Sunday, 23 May 2010

A Most Unnecessary Post

I feel it must look as though I've either stopped reading or have taken to reading things too embarrassing to admit to, and though I try to avoid those "sorry I haven't posted in a while" posts, I can't really excuse this one on any other grounds. This blog isn't supposed to be a diary, and it also isn't supposed to have a particular theme, or genre of book that's written about, but the fact is that whilst my reading time, as noted previously, has diminished somewhat due to exam and coursework essay marking, the books I've been reading are probably not going to find much of an audience here. I began House of Leaves, having been given it as a present, but it's text-book size and shape and I just can't carry it around with me, so I've relegated it to the 'summer holiday' pile. I've just read Everything: A Book About Manic Street Preachers, which is a truly great rock biog (in which my old fanzine is mentioned, heartwarmingly), but it's 11 years out of date and unless you're really into the Manics, not of great interest. And if you are into the Manics, you probably read it 11 years ago... So now I'm just grabbing things off my shelves, thing that are easy-to-read and small enough to fit in my bag. I've read half The Virgin Suicides in the garden today, which fitted perfectly as the weather has made everything look like Sofia Coppola's beautiful film version, and almost made me wish I was blonde again. That finished, I think I may head into Elaine Feinstein's biography of Ted Hughes, about which I will make a detailed and 'proper' comment. There, as I said; a most unnecessary post.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Wherever I lay my book...

Its exam time, and my teaching workload is so enormous that by the time I crawl - often literally - into bed and open my book, I manage little more than a paragraph before my head is drooping... so I grab reading time wherever and whenever I can at the moment. Five minutes at the end of lunchtime, ten with a cup of tea when I get home... Where and when do you snatch those precious reading moments in a hectic day?

Do you curl up under the duvet...

...or risk dropping your book in the water?

Do you prefer, like Greta Garbo, to be alone...

...or are you more comfortable surrounded by your friends...

... or your family?

Do you like reading outdoors...

...or would you rather be inside..?

Do you usually succeed, against all the odds, in finding a few golden minutes for reading?

And do you even care where you are, so long as you're comfy and you've got a book?

Sunday, 9 May 2010


I know. This sits uncomfortably amongst the books that surround it here; it stands out like a Manics' fan at Glastonbury in the days before the invention of that modernist oxymoron, 'festival chic'. But ...Lamp - and Book is nothing if not eclectic. I'd like to take it a step further and say ...Lamp - and Book is a dichotomy, but that implies something altogether more planned and active; ...Lamp - and Book is more gently at odds with itself than that, and so is merely eclectic. I digress. Richard.

Ben Myers has fictionalised the story of Richey Edwards, lyricist with the Manic Street Preachers until his unexplained disappearance in 1995. I was sent this proof for a reason by a friend who works in the book industry. The reason is simple - we were Manics' fans.

We must have seen them 30 times between 1992 and 94. Once in 1996, but the Richey-shaped hole stage-right was too much to bear and we drew a line under that part of our lives. I have never read any of the books about the band or Richey, I have read and seen very few interviews with the remaining three members of the band in the last 15 years and I have avoided thinking about what happened to Richey / what Richey did, for the simple reason that I will never know the truth and speculation seemed irrelevant and indeed, irreverent. I don't think my friend expected me to read this book; I don't think I expected to read it myself.

But I have. And so... what of it? This is going to be a hard book to comment on - for me now, and for future reviewers - as the chances are high that we will all offend someone somewhere whatever we say; that is inherent in anything that touches on this subject. Myers must have known that when he started writing the book, and must be braced for whatever hurricanes will come his way upon publication in October. He's a brave man. For there are as many theories about what happened to Richey as there are people who care, and the loyalty that Richey inspired in his fans means that even after all this time, every one of those theories is fiercely believed and guarded by its thinker. We all had a little piece of Richey, we all knew him in our own way, all had our own relationship with him (I'm talking existentially here rather than literally, though for some, the latter may apply). Therefore, there are things that we all KNOW, in our hearts, he did or did not do in February 1995. I KNOW, for example, that he did not jump off the Severn Bridge. I have no evidence for this, I just KNOW. Call it gut feeling, call it wishful thinking, call it denial if you want, but I KNOW. What he did do, or where he went, I have no idea. Honestly, I've never felt the need to think about it. But that he didn't jump, I am absolutely certain.

So to read a book, written in first person - in other words, that purports to be Richey's voice - that may trash what one has KNOWN for fifteen years, is quite an undertaking, and will be so for the thousands of fans who will devour this when it is finally available. It was brave of Myers to write it, and it is brave of the fans to read it.

In keeping with the spirit of its subject matter, then, Myers' book does some things brilliantly and some things less so. I'll start with what it does well.

Primarily, it tells a very plausible story. I won't give away the ending - and it's interesting that though a true story, Richey's is one that has either a choice of endings or indeed, no ending at all - but for me, it seems that this is very likely as a recounting of what happened in those (possibly) last days. It fits with the Richey I knew - existentially, again.

It has forced me to look again at certain aspects of the 'Legend' of the Manic Street Preachers: for example, that seen from the inside, the so-called Cult of Richey put an enormous strain on Richey himself. He must have felt a huge responsibility for the kids that copied his look, that cut themselves and wrote poetry and cried out to him. Yet what could he do for them? They were just another statement of his own impotence; he created them, these beautiful, screaming misfits, he validated them, yet he could no more ease their pain than he could stop his own. And look what happened to Shelley's Victor Frankenstein.

In amongst the bleakness, there is humour. And these few moments - fewer, to my mind, than they should be - are where Myers' Richey seems most real. Short bursts of banter with the rest of the band make him inescapably, beautifully three-dimensional.

Myers splits his narrative into two clear parallel tales: one, the first person present tense story that starts the morning Richey leaves, and the other, flashback, and it is here that my first literary problem with this book begins: the flashback narrative is written in second person. It is Richey talking to himself. Now, we all do it, we all talk to ourselves, whether aloud or in our heads: "Oh, you idiot, what did you do that for?" we will reprimand ourselves. But this is a very tricky technique to use well in a novel, as it must be sustained over a long period, and it works only in the hands of a very accomplished writer. I can understand why Myers did it - there is a clear trail of schizophrenic discourse throughout - but for me, it's just not a valid narrative form, certainly not when it is, in present tense, recounting what happened in the past; this is, however, a very personal view - see my problems with Wolf Hall, also.

And this brings me to my other problem with the book, one which I doubt I will be alone in having, and one which Myers must have realised would be a controversial sticking point. Third person would have worked fine - I'm a Rupert Brooke fan, and loved Jill Dawson's fictionalised account of his life, The Great Lover, because she never assumed she could get inside Brooke's head. And this is the overwhelming difficulty with Myers' book: that first person. In order for Richard to really work, it has to find Richey's voice, and I'm afraid it simply never does that. It just doesn't sound like him. It's a competent telling of the story of the Manic Street Preachers with emphasis on Richey, but it isn't Richey telling the story. It's too dumbed-down for it to be Richey. Richey would never just have told us his thoughts were shattering; he would have written a page that looked like something squeezed from the mind of ee cummings. Myers has underestimated his readership (which, surely, is comprised mainly of Manics' fans - who else will read this?) We have read Sartre and Kerouac. We can understand and make sense of fractured syntax: Myers' Richey tells us that he cannot finish a sentence, and yet he does, in page after page after page of perfect grammar. It does not follow, then, that these are Richey's thoughts. I will not second guess Myers - I don't know whether it was lack of confidence or lack of ability that resulted in this stylistic blandness, but as the story of a man's descent into madness, it just doesn't convince. And as Myers is also, in another life, a poet, this is doubly disappointing. Richey was a living, walking soundbite machine, yet there is not one attempt to create something similar in here. Not one line of Myers' would I quote, and yet I am supposed to believe that these are Richey's thoughts. Richey's raison d'etre was breaking moulds; Myers should have pushed himself to follow that philosophy. But of course, cynical old me can't help thinking, it would have been a risk to sales figures. Innovation doesn't sell. Look at Clegg.

I'll be honest and admit that I was sceptical from the first moment I heard about this book. It would have had to have been something truly extraordinary for me to really like it, and it just doesn't hit that button, though it is, as I have said, competently written (though competent was never a word I remember being applied to Richey...) But it shouldn't be dismissed out-of-hand. And I know Manics' fans well enough to know that some of them will do just that - it's a way of forming a protective shield, over themselves and over Richey. But this is a work of fiction, and it's important that we remember that. And I cannot begin to imagine what someone would make of it who had never heard of Richey - that, I suppose, we will discover in October.

I will leave you with this final thought - though plausible, Myers' version of events has one flaw: it never mentions the £200 a day that Richey withdrew from cash machines in the two weeks leading up to his disappearance. Myers' Richey has the money with him, yes, but he never mentions the sustained, considered, systematic way in which he came by it. Those withdrawals are surely (correct me if I'm wrong; as I say, I've not read much) the main indication that somewhere inside all the scribbling madness in his head, Richey had a plan. And Myers' Richey has no plan. So, believable as this story is - and it really is. I really do think Myers presents us with an entirely possible series of events - it still does not lay to rest all the questions and the niggles and the buts that have come to define Richey's memory.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Writers at their 'writers

Ever wondered which writers prefer the tap tap tap of the keys to the scratch of the pen? Here's a choice selection of those that
love(d) their portable - and not-so-portable - typewriters.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Shirley Jackson, author of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, also wrote the book on which my favourite spooky film is based, that being the 1963 version of The Haunting of Hill House. I first saw that movie when I was about thirteen, and the scene where Claire Bloom and Julie Harris are in the bedroom while 'something' crashes past the door, trying the handle on its way, terrified me for years, while the film's closing line, "Here at Hill House, we all walk alone", chilled me to the marrow. The recent re-issue by Penguin Modern Classics of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Jackson's last book, seems to have reawakened interest in the writer, and always one for an intriguing title, I greedily grabbed at a copy.

It's a book about which I could write either very little - simply, it's the story of two sisters and their Uncle, sequestered in the family house after the elder girl is acquitted of the poisoning of the rest of the family - or vast essays. I know very little about Jackson herself, but of the two stories of hers with which I am now familiar, it seems that she was deeply affected by the idea that people apart from the world can retreat into a house from which they do not, or cannot, escape. The house is simultaneously, in Jackson's books, refuge and prison. In both Hill House and ...Castle, the female protagonists, highly sensitive young women, become almost the blood, or internal organs, of the buildings they inhabit, and the house is a living entity into which the women are assimilated. There is a real fear evident in Jackson's work of the outside world, a need to be barricaded inside something solid, to cocoon oneself and to keep everyone and everything else out. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is an agoraphobic book, less supernatural than Hill House, but with essentially the same outcome.

Merricat is an alluring narrator. It becomes quickly evident that she is slightly mad, though in what way specifically, it is at first hard to say. There is a psychopathic edge to her thoughts, which, when combined with her evident childishness, is a tried-and-tested recipe for creepiness. The childish adult, or adult child, is a deeply unsettling stock character. Food, and mealtimes, are intrinsically important in the book, and are used to create an unhealthy mother-daughter relationship between the two sisters - Constance cooks for Merricat, they talk almost incessantly about food and what they will eat, they add jars of preserves to an already overflowing seems to be the medium through which love is shown, but it is also the method by which murder is committed. Food then, as much as the house itself, is a controlling factor in the lives of these disturbing and disturbed young women.

Jackson does not answer many of the questions she sets up. There is a reveal which has already been guessed by the reader, but we never find out why Constance shields Merricat as she does, or indeed why Merricat is the way she is. The ending is oddly fairytale-esque; the house, or castle, becomes wrapped in vines, the girls themselves on the way to being no more than local myth, stories with which to scare children.

There is so much that one could say about this book; its themes range widely from those mentioned to analogies of adolescence and the repressed female as witch. There is humour in here, as dark as it may be, and there is a softness too, in the simple routines of Constance and Merricat, in their interaction, in the descriptions of the estate, its plants and animals and Uncle Julian. It is a short novel, but one which is much bigger than its component parts. It has traces of The Little Stranger, and of Grey Gardens, as well as the tortured youth of Carson McCullers' protagonists. It is a book I will revisit, definitely, and I think has the potential to become something of a cult classic. "I was chilled", as Merricat would say, but I would have to add, "in an entirely good way."