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Stuff I’ve Been Reading: September 2004

by Nick Hornby
Illustration by Charles Burns

Stuff I’ve Been Reading: September 2004

Nick Hornby
19 Snaps

BOOKS BOUGHT:

  • 20,000 Streets Under the Sky—Patrick Hamilton
  • Unnamed Literary Novel—Anonymous
  • The Letters of Charles Dickens, Vol. 1
  • Through a Glass Darkly: The Life of Patrick Hamilton—Nigel Jones

BOOKS READ:

  • The Midnight Bell—Patrick Hamilton
  • Blockbuster—Tom Shone
  • We’re in Trouble—Chris Coake
  • Literary novel (unfinished)
  • Biography (unfinished)

Twelve months! A whole year! I don’t think I’ve ever held down a job for this long. And I have to say that when I first met the Polysyllabic Spree, the eighty-four chillingly ecstatic young men and women who run this magazine, I really couldn’t imagine contributing one column, let alone a dozen. The Spree all live together in Believer Towers, high up in the hills somewhere; they spend their days reading Montaigne’s essays aloud to each other (and laughing ostentatiously at the funny bits), shooting at people who own TV sets, and mourning the deaths of every single writer since the Gawain-Poet, in chronological order. When I first met them, they’d got up to Gerard Manley Hopkins. (They seemed particularly cut up about him. It may have been the Jesuit thing, kindred spirits and all that.) I was impressed by their seriousness and their progressive sexual relationships, but they really didn’t seem like my kind of people.

And yet here we are, still. I’m beginning to see through the white robes to the people beneath, as it were, and they’re really not so bad, once you get past the incense, the vegan food, and the communal showers. They’ve definitely taught me things: they’ve taught me, for example, that there is very little point in persisting with a book that isn’t working for me, and even less point in writing about it. In snarky old England, we’re used to working the other way around—we only finish books that aren’t working for us, and those are definitely the only ones we write about. Anyway, as a consequence, my reading has become more focused and less chancy, and I no longer choose novels that I know in advance will make me groan, snort, and guffaw.

I still make mistakes, though, despite the four-hundred-page manual they make you read before you can contribute to this magazine, and I made two in the last four weeks. The biography I abandoned was of a major cultural figure of the twentieth century—he died less than forty years ago—so when you see, in the opening chapter, the parentheses “(1782–1860)”after a name, it’s really only natural that you become a little disheartened: you’re a long, long way from the action. I made it through to the subject’s birth, but then got irritated by a long-winded story about a prank he played on a little girl when he was seven. I had always suspected, even before I knew anything about him, that this major cultural figure was once a small boy, so the confirmation was superfluous. And the prank was so banal that he could just as easily have grown up to be Hemingway, or Phil Silvers, or any other midcentury colossus. It wasn’t, like, a revealingly or quintessentially ____esque prank. At that point I threw the book down in disgust. It went straight through the bedroom floor, only just missing a small child. Please, biographers. Please, please, please. Have mercy. Select for us. We have jobs, kids, DVD players, season tickets. But that doesn’t mean we don’t want to know about stuff.

My other mistake was a literary first novel, and I’ve probably broken every rule in the Spree manual just by saying that much. I took every precaution, I promise: I was reading a paperback that came garlanded with superlative reviews, and there were a couple of recommendations involved, although I can see now that they came from untrustworthy sources. I ignored the most boring opening sentence I have ever read in my life and ploughed on, prepared to forgive and forget; I got halfway through before its quietness and its lack of truth started to get me down. I don’t mind nothing happening in a book, but nothing happening in a phony way—characters saying things people never say, doing jobs that don’t fit, the whole works—is simply asking too much of a reader. Something happening in a phony way must beat nothing happening in a phony way every time, right? I mean, you could prove that, mathematically, in an equation, and you can’t often apply science to literature.

Here’s Tom Shone writing about Spielberg’s Jaws in his book Blockbuster:

What stays with you, even today, are less the movie’s big action moments than the crowning gags, light as air, with which Spielberg gilds his action—Dreyfuss crushing his Styrofoam cup, in response to Quint’s crushing of his beercan, or Brody’s son copying his finger-steepling at the dinner table…

To get anything resembling such fillets of improvised characterisation, you normally had to watch something far more boring—some chamber piece about marital disintegration by John Cassavetes, say—and yet here were such things, popping up in a movie starring a scary rubber shark. It was nothing short of revolutionary: you could have finger steepling and scary rubber sharks in the same movie. This seemed like important information. Why had no one told us this before?

If this column has anything like an aesthetic, it’s there: you can get finger-steepling and sharks in the same book. And you really need the shark part, because a whole novel about finger steepling—and that’s a fair synopsis of both the Abandoned Literary Novel and several thousand others like it—can be on the sleepy side. You don’t have to have a shark, of course; the shark could be replaced by a plot, or, say, thirty decent jokes.

Tom Shone is a friend, and I’ve known him for ages—he’s younger than me, but I’m pretty sure he was the first person ever to phone me up and ask me to write something for him, when he was the literary editor of a now-defunct newspaper in London. That doesn’t mean I owe him anything, and it certainly doesn’t mean I have to be nice about his book. He gave me something like one hundred and fifty quid for a thousand-word piece, so he probably still owes me. In England, writers are never nice about their friends’ books: I read out a terrific sentence from Blockbuster with the express purpose of making a mutual friend groan with horrified envy, and it worked a treat.

With a heavy heart, then, I must tell you that Blockbuster is compelling, witty, authoritative, and very, very smart. Subtitled How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer, it’s an alternative view of the film universe to that expounded in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls; where Peter Biskind believes that Spielberg and Lucas murdered movies, Shone takes the view that they breathed a whole new life into them. “It seems worth pointing out: the art of popular cinema was about to get, at a rough estimate, a bazillion times bet-ter.” He’s not philistine about it—he doesn’t think that Blockbusters have got better and better with each successive summer, for example, and he despairs in all the right places.

Indeed, he manages to put his finger on something that had always troubled my populist soul: he explains why breaking all box-office records has become a meaningless feat, almost certainly indicative of lack of quality rather than the opposite, over the last few years. Raiders of the Lost Ark took $8 million in its opening weekend, but then went on to make $209 million. By contrast, the big movies of 2001—AI, Jurassic Park III, Pearl Harbor, The Mummy Returns, Planet of the Apes—all opened big, and then disappeared fast. “By the time we’ve all seen that it sucked, it’s a hit. The dollar value of our bum on seat has never been greater, but what it signifies has never meant less.”

There is, in the end, something untrustworthy about the film critics who have sat in an audience spellbound by Close Encounters of the Third Kind and then gone on to slag it off at some stage in their careers. There’s certainly something untrustworthy about them as critics, and I would argue that there is something untrustworthy about them as people: what was it that prevented them from responding in the way we all responded, those of us who were old enough to go to a cinema in 1977? What bit of them is missing? Star Wars, Raiders, ET, Close Encounters, and the rest clearly worked for discriminating cinema audiences; Tom Shone demonstrates that all his bits are where they should be by writing with acuity and enthusiasm about how and why they worked. This may be a strange thing to say about a book that embraces the evil Hollywood empire so warmly, but Blockbuster is weirdly humane: it prizes entertainment over boredom, and audiences over critics, and yet it’s a work of great critical intelligence. It wouldn’t kill me, I suppose, to say I’m proud of the boy.

I know Chris Coake, too. I taught him for a week, a couple of years ago—by which I mean that I read a couple of his stories, scratched my head while trying to think of some way they could be improved, gave up the unequal struggle, and told him they were terrific. I would like to claim that I discovered him, but you can’t really discover writers like this: the quality of the work is so blindingly obvious that he was never going to labor in obscurity for any length of time, and the manuscript he sent me has already been bought by Harcourt Brace in the United States, Penguin in the UK, Guanda in Italy, and so on. You won’t be able to read his book until next year, but when you see the reviews, you’ll be reminded that you heard about it here first—which is, after all, how you usually hear about most things, apart from sports results.

We’re in Trouble is, for the most part, a book about death—quite often, about how death affects the young. “In the Event” takes place over the course of a few hours: it begins in the early morning, just after a car crash that has killed the parents of a three-year-old boy, and ends shortly before the boy wakes up to face his terrible new world. In between times, the child’s youthful and untogether godfather, who will raise the child, has a very long and very dark night of the soul. In the collection’s title story, death casts a shadow over three relationships, at various stages of maturity, and with increasing directness. Sometimes, when you’re reading the stories, you forget to breathe, which probably means that you read them with more speed than the writer intended. Are they literary? They’re beautifully written, and they have bottom, but they’re never dull, and they all contain striking and dramatic narrative ideas. And Coake never draws attention to his own art and language; he wants you to look at his people, not listen to his voice. So they’re literary in the sense that they’re serious, and will probably be nominated for prizes, but they’re unliterary in the sense that they could end up mattering to people.

Patrick Hamilton, who died in 1962, is my new best friend. I read his most famous book, Hangover Square, a couple of months back; now a trilogy of novels, collectively entitled 20,000 Streets Under the Sky, has just been republished here in the UK, and the first of them, The Midnight Bell, seemed to me to be every bit as good as Hangover Square. Usually, books have gone out of print for a reason, and that reason is they’re no good, or, at least, of very marginal interest. (Yeah, yeah, your favorite book of all time is currently out of print, and it’s a scandal. But I’ll bet you any money you like it’s not as good as The Catcher in the Rye, or The Power and the Glory, or anything else still available that was written in the same year.) Hamilton’s books aren’t arcane, or difficult, although they’re dated in the sense that the culture, which produced them has changed beyond recognition. Tonally, though, they’re surprisingly modern: they’re gritty, real, tough, and sardonic, and they deal with dissipation. And we love a bit of dissipation, don’t we? We’re always reading books about that. Or at least, someone’s always writing one. Hamilton’s version, admittedly, isn’t very glamorous—people sit in pubs and get pissed. But if you were looking to fly from Dickens to Martin Amis with just one overnight stop, then Hamilton is your man. Or your airport, or whatever.

Doris Lessing called him “a marvellous novelist who’s grossly neglected,” and she felt that he suffered through not belonging to the 1930s Isherwood clique. She also thought, in 1968, that “his novels are true now. You can go into any pub and see it going on.” This, however, is certainly no longer the case—our pub culture here in London is dying. Pubs aren’t pubs any more—not, at least, in the metropolitan center. They’re discos, or sports bars, or gastropubs, and the working- and lower-middle-class men that Hamilton writes about with such appalled and amused fascination don’t go anywhere near them. That needn’t bother you, however. You’re all smart enough to see that the author’s central theme—men are vile and stupid, women are vile and manipulative—is as meaningful today as it ever was. I have only just started to read Nigel Jones’s biography, but I suspect that Hamilton wasn’t the happiest of chaps.

Thank you, dear reader, for your time over these last twelve months, if you have given any. And if you haven’t, then thank you for not complaining in large enough numbers to get me slung out. I reckon I’ve read at least a dozen wonderful books since I began this column. I’ve read Hangover Square, How to Breathe Underwater, David Copperfield, The Fortress of Solitude, George and Sam, True Notebooks, Random Family, Ian Hamilton’s Lowell biography, The Sirens of Titan, Mystic River, Clockers, Moneyball… And there’ll be the same number this coming year, too. More, if I read faster. What have you done twelve times over the last year that was so great, apart from reading books? Fibber.

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