Sunday, March 05, 2006

The Age Reviews: More Bullshit

If the concepts of quality writing, useful insight, good literary judgement and cultural awareness could be somehow be placed in a vacuum and then painfully turned inside out, the resultant mess would look a lot like The Age’s book review pages. They served us up some more this weekend, and I was there to send it right back to the fucking kitchen with instructions for the waiter to relay my quivering disgust.

The Incredible Adam Spark by Alan Bissett

Something has gone terribly wrong with this review. The tagline tells us that “You can’t put a barcode on a character like Adam Spark.” But you can apparently put a price tag on this 240 page book. A $53.40 price tag, to be exact. We are also told from the outset that the book is about a spastic, and from what I can tell, consists of nothing but the spastic looking at things and describing them to himself. A little investigation also turns up the suggestion that the language is “very Irvine Welsh”. In other words, indecipherable blasphemy. In other other words: shite.

Books, Baguettes & Bedbugs by Jeremy Mercer

I have it on very good authority that the entirety of Paris smells like feces. Despite this, I am still intrigued and tantalized by notions of one day visiting the infamous Shakespeare & Company bookstore, mainly because I have been hearing about it for the last twenty-eight years of my life. It sounds to be quite the hive of literary activity, with many famous writers staying there (it seems that they have rooms above the store proper), and also something to do with Ulysses. And I love a good book about a bookstore. But I won’t be reading this one, namely because it focuses too much on the people, and not enough on the structure. And the people, as it so happens, are “artists”. And if there’s anyone I hate, it’s an artist. And if there’s anything worse than an artist on his own, it’s an artist cohabiting with other artists, sharing their art, talking about their art. And a bunch of artists living together in the most famous bookstore in the world, with another artist (in this case, Mercer) moving amongst those artists, and writing about them, the shop, and himself, is a perfect recipe for a great big wank.

Consider The Lobster by David Foster Wallace

Fucking David Foster Wallace. Look at that picture of him wearing a bandana. What a cunt. The reviewer actually has the tenacity to compare Wallace to, respectively, James Joyce, Laurence Sterne, and Thomas Pynchon. I have no opinion of Laurence Sterne as I have not read him, but if there’s anything Joyce and Pynchon have in common, it’s that they write big, and they write hard, and people pretend to have read them when they haven’t. People go around with notions of Pynchon and Joyce in their heads, but no understanding of them. Wallace certainly writes big (take a look at Infinite Jest if you don’t believe me), but the difference between Wallace and the rest of them is that people can read Wallace, if they are so inclined. Put the effort in, and eventually you’ll finish the book. Only problem is, you get to the end of a book like Infinite Jest, and you come away with nothing. It’s a thousand pages of empty words and tedious footnotes and disinteresting, sometimes even despicable characters, and you’ll never meet anybody who claims to be reading a Wallace book for the second time around in order to complete or at least augment their understanding of it. That’s because Wallace is read – and read only once – for cachet, or he is not read at all.

The reviewer of Lobster gives the game away halfway through: “If [Wallace] thinks of any new fact - and he thinks of 10,000 - that might illuminate or fructively impede the progress of his argument, he throws it in. He throws it into the footnotes. There they are, at the bottom of the page, going on forever, to what purpose we do not know.”

But he doesn’t mean this in a disparaging way. He is, in fact, delighted by all this uselessness. That’s because he has an impression of Wallace as a grand master, and can’t not approve of anything the man does, even when he admits to frequent and protracted bursts of irritation. He concludes by telling us that this, a book of essays, is “thrilling”. Methinks his synapses are all askew, for essays are not designed to thrill – they are designed to enlighten. I am a big fan of essays and essayists – Hazlitt, Orwell, and Nicholson Baker being amongst my favourites – and many essays I can read again and again without any distillation of delight. But I have never once experienced the sensation of being “thrilled” by an essay. If this were to happen, I should immediately recognise the essay as either one of two things: a piece of journalism, or the lyrics to a fucking rock and roll song.

Dream Boogie: The Triumph Of Sam Cooke by Peter Guralnick

A $75 biography of a man that most of us have never heard of. Not because we have no appreciation for African-American soul/gospel music and civil rights activism, and not because those things were not important to America during a certain phase of its downward spiral, but simply because it is totally fucking irrelevant to me as an Australian reader.


At 9:16 AM, Blogger Tim said...

That Wallace review was terrible. I read Oblivion recently, and I agree with you - Wallace's writing is a lot of minutiae and big words with very little substance to justify it all. The Age review is the worst kind of sycophantic nonsense. As for Shakespeare and Co. - I went there and it's nothing special. Didn't see any famous writers, just a bunch of pretentious American university students.

At 9:49 AM, Blogger JPW said...

Gah! Well, scratch that off the old flight plan! I never really intended on going anyway - I've heard enough about Paris and the people who live (and visit) there to know that it's a load of old bollocks. I think Switzerland's more my bag. And besides, Europe's Europe, innit? Once you're there you can go pretty much wherever the fuck you want.

At 4:28 AM, Anonymous martha said...

Oh come now, what do you really think? You're going to have to stop tiptoeing(sp?) around your opinions. I want to know where you stand!(Sorry -- I actually liked Infinite Jest a lot, though I couldn't for the life of me tell you what it was about. But then, I'm a sucker for big long wandering narratives)

At 8:08 AM, Blogger JPW said...

Yeah, my mother always told me I was too secretive. I guess I'm just a very private person. (Don't be sorry - just because I hated Infinite Jest doesn't mean you have to hate it too. Nobody's going send you a fine or anything.)

At 10:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, I actually work for the publishing house who published The Incredible Adam Spark by Alan Bissett. You may be interested to know that the Sydney Morning Herald have got the RRP of the book wrong in their review. It's not $53.40 but in fact $22.00.

At 10:24 AM, Blogger Ben.H said...

I agree with Tim: Paris rocks, Shakey & Co. does not. Seriously, it's like going to see the Ringo Starr band and expecting it to rock like The Beatles at the Cavern Club. Room after room of Americans gawping at fusty tomes by Cheever Dunning and Joseph Hergesheimer that will never, ever be sold.

At 8:36 AM, Blogger JPW said...

Anonymous: Cheers for the heads-up. I suppose I could change it, but anybody who comes here for proper book reviews and literary news needs their head examined, so it probably isn't necessary.


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