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Stuff I’ve Been Reading: June/July 2005

by Nick Hornby
Illustration by Charles Burns

Stuff I’ve Been Reading: June/July 2005

Nick Hornby
14 Snaps

BOOKS BOUGHT:

  • Little Scarlet—Walter Mosley
  • Out of the Silent Planet—C. S. Lewis*
  • Voyage to Venus—C. S. Lewis*
  • Maxton—Gordon Brown*
  • Nelson And His Captains—Ludovic Kennedy*
  • Excession—Iain M. Banks
* Don’t worry. These books were bought for one pound or less at the Friends of Kenwood House Book Sale.

BOOKS READ:

  • Excession—Iain M. Banks (abandoned)
  • The Men Who Stare at Goats—Jon Ronson
  • Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction—Sue Townsend
  • The Wonder Spot—Melissa Bank
  • Stuart: A Life Backwards—Alexander Masters

The story so far: Suddenly sick of my taste in books, I vowed in these pages last month to read something I wouldn’t normally pick up. After much deliberation (and the bulk of the otherwise inexplicable Books Bought can be explained by this brief but actually rather exhilarating period), I decided that my friend Harry was right, and that in the normal course of events I’d never read an SF/Fantasy novel in a million years. Now read on, if you can be bothered.

Even buying Iain M. Banks’s Excession was excruciating. Queuing up behind me at the cash desk was a very attractive young woman clutching some kind of groovy art magazine, and I felt obscurely compelled to tell her that the reason I was buying this purple book with a spacecraft on the cover was because of the Believer, and the Believer was every bit as groovy as her art magazine. In a rare moment of maturity, however, I resisted the compulsion. She could, I decided, think whatever the hell she wanted. It wasn’t a relationship that was ever going to go anywhere anyway. I’m with someone, she’s probably with someone, she was twenty-five years younger than me, and—let’s face it—the Believer isn’t as groovy as all that. If we had got together, that would have been only the first of many disappointing discoveries she’d make.

When I actually tried to read Excession, embarrassment was swiftly replaced by trauma. Iain M. Banks is a highly rated Scottish novelist who has written twenty-odd novels, half of them (the non-SF half) under the name Iain Banks, and though I’d never previously read him, everyone I know who is familiar with his work loves him. And nothing in the twenty-odd pages I managed of Excession was in any way bad; it’s just that I didn’t understand a word. I didn’t even understand the blurb on the back of the book: “Two and a half millennia ago, the artifact appeared in a remote corner of space, beside a trillion-year-old dying sun from a different universe. It was a perfect black-body sphere, and it did nothing. Then it disappeared. Now it is back.” This is clearly intended to entice us into the novel—that’s what blurbs do, right? But this blurb just made me scared. An artifact—that’s something you normally find in a museum, isn’t it? Well, what’s a museum exhibit doing floating around in space? So what if it did nothing? What are museum exhibits supposed to do? And this dying sun—how come it’s switched universes? Can dying suns do that?

The urge to weep tears of frustration was already upon me even before I read the short prologue, which seemed to describe some kind of androgynous avatar visiting a woman who has been pregnant for forty years and who lives on her own in the tower of a giant spaceship. (Is this the artifact? Or the dying sun? Can a dying sun be a spaceship? Probably.) By the time I got to the first chapter, which is entitled “Outside Context Problem” and begins “(CGU Grey Area signal sequence file #n428857/119),” I was crying so hard that I could no longer see the page in front of my face, at which point I abandoned the entire ill-conceived experiment altogether. I haven’t felt so stupid since I stopped attending physics lessons aged fourteen. “It’s not stupidity,” my friend Harry said when I told him I’d had to pack it in. “Think of all the heavy metal fans who devour this stuff. You think you’re dimmer than them?” I know that he was being rhetorical, but the answer is: Yes, I do. In fact, I’m now pretty sure that I’ve never really liked metal because I don’t understand that properly, either. Maybe that’s where I should start. I’ll listen to Slayer or someone for a few years, until I’ve grasped what they’re saying, and then I’ll have another go at SF. In the meantime, I have come to terms with myself and my limitations, and the books I love have never seemed more attractive to me. Look at them: smart and funny novels, nonfiction books about military intelligence and homeless people…. It’s a balanced, healthy diet. I wasn’t short of any vitamins. I was looking for the literary equivalent of grilled kangaroo, or chocolate-covered ants, not spinach, and as I am never drawn to the kangaroo section of a menu in a restaurant, it’s hardly surprising that I couldn’t swallow it in book form.

Stupidity has been the theme of the month. There’s a lot of it in Jon Ronson’s mind-boggling book about U.S. military intelligence, The Men Who Stare at Goats; plenty of people (although admittedly none of us is likely to spend much time with) would describe the behavior of the tragic and berserk Stuart in Alexander Masters’s brilliant book as stupid beyond belief. And Sue Townsend’s comic anti-hero Adrian Mole, who by his own admission isn’t too bright, has unwittingly contributed to the post-Excession debate I’ve been having with myself about my own intelligence.

Adrian Mole is one of the many cultural phenomena that has passed me by until now, but my friend Harry—yes, the same one, and no, I don’t have any other friends, thank you for asking—suddenly declared Townsend’s creation to be a work of comic genius, and insisted I should read Adrian Mole and the Weapons of Mass Destruction immediately. He pointed out helpfully that I’d understand quite a lot of it, too, and as I needed the boost in confidence, I decided to take his advice.

Adrian Mole, who famously began his fictional life aged thirteen and three-quarters, is now thirty-four, penniless, becalmed in an antiquarian bookshop, and devoted to our Prime Minister. One of the many unexpected pleasures of this book was the acerbity of its satire. There is real anger in here, particularly about the war in Iraq, and the way Townsend manages to accommodate her dismay within the tight confines of light comedy is a sort of object lesson in what can be done with mainstream fiction. There’s a great running gag about Blair’s ludicrous claim that Saddam could hit Cyprus with some of the nasty missiles at his disposal: Adrian Mole has booked a holiday on that very island, and spends much of the book trying to reclaim his deposit from the travel agent.

I do wish that comic writing took itself more seriously, though. I don’t mean I want fewer jokes; I sim-ply mean that the cumulative effect of those jokes would be funnier if they helped maintain the internal logic of the book. Mole has a blind friend, Nigel, to whom he reads books and newspapers, and at one point Nigel accuses him of not understanding much of what he’s reading. “I had to admit that I didn’t,” Mole says, before, just a few pages later, making an admittedly inappropriate allusion to Antony Beevor’s Stalingrad. It might seem pedantic to point out that anyone who’s plowed their way through Stalingrad is probably capable of grasping the essence of a newspaper article (if not the opening of an Iain M. Banks novel)—just as it’s probably literal-minded to wonder how an unattractive man with a spectacularly unenviable romantic history gets repeatedly lucky with an extremely attractive woman. But moments like this tend to wobble the character around a little bit, and I found myself having occasionally to recreate him in my head, almost from scratch. I’m sure that Mole has a fixed identity for those who have read the entire series, and he remains a fantastic, and fantastically English, comic creation: upright and self-righteous, bewildered, snobby, self-hating, provincial, and peculiarly lovable. We all are, here.

Jon Ronson’s The Men Who Stare at Goats is one of the most disorienting books I have ever read. While reading it, I started feeling like the victim of one of the extremely peculiar mindfuck experiments that Ronson describes in his inimitable perplexed tones. Here’s his thesis: After the rout in Vietnam, the U.S. military started investigating different ways to fight wars, and as a consequence co-opted several some-what eccentric New Age thinkers and practitioners who, your generals felt, might point them toward a weaponless future, one full of warriors capable of neutralizing the enemy with a single glance. And the first half of the book is uproarious, as Ronson endeavors to discover, for example, whether the actress Kristy McNichol (who appeared in The Love Boat 2 and the cheesy soft porn movie Two Moon Junction), had ever been called upon to help find Manuel Noriega. (A U.S. Sergeant called Lyn Buchanan, who was part of a secret unit engaged in a “supernatural war” against Noriega, had repeatedly written her name down while in a self-induced trance, and became convinced that the actress knew something.) Gradually Ronson builds a crazy-paving path that leads to Abu Ghraib, and both the book and its characters become darker and more disturbing.

You have probably read those stories of how people in Iraq and Afghanistan were tortured by having American pop music blasted at them day and night. And you have probably read or heard many of the jokes made as a consequence of these stories—people writing in to newspapers to say that if you have a teenager who listens to 50 Cent or Slipknot all day then you know how those Iraqi prisoners feel, etc. and so on. (Even the Guardian made lots of musical torture jokes for a while.) Ronson floats the intriguing notion that the jokes were an integral part of the strategy: In other words, if you can induce your citizens to laugh at torture, then outrage will be much harder to muster. Stupidity is, despite all appearances to the contrary, a complicated state of mind. Who’s stupid, in the end—them or us?

This month’s Book by a Friend was Melissa Bank’s The Wonder Spot, and this paragraph must be parenthetical, because neither the novel nor the friend can be shoehorned into the stupid theme. It’s been a long time since The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing, and some of us—including the author herself—were wondering whether she’d ever get around to a second book. But she has, finally, and it’s a lovely thing, sweet-natured, witty, lots of texture. It’s hard to write, as Bank does here, about growing up, and about contemporary adult urban romance: It’s such an apparently overpopulated corner of our world that she must have been tempted, at least for a moment, by artifacts and dying suns and women who are pregnant for decades. We need someone who’s really, really good at that stuff, though, because it still matters to us, no matter how many millions of words are written on the subject. In fact—and once again in these pages I’m calling for Soviet-style intervention into the world of literature—it would be much easier for everyone if Melissa Bank and maybe two or three other people in the world were given an official government license, and you could no more appoint yourself as chronicler of con-temporary adult urban romance than you could set yourself up as a neurosurgeon. In this Utopia, Melissa Bank would be… well, you’ll have to insert the name of your own top neurosurgeon here. I don’t know any. Obviously. I’m too dim. Damn that Iain M. Banks. He’s wrecked my confidence.

Here’s an unlikely new subgenre: biographical studies of vagrants. Alexander Masters’s Stuart: A Life Backwards is, after Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, the second one I’ve read recently, and if these two are as successful as they should be, then on top of everything else, down-and-outs may have to contend with the unwanted attentions of hungry nonfiction writers. At the moment, there’s still plenty of room in the field for tonal contrast; where Nick Flynn’s book about his homeless, alcoholic father was poetic, as deep and dark and languid as a river, Stuart is quick, bright, angry, funny, and sarcastic—Masters finds himself occasionally frustrated by Stuart’s inexplicable and self-destructive urge to punch, stab, self-lacerate, incinerate and cause general mayhem. (“I headbutted the bloke,” Stuart explains when Masters asks him what happened to a particular employer and job. “Excellent. Of course you did. Just the thing,” Masters finds himself thinking.)

The story is told backwards at Stuart’s suggestion, after he’d told Masters that his first draft was “bollocks boring”; he thinks the narrative structure will pep it up a little, turn it into something “like what Tom Clancy writes.” It feels instead like a doomed search for hope and innocence; as Masters trudges back through three decades of illness and drug abuse and alcohol abuse and self-abuse and the shocking, sickening abuse perpetrated by Stuart’s teachers and family members, he and we come to see that there never was any. This is an important and original book, and it doesn’t even feel as though you should read it. You’ll want to, however much good it’s doing you.

I’m certain that I read five books all the way through in the last month, and yet I’ve written about only four of them. This means that I’ve forgotten about the other one completely, the first time that’s happened since I began writing this column. I’m sorry, whoever you are, but I think you’ve got to take some of the blame. Your book was… well, it was good, obviously, because we are forced by the Polysyllabic Spree, the sixty-three white-robed literary maniacs who run this magazine, to describe every book as good. But clearly it could have been better. Try a joke next time, or maybe a plot.

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