As usual with New Year Resolutions (100+ books to be read this year) starting off the year is easy and I've managed to finish four novels so far this year. Whether I can keep up anything like this pace remains to be seen - I've certainly got the books stacked up and ready to go.
1. 2666 - Roberto Bolano
From visceral realism to eviscerated fables, with a title half 2001/ half Book of Revelations, with ruminations on the meaning of writing and the place of the writer in the modern, past and future days this is not a little book.
Joyce appears in the face of an Irish bellhop; the Holocaust, Stalin's purges, the savage edge of globalisation and the killing of hundreds of women in Santa Teresa in Mexico form part of the narrative.
As well as showing that he is prepared to try and wrestle meaning from our ever more haunted and haunting history Bolano shows himself as master of many styles and leaves us with a book that cannot be discounted from any serious consideration of the novel.
The five parts (Bolano thought they could be published seperately) include a rectangular affair in academia; a man falling apart in Mexico, far from home; a black reporter who gets thrown from his comfort zone into writing about boxing and thinking about serial killings; a police procedural about serial killings and a fable about a giant who wanders deep into the forests and emerges with blood on his hands and the hard won knowledge that will almost win him the Nobel Prize.
I could describe five different books and still be trying to describe this one. The book is full of very Joycean gnomons, objects throwing shadows whose meaning we have to infer, if indeed meaning there is. A geometry book hanging from a clothes line is the central image in 'The Part About Amaltifano" the second book. Following on from the very geometrical relationship in the first book this is just one of the many ways the book echoes through the different books and also echoes many earlier works.
At times I thought of Joyce, Pynchon, McCarthy, Lowry, Ellison, P.K. Dick, Yeats, Carter, Dostoevsky, Hoban, Clarke, Capek - the list goes on - but at no time was the book overwhelmed by this baggage.
Bolano went the whole fifteen rounds and you won't get through this without a few bruises but it's worth it
2. Pagan Babies - Elmore Leonard
Smart, sorta funny and kinda Vegas in good ways and bad. It starts in Rwanda but is not quite up to containing Rwanda. Leonard's books are like well oiled machines that do a job and leave you smiling. It's also a quick read.
3. Tropic of Cancer - Henry Miller
At times my will flagged when reading this. It was like being trapped in a corner by a loquacious drunk sketching his life story in semen and self esteem. Descriptions are laid on with a trowel, often becoming more and more meaningless as they pile up.
It could be called "My Struggle" and like another similarly titled affair from the time it puts the mental struggle of the protagonist into the centre of the historical dialectic. There is also a similar division of the human race into those who are 'alive' and those who are not.
At times the scabrous humour hits home but the sheer weight of verbiage weighs it down.
At best a scabrous satire, at worst self indulgent bullying. Mostly both - saTIRING
4. The Girls of Slender Means - Muriel Spark
Muriel Spark's writing reminds me of a cat playing with a mouse, playful, elegant and apparently effortless. Whenever she so wishes a claw drops precisely onto the tail and we see everything with sudden startling clarity.
Her wry, ironic style is unmistakable and the book works perfectly as a slice of realism or as a fable. She can draw a picture of London after the armistice in a paragraph. Some sentences seem to open complete vistas on their own. An absolute delight.