The wrong side of quirky

No one belongs here more than you
by Miranda July

This collection of short stories is probably best described as…odd. July is a filmmaker, writer and performance artist and I remember liking her film Me and You and Everyone We Know. The stories in this book have a similar sense of humour, offbeat and candid, but they also put me on edge.

July’s characters tend to be loners, sometimes for good reason. They are the socially awkward, the fantasy dwellers, the perpetual outsiders. And some writers do a fantastic job of making characters like these sympathetic, of making the reader inhabit them and their view of the world. July somehow does the opposite. She shows the world from their perspective but makes it jagged, difficult and largely unsympathetic. The humour is that awkward, “isn’t real life odd” humour of films such as Napoleon Dynamite or The Squid and the Whale, which for me is a bit of a hit and miss style.

The stories are interesting and explore quite different situations (generally awkward ones) but my main criticism would be that the narrators all tended to sound the same. They considered themselves more observant then others, felt they were making sacrifices for others without ever trying to see a situation from someone else’s perspective, and they were lonely. The other recurring theme (than being an outsider/lonely) was sexual taboos, by which I don’t mean the homosexuality that does indeed crop up several times, but rather themes such as sexual obsession, sex and old people, masturbation; even crossing the line into incest and paedophilia. The former I am fine with reading about but the last two do unnerve me.

July definitely has an original voice and perspective, and some of her observations were beautiful, while others were frankly disturbing. I suppose you might call this the darker side of quirky. Interesting, but not entirely comfortable reading.

Published 2007 by Canongate Books.

The savage beast who’s innocent

Vernon God Little
by DBC Pierre

It’s Booker season again, and in honour of Tuesday’s announcement I thought I would read and review one of the former prizewinners from my TBR. This was the 2003 winner of the Man Booker Prize.

This book kind of smacks you in the face and forces you to keep reading. It’s rough, savage even, with the darkest of dark humour and language that reminded me of Hunter S Thompson or William Burroughs. But with more swearing.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed it greatly. It didn’t take me long to read and I frequently laughed out loud. But I still felt a little bit like I’d been assaulted with someone’s secretest dirtiest fantasy. Disturbing. But funny.

The story is told by teenager Vernon Gregory Little whose best friend Jesus took a gun to school and massacred his classmates before killing himself. The only witness is so badly wounded he can’t speak, which means he can’t confirm that Vernon wasn’t there. A series of people and events bewilder Vernon into incriminating himself and soon the whole country is baying for his blood.

Vernon isn’t a sweet likeable misunderstood hero. He’s a foul-mouthed, judgemental, difficult, slimy piece of work who struggles to say anything coherent out loud and I didn’t empathise with him very often (though there was a bit of a reveal at the end that made me like him more). But that didn’t stop me from enjoying the way he describes his life, people and places. Some of the phrasing is actually quite beautiful, yet still distinctly him. There were some very original descriptions that I went back to re-read and even underlined, which I hadn’t done in years. Here’s one:

“A shimmer rises off the hood of Pam’s ole Mercury. Martirio’s tight-assed buildings quiver through it, oil pumpjacks melt and sparkle along the length of Gurie Street…all the money, and folk’s interest in fixing things, parade around the center of town, then spread outwards in a dying wave…Just a broken ole muffler shop on the outskirts; no more sprinklers, no more lawns.”

This kind of language isn’t all that easy to read at first but you soon get into it and it adds an awful lot to the characterisation. As long as you don’t mind lots of swearing.

Sometimes this book got so dark and twisted that I wondered if I was meant to take it as satire, rather than sort-of realistic storyline of bad shit getting worse, and to be honest that never became clear. Certainly the involvement of the media seemed more satirical than anything. It’s definitely humour aimed at the worse aspects of modern American society, including obesity, consumerism and lazy policing.

One thing that did concern me – there are two men in this book who turn out to be guilty of taking advantage of boys in their care and it is suggested that Jesus (a mass murderer) may have been gay. There are no other gay characters. Perhaps the implication was unintentional, but it has a pretty homophobic whiff about it. Of course, that could just be part of the world view of Vernon, who isn’t the most open-minded teenager.

For a book with such a coarse, not particularly bright narrator, this is a clever book with some subtle plot development (no, really) and it definitely deserves the outpouring of praise and prizes it got.

Published 2003 by Faber and Faber.

Immersed in darkness

The Angel’s Game
by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
translated by Lucia Graves

This is a dark, brooding, action-packed thrill of a gothic mystery. All of the essential ingredients are in place. There’s the unreliable narrator, the setting that’s at once beautiful and dangerous and absolutely a character itself, a host of potential good guy/bad guy switchovers and more than one beautiful woman who life has not treated kindly.

The main character, David Martín, is, appropriately enough, a writer of cheap crime fiction, a writer who has made a name for himself but feels that he can produce something better, worthier of his talent. He describes his home city of Barcelona the way he knows best – as a romantic place filled with dark, crime-filled back streets and a suffocating atmosphere that holds him there against his better judgement. His judgement is of course highly questionable – more so as the story progresses. It can be hard at times to understand the decisions he makes but to truly enjoy this story you have to give in to the almost cheesy gothic craziness of it all.

It would be a shame to reveal too much of the story but, essentially, Martín has always scraped a living, being helped out by kind benefactors more often than his pride would like, so when he is offered a fortune by a stranger (the angel of the title) to write a book it is too good an offer to turn down. Unfortunately the commission and the stranger are both strange forces that Martín underestimates the power of.

This is a very enjoyable, fast-paced read but it does have some down sides. There is some extreme violence that I found off-putting and the lead female character is very weak and feeble. However, there are other stronger females in here and the violence certainly has its place in this type of story. Because the mystery is that of an over-arching evil it is easily maintained even as secrets are revealed, though not all secrets do get revealed in the end. Ambiguity is something I tend to enjoy, particularly when, as here, it is quite subtle to begin with. The broody gothic atmosphere is very effective; many’s the time I had chills run down my spine while reading a scene.

The story is set mainly in the 1930s, adding a certain something to the ambience. Though it is only occasionally mentioned, the political turmoil is somehow part of the darkness of the story. It certainly helps with the feeling that this a film noir on paper.

And that might just be the reason why I didn’t like this quite as much as I had hoped to (having rated Zafón’s previous book, The Shadow of the Wind, extremely highly) – there were too many scenes that felt like they’d been written with film in mind, rather than fiction. Don’t get me wrong – Zafón is not spare in his descriptions. On the contrary, his language is beautiful, evocative, atospheric. But some scenes felt false, with writing akin to stage directions. It’s a feeling I last got when reading Dan Brown, much as I hate to compare these otherwise very different authors.

Published 2009 by Phoenix
ISBN: 978-0-7538-2644-7

UPDATE: For another viewpoint, check out this review on And the Plot Thickens.