Adventures in Writing and Reading, Part 9
Here’s a list of things I have spent time writing about in 2012: cats, cleaning products, witchcraft, offices, photography, libraries, foxes, robots, auteurs, retired detectives, unwanted beards, superpowers, apathy, aliens, alienation, moonbeer, love, puzzles, love puzzles, notes, trees, shapes,pills, industry, bureaucracy, numbers, toast, envelopes, conscience, zoos, prostitution, observation, pasta. Some of this writing has been posted here, some has been submitted elsewhere, some of it is hidden away or still under construction.
And here’s a bit about some of the best books I’ve read in 2012:
DAVID FOSTER WALLACE: Infinite Jest
Having previously abandoned Infinite Jest around 200-300 pages in, this year I finally finished it. A thousand page brick of a book, at the beginning it felt like an endurance test, by the end I didn’t want it to stop.
It feels a bit ridiculous to try and sum it up in a few sentences. In a future Boston there is a tennis academy, and a halfway house for recovering addicts, there are some assasins in wheelchairs and there is a film that causes the viewer to die laughing. That doesn’t cover all the bases. There is mind-boggling detail, essays, histories, a filmography; there are lots of endnotes, the font is tiny, sometimes there are pages and pages without paragraph breaks. There are slow burn set pieces that build slowly til they explode and a web of characters that get under your skin as they labour under the weight of their obsessions, deformities, mental processes.
DFW’S writing is playful, sincere, itself addictively entertaining, perhaps a little too much – for a while after I finished reading the book everything I wrote read like a bad copy. I finished reading it, but Infinite Jest has a long mental half life and does not feel like a book I left behind once I read the final page.
TERRY PRATCHETT & STEPHEN BAXTER: The Long Earth
I hadn’t read a Terry Pratchett novel for a long time (something to do with me reading so many of his books during my teenage years, something to do with there being so much other stuff I wanted to read, something to do with him writing so many that I didn’t know which way to turn), but I decided to give The Long Earth a spin. Having not previously read anything by Stephen Baxter it is tricky to know which parts of the novel represent his input to the collaboration, but I found the dialogue in particular to be reassuringly Pratchett and it was a bit like meeting up with an old friend.
The Long Earth is an adventure set in a time when ‘stepping East and West’ into parallel worlds has become possible due to the invention of a simple device – that said device resembles a potato clock struck me as a classic piece of Pratchett whimsy. The novel has a cinematic quality which, coupled with the fact that it was a shameless page-turner (I barely put it down in during reading) brought to mind Doctor Who (I think I wrote a note at the time which said it was more like Doctor Who than Doctor Who, though now I’m not sure what that might have meant), as well as Jasper Fforde’s Shades Of Grey. Having built a fully realised world from an interesting idea, it is good to know that Baxter and Pratchett have left the ending open for a sequel which I look forward to with some anticipation.
MARILYN CHIN: Revenge Of The Mooncake Vixen: A Manifesto In 41 Tales
I picked this book up in the library when I saw its cover and its title, then I stood and read the first few pages and then I took it home and read it pretty quickly. It’s a nice surprise when you find something by mistake. I know you’re not supposed to judge books by their covers, but look at it – it’s bursting with life and the colours and the title hint at the anarchic breathlessness of the text.
And this collection of 41 connected short stories does turn out to be pretty anarchic and breathless. Together they form a manifesto (as per the subtitle) which encompasses the modern and the mythical and establishes a kind of vengeful feminist agenda which manages to be riotious and hilarious and sweet at the same time. I don’t know, I’m probably not describing it well. But the pace and control of the prose here is wonderful and Chin’s style and imagination runs rings around most short story collections.
DONALD BARTHELME: Forty Stories
Forty Stories is a compendium of Donald Barthelme’s short fiction, and Barthelme (1931-1989) is someone who I had read about here and there and heard highly recommended before I bought this book. They turned out to be probably the short stories that blew my (tiny) mind the most this year, and made me think the most new things about how to write short stories.
Barthelme’s stories are strange and humorous, but have weight and soul. He plays with form so that each story comes in a different size and shape, each a unique experience instead of a plot inserted into a template. They are tricky things that often take a few readings to piece together, Barthelme being unafraid to make the reader do some work, happy to credit the reader with sufficient intelligence to understand. And what at first glance may seem to be a little random turns out to be very precise. As someone trying to write fiction, usually short fiction, I find that when I am reading short stories it is difficult to separate the elements that I find impressive from those that I find enjoyable, but I think Barthelme succeeds on both fronts.
(In part 10 – I’m going to try and fulfil the ‘writing’ part of the title for once by attempting to write in response to kindly being tagged into the The Next Big Thing meme. Until then, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.)