Infiltrated. Not Joined

This is following up the Remainder post above, though it’s not about Remainder; instead it’s about me, contemporary fiction, and the books I usually don’t mention having read which provided a metric for the oddness of McCarthy.

I don’t really like contemporary fiction. I don’t find it that interesting. It just looks like a waste of time. There are all the books in the world: why would I read one by Hilary Mantel?

However, last year I infiltrated a book group. I had a number of motives: my old boss invited me and I like her; I thought I could pick up some work; I’d railed against them enough, and reckoned it might be time to see what one was like; it was an extra chance to get drunk and pick fights in the middle of the week.

It’s sort of okay. Everyone’s nice, and I get to drink. I haven’t made anyone cry yet, but give it time.

My only problem is that I have to read these bloody books. Middle class dinner party fiction. On Beauty. Arthur and George. Beyond Black. Snow. Never Let Me Go. The Accidental. I read a few more while I was doing a books column for The London Line. Seems I was correct. Most contemporary fiction isn’t very good. It’s usually at least quite good, just not very good; a bit nothing, a bit meh. Like the man says, “literary fiction is not literature”.

I ended up having read 5 of 6 from the Booker shortlist, which number shocked me. I thought the right book won: Banville‘s the only interesting stylist; plus he keeps writing the same book over and over again, which I respect.

(Incidentally, in that interview, which was one of my favourite things from litblog world while I was effectively away, Mark fails to ask the one question to which I want the answer: “do you deliberately use the word ‘flocculent’ in each of your books?” It always seems to turn up; I wondered if it was some kind of maker’s mark for Banville. Thinking on this the other evening I was struck by the somewhat disturbing idea that Banville is not figuratively writing the same book over and over again; he is in fact doing it literally, and using the exact same words, which he keeps in a box, cut up like fridge magnet poetry, to compose each of his novels. He’d be allowed to change proper nouns, obviously.)

If we’d been judging by covers again – and I’m sorry we weren’t – I think On Beauty would have sneaked it. Same palette as Cloud Atlas last year, but more controlled; pretty and serious at the same time.

Weird book though. Really quite bad and awkward in places. Prose that’s trying desperately hard: like when she describes pin-cushions ‘shaped like fat oriental gentlemen’ as having ‘pulvinate bellies’. I mean that’s an awful, obviously conscious word choice: she’s saying (if you don’t know ‘pulvinate’) that the pin-cushions have a cushion-shaped feature; and she’s using a dictionary word, completely out of keeping with the rest of the prose. Again:

Walking up Redwood Avenue with its tunnel of cernuous willows, Levi found he had lost the will even to nod his head…

This might be elegant variation trouble: does she get cernuous out from storage because she needs ‘nod’ later in the passage? Maybe. She’d still have other options though: drooping, bowing, lolling… Maybe she likes the suggestion of ‘sinuous’? Willows aren’t, though, usually. In any case, those moments of the text look a bit sad, or insecure: it’s like she’s so scared her sentences won’t get taken seriously that she’s scheduling meetings with Monsieur Roget.

Same with imagery: she’s no good at looking at the world, and so trips over awful, over-thought-through similes: ‘his sentimental eyebrows made the shape of two separated sides of a steeple’.


No. No idea.

She’s good at London, some social interactions, the minds of insecure adolescents and narrative flow, mostly. She’s writing the Upper Soap Opera, but still I think wants to be Pynchon.

Still, she’s doing well out of it.

I didn’t mean to get so caught up in the faults of a popular novel; I just wanted to make it clear that sanctioned literary fiction doesn’t have too much going for it; that it is predictable, formulaic and flat; awkward, and unable to fulfill its own desires; that Remainder is worth talking about in a different way.