Hanif Kureshi – The Tale of the Turd

The brilliance of this short story is getting us to empathise with a truly embarrassing situation while simultaneously disliking the person in it. 

Told through the voice of a guy who is visiting the parents of his girlfriend for the first time, it tells of his excruciating experience dealing with a turd that won’t go down the toilet. It’s funny and embarrassing and you can sympathise entirely with his predicament.

But at the same time the guy is thoroughly unlikable – the girl is 18, he is 44. She is experimenting with drugs, he’s helping her do it. He, it turns out, preys on young girls like her, effectively grooming them and turning them into addicts whose lives are most likely ruined. That we can sympathise with him is a real mark of Kureshi’s ability.

“I’m crying inside too, you know, but what can I do but stick my hand down the pan, into the pissy water, that’s right, oh dark, dark, dark, and fish around until my fingers sink into the turd, get a muddy grip and yank it from the water. For a moment it seems to come alive, wriggling like a fish.”

Hanif Kureshi, The Tale of the Turd

My Son the Fanatic – Hanif Kureshi

A really powerful short story that shows the lack of mutual understanding that can grow between generations.

It is told in the third person from the point of view of the father Parvez. His son, Ali, has begun to sell his possessions and Parvez quickly realises he is turning to fundamentalist Islam. After working so hard as a taxi driver to provide everything Ali needed for a good life in Britain, Parvez is distraught.

He tries to talk to his son but everything he does makes it worse, showing that Parvez drinks and has struck up a close friendship with a prostitute who he gives lifts to and looks out for at night.

What comes through strongest in this simply written story is the complete lack of understanding between the two. Parvez is a sympathetic guy who just wants his son to take the advantages he is being offered and get on, and cannot comprehend why Ali would give up on any of that. Ali is less sympathetic, but you can see his complete frustration with his father who seems to lack self-awareness and believes in nothing bigger than the day to day of life. 

It ends with a sad scene, where Parvez defends his prostitute friend from the insults of Ali, in the end hitting his son, who replies, “who’s the fanatic now?”.

“At night I dream about my replacement mourner, a woman. She has lost her mother years before and because she is already grieving she just continues attending funerals for a price. Like a wet nurse, the pre-requisite is a state of ‘already grief.'”

Claudia Rankine, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely

Claudia Rankine – Don’t Let Me Be Lonely

Full of surprise and humour and melancholy, this is a beautiful book that offers insight after insight.

Even to try to characterise what Don’t Let Me Be Lonely is about risks over-simplifying a complex and subtle piece of writing – mis-representing as about this or that. There’s so much more to it than any one thing. But it’s main theme, it seems to me, is how people – who are fundamentally defined by their relation to and perceptions by others – can live in an individualised culture where sharing and emotion are bottled up and replaced by TV and pills. 

This is done through short vignettes, anecdotes and aphorisms about racism, TV, friends, traumas, drugs, movies – modern American life. They are readable and light, but the messages they convey – the ideas they express – are big.

There is no formal structure to her book as far as I can see, but what she often does is introduce a concept through an anecdote or story or two. Then perhaps clarify that concept with reference to a quote – Hegel gets a few mentions in this book. And then she’ll tell more stories or anecdotes to give perspectives on it or to amplify it.

I love the way she starts so many of the vignettes with ‘Or’, using them as ways to explain or bring alive an idea, gently circling it, exploring it from different angles, gradually moving the ideas and the book along. And I love the way it’s hard to see any parts of this in isolation – you could read them as single pages but you get so much more when you read page after page of her gentle insights. A remarkable and rare book.

“This week the indie channel is playing and replaying Spaghetti Westerns. Always someone gets shot or pierced through the heart with an arrow, and just before he dies he says, I am not going to make it? Where? Not going to make it where? On some level maybe the phrase simply means not going to make it into the next day, hour, minute, or perhaps the next second. Occasionally, you can imagine, it means he is not going to make it to Carson City or Texas or somewhere else out west or to Mexico if he is on the run. On another levels always implicit is the sense that it means he is not going to make it to his own death. Perhaps in the back of all our minds is the life expectancy of our generation. Perhaps this expectation lingers there alongside the hours of sleep one should get or the number of times one is meant to chew food – eight hours, twenty chews, seventy-six years. We are all heading there and not to have that birthday is to not to have made it.”

Claudia Rankine, Don’t let me be lonely

 

Daughter of Smoke & Bone – Laini Taylor

This is a mix of a deep fantasy and a love story, making it an interesting read but frustratingly conventional at times.

 The heroin is Karou, a feisty 17-year art student old living in Prague who was in fact raised in another world – Elsewhere – by Brimstone, a chimera who harvests and somehow uses teeth, the source of a mysterious magical power.

 Karou is fluent in over 20 languages, trained in martial arts and is able to travel around the world – and the underworld – at will, thanks to wishes granted by these teeth; something she often does, running ‘errands’ to collect teeth for Brimstone to use, though we don’t know what for exactly.

 It’s a great premise, and the opening 80 or so pages are brilliant for it, not least in her interactions with other humans who view her as a beautiful mystery – he superficial boyfriend Kaz and her friend Zuzana.

 We gradually learn that the chimera are in an ongoing battle in this Elsewhere world with the angels, the Seraphim, who have the power on their side, but not the magic of Brimstone which enables chimera to pass through bodies and occupy new ones when they are destroyed.

All of these ideas and scenes are great – imaginative, evocative, gripping. There’s so much to the fantasy and the world Taylor constructs and I could read that all day long.

 Where there book falls down a little, though, is in the core of the plot – where Karou meets the angel Akiva, first in combat and then again, and they fall in love. There are great things in the relationship – scenes where they fight, revelations about Brimstone, large sections where we and Karou herself learns about her past, about how she came to live half in the human world, half Elsewhere. But ultimately about half the book, perhaps, is focused on their relationship and it’s too much, for me at least.

 It’s a good read, lots of great ideas and imagery, but not quite as strong as it could have been if less time were spent on the love story.

The Girl who Played with Fire – Stieg Larsson

More gripping again than the first, the second in Stieg Larsson’s series is an enjoyable novel of corruption that hones in on the story of its protagonist Lisbeth Salander.

After three murders – of a couple investigating sex trafficking and Salander’s guardian Burjman – she becomes the subject of a major national murder investigation. Blomkvist is one of the few people who don’t believe her guilty, and makes the connection between them all, and battles with the police and criminal gangs to help her. As always, though, Salander saves herself and is the strongest character throughout.

What’s nice about this book is it is really about Salander – how she became who she is, and we meet her father in particular who is deeply involved in trafficking.

The book is obviously pretty unbelievable. It relies on a high degree of coincidence and the unlikely physical and mental abilities of Salander. But at the same time it tackles big subjects like power and corruption, upbringing and agency – and it’s a fantastic read.

The Nightmare Factory, vol. 2 – Thomas Ligotti

The Nightmare Factory is a graphic novel version of four of Thomas Ligotti’s chilling stories, an approach that I think both adds and takes away from their telling.

The four stories are ‘The Gas Station Carnivals,’ ‘The Clown Puppet,’ ‘The Chymist’ and ‘The Sect of the Idiot.’ The strongest of these is the ‘Gas Station Carnivals’, a story I’d read before a couple of times – and had stayed with me – about a man’s *possible* memories of visiting gas stations across the US and finding in the back terrifying shows featuring supernatural creatures.

The graphic style adds to Ligotti’s original short stories by helping them feel more contemporary and giving them a visual flair that helps you to picture some of the most obscure and terrifying parts of the story. The creatures the character (Quisser) sees at the gas stations for example are stranger for seeing them illustrated.

The graphic style does take away a little though, mostly in that Ligotti’s stories are complex and rich with detail, but the comic book necessarily pares it down to a minimum, meaning some of the depth of character or setting, and explanations of the twisting plot, are missing. And part of the appeal of reading horror like Ligotti’s is letting your imagination do the work because so much is left to your mind, and to some extent seeing it illustrated gives you a particular image that you can’t shake afterwards.

Tales of the City – Armistead Maupin 

I can’t say I loved this book, though it’s entertaining, gives insights into a different era and most interestingly illustrates the complexities of power and liberation.

It’s set in 1970s San Francisco, when a new generation of people – and some older – are living footloose and hedonistic lives that were unimaginable to most earlier generations.

There is Mary Ann Singleton, who has just moved to San Francisco; Mona, her friend from back home who has been there a while; Michael, Mona’s gay and promiscuous roommate; Brian, a straight philanderer; Beauchamp, who works where Mary Ann does, and his troubled wife De-De; Norman, an apparently dull but actually odd and perhaps sick guy who Mary Ann befriends; and Anna Madrigal, an older bohemian lady who owns the building, 28 Barbary Lane, that many of the characters live in.

Most noticeable to me about the book, first off, was the style: there is almost no description, nearly all of it is dialogue, and very short, snappy dialogue at that. You learn about the characters almost entirely through what they say. It’s like a play as much as a novel in that sense.

The big theme of the book is liberation, both as a positive and negative force. It’s positive insofar as the characters are living free and experimental lives, doing things for themselves that few others would have dreamed of. San Francisco gives them amazing possibilities for living differently, for creating their own way of being.

But despite their liberation from conventional ways of life, they appear trapped by the new one they have embraced. They are troubled by relationships they are and aren’t having, they end up forcing themselves to do things against their better judgement (one woman pretended she was black for years, using hardcore pills that coloured her skin, in order to get on in the modelling industry), and there’s a lot of sadness that their hopes about how life could be are constantly unmet. 

The great thinker on power – Michel Foucault, who incidentally spent time in San Francisco in the 1970s and 80s for precisely the reasons the characters moved there – is quite clear on what’s going on here. He says there are always power relations and discourses in society that define how we live. New generations might liberate themselves from old conventional lifestyles but then new ways of thinking, new conventions, new forms of normality, take their place and despite being different and perhaps better than the old ones, they are still a constraint on people’s lives.

For Foucault we need to develop an ‘art of the self’ where, through reflection and hard work we craft a way of being for ourselves that takes bits of different discourses and become something that as far is possible our own, making us free subjects not just objects of discourse and power relations.

What we see in Tales of the City are a group of people trying – to different degrees – to tread a line and find their own ways of being between the new and old discourses about how to live, sometimes being trammelled by power relations, sometimes finding flashes of freedom.

Walter Mosley – Little Yellow Dog

The eponymous dog belongs to femme fatale Idabell and appears to be the cause of many of the problems in this, the fifth novel in Mosley’s Easy Rawlins series.

It’s set in JFK-era US and deals characteristically with the reality of racism and race relations. Easy is a black private investigator who’s had a hard upbringing, spent time on the street and is now trying to live straight. But his skin colour, and his difficult past, keep getting in the way.

He’s now working as a supervisor in a school overseeing the building’s maintenance, but after the brother of Idabell, one of the teachers, is discovered on the school he quickly gets himself involved in unearthing what is going on. The plot as always thickens inexorably, with enough twists and turns to keep you guessing even after you’ve finished the book, and Easy finds himself stuck between the police, gangsters, city officials – and the small dog he ends up looking after – all of whom want him gone.

The plot is good, like his other Easy novels, but the reason I keep reading Mosley is in part the hard boiled style and, more than anything, Mosley’s understanding of racism and poverty, of how the two are intertwined, how they define the way so much in the US works, and of how circumstances can make people do things that they would not otherwise do.

J M Coetzee – Elizabeth Costello 

Elizabeth Costello is an ageing, well regarded author. Now rarely writing, she tours the world giving lectures and talks. In Amsterdam, on a cruise liner, in the States and elsewhere she finds herself talking on the big themes of philosophy, religion, human rights.

Through it she is in a state of angst – about whether what she is talking about is meaningful and ultimately about what it is to be a human, a writer, to have a presence in the world.

In some ways the novel is a construction to explore some important but slippery distinctions: between humans and animals, between philosophy and creative fiction, between morality and belief, between bearing witness to horrors and getting sucked into them.

There is an abstract and Kafka-like scene toward the end of the book which nicely articulates the protagonist’s worries and, more widely, is a nice way to capture why it is to hard answer the question ‘who am I.’ She is waiting to pass through from one place – an Italian piazza as it turns out – to another which may or may not be heaven.

The judges who determine whether she can pass base their decision on what she believes – whether she has a belief – but when she is asked the question ‘what do you believe in’ she struggles to identify the ‘thing’: her beliefs, the values that define her are multiple and changeable and hard to articulate.

“But if you could not close a door behind you to take a shit in the city – even if it was just the door to a shared toilet – if this one, most essential freedom was taken from you, the freedom, that is, to withdraw from other people when necessity called, then all other freedoms were worthless. Then life had no more meaning. Then it would be better to be dead.”

Patrick Suskind, The Pigeon

The Pigeon – Patrick Suskind

This is a fine novella in the European existentialist tradition.

In just 77 pages we experience the identity crisis of Jonathan Noel – a French security guard who for three decades has lived in the same small apartment with the same job, and minimal interaction with or exploration of the outside world. Until, in his fifties, he encounters a pigeon in his apartment building – its eyes penetrating him, it’s excrement soiling the floor and its presence fundamentally unsettling his ordered world.

He had successfully managed to shut out the messiness and ambiguity of things outside of his experience but the pigeon appears and reveals the precariousness of his life – how he can’t control events, and how he could as easily have been a bum and, indeed, given the sameness of his life, it might have been more meaningful. 

There’s a great bit when he sees a bum eating sardines and bread, and drinking wine with abandon. And then, a little later, Jonathan goes and buys the same stuff and enjoys it with an intensity of pleasure he perhaps has never experienced before.

What the novella expresses brilliantly is the the unstable nature of our identities, of what we build our lives around, and how things could be so easily different.

Trumpet – Jackie Kay

Trumpet is a beautifully written novel that makes you think differently – you surely couldn’t ask for more from a book.

It begins with the death of the jazz trumpeter Joss Moody. On his death a secret only he and his wife Millie have known is revealed – that Joss was in fact born a woman (Josephine) and has lived his life as a man, bandaging up his breasts every day and telling nobody, not even their own adopted son Colman.

The book is a look at the fall-out from this revelation. We get a variety of first person perspectives: Colman in particular, who is very angry and is working with a tabloid journalist to write a biography and expose of his Dad; Millie who is mostly struggling with her son’s reaction, as well as reflecting on her past with Joss; and a variety of others, like the journalist, the drummer in Joss’s old band, the funeral worker, Joss’s Mum.

A big part of the book is from Colman’s perspective as he tries to deal with the realisation. His character is unlikeable – he is already a bit of a loser, like the children of high achieving famous people might be, and discovering his Mum and Dad had hidden something so big from him for years tears him apart. Over the book, though, he gradually realises that despite everything Joss was his father, he loved him, and he can’t go ahead with the expose.

Millie appears naïve, as if she hadn’t considered what would happen when the news was out. It’s interesting, and I wonder if partly this is because she and Joss had lived with the secret for such a long time that I had become normal. And the fact that they kept this secret, even from their own child, makes you realise that they did so because this is something that was and remains very hard to talk about, so it drives you to do things that aren’t necessarily perfect.

What’s clear, too, is the way that Joss and Millie had a very tight relationship, one guarded from the outside world – and one that probably excluded Colman quite considerably, though they might not have known it, and it was only when the secret was revealed to Colman that this became clear.

Trumpet is brilliantly written – simple language but very beautiful and affecting. And the story works on so many levels – as a love story, in part, as a complex take on the impact of social norms on the way relationships work, as a delve into the psyche of someone learning his life was not quite as he thought it was, and as a morally ambiguous story about families and secrets.

Ian McRay’s Writings on Psychogeography: vol 1

To be frank I’ve never fully understood what psychogeography means, but Ian McRay’s collection of his writings helps.

This small book contains exerts from his books and longer articles. It largely focuses on the areas of East London, especially Dalston, though covers London more widely and branches out to rural New Forest in the final chapter.

Psychogeography is the exploration of the way that geography – the city and buildings in particular – shape the way we think. It comes originally from the ideas and actions of Debord and the Situationists in 1960s Paris. It offers a way to critically analyse the city and a way to get a different perspective on the consumerism and conformism it reinforces.

At the heart of psychogeography is the ‘derive’ – a walk without purpose, spontaneous, that allows you to see things you wouldn’t normally see, defy the consumption and homogenous behaviour the city inspires, and transgress the private property rules that abound.

Some of this book is just history on a super micro level, but it also mixes in the critical theory of Walter Benjamin and extensive discussions of dance culture and how that challenged the norms of work-leisure time and building usage, but struggles to do so know as the mass media and the city appropriate the radicalism of dance and youth culture in order to commodify and control it. In this way it’s sociology, anthropology, history, critical theory and more.

In doing this McRay highlights a range of phenomena I’ve not noticed before, most interestingly I think about Radio 1. He points out that Radio 1 plays a role in containing youth, insofar as it constantly reinforces serious work time – Monday to Friday afternoon – and party time at the weekend, encouraging people to party but only at the right times for the good of social order – a clear contrast with the dance culture of rave.

The book also contains a fantastically erudite put-down (of a work called Transborderline)!

“This is bargain basement radicalism that reveals the paucity of meaningful ideas at the heart of so much contemporary art. As the art critic Peter Fuller once warned, ideas alone do not make great art, and this isn’t even a very good idea.”

Milan Kundera on the value of the novel

“The sole raison d’etre of a novel is to discover what only the novel can discover. A novel that does not discover a hitherto unknown segment of existence is immoral.”

“[The] common spirit of the mass media, camouflaged by political diversity, is the spirit of our time. And this spirit seems to me contrary to the spirit of the novel.”

The novel’s spirit is the spirit of complexity. Every novel says to the reader: ‘Things are not as simple as you think’. That is the novel’s eternal truth, but it grows steadily harder to hear amid the din of easy, quick answers.”

Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel

Milan Kundera’s assertion of the value of the novel is strong, and, though I’m not sure I’d make a moral judgement on this basis, I agree fully that what sets a novel apart is it’s ability to convey the complexity of life and reveal, in the process, hidden aspects of being.

Everyday surrealism in Simon Armitage’s Seeing Stars

There is something captivating about a book of poems that begins with a sperm whale explaining that he is “attracted to the policies of the Green Party on paper but once inside the voting booth my hand is guided by an unseen force”, who has a brother, Jeff, that “owns a camping and outdoor clothing shop in the Lake District” and who notes, simply, “I keep no pets.”

The sperm whale is bluntly accurate, too, in why he was ‘christened’ with this name:

“The first people to open me up thought my head was full of sperm, but they were men, and had lived without women for weeks, and were far from home. Stuff comes blurting out.”

From The Delegates which tells of two Professors skipping the Conference of Advanced Criminology to go shoplifting, to The Experience, in which the narrator Terry finds himself out grave robbing with Richard Dawkins, Seeing Stars is a fantastic book of vignettes, poems, micro stories, none more than two pages long.

What form of writing this is exactly I’m not sure, but it packs a significant punch, making surprising contrasts and surreal yarns in order to reveal the ridiculousness of aspects of life which sometimes go unnoticed or unquestioned.

The inner thoughts of jaded but intelligent animals is not a major device in the book but one that works well. Like this from The Last Panda:

“Unprecedented economic growth in my native country has brought mochaccino and broadband to where there was nothing but misery and disease, yet with the loss of habitat the inevitable consequence; even the glade I was born in is now a thirty-storey apartment block with valet parking and a nail salon.”

The panda, not surprisingly, is nostalgic for better times, like so many others, adds:

“The sixties did it for everyone, I mean EVERYONE, and what people fail to grasp about Chairman Mao was despite the drab-looking suits and systematic violations of basic human rights he liked a good tune as much as the next man.”