February’s reading pile…

Andre Aciman – Call By Your Name
italyHaving worked in web development for some years (and having thankfully now escaped), I’ve always been suspicious of algorithm-generated recommendations: just because me and X both enjoyed a particular book or film doesn’t mean I share their taste. Amazon have, however, been recommending vehemently that I read this for quite some time, and its user reviews made a second-hand copy feel worth a punt.

For me, it was a very ‘February’ book, despite its sunny Mediterranean setting: it all went on longer than you’d anticipated, and that feeling of optimism got harder to maintain. There’s some very pretty and elegant prose here, and the pre(co)cious narrator was initially a refreshingly different voice. The ‘will they/won’t they’ tension on which the novel rests was acutely drawn. As pages turned, however, that prose became increasingly cloying and the appeal of that narrator to his handsome prey/hunter – or to this reader – became harder to fathom. I began to care rather less whether they ‘did’ or not. To misquote Rocky Horror, all that quivering with antici… pation just got tiring. (The final chapter is very good, but the waiting went on far too long. I had already concluded that it was not Oliver that Elio really needed to get over, but himself.)

Ultimately, this struck me as a gay Bonjour Tristesse, but without Sagan’s sharpness or brevity – a meringue without the necessary splash of vinegar. Given the reader’s timeframe, the author also had to remind us that this was scandalous, which felt a little like Lady Thatcher’s comment about being a lady (“If you have to tell them you are…”) One dissenting Amazon reviewer’s voice described this as a gay love story for straight people – a blunt verdict, but one I’d agree with. If prolonged, solipsistic pining and agonising (with a generous dollop of confused sexuality and bouts of speedo-sniffing) is your thing, however…

Garth Greenwell – What Belongs to You
sofa_editedAnd lo, the curse of the Amazon reviews struck again. Just after I finished reading this, I saw a review of it at GoodGayReads, where the blogger confessed to not having read this or the other title under discussion but that they had seen reviews in The New Yorker and drawn conclusions. Here are some of those conclusions:

“This means they obviously fall into the “literary” camp as opposed to the “commercial” one or TNY wouldn’t have reviewed them. That means no overtly happy endings, though you can assume someone will come to a deep realisation about themselves that they could only do somewhere where they don’t speak the language and which has the potential to change their lives but probably doesn’t.

Because they’re literary you can also assume that no one has good sex or fun sex, but probably lots of thoughtful sex. Indeed, one of the books […] is basically the story of a client and his hustler – “…the novel inhabits conventional motifs” as TNY duly notes though they do say that the author goes on to “renovate them” which I assume means the hustler doesn’t die of a drug overdose at the end.”

For a verdict based only on another review, that’s surprisingly accurate. Almost damningly so. The book was originally published as a shorter novella, which I would be interested to compare. There are long passages here that feel like they don’t truly belong, or are at best clumsy distracting parallels with the main story – the relationship between the unnamed American narrator and Mitko, a Bulgarian rent boy. (Fnars aside, this novel is really a two-hander.) Mitko is well-drawn, although his trope is as well-visited as his fictional profession, but that ‘deep realisation’ is a long-time coming and not particularly persuasive. The narrator also has little or no back story, which gives a curious effect of feeling almost absent from his own tale – while this emotional absence may be partly the point, we get little sense of who is being absent. And yes, it all ends tragically. Well, for one party anyway.

I kept feeling this would have been a more telling book if it had been written from Mitko’s POV (or third person, which might have allowed the author to make his points more clearly and, in the closing pages, less clumsily), as his impressions of and (mixed) feelings for the privileged punter might have been more telling. If the book was attempting to make points about Western privilege and lack of understanding, might a less privileged and more understanding (and more willing to understand) narrator have been more fruitful? I kept thinking of a Sex Pistols’ lyric – “a cheap holiday in other people’s misery”, which felt like it described the narrator’s rather callous outlook, even if might have been counterproductive as a cover blurb.

I also remembered another book at several points – Boris Davidovich’s Serbian Diaries, a brutal tale set against the collapse of Yugoslavia, but strengthened by showing a harsh, homophobic Balkan society from a bird’s eye view and with a first-hand understanding of the culture and politics. (I’m less convinced that privileged Westerners need further explanation.) Worth reading for the Mitko character, whose complexities were well rendered, but not the great gay novel it would like to be.

David Clarke – Arc
I can’t remember now where I stumbled across this, but I suspect it wasn’t Amazon. (Nor was it the Polari Salon, where I was delighted to hear him read poems from the book, and from his previous pamphlet – indeed, I wish this included his poem, Scritti Politti). Although some poems here pack more punch than others (how many collections could anything else be fairly be said of anyhow?), there is constant linguistic skill here to enjoy, and a genuine facility with pathos – try News from Home as an example. The cracker here, working analogy and metaphor to maximum impact, is Sword-Swallowing for Beginners. Buy it for that alone, and consider the rest a bonus.

Adam Johnson – Fortune Smiles
IMG_0385_editedAnother book where I can no longer recall the source of my acquaintance, but bonus points for ‘thought-provoking’. A National Book Award winner, to sit alongside the Pulitzer the author had already clocked up for a novel, these stories are closer to novellas. The obvious comparison – and one other reviewers haven’t avoided – is George Saunders, especially in the surrealistic touches that are noticeably here, and especially in the first story, Nirvava. Reading it, my comparison was less to Saunders and more to screen-writer: Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror series. I confess I found Brooker’s handling of human relationships with technology more moving, and more emotionally telling – if Johnson has a weakness, it is a fondness for a striking conceit. The set-ups are frequently startling, but don’t always move the reader forward from being startled – the cleverness of the writing isn’t always balanced by an emotional impact. (The effect is rather like watching a diver constantly attempting the trickiest dives in an attempting to glean the highest technical score. One Goodreads reviewer described Johnson as a ‘moral ambiguity tourist’, and I can see why.) Where it is – George Orwell was a Friend of Mine and Dark Meadow – the stories are grimly compelling, as their respective narrators deal with rampant denial and an agonising (for them and the reader) lack of it. The latter story in particular, with its tugging at our sense of compassion and understanding despite ourselves, is special.

February soundtrack:

Bill Frisell – When You Wish Upon A Star: gloriously crystalline reworkings of television and movie themes that might persuade someone dwelling under rocks these last fifty years that a melancholic Americana was the native style of each piece here. Frisell has always been a compelling player, perhaps more so than a composer, and the clarity of sound and intent here are undeniable. Music that is unashamedly beautiful.

The Button Band: the project of UK jazz guitarist, Andrew Button, a CD that is not easy to track down but deserves a bigger audience. Reminiscent at times of Frisell (see above) but with moments from the South African townships as well as the American plains, and of the quartet albums of Jim Mullen, this is varied but always melodic contemporary jazz that remains accessible throughout.

Bert Jansch – Avocet: a remastering of a 1978 recording, with the English folk-jazz guitar genius playing with double bassist Danny Thompson and multi-instrumentalist Martin Jenkins. The closest point of reference I can offer is Thompson’s ‘Whatever’ band, although this music – equally straddling the folk/jazz chasm – is less ornate and more rustic in feel. A gorgeous record (apparently Jansch’s own favourite of his recordings) with a bonus of beautiful packaging, although purist folkies may well hate it.




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