is inarguably a masterpiece.

Recommendation: Read it, re-read it, and read his essays. Goddamn.

Flashman at the Charge, The Flashman Papers, and my spotted history with historical fiction

I had never heard of George MacDonald Fraser’s “Flashman” books before picking a few up on a recommendation. I’ve got an innate suspicion of historical fiction borne out of an unmitigated G.A. Henty binge I went on when I was about twelve, (eerily similar to the events that led to my current perspective on Ritz crackers) but I figured that the light-hearted nature of these books would be less likely to set off my Ponderous Edwardian Bullshit Meter than the aforementioned G.A. Henty. It also helps that these books (published mostly in the 70s) are both comically irreverent and obsessively researched. My knowledge of certain specific historical events has been absurdly sharpened by these quick/guilty pleasure reads. But, holy shit, the covers are so, so bad…

So where do books like “The Flashman Papers” fit in with my goal of obsessive and broad reading? Well, they’re damn good palette cleansers. After getting through Infinite Jest or something emotionally draining, (even in a good way, like Kundera)there’s an undeniable satisfaction in something that’s both engaging and undemanding. The writing isn’t bad enough to distract, and the plots -while always far-fetched- are interesting enough. But far more interesting is the window they provide into a particular moment in history. Fraser is seriously obsessive in his research, and he has a remarkable talent for distilling all that research down to a simple narrative (a narrative that’s often genuinely funny).

I don’t have any problems with reading genre, with reading pulp. Some of the most interesting art happens at the points where high and low culture bisect -this high/low dynamic would be impossible if artists had no familiarity or appreciation of “low” culture, pop or otherwise. Obviously, it’s possible to go overboard in either direction, but I’m suspicious of people who broadly condemn any particular subset (don’t be the guy who likes “all kinds of music, except country music”).

Recommendation: Try it. See if this particular incarnation of non-high-culture does anything for you.


Flashman at the Charge
by George Macdonald Fraser

P.G. Wodehouse and the Role of Humor (vs. Comedy)

The writings of P.G. Wodehouse might suggest themselves as antithetical to everything I cherish in literature, but that suggestion would be erroneous. In spite of my rabid disliking of golf, the foibles and struggles of a perfectly secure upper class, the utter lack of dramatic consequence, and in spite of my impatience for slapstick comedy and the excessively droll, I really enjoyed reading these two books. In what seems to be a continuation on a theme this year, I find that really good writing covers a multitude of sins.

Wodehouse writes about trivialities, but he manages to keep a dry distance from it, cultivating both a sense of self-awareness and objectivity. Wodehouse knows that there is nothing actually at stake in a miser winning fifty quid on an absurd wager involving who has the literally fattest uncle, but he makes it known that it’s damn important in the man’s own head, and this only adds to the absurdity of the situation (the story is far more hilarious than you’d think from my referencing it, but -as the saying goes- humor is like a frog in that it seldom survives dissection).

It all comes back to the language. Wodehouse deploys the same kind of precision command of the written word as Nabokov or John Gardner, but instead of pointing it at narrative (with occasional flashes of bitter comedy) Wodehouse uses it in the service of ridiculous humor. I quote here from a longer passage that describes Agnes Flack, a female club champion “built on the lines of the village blacksmith”:

“I have often seen the Wrecking Crew, that quartet of spavined septuagenarians whose pride it was that they never let anyone play through, scatter like leaves in an autumn gale at the sound of her stentorian ‘Fore!’. A dynamic and interesting personality.”

Recommendation: Read a couple stories. This shit is what the best sitcoms aspire to.

Reading Log: Stephen Fry’s ‘Moab is my Washpot’ and the Balance of Authenticity and the Curated Self

Stephen Fry has a very “created” persona. He’s the public-school smartass all grown up, always funny and always a little bit quicker than everyone else in the room. It’s a kind of applied intellectualism that makes his panel show QI so much fun and it juxtaposes nicely with the absurd in his earlier work (like The Black Adder). Stephen wears many hats, and while I found his (loosely autobiographical) debut novel ‘The Liar’ rather flawed, it was still a good read. ‘Moab’ is an altogether superior book.

Fry’s show-off intellectualism runs throughout, but it’s been tempered and contextualized by the process of recollection and reflection. His arrogance is self-aware, and his self-decrepitation never veers into false modesty. The British schoolboy memoir has certainly been done before, but it’s not a genre I’m especially familiar with, and as such I’ll refrain from commenting on this book’s place within that particular dialogue. What I will say is that it’s a damn funny book about a very likeable character, and the early arc of Fry’s life is a compelling story told exceptionally well. It isn’t going to get at any great truths of the human condition, but it isn’t trying to. It’s just a fun read that breezes by wonderfully without any insult to the reader’s intelligence.

Recommendation: Read it. It’s funny as hell and only too clever in the right sort of way.

Moab Is My Washpot
by Stephen Fry

Reading Log: Best of British

IMG_0392Great used-bookstore find. This little gem was published in 78 and samples some 30 or so British motorcycles from the post-war era through the early seventies. This volume has the most Britishness-per-square-inch of any piece of media I’ve ever encountered, full of regional idioms and generally British peculiarities.

For those of you not familiar with bikes, (or bikes of the vintage and manufacture herein) a very brief summary: British companies like BSA and AMC (along with many smaller lines) made some of the most unique and beloved bikes in the history of motorized bicycles. These machines were always interesting, but often temperamental, downright badly-engineered compared to the Japanese bikes that have dominated from the 70s on. Nonetheless, these impractical and archaic machines were so beloved -even in 78- that an entire series of these books was produced. Best of British features a short biography on each machine, technical specifications, and an owner’s testimony. It’s a unique blend of oral history and reference book, with a bit of a coffee-table vibe on the side.

Reading through a book like this might seem odd, but I love hearing about these old machines. I’ve got no particular desire to own one myself, (as much as I love old bikes and as sexy as an old Vincent might be) but the love these guys have for their objectively inferior bikes is something wonderful. It’s nostalgia, sure -many of the owner’s stories begin with them talking about how they rode or pined after something similar as a teenager- but it’s also an amazing look at the best kind of tribalism we can create in the postmodern world.