Books That Have Been Crushing Disappointments

Crap booksI really should focus on books a bit more. I guess it’s because there’s very few authors who I like throughout their entire oeuvre, unlike with bands where you can relatively easily compare and contrast across albums. Take two of my favourite authors, George Orwell and EM Forster – both of them were pretty so-so until their final two novels, but then both pairs (Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four; and Howards End and A Passage To India, of course) are some of the finest in the twentieth century. I’m excluding Orwell’s non-fiction here, of course. Where bands can reproduce essentially the same album over and over again (I’m looking at you, AC/DC), writers can get stale very quickly (I’m looking at you, Irvine Welsh) and attempts to branch out can be bewilder their audience (I’m looking at you, James Joyce). It rather depends on their style, of course. Character-based writers like Irvine Welsh use up their share of meaningful stories early on, and then have to fall back on increasingly-hackneyed plots and melodrama; whereas plot-driven writers, such as those working in crime or mysteries, or genre fiction, where you work within set parameters (such as horror, fantasy or westerns).

Nonetheless, there have been a number of books which been intensely disappointing, whether following an outstanding precedent or which fail to capture their potential.

The Autograph Man, Zadie Smith

On Beauty, Smith’s third novel, was the first of hers I’d read. It’s a homage to Howards End, set in a New England campus, so it has the traditional campus comedy (of manners) in the mix too: departmental politics, the clash of ego and political correctness, the hilarity of smart people having oh-so-human weaknesses. It’s really pretty damn good, even if the media epithet of “prose wizard” overcooks Smith’s talent: she is deft, for sure, but too much in love with writing and novelising to prevent a certain obtrusiveness. Still, it was one of the best novels I’d read for some time, certainly for  new writer. I was in China at the time, so I could only find The Autograph Man, rather than her much-lauded debut White Teeth. But my, how completely boring was The Autograph Man! It completely failed as both fiction and as literature. It was awful fiction because there was no compelling plot or characters (protagonist Alex-Li Tandem (gettit?) only seems to be mixed race Chinese-Jewish, but have no other traits worth notice or mention: his career of autograph hunting is only because it’s easy), nor are there memorable character arcs. There was, most damningly, no sense of pattern: there was some events you didn’t care for, then another event, then… dribbling pointlessness. It failed too as literature because the symbols and themes were either not brought out (the emptiness of fame and celebrity is a decent idea, but it was never really elucidated) or obvious: yes, autograph hunters are parasites, etc etc. No doubt Smith had a publisher clamouring for product to keep the public and media interest high – collections of short stories are often good holding-manouveres – but The Autograph Man will have to go down as “the difficult second novel”. If Smith can grow out of the precious “I’m a writer” attitude and stick to her craft, I’ve no doubt she will produce compelling work.

The Silmarillion, JRR Tolkien

Much though I love The Lord of the Rings, I simply cannot make any headway on The Silmarillion. All those bloody elves! I find them the least interesting of the races and forms in LOTR, with their righteousness and effeteness. Boring! I far far prefer the homeliness of the hobbits, and much enjoy the opening and closing chapters set in the Shire. The rustic humour and essentially suburban concerns of the Shirefolk make a terrific contrast to the awesome devilry of Mordor and the pride and majesty of Minas Tirith. Remove this, and an essential antithesis is removed. The Silmarillion even takes away men and and dwarves,: it may be mythic and majestic, but its poetic frame of mind is not congenial to me.

Post-Misery Stephen King

Writers, like musicians, dry up. Their inspiration declines, their vision expires. Creativity, in composing something entirely new, is brain-busting, intense, utterly demanding work. After a time, most artists stick to the parameters they have set out in their early work. With Stephen King, though he was always quite hit and miss (I don’t care for early books like The Tommyknockers or Salem’s Lot), he seems to me to have dried up almost entirely after Misery, or after about 1992, or after (though this is an uncomfortable thought), since he kicked drugs and alcohol. Since then, several characteristics seem to have set in: his protagonists are far too often writers and the setting is generally upper-middle class north-east USA. In other words, his experience of life has become too thin to sustain sustained creativity; he has come too far from his period of struggle to remember the broader range of emotional experience and of humanity. His earlier works (particularly some of the short stories) were enlivened by thoroughly nasty situations and people: “Night Shift” remains one of the best horror stories I have ever read, while the demented black humour of “Survivor Type” is very much to my taste. (I did write a gruesomely vivid zombie novel as a joke, you know). But since 1992 or so, King’s fictional world has been repetitive and boring. Bag Of Bones, The Ghost Of Tom Gordon, Gerald’s Game, Needful Things, Cell – every single one of them has been ultimately tedious. That’s five for five out of his post-1992 work. He can still create character effectively, but his weaknesses – the insane overwriting, the melodramatic ending, the thinness of the conception – are no longer concealed by his strengths.

Still, an eighteen year (1974-1992) period of creativity is a good one for any artist – especially a writer who produces two novels a year.

John Lennon Letters

I thought Lennon’s letters would be quite literary, in the same style as those of Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin: lengthy, revelatory, funny, insightful. But the “letters” are in fact often postcards and notes – one of them is even a shopping list! There is only one letter to Cynthia whilst the Beatles are in Hamburg, none to Yoko (allegedly because when apart they were on the phone “twenty times a day” – I call bullshit), none to friends like Shotton. Only the ones to Derek Taylor sustain the interest; the rest seem to be scribbled notes to fans, postcards to family and colleagues, and the odd half-page letter, to Julian or musicians. The legend of Lennon the literary intellectual gets shot in flames by this book; though it’s my guess that Yoko Ono has a cache of correspondence which she refuses to release.

While Lennon’s style is of course distinctive, with his puns and neologisms and Joycean coinings, it will be familiar to anyone who has read In His Own Write or A Spaniard In The Works. In the end, the sole interest of the Lennon letters is for biographical revelation, and on that count it is remarkably thin. Lennon was never one to examine himself and his methodology, or rather to verbalise this: he preferred to keep it instinctive, visceral, natural. This is probably of benefit to his creativity, but it makes the book a weak, insubstantial, unsatisfying book.

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2nd Birthday

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The Great British Music Taste

One of the numerous things that enrage me about the Simon Cowell-isation of popular music is how narrow and limiting it is. Getting TV stars to front catchy but forgettable froth might be something straight out of the Stock-Aitken-Waterman playbook, but it omits 1. the songwriting acumen of the SAW assembly line 2. the skill in starlets like Kylie Minogue in moving on from SAW to different markets. The Simon Cowell handbook might get passing #1s, but the whole singles market changed about 1997, or when MTV became a serious player in the UK pop market – singles would be played for weeks on the radio/MTV before they were released, so catchy things would go to #1 straight off then instantly fade away. A telling metric is that the year 2000 saw forty-three different #1s, compared to around fifteen to twenty from 1960-1998. No longer was there the slow build as people heard songs, got to like it then bought them – instead there was massive churnover. No sense of the 7″ single capturing the national mood; rather, it was just what the teen market was itching to buy.

If you actually look through the #1 singles over the past fifty years, you get a sense of the breadth of the British music taste. It is often cloyingly sentimental, but it is far more interesting than that fucking tool Cowell gives people credit for, and even occasionally daring. Here’s some of the best – unlikely under the Cowell stranglehold, but brilliant songs which show the good taste of the Great British public!

1. Frankie Goes To Hollywood, “Relax”

A song about gay sex with a video filmed in what looks like the ultimate debauched gay bar, with a simulated golden shower scene? Well, if that ain’t #1 material, I don’t know what is!

2. M/A/R/R/S, “Pump Up The Volume”

Love this – one of the first samples-only tunes, proving that innovation is no hindrance to chart success – not when it’s got a beat as irresistible as this!

3. The Specials, “Ghost Town”

Ska (through the inestimable 2 Tone record label) was popular, but this track from The Specials was hardly bouncy “Baggy Trousers” or “On My Radio” sorta stuff. Having sharpened his rapier upon Thatcher with a cover of Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm”, lead songwriter Jerry Dammers followed up with this gloomy, even apocalyptic view of urban Britain. The song retains the reggae beat, but the vocals are sombre, while the scatting is like ghoulish voices gloating over wrack, ruin and decay.

5. Enigma, “Sadness Part 1”

Gregorian Chant? Well, why not? Works beautifully within the context of this song.

6. The Prodigy, “Firestarter”

The Prodigy evolved rapidly over their first three albums (and the fact that all three remain listenable is itself highly unusual within the dance/electronica scene, where things move really fast). They started out as XL raveheads, with breakbeats, novelty tunes (“Charley Says“) and a bouncy, fun feel. Their second, and best, is more aggressive and grimmer, yet somehow brings together ravers, crusties, indie kids, and hash-heads as it mixed big beats, big riffs and big attitude in a fantastic, creative, dense brew. The third, The Fat Of The Land, was where they broke into worldwide fame with insanely popular singles like “Firestarter” and “Breathe”, which married punk attitude and anger with electronic beats and samples. “Breathe” hasn’t aged well (the video is horribly MTV, these days), nor has The Fat Of The Land on the whole: only “Smack My Bitch Up” maintains the level of “Firestarter”. It’s one of those great singles vs consistent albums debates.

But perhaps that’s testament to the adrenaline thrill of “Firestarter”, that nothing compares: that level of sneering attitude, magnificent beats and near tangible danger hadn’t been heard since prime-era Guns N’ Roses. The public like a bit of nastiness from time to time, when it seems real and not contrived – and for the first time in nearly ten years here it was, grinning like a death’s head skull. Fucking magnificent.

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Of course, there is a substantial amount of dross in the pop charts. I’m not going to argue for the merits of Bucks Fizz or Boyz II Men. But I think if you look at any year’s #1s (before 1999 at least), at least half of them will be good, and there will several fucking great ones. You can hear the soul of Britain as you go through them, in all its sentimental, occasionally tasteless, novelty-seeking, fun-seeking, tender, thrilled-to-be-here, raggedy charm.