This edition of the series was nominated by Mame from http://writemybrainsout.wordpress.com/. I’m always up for taking suggestions so please shout if you want to nominate an author to be featured.
“What excites me is to disturb the reader’s fundamental assumptions.”
– Will Self
When I lived in Stockwell (South London) I would often pass Will Self, cycling with his kids, as I made my way to the Tube station on the way to work. Self is one of those ‘famous’ people who I could feel proud about living round the corner from. If he lived there, then it was clearly an area fit for creative types who bucked against the establishment and forged their own unique path. In addition, his writing gave the impression that he might just be a little unhinged. Excellent. Yes, this is someone I was happy to share a neighbourhood with.
He’d be so happy to know that.
But it’s the writing that makes the man – and I do believe he exudes the way in which he writes. He takes the everyday and twists it. He perverts it. He exaggerates the absurd and often ties it up in fantastical and surreal worlds. He’ll satirise pretty much anything and he’s happy to make you squirm. And that’s an author I want to read.
I always adored movies as a kid – from Dumbo to Mary Poppins (still one of my all-time favs!), from Ferris Bueller to Rocky… but it was seeing Apocalypse Now and 2001: A Space Odyssey in the space of a month when I was 15 years old that changed the way I looked at films forever. My first proper film crushes!
To be honest, I didn’t entirely understand either film at the time. When I watched both again a couple of years later they opened themselves up to me (a bit). But at 15… they were beautiful… no, somewhere far beyond beautiful. Poetry on the screen. They were epic in every way. They did more than just go from A to B to C: they communicated some sort of profound meaning and story that I couldn’t quite grasp but that felt really, really important. I think the fact that I felt I was missing something definitely helped me to become completely consumed by them – I mean, we all want to feel as if we’re appreciating something slightly above our heads, right? Especially as teenagers.
2001 is a story about the evolution of humankind via a black, alien monolith that we are first introduced to at The Dawn of Man, as it’s appearance on earth seems to stimulate apes to use tools and weapons. The rest of the movie essentially follows mankind’s quest to understand it’s own origins and future through a search for the origin of the monolith. It’s gripping and tense and exciting – but rather than creating thrills or relateable characters, it is primarily focussed on being quiet and patient and intent on filling us with wonder. Yeah, wow-erama.
Apocalypse Now, set during the Vietnam war (but very far from a typical war film), is about a mission of one soldier (Willard) down a river to hunt down a decorated war hero (Kurtz) who has ‘gone native’ and may have caused horrific atrocities. Behind this framework, it is a story about the reality of war – the horror – not so much about Willard finding Kurtz, but discovering what Kurtz himself discovered. It is dark but beautiful, operatic and horrific, and it reaches in to some very dark places of the human soul.
However, it wasn’t just that I was young that made me love these films. The directors, Stanley Kubrick and Francis Ford Coppola, were ahead of the rest of the world with what they were putting on screen. It is genuinely impossible for me to pull out favourite scenes from either film because pretty much every scene in each is a classic. The imagination and the skill required to make art like this is almost beyond my comprehension. Big love. Big, big love for these movies being awesome and showing me the very limits of what cinema can do. I’m not sure that either has ever been matched.
I’ve never written a review before but I just finished reading this brilliant, masterful book on the train home and wanted to share some of the love.
The novel is narrated by Dell Parsons, who looks back at the experiences of his 15 year old self in a small town in Montana in 1960. The bare bones of the storyline can be summed up in the opening passage:
“First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later. The robbery is the more important part, since it served to set my and my sister’s lives on the courses they eventually followed. Nothing would make complete sense without that being told first.”
I’m a big fan of Richard Ford but the plot of this novel is probably the strongest he’s written in terms of page-turning. However, if you’re looking for a thriller then you’ve come to the wrong place – as engrossing as the plot is, it’s less important than the writing itself.
This was the book that inspired my series of posts about authors who look like their writing: at the time, I called Ford’s style elegant, languid and wise. Sometimes, writing this beautiful can give the illusion of being wise and full of insight – but there’s no illusion here… every page is full of a rich voice that feels as if it may be teaching you something new about the world and the people who live in it. That’s not to say that you need a dictionary to get through the book. It’s that Ford uses language so simply to do such complex things that is his genius and, for me, his only equal in this regard is Cormac McCarthy.
Canada is a novel about the strange turns that normal people’s lives can take, it believes in looking forwards and seeing what’s in front of you instead of always looking for hidden meaning in what’s already gone, and it understands above all about human fragility. As you can tell, I would absolutely recommend it. I find it impossible to read a book like this and not be inspired… well, partly inspired and partly accepting that I’ll never be able to write quite that well.
Considering that the above quote is from the man himself, it may seem strange that I’ve chosen Wolfe for a post in which he’s supposed to look like his writing. But that’s who he is: an outsider looking in. An observer. He’s always one step, very clearly removed from the action he reports – and keeping his distance is one of the things that makes his writing so insightful and true. It’s also what can make it so cutting or full of awe. He’s never been a writer to deliver the most subtle of messages but he’s massively entertaining… brash, fun, exuberant… his writing is zapped with fiendish humour.
Bonfire of the Vanities and The Right Stuff are two of my favourite books. I like to think of him standing in front of a fireplace with a glass of champagne (or probably a fine scotch) in his hand, regaling a room full of people with tales from those books. Hmm, maybe I need to stop imagining all of these fantastical meetings with authors and get a move on with my own book…
This may seem like a ridiculous question. But calm down everyone… clearly, the words in a novel should paint a far more vivid picture than any illustration ever could. That’s exactly the point-of-view that I’d normally argue: it’s sacrilege to even consider putting pictures in novels! Novels harness the power of words, they’re not picture books… yadda yadda…
But… would the right sort of illustration enhance some novels?
Of course, illustrators can be great artists – we can all recognise that. But we’re only allowed to appreciate illustrations if they’re in childrens’ books or in comics.
The closest we tend to come to an illustrated novel nowadays is in books like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon or Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer, in which illustration is used intelligently to help us gain insight in to the mind of the protagonist/narrator: a map of a street, a hypnotic pattern from some fabric, a scrawled doodle. Maybe this is the furthest that an author can push illustration without the risk of producing something that’s seen as more of a novelty than a serious novel.
Both of those books were critically acclaimed and hugely popular – I love them – it can work when done well. And they aren’t alone: The Giro Playboy by Michael Smith was called “A British beat classic for the 21st century” by Esquire, and The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall created images out of the words themselves. What I’m interested in is whether a more ‘straight’ form of illustration can still be effective – or is it just completely unnecessary in a novel?
Is there a middle ground for the right book? Perhaps a hybrid of a traditional novel and a graphic novel? Whaddya think?
Any suggestions of books that have actually done this successfully?
Everything is open to interpretation. That’s the beauty of things. There’s no right way or wrong way; we take what we can from what we experience. This series of posts is about the stuff that inspires me. I’m not trying to convince you – I’m just brain-dumping some fanboy love on to the page. Not everyone will agree. That’s ok.
This is one from back in the day – but it’s the ones that stick with you that can have the biggest impact. First off, try to put aside any preconceptions (misconceptions) you may have about R.E.M. This was their debut album back in 1983 and a record I first heard many years ago but after the band had reached global mammoth-ness with Losing My Religion.
The reason it’s so important to me isn’t just that I love the music and that it hit me at an important time of life – I also love what it represents. This is a true indie album. Produced by I.R.S. Records in Atlanta, Georgia, I think it stands up against any of the great indie debuts and, as the music scene has evolved in the last 30 years, I actually think it may have gained even greater recognition if it was released today instead of back in the 80s.
That’s not say that it was ignored at the time – released in the same year as Thriller and U2’s ‘War’, Rolling Stone Magazine still nominated it as their record of the year, which was pretty unusual for such a ‘small time’ release.
The band members were all around 20 years old. They lived, worked and studied in Athens and, like a lot of kids, all wanted to be in a rock band. But great musicians? Not really. Lead guitarist, Peter Buck, was such a novice that on many of the tracks Mike Mills actually plays ‘lead bass’ to make up for it. Buck learnt to play once he was in the band, not the other way round.
And Michael Stipes’ distinctive vocals that are intelligible, save for the odd recognisable phrase… was he intentionally distorting his voice? It seems as if he’s too shy to let his words ring clear and true: at this stage he’s the opposite of a confident, brash frontman. In the words of Mitch Easter, the producer:
“We put him in in front of a microphone and that was the sound he made.”
However, what they were saying was less important than how they said it. They had a raw urgency and edge that I don’t think they ever reproduced and I think few bands have achieved, while turning out such great songs too. Just like looking at a painting that you don’t entirely understand but that speaks deeply to you nonetheless, Murmur gets you on a subconscious level and doesn’t let go. Even 30 years later.