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107. ‘No One Belongs Here More Than You,’ Miranda July…

107. ‘No One Belongs Here More Than You,’ Miranda July…

Short

stories

are

BRILLIANT!

I have found myself reading a lot of them recently, and even discovering new favourite authors, from George Saunders to Etgar Keret.

They are an art form unto themselves, following different rules, logic and styles to other types of literature and, best of all, if you’re not enjoying one it’s all over soon enough and you can move onto another.

But even knowing all of this, and with glowing praise from newspapers, magazines and authors (including my beloved Dave Eggers) on the front and back covers, I was still blown away with how good Miranda July‘s 2005 debut ‘No One Belongs Here More Than You‘ was/is.

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As you can see from the website she set up to promote the book, she has a quirky, indie sense of humour which comes flooding out in the 16 tales told in this compilation, but it is a humour interwoven with an array of emotions and issues: ball-shrinking awkwardness, (‘Making Love In 2003‘ is the best excuse for paedophilia since ‘Lolita‘ only in a more sci-fi, hilarious way, if you can picture that); feminism; social awkwardness; sexual awkwardness; physical awkwardness, (it occurs to me, writing this, that there is a lot of awkwardness in there, which I probably should have guessed given the title…but awkwardness, as fans of ‘The Office‘ will know, is often amusing); and underlying it all, love.

Where we find love, how we find love, how it finds us, how it avoids finding us, what we put up with to convince ourselves we have it – these are all things you may learn reading this book. But most of all, you will have fun.

At the 2013 Hay Literature Festival I had the honour of attending a talk by the aforementioned George Saunders using a wonderful Donald Barthelme short story to deconstruct the art of the short story. (I am delighted to find that the piece itself is free to read online here). It was all about the journey and not the ending, the author leading the reader to new, unexpected places, and doing it in under incredibly restrictive parameters. (I think. I don’t remember it too well, and don’t have time to go back and listen to it, which you can do if you feel like, here).

If you haven’t read many short stories, you could do a lot worse than start here.

418x9PVeHEL  nbhmty-russianweb  images  nbhmty-hebrewweb1  Miranda July + Short Stories 

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Posted by on March 9, 2014 in BOOKS

 

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92. An Evening With Nick Hornby…

92. An Evening With Nick Hornby…

I can’t believe it has taken me this long to finally meet one of my favourite authors, a man who not only lives in London but loves music, books and football, as well as McSweeney’s and The Believer and a whole host of other things I also know and love.

But all that changed when around fifty people gathered on plastic stools in the back of legendary indie record label Rough Trade‘s East London megastore to hear a Q&A promoting Nick‘s latest book. A mere seven years after the first compilation of his monthly ‘Stuff I’ve Been Reading’ column for The Believer magazine, (2006’s ‘The Polysyllabic Spree‘), comes the sequel, titled simply: ‘Stuff I’ve Been Reading’.

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Part of my excitement was, naturally, due to the fact that this is the column which directly inspired the last two years of my creative life, (i.e. this book blog), and wasn’t dampened in the least when I found out that for some confusing international publishing reason I already actually owned the book, since there have been several volumes released Stateside which I have managed to pick up over the years.

Nick was excellently interviewed by Canadian journalist and author Craig Taylor, and the theme of the evening, 2013-11-14 19.23.55(and, indeed, of the monthly articles), soon became clear: you should read what you want, and what you enjoy. The Believer has a policy of not saying bad things about people or artworks, and so Nick quickly began self-censoring his To Read list and (something which I am physically incapable of doing) abandoning books after just a few pages if they were not enjoyable enough.

In other words, stop buying books like ‘Frost/Nixon‘ (the example given on the night) thinking of yourself as ‘The kind of person who reads ‘Frost/Nixon‘ in an ideal world where you had enough time to read books like ‘Frost/Nixon‘ when, if you’re honest, that copy of ‘Frost/Nixon‘  will almost certainly sit, unread, on the shelf for the rest of your life.

(Pretty soon, I was feeling kind of sorry for ‘Frost/Nixon‘ and making plans to buy it at the soonest opportunity).

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We learned of Nick‘s recent jazz obsession inspired by the book ‘Love Goes To Buildings On Fire: five years in new york which changed music forever‘ by Will Hermes, which led to a recommendation with which I whole-heartedly agree: that books which focus on a single period, (a year, a decade), but cover a range of topics are incredibly satisfying to read because you learn about things (such as sewage, for example) which you would never know about otherwise because, let’s be honest, who is going to read an entire book about sewage?

Photo courtesy of Antipode Foundation under the Creative Commons license

Photo courtesy of the Antipode Foundation under the Creative Commons license

After a few readings from the new book were given, your humble blogger actually kick-started the Q&A due to a surprisingly shy crowd, taking the opportunity to help promote Nick’s work with the fantastic after-school writing charity the Hoxton Street Monster Supplies shop, a branch of the incredible Dave Eggers-founded 826 Valencia programme. This led to further charity-based news of a forthcoming album release, with famous bands and singers recording the lyrics of students from the programme. Here is a sneak preview, (and one of the coolest things I’ve seen/heard for a while). Fans of Little Britain will be especially thrilled:

The night ended with a signing session, (sadly not a singing one), during which each and every fan was given time and a friendly chat, including a promise to my Argentine journalist friend to arrange an email interview exchange which I hope to piggyback on and share with you in the near future. The evening was such a resounding success that I even failed to take my traditional stalker’s photo…but never fear, I took one for my friend to treasure back in Buenos Aires.

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And, in fact, the night really ended with one last signing on Rough Trade’s Wall of Fame…or, in this case, asking the author to risk life and limb to add his name to their Ceiling of Fame. Ah, the perils of fame!

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Posted by on November 30, 2013 in BOOKS

 

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75. David Foster Wallace double-header…

75. David Foster Wallace double-header…
Consider The Lobster,’ David Foster Wallace
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I had heard of DFW, the Next Great Thing, the Tragic Author, (Wallace committed suicide in 2008, at the age of 46, mid-novel), but had avoided reading him due to a) the intimidating thickness of the only book I had ever seen by him, and b) his reputation for being all-but unreadable. With six months living on an idyllic lake to look forward to I decided to remedy this situation, and took his generally acknowledged masterpiece, ‘Infinite Jest,’ along with an hors d’oeuvre of his essays, ‘Consider The Lobster,’ along with me to Guatemala last year.
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The essays in this collection were many and varied, but all were a great introduction to Wallace‘s style and his later, lengthier literature: footnotes, of which he was an absolute addict, abound, as do a wry tone and a seeming passion for any and everything. The essays also highlight a penchant for in-depth analysis of subjects which you initially doubt merit in-depth analysis, but often end up engrossed in anyway, from elections to grammar mavens. All of this new knowledge stood me in good stead for the challenge of reading ‘Infinite Jest‘…
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Wallace clearly has a passion for words: below is a typical, dictionary-infused paragraph:
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“…who got to watch all this brave new individualism and sexual freedom deteriorate into the joyless and anomic self-indulgence of the Me Generation – today’s subforties have very different horrors, prominent among which are anomie and solipsism and a peculiarly American loneliness…”
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‘Anomic’? ‘Anomie’? ‘Solipsism’? All in the space of a single sentence? This can take some getting used to…
but when you do get used to him, there can be some deeply insightful messages and ideas behind the often opaque language, like his views on humour buried in the depths of an essay on teaching Russian Literature:
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“A crude way to put the whole thing [humour] is that our present culture is, both developmentally and historically, adolescent. And since adolescence is acknowledged to be the single most stressful and frightening period of human development – the stage when the adulthood we claim to crave begins to present itself as a real and narrowing system of limitations (taxes, death) and when we yearn inside for a return to the same childish oblivion we pretend to scorn – it’s not difficult to see why we as a culture are so susceptible to art and entertainment whose primary function is escape, i.e. fantasy, adrenaline, spectacle, romance, etc. Jokes are a kind of art…”
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Wallace the person often shines through the writing of Wallace the writer, (one of the things I enjoy most about essays, as I had previously found whilst reading Rushdie, Amis and especially Jeff Dyer): I loved the slightly autistic view he presented of himself in passages like this one:
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“…in real life I always seem to have a hard time winding up a conversation or asking somebody to leave, and sometimes the moment becomes so delicate and fraught with social complexity that I’ll get overwhelmed trying to sort out all the different possible ways of saying it and all the different implications of each option and will just sort of blank out and do it totally straight – ‘I want to terminate the conversation and not have you be in my apartment anymore’…”
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On music being a linguistic barrier between generations:

M.Jagger, OBE

M.Jagger, OBE

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“Nor are lyrics like ‘I can’t get no/Satisfaction’ an accident or any kind of sad commentary on the British educational system. Jagger et al. aren’t stupid; they’re rhetoricians, and they know their audience…”
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A beautiful description of athletes:
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“To be a top athlete, performing, is to be that exquisite hybrid of animal and angel that we average unbeautiful watchers have such a hard time seeing in ourselves…”
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The most fascinating essay was, somewhat surprisingly, on the seven days Wallace spent following Senator John McCain, (future Presidential candidate), as he attempted to become the Republican Party candidate for President in 2000, losing out eventually to, of course, ‘Noocalar’ George.W.Bush.
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“There is still an NV statue of McCain by this lake [in Hanoi] today, showing him on his knees with his hands up and eyes scared and on the pediment the inscription ‘McCan – famous air pirate’ [sic]…”
John McCain statue, Hanoi, Vietnam

John McCain statue, Hanoi, Vietnam

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On a stupefying fact about Fyodor Dostoevsky:
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“His Moscow childhood was evidently so miserable that in his books Dostoevsky never once sets or even mentions any action in Moscow…”
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Finally, a metaphysical question which in four short sentences plumbs the depths of Foster Wallace’s soul:
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“Is the real point of my life simply to undergo as little pain and as much pleasure as possible? My behaviour sure seems to indicate that this is what I believe, at least a lot of the time. But isn’t this kind of a selfish way to live? Forget selfish – isn’t it awful lonely?…”
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I enjoyed the essays, and the sometimes challenging nature of them, and will look out for more collections of them: but really, they were just mental training for confronting his magnum opus…
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Infinite Jest,’ David Foster Wallaceimages-3

Dave Eggers, in his Foreword to the new edition, name-checks a wide and wonderful chunk of culture, many of which are or have recently become some of my favourites, (Kerouac excepted). This left me with high hopes, and I wasn’t disappointed:

“If we are drawn to Infinite Jest, we’re also drawn to the Magnetic Fields’ 69 Songs…Or the work of Sufjan Stevens…It’s why we watch Shoah, or visit the unending scroll on which Jack Kerouac wrote (in a fever of days) On The Road…or Michael Apted’s 7-Up, 28-Up, 42-Up series of films, or…well, the list goes on…”

(And here is a video of from one of these artists mentioned to enjoy whilst you read the rest of the blog!)

So, what was it like to read? It was like a million different things, from fascinating to confusing to inspiring to despairing…

The style is truly fascinating: the author’s obsession with grammar, (‘sics’ spattered throughout the text), butts heads with the deliberately chatty style, (“…and so…but then…”), leaving you wondering who the narrator is. Is there even a narrator? Why is the narrator so non-omniscient, (see Note 216 to the text, which the narrator inserts merely in order to tell us that he has: “No clue.”)? Or are these merely notes in novel form?

The novel is also like a giant literary jigsaw puzzle: Wallace may mention a character has two-and-a-half fingers missing, and then 400 pages later it will be mentioned in passing how he lost them. This can either make for a very frustrating read, or a wonderfully pleasant roller-coaster if you give up on logic and traditional narrative technique and just enjoy the ride..

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However, it is the prose which carries you through the 1,000+ pages of this work. Playful, serious, descriptive, emotive, critical: maybe a bunch of quotes will help:

“This is not working out. It strikes me that EXIT signs would look to a native speaker of Latin like red-lit signs that say HE LEAVES…”

“I can picture DeLint and White sitting with their elbows on their knees in the defecatory posture of all athletes at rest…”

“Like most North Americans of his generation, Hal tends to know way less about why he feels certain ways about the objects and pursuits he’s devoted to than he does about the objects and pursuits themselves…”

“..he, too, has to struggle with a strange urge to be cruel to Ingersoll, who reminds him of someone he dislikes but can’t quite place…”

“The U.S.S.Millicent’s hand was large and hot and at the level of sogginess of a bathmat that’s been used several times in a row in quick succession…”

“He plays golf. Your grandfather. Your grandpappy. Golf. A golf man. Is my tone communicating the contempt? Billiards on a big table…anal rage and checkered berets…”

2012PoolGolfGameInPark

“The ones it says here the ones the cruel call Two-Baggers – one bag for your head, one bag for the observer’s head in case your bag falls off…Those who undress only in front of their pets…”

“In a different little notebook, the M.P. noted the date and time of each Heineken he consumed. He was the sort of person who equated incredibly careful record-keeping with control…”

“We are all dying to give our lives away to something, maybe. God or Satan, politics or grammar, topology or philately – the object seemed incidental to this will to give oneself away, utterly…”

As serious as it often is, (one of the major themes being drug and alcohol addiction and their effects, another Canadian separatist terrorism in a near-future dystopia, although the latter is treated a lot more amusingly than it may sound), ‘Infinite Jest‘ is also full of subtle, hidden, teeny-tiny jokes scattered throughout. This humour spews out in various ways, often in wordplay and wonderful analogies, similes and metaphors:

“‘Kid, sobriety’s like a hard-on: the minute you get it, you want to fuck with it’…”

“…the Dean…’so full of himself he could have shit limbs’…”

One major feature of Wallace‘s writing is footnotes, (although these are found not at the foot of the page, but at the back of the book, being so numerous. Is there another word for these? If so, I don’t know it). Note 324 lasts from page 1,066 to 1,072, and there is absolutely no need for it not to be part of the main body of the text. But DFW loves a good note: ‘Infinite Jest‘ in my edition weighs in at 1,079 pages, of which 96, (or 8.9%), are notes.

By the end of this novel, you will know more than you ever wanted to about how a kid becomes a professional tennis player, (it’s not pretty, yet somehow hypnotically interesting), and almost as much as a recovering addict about the ways and means of AA, DA and various rehabilitation centres. You will not, however, know how the story ends: with a few dozens pages left to read, I realised that the several storylines were never going to be tied up in time: I briefly remembered that Wallace had died in the middle of one of his novels, and when I reached the anti-climactic final sentence I cursed my luck that it was during the first one I decided to read.

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Except it wasn’t: Wallace had killed himself halfway through the posthumously released ‘The Pale King.’ With ‘Infinite Jest,’ he had merely given up. This left me angry at first, until I realised how often endings had disappointed me, and not just in books but everything from Monty Python skits to, specifically, the sinking feeling I had with every passing episode of the last season of ‘Lost‘ as I realised that nothing was going to be explained. So…

 
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Posted by on July 12, 2013 in BOOKS

 

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