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.


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

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