Thursday, August 11, 2011

Bad Books On The Beach: No.3 - 'Everything Is Illuminated' by Jonathan Safran Foer

J. Safran Foer (right) in happier times.
Back in the 1970s, I was a keen reader of the weekly football comic Roy of the Rovers. Roy Race, the free-scoring striker with Melchester Rovers, was also the editor. Well, why not, it was named after him. It’s nothing Oprah hasn’t capitalised on. Except he wasn’t really the editor, because he didn’t exist. But he signed his editorial column every week, and expressed his opinions about his favourite players. The best striker in England, he maintained, was Portsmouth’s David Kemp. It’s possible that a few readers vehemently disagreed with Roy on this, but Roy was so determined to endorse the forward that he went to see him personally. And that’s how the picture to our left appeared as a magazine centre-spread, much to the delight of myself and my friends. And after that, we stopped buying it, both literally and figuratively.

We were prepared to believe that Roy could fire in a 40-yarder to win the game in the last minute, week after week. We accepted that goalkeeper Gordon Stewart, despite the panther-like antics that made him The Safest Hands In Soccer, only played for second division Tynefield City. We didn’t mind that Subbuteo-playing genius Mike Dailey of Mike's Mini-Men had absolutely nothing in his life besides table football (in fact I probably related to him more than I’d like to admit). We cared not that Johnny ‘The Hard Man’ Dexter’s Danefield United team were playing in the English top flight, just like Melchester Rovers, but the two teams existed in parallel worlds (one in colour, the other in black and white), and that the fixture list never brought them together. But we couldn’t take it seriously when Roy posed as a cardboard cut-out next to David Kemp. Like Danefield and Melchester, the two were never supposed to meet. Not credible. Not at all.

Jonathan Safran Foer’s widely acclaimed novel Everything Is Illuminated raised a similar credibility problem for me. The main character is a Ukrainian translator, Alex, who narrates

Friday, August 05, 2011

Bad Books on the Beach: No. 2 – ‘Juliet, Naked’ by Nick Hornby

Naked, and empty too
I’ve always liked Nick Hornby as a bloke ever since reading an interview where he said that after he became famous he started getting calls from other famous people inviting him round to dinner just because he was now famous. His response to this was pretty much, What the fuck? I don’t even know you. Though presumably he wanted to avoid going to dinner parties too, which is understandable. Anyway, ‘Fever Pitch’ is obviously a classic (even though I have a major quibble with it, but that’s another blog entry altogether), and ‘High Fidelity’ and ‘How To Be Good’ were both solid novels. ‘About A Boy’ was ridiculous, and ‘A Long Way Down’ (about four suicidal characters meeting at the top of a very tall building) I quickly renamed in my head as ‘Jump, You Whiny Fuckers, Jump!’ The problem with these books is the same one that runs through ‘Juliet, Naked’ like a sopping, sand-soaked paperback after you accidentally dropped it in the surf. It’s the characters, stupid.

In ‘About A Boy’ we were asked to believe that lead character Will, living off the royalties from a song his old man composed, has spent his entire adult life doing absolutely nothing. This is not just existentially improbable, but also makes Will a dull fucker, at best. But Hornby excels at portraying such sullen, repressed individuals – reserved, emotionally inert, and obsessed with some sub-culturally related, non-mainstream object of desire (or in Will’s case, finding a woman desperate enough to have him). In ‘Juliet, Naked’ we have Duncan spending his three-week holiday in the US following the trail of reclusive singer Tucker Crowe, who inexplicably stopped recording in 1986. His girlfriend Annie tags along, even though she has misgivings about her boyfriend’s hobby. Oh, and they’ve been together for 15 years, she knows that he has no sense of humour, and she’s never actually been in love with him. If that’s really plausible, then that makes her even more feckless than dorky Duncan. Why are we interested in these people again?

When they get back home to Gooleness, a grim Yorkshire seaside resort where they’ve also been bored for the past 15 years, Duncan gets a ‘new’ CD in the mail from Tucker’s

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Bad Books On The Beach: No. 1 – ‘Saturday’ by Ian McEwan

Come Saturday, poetry will save civilization
I recently had the luxury of a week doing nothing on Bethany Beach but catching up on some rapidly yellowing paperbacks. Holidays mean taking books by authors I’ve read easily in the past, rather than anything remotely challenging like Volume 2 of ‘Das Kapital’. This year I packed Ian McEwan, Nick Hornby and Jonathan Safran Foer, and I got through them all quickly enough. The only problem was that they were all, in some crucial respect, spoilt by flaws in plot, style or character. My theory is that once an author’s established, editors get lazy about telling them what needs improving. Or maybe the writer’s too big to take advice. Maybe no one cares because once a reputation is forged, any old shit will sell. And so you get a train wreck like ‘Saturday’ (2005).

Narrator Henry Perowne is described in the blurb of this “triumphant new novel” as “a neurosurgeon, urbane, privileged, deeply in love with his wife and grown-up children”. Despite his (read, the author’s) engaging introspective reflections over the course of a Saturday where he’s skirting an anti-war demo in London to play squash, visit his Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother in an old people’s home, go shopping for fish, and watch his wonderfully talented teenage son play blues guitar, he’s unbelievably dim. He gets in a side-street skirmish with an archetypal hoodlum, Baxter (to be played by a young version of Bob Hoskins), and his two sidekicks after a minor car accident, who threaten to maim him if he doesn’t cough up 700 quid for the damage. Then he escapes by identifying on the spot Baxter’s incurable condition, Huntington’s Disease, causing the sidekicks to desert the thug at this sign of weakness. Having wheedled his way out of this, and despite thinking the thug’s still possibly following him, and despite having being assaulted, Henry toddles off to play squash. Obviously no literary hero does anything as mundane as going to the cops and saying, “Some fucking psycho