Hornby, I Promise I’ll Leave You Alone. Soon. Maybe.

Nick Hornby’s new book, A Long Way Down, tells the story of four
people who meet while attempting suicide on New Year’s Eve. There are
four narrators, who take turns at telling the story. In order to show our respect for Hornby’s favourite form, we shall make a list:

The Top Five Things Nick Hornby Thinks He Likes But Actually Hates

1) The visible world
Why are there no descriptions of anything in Hornby’s books? He
doesn’t seem to pay any attention to the world (it’s possible he
doesn’t what know colour his hair is). Instead, he uses easy
signifiers to give you the feel of a place or person: if you built an
automatic Hornby generator, its default description of a person, place
or thing would be ‘like in a song’. For an effect of gritty reality, it
could generate ‘not like’ in place of ‘like’.

2) Music
Hornby goes on about music a lot, which has fooled people into
believing he likes music. This is not the case. He only likes ‘real
music’, which consists of the following three categories: men with
guitars who “mean it”; pretty female singer-songwriters; and dead
black people. He hates and fears everything else. One of the narrators
of How to be Good is JJ, a no-mark American Rock’n’Roller (He tells us
this. If you only had the voice to go on, you’d think he was some
bloke from North London). This makes Hornby’s anti-music propaganda
unavoidable for sections of the novel.

3) Good Writing
The four narrators all sound like one another: little quips,
qualifying their own statements, “life’s a bit like x when you think
about it” observations. He could have tried a bit harder, put some
flash in, worked at making the voices come from different worlds: but
I think that’s dishonest in his book, or ‘literary’, and therefore
bad.

At least there’s a story to read, right? Kind of. They claim to see an
angel, and get on TV because of it, but that doesn’t come up again.
And they see a guy kill himself, and that doesn’t come up again. They
go on holiday together. That doesn’t come up again. It’s more a bunch
of stuff that happens to four Nick Hornbies than a story.

4) People
Another narrators of is Maureen, a middle-aged Catholic woman with a
severely disabled son. I know a lot of middle aged Catholic women. One
of them has a disabled son. Another is called Maureen. This much is
fine. However, none sound remotely like Nick Hornby pretending to be a
middle-aged Catholic woman. He seems uninterested in people who are
different to him; I suspect he believes the world to consist entirely
of people who pretend to be different, but are all Nick Hornby
underneath. This frightens me.

5) London
I think Nick Hornby thinks he likes London, and that he’s pretty good
at writing about it. This is untrue. Here is how he describes a
location: ‘Islington’. Or again: ‘Holloway’. He doesn’t notice things,
or watch the people: he just names, and because we’re all Nick Hornby
underneath, we magically know exactly what he means. Writing thoughts
and shorthand about the world is not the same as observing it well and
writing that.

I bet he’s a really good bloke though.

The Oxford Literary Festival: Kazuo Ishiguro

I am tired of both London and life. So, to Oxford, for the Literary
Festival, and an audience with Kazuo Ishiguro, every book club’s pick
of the moment. Fresh air and the life of the mind! What could be
better?

Ishiguro is terribly good at winning prizes. That’s his job. An Artist
of the Floating World
picked up the Whitbread, The Remains of the Day
got the Booker, and The Unconsoled briefly held the WBF Light-Welterweight belt in the mid-90s. He even has an OBE. He’s here at the festival to talk about his work with Professor John “Scary” Carey.

I don’t understand the event. About 500 people, all of whom seem to
have a pathological attraction to brown corduroy, have paid £8 to see
him. The lack of pollution out here in the sticks may be muddying my
brain, but this looks a dreadful scam to me. Jamie could make 16
school dinners for £8. I’m outraged even before Ishiguro takes the
stage, and mildly disappointed that the proceedings don’t open with
Prof. Carey saying “Evening, Suckers.”

Once talking, Ishiguro calms my rage. He’s likeable, unpretentious and
aware of his faults – his books are a bit samey, he’s not one for
flashy prose, and he tends to be a bit abstract. He admits to never
having finished Proust. Shame he’s so affable, because there’s
something off somewhere in the novels.

His latest, Never Let Me Go, is doing well: it’ll probably win prizes.
It’s about a society that clones boring narrators, then harvests their
organs. It’s a bit like Science Fiction with all the good bits –
aliens, lasers, Space Queens – taken out and replaced by literary
devices – the unreliable narrator, pathetic fallacies, et bloody
cetera. That’s the problem with Ishiguro. His novels feel like they’re
there to be done for GCSE, like you’re meant to write an essay on
them: What does the cassette mean to Kathy? Does Kathy always tell the
truth? What does the boat symbolise in the novel? Answer one question
only. Write on one side of the paper.

It doesn’t add up to a lot. His books usually feature a narrator
bleating on at you, eventually revealing more than they intended about
their life. At the end, you’re left thinking “Yes. Stuff. It’s a bit
sad, really, when you think about it.” Never Let Me Go even climaxes
with one of the great “stuff – it’s a bit sad” clichés:

“Up in the branches of the tree, too, I could see, flapping about,
torn plastic sheeting and old carrier bags”

Carrier bags in a tree? Does he have his eye on the sixth-form writing
prize this time out?

You get prizes by being good and inoffensive: they’re handed out to
the well-behaved children. That’s Ishiguro. He’s good, but (with the
exception of The Unconsoled, his brilliant, batshit experiment from
95) he’s not much more than a set of nicely controlled literary
gestures. He’s a prefect. Best idea: if you can get better than 7-1,
put £20 on him winning the Nobel by 2025. He wins prizes. That’s his
job.

Warlock, by Oakley Hall

A long piece written for the LRB. In the end, they decided not to publish it, damn their eyes, so it’s making its debut here. It has it problems. I can see that.

I think I signed some kind of contract when they commissioned it. I can’t be bothered to reread it, so if an LRB person stumbles across this, and they think it really shouldn’t be here, then they should give me a shout and I’ll take it down.

The Western novel is one of the deadest of all genres. It still flickers on in the work of Cormac McCarthy and Larry McMurtry, but as a mass-market phenomenon, it is, like nudist films and skiffle, over. Every so often, the Western stirs again at the cinema and on television – most recently, HBO’s hyper-revisionist Deadwood gives us a West that’s filthy, brutish and foul-mouthed, Hobbes summarised by a sailor’s parrot – but in the world of books it endures almost solely in the 5-for-a-pound racks of provincial second-hand shops.

The books deserve more attention, if only because they have so much to answer for. They helped invent the cowboy, a figure who for the most part abides amiably enough, whether in the Nashville Hat Act aesthetic, the adverts for John Wayne commemorative plates at the back of Sunday magazines, or the Tom of Finland bravos of the gay tradition; and the cowboy code (a man has to make a stand; trust your pard; don’t shoot unarmed men) has provided the architecture for the action film, whether set in Texas or space.

The hold, though, that these myths of the West have on the on imagination of America allows some portion of their population to fall for a president who, still more than that one-time president who played cowboys in films, is playing a cowboy. There is a ranch, and there are cowboy boots (an especially tasteful pair embossed with the presidential seal), and there are speeches that talk about that ‘old poster out west’ which read ‘wanted: dead or alive’. We’re watching a politician act out something he picked up from a bourbon-sodden late night viewing of High Noon, arrogating moral certainty and the righteous competence of the frontier man, then playing a part before a public suckered by too many images of a granitic John Wayne riding a horse through a yellow landscape.

This overpopulated stretch of imaginative territory, the classic mise-en-scène for thousands of shoot-outs, brothel brawls and card-table stand-offs occupies a brief historical span. It’s a quarter-century from the end of the Civil War to the Closing of the Frontier in 1890. The myths began while it was happening. William Cody took his Wild West Show on the road in 1883; it carried on for 30 years, and made Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley and Wild Bill Hickock stars around the world and legends to posterity.

While the frontier closed, and Bill’s show continued on its travels, Western fiction became respectable. The Virginian, by Owen Wister is the first time we see the myth masquerade as literature. It’s the story of an East-coast clot of a narrator coming out West, and meeting the titular cowboy, who embodies all manly and independent virtues. It isn’t an especially likeable book – its pally defence of lynch law doesn’t play that well anymore – but it helps set the cowboy cult on its way to cultural dominance. The 20s and 30s are its heyday, the decades in which the genre ruled the imagination of boys. It was a gigantic market: John Dinan’s The Pulp Western lists 184 magazine titles active between the 20s and 40s. Though Elmore Leonard got his start writing for that market in its dying days, there aren’t too many other names of distinction who came from this hothouse. It’s not a literary genre to mourn particularly; fine writing isn’t to be found, and unlike the great age of the science fiction pulps, dawning as the paper Western passes, there are no neat shots of giddying ideas.

All the same, there’s a kind of Borgesian drawn to be taken from it: the scenes repeated over and over with minor variations, deal after deal from a badly shuffled deck: the shoot-out in the main street; the jail with back-talking criminals; and that most American of figures, the locus of commerce, sex and sentiment, the whore with a heart of gold. But even an author pressed into service as the Chandler of the genre looks quite weak. Despite clean dialogue and characters with an extra dimension – which makes two – Ernest Haycox doesn’t have the prose chops to get a literary audience in.

Sometime after the Second World War, the Western loses faith in its myth and starts to lose its popular audience. While the effect on the cinema is easy to trace – the ambiguities of The Searchers, Peckinpah’s grimy, sanguine vision, Leone’s camp – in literature it’s trickier to make out. The turn might start with Oakley Hall’s Warlock. The novel was first published in 1958. It’s a revisionist take on the West, but understand revisionist in a limited sense: we’re nowhere near the occult scalporama of McCarthy’s great Blood Meridian, or the Lovejoy-as-Satan delights of Deadwood. It’s a step on the way; it is, at least, singularly uninterested in horses.

Hall’s still around. He’s one of those of those hugely professional American writers whose books seem to wake up, go to the office and get things done. His 50s novels are stolid, well-wrought things that must have raised the temperature back in the day; more recently he’s been writing a series of detective novels that star Ambrose Bierce. He taught Creative Writing for a long time, and has written two books on the craft of writing. They raise themselves above a tiresome Strunk-and-White bossiness about adverbs through a promiscuous and salutary willingness to hold up both Don DeLillo and Judith Krantz as examples of how it should be done.

Many of his novels are fun and smart without detaining you too long. Warlock, however, is better than that; it’s his finest work by a distance, a clear-eyed look at the West that tries to see it as real, and picks and prods at the awful logic underneath the myths.

It begins as a retelling of the Tombstone story. A South Western mining town is near anarchy. A gang of loose ranchers – in Tombstone, in the Clanton boys, here it’s Abe McQuown and associates – are causing classic Western trouble: rough behaviour in the streets, cattle rustling, holding up the stage coaches. The nearest thing to real law is a day’s ride away in Bright City, and the Marshal there has disowned Warlock. Too much trouble. The territory’s governor, Colonel Peach, is no use. He’s near-senile, his mind lost in long-finished campaigns against the Apache. The town decides that it needs order, and so the citizens’ committee, run by the most burgerlich members of the community, pays for the gun of Clay Blaisedell, the Wyatt Earp of this story. He comes with a big reputation as a fast-shooter: in fact, he’s been given a pair of gold-handled pistols by a journalist-cum-fabulist who makes a living from tales of Blaisedell’s derring-do. Blaisedell has a long-time friendship with Tom Morgan, who runs one of the town’s saloons. This is Warlock’s Doc Holliday, though the suspicions that surround the intemperate gambler Holliday are raised to facts in the case of Morgan: he murders remorselessly and sees life as little more than a series of bets.

So far, predictable. We’ve either got a Western, in which case the white hats shoot the black hats, or we’ve got a modern Western, in which case the same shooting gets done, but everyone’s wearing grey hats. Warlock, though, is a queerer book than this.

From the first, it throws the focus off the usual cast. Instead, it has its eye on Bud Gannon, an apostate from McQuown’s crew. A massacre of Mexicans during a cattle raid took away Gannon’s taste for the criminal life (that’s where it gets closest to the genocidal frenzies of McCarthy. The back cover will try to tell you it’s like him. It’s not). He left town and failed to hold together a straight life, so he’s come back. To do what, or why, he’s not sure; but he near accidentally takes a side when he stops Blaisedell being back-shot in a stand off with McQuown.

His brother is still out with McQuown’s mob, and so again, we should have a traditional Western: a family divided, bandit and Lawman, only one can survive! However, something strange again goes on. Blaisedell kills Gannon’s brother in the ‘Shoot-out at the Acme Corral’ (which, plainly enough, is the OK Corral). This, the theoretical climax of any version of the Tombstone Legend, takes place less than a third of the way through the book. For complicated reasons Blaisedell was in the wrong to shoot Gannon’s brother. He realises this and voluntarily rides out to Bright City to stand trial, where he’s cleared (Earp too stood trial for the OK Corrall). Gannon still refuses to obey the rules of the genre, and does not go after Blaisedell for the shooting. Instead he becomes an odd, quiet deputy, even as Blaisedell is cleared and retreats into Faro dealing at Morgan’s saloon.

By this point, the odd flavour of the book has come out. A gloomy inwardness pervades the whole thing. Characters ponder, and you wonder if anyone’s ever going to go out and get shot. There’s steel somewhere at its heart of Warlock. It’s relentless in scratching at the problems of the Western and the Western code.

The engine of this, the near-obsession of the book, is The Law. Judge Holloway stands for the law in Warlock. He does little except drink and talk over the course of the novel, but that talk is the book’s chorus and conscience. He rants at Blaisedell over and again, picking apart his claims to legitimacy, trying to find who he’s answerable to, where he’s responsible: Blaisedell starts by saying he answers to the citizen’s committee, but that’s broken down quickly. He ‘posts’ (exiles under threat of death) undesirables from the town for the Committee: he willingly posts McQuown’s men after they’ve been cleared at the Bright City courthouse. However, he won’t post a miner whom business interests on the committee want out for union activism. His motivation is confused, a mix of decency and romantic propriety: he refuses to post the miner at the behest of Miss Jessie. She’s one of the finest things in the book: the miners’ angel, running a guesthouse that doubles as a hospital, she’s animated by self-conscious virtue, overdosing on Waverly novels and in love with Blaisedell. The icy wickedness of the self-contained well-meaning is caught precisely.

The judge has words on Blaisedell’s refusal:

I am warning you Marshal. You are now standing naked and all alone. The Citizens’ Committee has gone and disqualified itself plain to everyone from pretending to run any kind of law in this town. Ordering you to something wasn’t only illegal and bad but was pure damned outrage besides. And you disqualified yourself from them by refusing to do it. (p. 126)

>He’s immediately called an ‘old cowpat’ for this unpopular opinion, but there’s a pure logic to it: he tells Blaisedell that ‘there is nothing you are accountable to any more,’ (p. 126) and he’s right.

Pynchon, back in his time in and around Cornell with Richard Fariña, was a big fan of the book. The two of them had a micro-cult going, which would speak in the Walrlock dialogue, ‘a kind of thoughtful, stylized, Victorian Wild West diction’. In 1965, he wrote a short piece on Warlock, and gets precisely to this social argument in Warlock:

…what is called society, with its law and order, is as frail, as precarious, as flesh and can be snuffed out and assimilated back into the desert as easily as a corpse can. It is the deep sensitivity to abysses that makes Warlock one of our best American novels.

He’s exactly right in talking about the abyss. That’s where Blaisedell’s heroism, the Cowboy cult, takes us. Warlock’s stolidity sits oddly next to Pynchon’s dazzle, but the connection’s strong: Vineland, Pynchon’s dark study of the American lust for freedom and its persistent, pathological self-betrayal, shares a lot with the novel. There’s a cold logic and encroaching pessisism to the two of them: America, the nation of freedom, frontier and lonely hero destroys itself over and over with a cold, self-consuming logic.

Warlock’s hope lies with Gannon. He cleaves to the law because he realises that that is all they have: that this is just doomed to end up as an endless cycle of violence if they turn away from that. He becomes involved with an old lover of Morgan’s; she wants vengeance, but he doesn’t help her with it. Blaisedell was swayed by romance, but Gannon resists. The code of the cowboy and the codce of chivalry do not work: Gary Cooper will not arrive to sort everything out. Gannon’s living a primal story – lex talionis replaced by Legality, an Orestia in stetsons – and it’s his responsibilty to be dutifully dull. Instead of being a hero, he needs to follow the rule book and make Warlock work.

Once the novel is rolling, and it’s working out what happens after the shootout at the OK/Acme Corral, it’s ruthless in making and playing out conflicts. Characters and interests strike against one another over and over, lighting that central argument, the meaning of law, the proximity of anarchy and the difficulty of building a working society, from every angle: the Miners vs. Morgan; Peach vs. Blaisedell; McQuown vs Gannon; Gannon vs. Blaisedell; the miners vs. Peach; Blaisedell vs. Morgan; the Committee vs. Gannon. At points, the remorseless collisions nearly feel the product of a continental experimental movement plotting the book by mathematical means. In fact, it’s a useful inheritance from the traditonal Western; the strongest suit of the genre is male/male conflict. It’s about a limitless world shrinking to one choice, over and over: stand and fight, or run? Hall chose the right genre for the job.

There is more to Warlock than this analytics of frontier justice. The mining sub-plots reach off in a different direction, one that Hall would follow later. The miners want a union. The mine-owner objects. The miners tend to lynch law; the owner uses vigilantism to run them down. When authority does arrive, in the form of General Peach, it’s brutal and lawless itself, arbitrary, unsanctioned martial force hammering the workers. We’re back to the law, of course, but there’s another of Hall’s big themes here. In more recent books – Ambrose Bierce and the Queen of Hearts, Separations – the big companies and new magnates of the South West aren’t just pushing the little man around and trying win the game: they want to own the game, and so ensure there is no possibility for a fair fight somewhere down the line. The mining company in Warlock is his first pass at the theme.

Warlock’s got its problems. Too many characters are ciphers; and the prose is flat for swathes of the novel. Hall’s a fine, lucid writer of action: he’s precise and smooth and there aren’t snags in the prose; but that doesn’t make for subtlety. It also remains close to genre in many regards. This is still the palette of the Western, and if you read Warlock, you will meet a Doctor addicted to laudanum, you will see a stagecoach hold-up, and there is a piano player called The Professor. If you don’t think you can take an interest in these conventions, there may not be enough incidental sparkle to make you clap your hands. It won’t quite offer the grit-and-innards pseudo-reality that one expects from the post-Peckinpah form.

However it’s a smart, smart book. The Western novel in the 50s didn’t especially need a dose of gritty reality. Zane Grey, for instance, is a pretty grimy sort of writer (when he’s kept away from romance and the feelings of the fairer sex, at which point he turns into Ouida). What it did need was someone to think about its matter a little bit more. This code of the West – is it more important than the law? We need to build a society – can we do that? How are economic interests going to operate during this period of near-anarchy – and no fairytales about the big ranchers and the tough little guys standing up to them. Warlock doesn’t like believing in lies. That’s its virtue. It doesn’t tell you that the Cowboy’s a heroic figure, that in the old west men = men and women = women (men, incidentally, > women), and life was tough but honest. What Warlock hammers at, again and again, is that without the law, the code of the west is poison, that ethical perfection is necessary to be the gunslinging hero who’s here to clean up this town; and that ethical perfection is unattainable. It’s a grim and dull message, answering to how it is more than how we want to it to be, but in a world shaken by the actions of the Ivy League Aristocrat cowboy, it remains invaluable.

Saluting Colin Macinnes

I pity you, scum. You think you invented life. You believe you are the first people to learn how to dress. You are the first to flirt with the lowlife; the first middle-class loser to get their kicks digging round in the underworld. The first to realise that ‘the great thing about London is that it’s all mixed-up and crazy and so ethnic’.

The London Trilogy of Colin Macinnes (Allison & Busby, £10.99) has just been reprinted. It’s a puzzling disgrace that it’s been unavailable for the last few years: not only are the three novels – Absolute Beginners, Mr. Love and Justice and City of Spades (yes, it is called that, and we’ll come back to Macinnes and race in a second) – among the greatest books about mid-century London, but he’s a writer with an obsessive fanbase

Macinnes was primarily a journalist. He appears to have been an annoying man who liked drinking in Soho and Anarchism. In his declining years, he regularly wrote ‘Captain Jockstrap’s Diary’ for Gay News. He died in 1976, and is probably in heaven, trying to touch Jesus for a fiver.

Absolute Beginners is a stunning book, one of the great hymns to London and Youth. It’s a world; characters with crazy names (The Fabulous Hoplite, The Ex-Deb-of-last-year, The Misery Kid) from a dozen different underground scenes and youth tribes. It has amazing energy: Macinnes has a sharp eye – he’s an astonishing journalist too – and he thrills off getting this London down for the first time. It’s a dizzying read – such a smart book, but one with real feeling, and a dark climax set in the Notting Hill Race riots.

At this juncture, it is traditional to make a joke about Absolute Beginners, the film-musical adaptation that helped ruin the British movie industry in the 80s. But you know what? It isn’t that bad.

City of Spades is nearly as good. There are two narrators, Montgomery Pew, who starts a civil servant, but clearly has too great a taste for the fast life to stay settled, and Johnny Fortune, a Kenyan over to study in London. That title, I can see, might put you off, but MacInnes is the least racist white writer of Fifties England; he went out, paid attention to the Caribbean and African bars and clubs, watching racist locals, patronising liberals, corrupt cops and the woes of the ponce’s life.

Mr. Love and Justice is an education is police corruption and poncing (for some reason we’ve all switched to the word pimp now.)

Even if all this sounds too London, and even if you don’t care about checking out the best stories and high strangeness of a decade people ignore, and finding out how we ended up with this messy, fun sprawl of a city, there’s one unignorable virtue of MacInnes. He paid attention to the world; he watched closely, and thought for himself. There are no cliches, no poses taken from the papers, just attention and invention. It’s good to have him back.

Who’d McEwan have to fuck to get those reviews?

Everyone was reading Saturday. Everyone was telling me how good Saturday is. So I read Saturday. It delighted me. We finally have an answer to this long-standing question: “Who is the most dead-fucking-boring writer from the Y’Know – Martin Amis and that lot literary set?”

It was never going to be Amis or Rushdie. Amis is too annoying to be boring; Rushdie took the points he got from the Fatwa, blew them by hanging with Bono, then pulled them right back by picking up a hot actress. Salman, thank you – you’ve given us all a lot of laughs. Just don’t expect us to read your books.

Julian Barnes always seemed boredom front-runner. Indications of his dullness are that he’s loved in France, and that I just fell asleep when I tried remember what happens in Metroland. However, you’ve got to give him Flaubert’s Parrot, though that is cheating, since anything becomes interesting and good if it has lots of Flaubert. Observe: “the entire dream of democracy is to raise the proletariat to the level of bourgeois stupidity.” See? The article just got better.

Incidentally, BBC4 are currently considering a TV series in which I wear an oversized latex mask of Flaubert, and read passages of his work in a stupid northern voice. That’s right – Salammbo Selecta.

In theory, Ian McEwan’s out of the running. You’d think someone who wrote stories entitled (if I remember correctly) ‘Cock in a Jar’ and ‘Sex Monkey’ would be interesting. He’s also one of the few serious writers, along with Emma Tennant, to be named after tramp lager. However, now he’s written Saturday and, specifically, the squash match in Saturday.

Here are my questions to the polite, bookish world that forced me (forced me I tell you!) to read this: are you truly happy with a book that contains a 15-page description of a squash match? Doesn’t that suggest a problem with your relationship to literature, or life? There are a lot of books without 15-page descriptions of squash matches. Mightn’t they be better?

How did McEwan fail to realise he was writing this? Hasn’t he got a wife or an editor, just someone to say “Seriously – a fucking squash match”? Is the next novel (please call it Sunday, Ian, please) likely to include two chapters on a fondue party? If I want retro-bourgeois, I could shop in Marks and Spencer.

Ian McEwan is hereby crowned the most boring of Y’know, Amis and that lot. Over to you again, Flaubert: “To me he seems as eternal as mediocrity itself.”

Greil Marcus Reads at the Boogaloo

This is another London Line piece. Not sure I like its tone, and it tries too hard in places.

Greil Marcus is The World’s Greatest Rock Critic, like Steven Hawking is the Cleverest Man in the World and Jamie Cullum is an excellent British jazzman. Which is to say he isn’t, and there’s no such thing.

He’s a good rock writer, but in the mephitic world or music journalism that’s only to say he neither writes puff after being offered a line of brick dust by a PR in a Brixton toilet, nor believes he is in some sense a rock star because he once had a drink with Bob from Pavement. He is not, in short, a slut.

Marcus came to the Boogaloo in Highgate last Thursday to read from his new book, Like A Rolling Stone. Like a Rolling Stone is all about ‘Like a Rolling Stone’, the song by Bob Dylan. You maybe guessed that.

It’s a dismal den, The Boogaloo. So authentic. So rock. The clientele have naggingly familiar faces – like you saw them with more hair and fewer wrinkles at the back of a photo in a Mojo article about the 60’s British blues boom. The jukebox is ‘curated’. That should tell you everything.

The place was packed with Dylan fans, mostly, a fascinating, deluded species who believe that the third-best member of the Travelling Wilburys is a prophet. They seem scared of many things – dressing like they’ve thought about it, for instance, or direct sunlight, or the brave new world of mobile phone culture. They are thus an irrelevance, and history will pity them for droning through their Guinness about the warm sound of Blood on the Tracks instead of wondering, excitedly, when the Dylan of ringtones will come along.

Marcus was a pleasant reader. He looks like Jerry Springer. You sense he’s good at TV. He lulled me into not hating the sixties or Dylan fans for an hour. Impressive. He read well and answered a lot of questions affably. He didn’t even laugh at an out-and-out Dylan nut, who believed Blowin’ In The Wind to be a mystic Koan about being and not-being rather than an adenoidal dirge re: nothing in particular.

You can live without the book. Too many flights of fancy, too many reflections on the Sixties and on Dylan’s head. It’s unpersuasive – doesn’t make you go to the song. Marcus can be great – Invisible Republic, for instance, another book on Dylan and ‘the old weird america’ – but there’s no great moment of illumination here. Like an anorexic actress – too showy, nothing to grab hold of.

Just read Dylan’s Chronicles instead. It’s an old-fashioned sort of book, an artist recording his education in music and life, and watching the world with a deadly, comprehensive eye. Christ knows what he’d make of this crowd.

Patrick Hamilton

Literary fashion is a wild & mental beast, and I understand if you’re a little intimidated by it. Allow me to clear things up:

Hot: John King, Portugal, David Peace, William Gaddis, unrhymed iambic pentameter, Haruki Murakami, Jonathan Letham, Hungary, Daisy Goodwin’s rotting corpse, W.G. Sebald.

Not: Irvine Welsh, Latin America, Louis De Bernieres, Don DeLillo, rhymed iambic pentameter, Salman Rushdie, McSweeney’s, the Czech Republic, Daisy Goodwin, W.G. Sebald.

I hope that helped.

Literary Fashion, while inflicting some horrors upon the world – a widespread belief in the literacy of Alain de Botton, for instance – sporadically does something spectacular and good. So it is now: Patrick Hamilton is back. BBC4 screened an adaptation of his Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky trilogy last month, and the NFT recently ran a season of films based on his work.

A capsule biography of Hamilton runs as follows: born (1904) to psychotic-narcissist father and weak-willed mother, goes through over-discplined childhood, falls in love with a prostitute, writes some great novels, has horrific accident, writes a couple more great novels, drinks a lot, ceases to write great novels, dies (1962).

He deserves love for many reasons. First of all, he’s the genius of bad infatuations. If you’ve ever sent yourself mental wanting to get someone naked who has no interest in seeing you naked, Hamilton’s your man.

He’s among the greatest of London writers, too: his period of post-miserable-childhood dissolution was spent in shabby pubs, and he watched the way of hopeless London carefully. He’s not Soho or Fitzrovia cool: these are the loser establishments on the Euston Road or in Earl’s Court, all bad jokes and scrounged pints. He watched and listened carefully: his murky London endures, and you can find his bores right by your ear in any local.

Most of all though, he’s the best writer about being drunk in history. Truly the best: he gets what it’s actually like, the way a night slips into bits and pieces, and there’s hysterical conversation that make no sense, and you’re not sure how you got where you are, but it’s all terrific, until – well, Hangover Square. That’s the title of his best novel. Go find it.

It’s great his books are back on shelves. Let us celebrate those who love and understand London and alcohol and passion. Buy his ghost a drink, get confused, and fall in love with someone heartless who has sex for money. It’s what he would have wanted.

A Literary Fiction How-To

A word, if I may. I’ve tried to avoid adding commentary, disclaimers, etc to old stuff, but I’ll make an exception here. I’m a fan of Banville; I love The Sea. He’s maybe the best stylist around, and I spit on those who dislike his difficult words. I don’t think that comes across here. It’s a cheap piece, but there are some okay funnies, so it stays.

Even though Fantasy is harder, because you have to make up more stuff and draw maps, and Chicklit is a sod because there aren’t that many synonyms for ‘shoe’, the Literary Novel remains the genre that wins a writer respect. If you write an LN, people will listen to your opinion. You can simply say ‘that Bowyer’s a twat’, and people will discuss it at dinner-parties.

The best person at writing LNs is John Banville. You can tell because critics use words like ‘Nabokovian’ and ‘lustrous’ when they write about him. Here is a simple, foolproof guide to writing a literary novel, using Banville’s latest, The Sea, as illustrative matter.

1.Themes.
All literary novels are sensitive reflections on memory and identity. They can, at a pinch, ‘be deeply concerned with’ (‘about’) sex, death, or history, but try to make sure you’ve still got memory and identity covered. The Sea deals with memory, identity and death. In fact, it’s a sensitive reflection on them.

2.Your narrator must be unreliable.
You won’t need a plot for your LN – plots are vulgar – but make sure there’s an unreliable narrator. He should unwittingly reveal things about himself, skew the facts of the story and forget things. Banville’s narrators even unreliably admit their own unreliability. Nice!

3. Hazy Character motivation
We’ve established you don’t need a plot; you can also have people doing stuff for no particular reason. This is because book groups are an important demographic for the LN, and they need something to argue about. Or because the unknowability of motivation is central to our experience of others. Who can tell?

4. Dimly meaningful names.
The narrator of The Sea is wrapped up with a family called the Graces. Hello! Religious subtext, perhaps? A moment of divinity in a corrupt world? Mrs. Grace is figured as a Goddess, Mr. Grace as a satyr – a dark confluence of the Christian and pagan? Or simply a reference to Are You Being Served?

5. Hard words
Remember, you’re aiming for a prose style that’ll be called ‘sensuous’ or ‘lyrical’. Why not use the word ‘flocculent’? Banville takes it for a spin here and in a couple of other novels. It means ‘like tufts of wool’.

There are some other rules – unrevealed mysteries, confusing similes, self-reference – which we may return to, but this should start you off. Get writing, and eventually you’ll pick up the Booker, and you can sell your shopping lists to an American university for millions. Good luck!

Let’s Take This Upmarket: Mary Jane vs. Jen

Seems to be all comics today. Everyone’s talking about this big chunk of prose. I’m angry about Time’s top ten trashy reads. Eightball trashy? What, because it’s not Delillo? I shit on you, Time.

Let’s move on to topics of real importance.

Which star of the film Dick is smarter and better read?

The Contenders:

MICHELLE WILLIAMS

Michelle Williams

Favourite books?
When she started on Dawson’s Creek a bio listed some of her favourite authors: Hesse, Dostoevsky and Vonnegut. Not bad for seventeen or so. A slightly more recent interview has Cities of the Interior by Anias Nin as one of her favourite books. Pretty much everything to her credit so far; however, digging around a little, we can also find references to Ayn Rand. That’s redeemed by this:

The Strand has some amazing stuff–like the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, which is the last book I bought.

Writing?
Writes screenplays, though none produced yet. Also ‘dirty limericks’. This we thoroughly approve of.

Literary films?
Larry McMurtry involved with the forthcoming Proulx adaptation Brokeback Mountain. Outside that, surprisingly thin, though she chooses a lot of interesting parts.

I red-heart Jen

Other Credentials
Wim Wenders created a role specially for her. That’s points. So is the fact that she’s a bibliophile. She owns a 1st ed of The Great Gatsby. She also likes Clinic, Spiritualised and The Streets. Does stage work.

KIRSTEN DUNST

Kirsten

Favourite Books?
Hard to gauge. She read John McEnroe’s autobiography in preparation for her role in Wimbledon. She seems to like Sylvia Plath a lot, claiming that she would have a better Plath than Gwyneth (I’d agree).

Pictures are good

Writing?
I’m drawing a blank here. We’d better move on.

Literary films?
Anne Rice aside, we can see her in Mother Night, a Vonnegut adaptation, and she’s going to be in the forthcoming version of The Crimson Petal and the White. Eugenides’ Virgin Suicides gave her one of her best roles. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind has a title taken from Pope’s ‘Eloisa to Abelard’.

KD

Other Credentials
Wants to adapt and appear in film about Jean Seberg, with special reference to the Black Panthers. That’s so many points. Would like to appear on stage, but not in The Importance of Being Earnest. Mixed signals there.

CONCLUSION
It’s got to be Michelle. I thought when I started this there’d be more balance, since I knew that Williams was smart and a reader, while Kirsten had been talking about Plath and Seberg recently; as research progressed it became clear that KD’s smart, but MW’s got it through-and-through.

The Victor

Notes on a Big Fan of Lord of the Rings

We are not so various or mean. We have made oblongs and stood them upon squares. This is our triumph. This is our consolation.

Virginia Woolf

I said I’d post about Auden and Byron today; I think this might have been misleading. You’d think I’d be going on about Letter to Lord Byron, Auden’s poem in Juan stanzas, but no – this is a blog, dammit, and since there’s no better place to be perverse, we’ll be taking a brief look at Auden’s essay on Don Juan.

As well as being more-or-less my favourite poet, he’s one of my favourite writers about poetry (multiple choice! Have I not yet bought either published volume of his Collected Prose because I am 1) Lazy 2) Cheap? You are allowed to tick both boxes.)

It’s the way he begins with what you have to treat as a parlour game: he slices the world or literature into two, and then puts things into these categories. Just from The Dyer’s Hand, you have Virgin/Dynamo, Democratic/Aristocratic, Alice/Mabel, and Eden/New Jerusalem (it’s little wonder he was so attracted to kierkegaard and the either/or). I like this dichotomous model: you play a game that starts off silly, an Edwardian entertainment, neither true nor false, but ends in a discovery, and is able to slide between talking about what we read and how we live. It’s the kind of thing blogs might (with a ‘perhaps’ on top, three ‘possiblies’, two ‘maybes’ and finish with a coat of ‘sometime’) help us get back to: it isn’t the academy’s language, and it isn’t Journalese – both of those are mostly frozen idiom. Finding a new and exciting way of talking about books – that’s the dream. Though I don’t see how the fuck the creator expects us to do it when we can’t all think, write and coin the throwaways like WHA.

(Excuse that last – I usually think talking about what blogs can do is a distraction when we could be getting on with it. Incidentally, another terrific bit of Auden is The Faber Book of Aphorisms which he edited with Louis Kronenberger; it’s an anthology with texture and personality. Which reminds me of A Certain World, his commonplace book. I don’t have a copy any more; I gave it to First Love for her birthday once. She thought I was implying she didn’t have a mind capable of sustained attention to real literature. In case you’re reading, J, notice that we’re in the middle of an aside to a digression breaking up divagation from a rambling post: now tell me who’s got the mind incapable of making it to the end of a )

The essay on Don Juan has a more complex game than usual: it’s got four terms. Time to quote extensively, I think:

I find helpful a distinction which, so far as I have been able to discover, can only be made in the English language, the distinction between saying “So-and-do or such-and-such is boring and saying “So-and-so or such-and-such is a bore.”

In English, I believe, the adjective expresses a subjective judgement; boring always means boring-to-me. For example, if I am in the company of golf enthusiasts, I find their conversation boring, but they find it fascinating. The noun, on the other hand, claims to be an objective, universally valid statement; X is a bore is either true or false.

Applied to works of art, the distinction makes four judgements possible.

1)Not (or seldom) boring but a bore. Examples: The last quartets of Beethoven, the Sistine frescoes of Michelangelo, the Novels of Dostoievski.

2)Sometimes boring but not a bore. Verdi, Degas, Shakespeare.

3)Not boring and not a bore. Rossini, the drawings of Thurber, P.G. Wodehouse.

4)Boring and a bore. Works to which one cannot attend. It would be rude to give names.

Perhaps the principle of the distinction can be made clearer by the following definitions:

A. The absolutely boring but absolutely not a bore: the time of day.

B. The absolutely not boring but absolute bore: God.

Don Juan is sometimes boring but pre-eminently an example of a long poem which is not a bore.

Honestly, I can spend an age turning that one over in my mind. I’ve worried, often, that I have an aesthetic based entirely on locating works along an interesting-boring axis (Joke a: You can call me shallow, but at least I’m pretty. Joke b: Something about Bush and the ‘Axis of Boring’.) I’ve wondered whether it’s a useful idea that can be developed, and digs somewhere into the age, or whether it’s tinfoil and simply the function of uncommitted mind. I’ve come back to that passage a lot while thinking about boring-interesting, and Kierkegaard’s portrayal of the aesthetic life-in-despair, especially ‘Crop Rotation’ from Either/Or:

The gods were bored; therefore they created human beings. Adam was bored because he was alone; therefore Eve was created. Since that moment, boredom entered the world and grew in quantity in exact proportion to the growth of population. Adam was bored alone; then Adam and Eve were bored en famille. After that, the population of the world increased and the nations were bored en masse. To amuse themselves, they hit upon the notion of building a tower so high that it would reach the sky. This notion is just as boring as the tower was high and is a terrible demonstration of how boredom had gained the upper hand.

I’ve never reached any conclusions, though. I just get bored.

Oh, and if you’re wondering, that quote at the head of the post is used at the top of ‘The Virgin and The Dynamo’, another of the essays in The Dyer’s Hand. I like it. Apropos the title, Auden was a big LOTR fan: maybe I’ll get to the problems and virtues of his prep school sensibility in another post.