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Stuff I’ve Been Reading: April 2006

Stuff I’ve Been Reading: April 2006

Nick Hornby
19 Snaps

BOOKS BOUGHT:

  • Eustace and Hilda—L. P. Hartley
  • Moondust—Andrew Smith
  • Darkness Falls from the Air—Nigel Balchin
  • 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare—James Shapiro

BOOKS READ:

  • The Dirt—Mötley Crüe
  • The Shrimp and the Anemone—L. P. Hartley
  • The Poet—Michael Connelly
  • Then We Came To The End—Joshua Ferris

“Character is fate.” Discuss with reference to Eustace Cherrington in The Shrimp and the Anemone and Nikki Sixx in The Dirt.

(It occurred to me that with the exam season coming up, younger readers might actually prefer this format for the column. I don’t know how many of you are studying L. P. Hartley’s The Shrimp and the Anemone in conjunction with The Dirt—probably not many. But even if it’s only a couple of hundred, I’ll feel as though I’ve provided some kind of public service. Please feel free to lift as much of the following as you need.)

In many ways, Eustace Cherrington—the younger half of the brother-sister combo in Hartley’s Eustace and Hilda trilogy—and Nikki Sixx, the Crüe’s bass player, are very different people. Eustace is a young boy, and Nikki Sixx is a grown man; Eustace is English, middle-class, and fictional, and Nikki Sixx is working-class, American, and (according to the internet at least) a real person. The Shrimp and the Anemone is a very beautiful novel, full of delicate people and filigree observation, whereas The Dirt is possibly the ugliest book ever written. And yet Eustace and Nikki Sixx both, each in their own ways, somehow manage to disprove Heraclitus’s maxim—or at any rate, they demand its modification. Both Hartley’s novel and the Crüe bio remind us it’s not character but constitution that determine our destinies. Eustace is, let’s face it, a weed and a wuss. He’s got a weak heart, so he can’t go out much, and when he eventually steels himself to take part in a paper chase with the delectable but destructive Nancy, he collapses with exhaustion and takes to his sickbed for months. Nikki Sixx, however, is made of sterner stuff. When he ODs on heroin in L.A. and nearly dies—a journalist phones one of his bandmates for an obituary—what does he do? He gets home, pulls a lump of heroin out of the medicine cabinet, and ODs again. Thus we can see that Nikki Sixx and Eustace Cherrington live the lives that their bodies allow them to live. Nothing really matters, apart from this. Why do some of us read a lot of books and watch a lot of TV instead of play in Mötley Crüe? Because we haven’t got the stomachs for it. It’s as simple as that.

It was a mistake, reading The Dirt straight after The Shrimp and the Anemone. (Is it just a coincidence, by the way, that whole shrimp/anemone/squid/whale combo? Because even though Hartley’s sea creatures are little ones, unlike writer-director Noah Baumbach’s monsters, they Darkness Falls from the Airserve pretty much the same metaphorical function: the novel opens with a gruesome and symbolic battle to the death. Anyway, where’s the meat? Can anyone think of a way to get a little artistic sur-f ’n’turf action going?) The Dirt shat and puked and pissed all over the memory of poor Eustace’s defense-less introspection—indeed, so grotesque are the characters and narrative events described in the Mötley Crüe book that it’s very difficult to see any ideal circumstance in which to read it. I certainly recommend not reading anything for a month before, because the strong flavors of Nikki, Tommy Lee, and the other two will overwhelm pretty much any other literary delicacy you may have consumed; and you probably won’t want to read any fiction for a month afterward because it will be hard to see the point. There are moments in The Dirt that render any attempts to explain the intricate workings of the human heart redundant, because there are no intricate workings of the human heart, clearly. There are only naked groupies, and endless combinations of class-A drugs, and booze, and covers of “Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room.” And what have you got to say about all that, Anita Brookner? No. I thought not. There is one moment in The Dirt so disturbingly repellent that it haunts me still, but I’m unsure whether to quote it or not, for obvious reasons. What I think I’ll do is reproduce the offending line in tiny writing, and if you want to read it, you’ll have to go and fetch a magnifying glass—that way, you have participated in your own corruption. I advise you not to bother. This, then, from the early days:

We’d scrounge up enough money to buy an egg burrito from Noggles. Then we’d bite the end off and stick our dicks into the warm meat to cover up the smell of pussy, so that our girlfriends didn’t know we were fucking anything stupid or drunk enough to get into Tommy’s van.

I’m afraid I have various questions about this. In America, are showers not cheaper than egg burritos? Does Noggles itself (we don’t even have the establishment here in England, let alone the Noggles-associated behavior) not have a washroom? And didn’t the girl-friends ever wonder… actually, forget it. We’ve gone far enough. It could be, of course, that this episode is a fabrication, but without wishing to add to the contemporary furor about the falsification of real lives, I’d argue that this is of a whole new order: anyone depraved enough to imagine this is certainly depraved enough to do it.

So why read it at all? Well, I read it because my friend Erin gave it to me for Christmas, and she had taken quite a lot of trouble to track down a nice hard-back copy. Why Erin thought this was an appropriate gift with which to commemorate the birth of our Lord I’m not sure; why she thought that it was an appropriate gift for me is even less clear and somewhat more troubling. Certain passages, it is true, were uncannily reminiscent of certain nights on my last book tour, especially the Midwest readings. I had hoped that what went on there was a secret between me and the women whose names began with the letters A through E (so many broken-hearted Felicitys!) at the signings in question, but clearly not.

And weirdly, The Dirt isn’t a bad book. For a start, it’s definitive, if you’re looking for the definitive book on vile, abusive, misogynistic behavior: if there are any worse stories than this in rock and roll, they aren’t worth telling, because the human mind would not be capable of comprehending them without the aid of expert gynecological and pharmaceutical assistance. It’s very nicely put together, too. The Dirt is an oral biography in the tradition of Please Kill Me, and Neil Strauss, the Studs Terkel of hair metal, has a good ear for the band’s self-delusions, idiocies, and fuck-ups. Strauss, one suspects, has class. (Wilkie Collins provides the book’s epi-graph, for example, and I’m guessing that this wasn’t Tommy Lee’s idea.) “I decided to have the name of the album, Till Death Do Us Part, carved into my arm,” recalls the hapless John Corabi, who replaced singer Vince Neil for one unsuccessful album. “Soon afterward they changed the name of the album to just Mötley Crüe.” Unexpectedly, The Dirt contains real pain, too. None of these characters have childhoods that one might envy, and their adult lives seem every bit as bleak and as joyless—especially if you are cursed with a constitution that prevents anything more than an occasional night in the Bank of Friendship.

The real victim here, however, is The Shrimp and the Anemone, which never stood a chance. It was fantastic, too. I picked it up after my friend Wesley Stace, whose first novel Misfortune has been picking up a distressing amount of attention, recommended it. (Not personally, of course—he’s beyond that now. He gave it a mention in a Guardian questionnaire.) I’m going to read the whole Eustace and Hilda trilogy, and I’ll write about it more when I’ve finished. Suffice to say that after last month’s entirely felicitous William Cooper experience, I’m happy with my run of lost mid-century minor classics. And just as, a while back, I vowed only to read things recommended by Professor John Carey, I am now determined only to read things blurbed by John Betjeman. He is quoted on the back of Eustace and Hilda, just as he is on Scenes from Provincial Life, and on Nigel Balchin’s Darkness Falls from the Air, purchased this month after a tip-off. He was missing from the jacket of the Crüe book, which should have served as a warning. He clearly didn’t like it much.

I was not able to heed my own advice and take time out after rubbing my nose in The Dirt: this column, as Nikki Sixx would say, is insatiable, a nymphomaniac, and I had to press on. I couldn’t return to Hartley, for obvious reasons, so I went with Michael Connolly’s clever serial killer—I needed the moral disgust that thriller writers cannot avoid when dealing with dismembered children, etc. There was one twist too many for me at the end, but other than that, The Poet did a difficult post-Crüe job well. I did end up thinking about how evolving technology makes things tough for contemporary crime-writers, though. The Poet was first published in 1996 and contains an unfortunate explanation of the concept of digital photography that even my mum would now find redundant; the novel ends with an enigma that DNA testing would render bathetically unenigmatic within seconds. Filmmakers hate setting movies in the recent past, that awkward time when things are neither “period” nor contemporary. The recent past just looks wrong. Characters have cell phones the size of bricks and listen to music on Discmen. The same principle applies here: at these moments, The Poet feels anachronistic. Surely people who know their way around a laptop can do a spot of DNA testing? But no. I now see why my thriller-writing brother-in-law has run off to ancient Rome and barricaded himself in. He’s not daft.

Still trying to dispel the memory of the egg burrito, I picked up Andrew Smith’s Moondust, a book about what happened to the astronauts who walked on the moon after they fell to earth, on the grounds that you wouldn’t be able to see Nikki Sixx from space. (And even if you could, you wouldn’t be able to see what he was doing.) I put it down again in order to read a proof copy of a terrific first novel, Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End. Young Ferris and I share a publisher, and Then We Came to the End came with a ringing endorsement from a colleague. She wasn’t after a blurb—she just talked with infectious and intriguing enthusiasm about the book, and this enthusiasm is entirely understandable. This book is going to attract a lot of admiration when it comes out later this year. I’m glad I read it before everybody else, because I would otherwise have been deterred by the hype (and here “hype” is an envious and dismissive substitute for “praise,” which how the word is usually used).

The author will, I suspect, become sick of descriptions of his novel, all of which will use the word “meets,” or possibly the phrase “rewritten by.” As Then We Came to the End has not been published yet, how-ever, he is unlikely to be sick of them yet, so I can splurge. It’s The Office meets Kafka. It’s Seinfeld rewritten by Donald Barthelme. It’s Office Space reimagined by Nicholson… Oh, that’ll do. The book is written in the first-person plural (as in “we,” for those who never got the hang of declining nouns), and I was reminded of Barthelme because of his two brilliant stories “Our Work and Why We Do It” and “Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby,” neither of which is narrated in the first-person plural, but which, as you may have noticed, refer to “us” or “we” in the titles. So you could be forgiven for thinking that the resemblance is somewhat superficial. Barthelme, however, did have the very great gift of being able to make the mundane seem mysterious, and Ferris can do that when he wants to: his novel is set in an advertising office, and the rhythms and substance of a working day are slowly revealed to have the rhythms and substance of life itself. The novel, almost incidentally, feels utterly authentic in its depiction of office life—a rare achievement in fiction, seeing as most writers have never done a proper day’s work in their lives—but the authenticity is not the point of it, because underneath the politicking and the sackings and the petty jealousies you can hear something else: the sound of our lives (that collective pronoun again) ticking away. And before I put you off, I should add that the novel is awfully funny, in both senses of the phrase. It’s about cancer, totem poles, Emerson, and grief, among many other things, and you should preorder it now. It’s our sort of book.

Oh, but what do any of these things matter? Is it really possible that Mötley Crüe have destroyed all the literature in the world, everything that came before them, and everything written since? I rather fear it is. Please don’t go looking for that magnifying glass. Save yourself while there’s still time.

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