Friday, February 26, 2010

its little face, and the tassels on its cushion

At St. Vinnies I stopped myself buying another secondhand copy of David Copperfield. I think this would have been my fourth. "If you buy it you will only throw it away," I said to myself. "You will look at the cost of transporting your library overseas and you'll throw all of those Copperfields away except one, and the one you'll keep will be the red hardback with the illustrations, not this one, which is an ordinary Wordsworth Classics paperback with a hey-ho blue spine and no memories attached."

"Get rid of as many books as you can," has been in my head over the past couple of weeks as I try to imagine the price of transportation. Cataloguing them in LibraryThing, I think, at each title, "Do you like it so much that you will pay to keep it?" Sometimes I haven't read the book, and I don't know, so I go through it to find out. For this reason I have read Andrew O'Hagan's Be Near Me ("Longlisted for the Booker" says the cover), also Madeleine St. John's The Essence of the Thing ("Shortlisted for the Booker"), and Graham Swift's Last Orders ("Winner of the Booker"). Mary McGarry Morris' fat orange Songs in Ordinary Time turned out to be nothing but a melodrama, so I started skimming after page fifty to find out if they'd discover who the murderer was; meanwhile a self-published poetry book (I'll leave it nameless) adjective'd and adverb'd and cliché'd itself to death. Children were "bright-eyed," self-expression was "unfettered," colours were "vibrant:" you get the picture.*

Aneva Stout's The List was swift and sweet and I bought it in the first place because I wanted to examine the way she'd put the story together. It's all in questions, like this --

1. You will dream about meeting Mr. Right.
a. You'll be eleven
b. Twelve
c. Forty-six

2. Your first Mr. Right will be a rock star.

3. Your first Mr. Wrong will be a musician.

4. You will not learn from this.

5. You will get advice about men from your mother.
a. "It's as easy to love a rich man as a poor man."
b. "The way to a man's heart is through his stomach."
c. "Good luck."

When I looked around for reviews to see how other people had reacted to this question-style I found that almost everyone, independently, had used the word "cute," and yes, it is. The speed at which you can absorb the story through those questions compacts the book down to a nugget of cuteness -- it's cute as a dozen buttons on a knitted pink beanie on the head of a pug, a white dwarf star of cute.

He looked at the dog indulgently. "It's rather nice," he said. "A pug." "I expect it's expensive," she said. "Come on. But, oh, sweet. Look at its little face, and the tassels on its cushion." "Yes," said Jonathan.

(The Essence of the Thing)

It's rare to meet a book that uses all its cleverness (and this question-style, which mimics the style of a Cosmo quiz, is clever, not wise, no, I don't mean that it transforms the book into anything more profound than the happy fluff it wants to be, but clever) to make itself as shallow as possible. This is substanceless pop haiku with not an original thought in its head besides the style, but it is absolutely itself, which is, I think, something. I'm going to send the List out into the world again so that it can be cute to someone else.

Libby Hathorn's book-length story-in-poetry Volcano Boy is going too. Aimed at young adults, it's the kind of book they might have given to us in school when we were about twelve or thirteen, and I would have hated it. The idea that adults expected me to enjoy a book because the characters were my age (and having Real Life Issues, "like mine they assume," I thought) drove me into a scornful rage, which I never articulated, feeling that the teachers would disagree, or sigh and say, "What a bore, she is Expressing her Issues." I was under the impression that you had to second-guess not only the points a teacher liked you to make about a book, but also the esteem they wanted you to hold it in. This is one of the things that made school so exhausting -- not work on its own, but trying to guess, from your judgment of the person in front of you, what they wanted that work to be.

There was one book we had to read, I recall, narrated by a British boy whose father, believing that nuclear war was approaching, stockpiled tins of tuna, and then there was Phillippa Pearce's A Dog So Small (we must have been nine or ten), about a miserable boy who hallucinated a chihuahua. I had no time for any of these children and I preferred Buck in The Call of the Wild to the chihuahua.

I'll send Volcano Boy away to a place where it can be read by someone who will "[enjoy] this book because you really have to think about its context and what happens because you have to assume some of the story" (Annie, Year 10, Canberra, Australia), or call it "realistic and funny" (Simon, aged 14, Blacktown, Australia, whose sense of humour is evidently not mine, or who has a notion that his teacher will be appreciative if he finds the story of a boy's absent father, alcoholic mother, and suicidal sister, "funny").

I have five copies of Titus Alone and I don't even like the book.

* Occasionally she'll give us the same idea two or three times in a row -- "ordinary, everyday, workaday" for example, or "heart-wrenching, filled with tears, / unbearable" -- which, along with her love of noun-adjective pairings that have been summoned up from a shallow communal storehouse (cliches, near-cliches: "deep blue eyes," "noxious fumes," "quietly brooding"), makes me wonder if she imagined these poems being read aloud, rather than silently. Redundant words on the page are an invitation to let your mind wander, which is one of the last things a poet should be encouraging, but if you're listening to a piece of writing then that repetition has a purpose; it helps to carve the idea into your mind. You can't flip backwards and double-check, as you can in a book, but if the poet repeats the information, or makes it very familiar ("deep blue eyes") then it seems reasonable to assume you'd be likely to remember it. So Homer reinforces the attributes of his people when they appear. Ajax in The Iliad is more than once, "Ajax, son of Telamon."

I don't mean to suggest that this poet was imitating Homer, only that the rhythm of repetition and familiarity might have seemed comfortable to her because she was thinking of the words being chanted.


  1. And you make me laugh again! Why do you have so many multiple copies? Though, I guess, having multiple copies of my Jane Austens I guess I do understand.

    You are clearly - and that wouldn't be hard these days - younger than I as I recollect none of those YA et al books from my school days. I will admit though that I probably would have liked some of them even if I'm not sure I had the issues those characters seem to (I did after all read many as my kids were growing up)!

  2. When I was a teenager I would dote on a book and keep buying secondhand copies because it felt wrong to leave them in the shop. "I love it, it's mine, I can't abandon it, someone else might take it." When it comes to Titus Alone I fell in love with the first two books in the series and the third one got dragged along behind. (Every article I've read about TA assumes that the people who don't like it, don't like it because Peake was suffering from a fatal brain disease while he was writing the book and consequently it's scrappier than Titus Groan and Gormenghast, but for me that's not true: I don't mind the scrappiness, what I mind is the character of Titus, a moping spoilt brooding brat who trails around the place being tempestuous and anguished and a pain.)

    The issue-lit books weren't bad books at all, as YA fiction goes, or went, but I think I preferred the James and the Giant Peach approach to family tragedy. James' parents get eaten by a rhinoceros on page two and does he sulk around having Issues? No, he copes with his evil aunts and flies away to have adventures with a troupe of magic invertebrates. After a childhood of reading books like that, I suspect one of my gut responses to the advent of issues-lit was: why have all the main characters turned into wusses?