Skintown by Ciaran McMenamin

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If a book is compared to Trainspotting on its cover, it has the same effect on me as when it’s compared to The Catcher in the Rye – I want to find out immediately if the comparison is apt. Besides, despite the predominance of originally English-language books in my reading list, I don’t think I’ve ever read a Northern Irish novel. And guess what, this is a Northern Irish novel that’s supposed to be like Trainspotting in some respects. I’ll get this straight right away – I don’t think Skintown is much like Trainspotting, but that’s fine because it’s a good novel.

The novel is set in a remote Northern Irish town in the 1990s, right around the time when the Provisional IRA announces the ceasefire in 1994, which, of course, doesn’t put an immediate end to hostilities, and there’s still a lot of violence going on between nationalists and unionists, and not just in faraway Belfast but right there in front of the pub door.

(Now it strikes me as very strange, official, remote and impersonal to talk about „hostilities” – as if hostilities were something that always happened to and among other people. McMenamin quickly makes it clear in vivid detail, though, right in the first chapter what such hostilities can look like.)

Still, we know (or remember) that young people will always be young people, so despite the turbulent political situation, the main character, catholic Vinny also lives the life of an average country boy, playing truant, being cool, and being a wannabe alcoholic, while sometimes dreaming about how one day he might find the woman of his dreams, or how one day he will move to Belfast or London or somewhere. (This is one reason, for example, why Skintown is very unlike Trainspotting – the characters here actually want to do something, and anyway, they’re still very very young and only beginner addicts, so they haven’t yet developed their attitudes of toughness and they don’t yet think that all is already lost.)

The story revolves around a once-in-a-lifetime drug deal. Vinny gets into this business by pure chance, and he needs to cooperate with the local protestant tough guys if he wants to get out of it alive. The story, by the way, seems quite accidental to me, as if its only purpose were to enable McMenamin to write as many scenes of drinking, hangovers, drug-taking and rave as he can – but I’ve nothing to complain about as he’s awesome at writing such scenes. Indeed, I’m with Vinny in every pub and party and rave and after-party, and I’m having a lot of fun.

And the way McMenamin paints the political background through the eyes of an almost-adult is also great. Again, what’s described in the news as „hostilities” or „atrocities” looks quite different in reality. It may be that you’re forced to be a gentleman and be the pretend-boyfriend of a girl you know so that she’ll get home safely in the car of two protestant tough guys who – perhaps not so gently – offered her a ride, and you’re scared brainless throughout the drive home because you know that the tough guys know that you’re a catholic and you’re fully aware of the possibility that they may beat the shit out of you after taking the girl home. And it may be that they really beat the shit out of you, yes, exactly you. (Just to be clear – I have no idea about McMenamin’s political or religious stance but it doesn’t matter – the novel is not about which side is good and which is bad.)

The only thing that distracts me sometimes is Vinny’s voice – I have a hard time believing that an 18-year-old kid like Vinny talks like this. Sure, he’s supposed to be really intelligent and perceptive, still, I can’t believe that at the age of 18 someone can express himself so lyrically, cynically, philosophically and wisely. Other than that – this is a good read.

Blood and Guts in High School by Kathy Acker

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Kathy Acker’s book is a lot of things at once: a nightmarish, surreal collage/novel/text/drama complete with drawings and doodles; the life story of a bodily and emotionally damaged, brutally exploited girl, told sometimes in the first and sometimes in the third person; a whole lot of social criticism and analysis, mostly from the perspective of power and who has it; and connected to this last one: an exploration of all the (possible) ways a woman can be vulnerable (with abundant, extremely graphic details).

The story is very fragmented, but mainly it’s about ten-year-old Janey, who lives in an incestuous relationship with her father until he chases her away from home. Janey then goes to New York, where later on he gets imprisoned by a Persian pimp who turns her into a whore. Finally Janey somehow ends up in Morocco, and she dies not long after.

The story is, by the way, strangely impersonal – I can hardly find a word for this quality. Janey, for a long time, hardly even possesses a sense of self or an identity of her own, because her identity has always been defined by her relations with men, and she has mostly come into contact with men who were eager to tell her that – being a woman – she’s even lower on the hierarchy of beings than animals.

There is, however, a kind of development in the novel – as time passes, Janey slowly awakes to herself and she wants to get out, wants to get away from – from men, from capitalism, from mechanical sex – but she doesn’t stand a real chance, and she cannot be (is not allowed to be) other than what she is: a totally dependent and vulnerable girl/woman who is forever denied even her most basic needs (food, shelter, love), a woman who channels all her desires and needs into sex because that’s the only thing she’s known from time immemorial and the only things she’s always been given – but only until the men in her life realize that Janey uses sex to express and experience all her emotions. As soon as Janey’s elemental need for love surfaces (and this doesn’t take long, usually – she’s unable to control her emotions), men even deny her the relief of sex.

The text – like Janey’s life – is often full of vulgarity, there’s a whole lot of cocks and cunts here, Janey’s mind is constantly filled with erect penises and violent sex, but I think the reason for all this is that Janey only has words for this. It’s not detailed, but it’s very probable from the text that Janey’s been a victim of sexual abuse from a very early age. What we learn is that her mother died when Janey was one year old, and from then onward she depended on her father for everything and used his father to fill all the roles – friend, boyfriend, brother, sister, father – in her life.

Throughout the story, by the way, Janey learns a language, too – a different one from the language of sex – this is also a part of her development, her increasing self-awareness – and the most unsettling part of the novel for me is when she writes/translates poems for the Persian pimp with whom she falls in love, for lack of a better option. Her poems are filled with rage, pain, desire and destructive love – they are devastating and beautiful.

And as regards the whole book: it’s unbearably real, brutal, upsetting, and extremely sad – reading this was a similar experience as reading Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy.

McTeague by Frank Norris

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I read about this novel a long time ago in one of Stephen King’s books, and I was intrigued, so I looked it up and read it. And then read it once more a couple of years later despite the fact that stories like this devastate me: stories that explore the idea that everything is predetermined and that there’s nothing you can do to change your life. Devastation aside, though, I’m deeply interested in these kind of stories, especially American stories set at the end of the 19th and at the beginning of the 20th century, such as the works of Theodore Dreiser or Edith Wharton.

The novel is about a son of a miner turned dentist – he’s McTeague (and he doesn’t seem to have a first name). McTeague – a clumsy, somewhat slow-witted man who’s always lived in an instinctive way, with little or no regard or sensibility for the more sophisticated aspects of life – learns the art of dentistry from a traveling dentist, then moves to San Francisco, where he opens a practice and leads a life that satisfies him entirely. He works during the week, has a big lunch and some beer on Sunday and then dozes off or goes for a walk with his single closer acquaintance, Marcus.

Then one day, Marcus brings his cousin, Trina, to McTeague’s office because she fell of a swing and broke a tooth. McTeague spends weeks administering a complex treatment to the lovely young girl, and in the meantime, he falls in love with her – or rather, his deeper instincts arise upon coming into close contact with a woman for the first time in his life. Marcus himself has his eyes on Trina, but seeing that his passion is nothing compared to that of McTeague’s, he graciously steps aside and McTeague and Trina get married. Things work fine, but after a while McTeague is forced to give up his practice and from that moment on, it’s all downhill for the couple, in every sense of the word (financial, moral, emotional, and so on).

In the novel every character is a victim of their upbringing, their inherited traits and the unfavorable circumstances brought upon them by chance or by the ill will of others. For example, Trina kindles desires and needs in McTeague that are somewhat more sophisticated than his pure animal instincts, but as soon as their fate takes a turn for the worse, McTeague immediately reverts to his animal-like state and he even becomes worse than he used to be before meeting Trina. And as regards Trina: she’s always had a propensity for hoarding and always used to be stingy, but as time goes by, she becomes ever more miserly and her only joy remains clinging to her shiny silver and gold dollars.

And yes: here no-one can do anything about the fate determined by their family background and their various characteristics because their self-awareness and their ability to assess their circumstances is almost non-existent, so they are all forced to drift the way life takes them, and even if they are aware of some of their unfortunate traits (for example, Trina knows that she’s stingy), they only say: “I know I’m like this but at least this is a good fault.”

By the way, McTeague is a dirty-naturalist novel, even though Norris tends to stop before the most horrible details, and “only” says, for example, that “what came after that was horror itself”. And I’m glad he stops there and never succumbs to the temptation to roll around in the filth in a possibly l’art pour l’art fashion – not because I wouldn’t be able to stand it but because I think it’s a sign of taste: to know where to stop – because not everything needs to be written down.

Still, this novel feels somewhat too obvious and spoon-feeding to me, as I’m reading it through my 21st-century eyes. The symbols (the most important of which is gold, in all its forms) are just all too obvious and they are mentioned on every second page, so there’s no way you can miss Norris’ point; and the key sentences about each character are also repeated multiple times to hammer the meaning home – all this repetition bothers me a bit but it doesn’t make the novel unreadable.

I mentioned Theodore Dreiser in the beginning, and there’s indeed a lot of similarities between Norris and Dreiser (as far as I know, they both liked the other’s work). Norris, however, is far less convoluted and far more readable than Dreiser. Norris even said something to the effect: “Who cares about elaborate style? We want life, not literature.” And his novel fits this description: it’s not over-wrought, it’s easy to read, it’s often slightly sarcastic and not exactly “literary”. Based on this single book (I haven’t read anything else by him) I believe Norris didn’t earn his place in literary history with his unparalleled delicacy of style but this – as opposed to his serious spoon-feeding habit – doesn’t bother me at all.

Besides the story of the unavoidable demise of the characters, this novel is also an excellent portrait of an era. So even though the story makes me mad and depressed, I’m still interested in it because I like to learn how people lived in America towards the end of the 19th century, and Norris depicts this powerfully.

The Dinner by Herman Koch

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Herman Koch’s novel deals with interesting topics, and it’s not a bad novel, I just can’t decide what Koch wanted with all this. (What could the poet have wanted to say? And if he wanted to say that, why didn’t he just go ahead and say it?)

Theoretically – I think – this is a novel about moral dilemmas with some cynical criticism about modern life as a side dish. After a while, though, it seems more like a rather terrifying and morbid story of insanity (something in the same vein as Jenn Ashworth’s A Kind of Intimacy or Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy) than a story about moral choices. I’ll get to why this bothers me, but first a bit about the story.

The framework of the novel is a dinner, during which two brothers and their wives – after a whole lot of sidetracks and deliberate avoidance of the topic – finally get to talk about the thing that’s on their mind. The question is this: what, if anything, should they do about the unfortunate situation that on a drunken night out, their kids (two boys of 15) killed a homeless woman who was sheltering in front of a cash machine and thus prevented the kids from being able to withdraw money?

During the conversation, the parents touch upon several serious and highly ambiguous topics. They discuss how much a homeless person’s life is worth compared to the life of an upper middle class boy; who might be accountable for the actions of a couple of underage boys; and whether parents are supposed to be punished for the actions of their children.

All this moralizing is a little bit too direct and not intriguing enough for me – what’s more interesting is the investigation of the motivations of the individual parents, and the question why some of the parents want to keep this event a secret, and why some of them want to come out in the open. And then there’s a kind of solution, which is, again, not too compelling.

And it’s not too compelling because as the story moves on, more and more emphasis is laid on the fact that the narrator, Paul (one of the fathers) suffers from some kind of mental illness, and the moral questions suddenly seem of secondary importance compared to his illness. I have mixed feelings about this. I partly feel that it’s a rather cheap solution to toss up all the big and serious ethical questions and then basically say: “But Paul is sick in the mind, so the questions aren’t even valid.” Partly, though, the depiction of Paul’s mental state is unsettling and terrifying, and being in his mind and seeing the world through his eyes is a truly uncomfortable literary experience (and this I mean positively).

Still – it might have been better (for me definitely) to choose between the ethical tale and the story of an insanity and write only one of them. It would have made for a stronger novel.

Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson

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Recently I’ve started to wonder how and why fiction works. Actually, I first started to wonder about this about 20 years ago, when I first joined the adult branch of the county library and without any proper transition period after children’s books, I started to read books which probably weren’t at all appropriate for my age, and which soon shook my naïve, childish ideas about how books are and can be written.

Several years passed since then, but through all those years, it has never occurred to me to try to look up the answer to the question of how fiction works online. A while back, however, in a free moment, I tried what happens if I ask Google how fiction works. It seems the question intrigues others, too – turns out there’s even a book with this title, by James Wood.

As I had further free moments at my disposal, I looked up this book – could it be the one that answers my big question? Could it be a good read for me, perhaps one fine day when I don’t feel like reading fiction, but I feel like reading about fiction. (It’s impossible for me not to feel like reading about fiction.)

So I read an entertaining and gently sarcastic review about Wood’s book (this one: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/17/books/review/Kirn-t.html?_r=1), which convinced me that I probably won’t (and don’t want to) learn the answer from James Wood. But – the author of this wonderful review happened to mention this book by Denis Johnson, claiming it’s a messy masterpiece. I’ve never heard about this book or Denis Johnson before, but my curiosity was immediately kindled. I happen to love messy masterworks a lot.

And now I’m so glad because Denis Johnson’s slightly connected short stories didn’t only blow my mind (I kept re-reading the stories even while I was reading the book), but they also taught me a lot about how fiction works. Or rather: I learned (again) that lots of things can work in fiction, and that there are no rules. Which is pretty encouraging.

Like I said, these stories are connected, but only in the sense that they take place more or less at the same place and same time, and they are all narrated by the same person. The narrator is nameless, but we learn that he’s known as Fuckhead to his friends. And we learn a couple of other details about him: that he’s in his twenties, he’s an alcoholic and a heroin-addict, that he is married and has girlfriends on the side, that he doesn’t refrain from aimless, unplanned violence (he doesn’t have plans and goals, anyway, and in most cases, he only thinks about violence), that he’s completely lost in the world, and that he has a heightened sense and appreciation of beauty. And – indirectly, and hopefully – we also learn that most probably he managed to survive his wild years, because sometimes he writes in a way that suggests that he’s looking back from a more mature age to the period when the non-stories take place.

The non-stories are centered around simple and/or brutal events, start in medias res, and usually end in nothing (and nothingness). In one story, for example, the narrator accompanies his girlfriend to the abortion clinic, and then takes the train to travel up and down in the city because he has nowhere to go. In another story he runs into an old drinking buddy who offers him a bit of work – so they go and steal the cables from an abandoned house, and then go on drinking with the money they made. And in another one the narrator and his buddy decide to split from the hospital where they work, and they go for a drive around the city, kill (a rabbit), save lives (the lives of bunnies, for example), get lost and see angels in the September snow – but then it turns out that the angels are, in fact, the shadows of actors on the screen of an open-air cinema.

How and why this is good – I have no idea. Words are put one after the other in a way that it’s good. I think – literature is like this, at its best.

But I can’t rest – how and why is this good?

Perhaps it’s good because of its shamelessness. These short stories are shameless. Drunk or drugged up hallucinations; paranoid fear of the real nature of things; melancholy musings about the sadness and unknowability of the world; the wild desire for beauty; the hopelessness of the days where all you do is wait for happy hour; the feeling of youthful invincibility; absolute helplessness and lethargy; unexpected tenderness and equally unexpected cruelty – these are all here, simultaneously. And all these are here as a matter of fact. No need for explanations. No need for apologies.

And this is one reason why it’s good. Because of the lack of explanations. The temptation to explain things away, to be logical and consistent is hard to resist. Johnson resists, which is awesome. Here it’s quite possible that in a moment of extraordinary tenderness you’re cradling little bunnies on your belly, making plans to feed them with sugary milk until they grow up – and then in the next moment or hour (perhaps after a drugged blackout) you find that you fucking forgot about the bunnies and accidentally crushed them to death.

I’m amazed by this – that Johnson dares to be just as fucked up as his narrator. That here it’s not a question of life versus literature, but literature equals life.

Which is, by the way, not always sad, miserable, and tragic. From time to time, this book is extremely funny, and not just from time to time but very often it’s beautiful and poetic.

And, again by the way – Denis Johnson is the writer who can capture whole lives in a single parenthetical clause:

(through windows you’d see a person in his dirty naked kitchen spooning soup toward his face, or twelve children on their bellies on the floor, watching television, but instantly they were gone, wiped away by a movie billboard of a woman winking and touching her upper lip deftly with her tongue, and she in turn erased by a – wham, the noise and dark dropped around your head – tunnel)

And being a devoted fan of parenthetical clauses, this is one more reason I feel deeply in awe of him.

Submergence by J. M. Ledgard

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Submergence is a strange, heavy, dense, deep novel.
Sometimes it’s poetic, sometimes it’s deeply unsettling, and sometimes it’s almost unbearable due to its sheer brutality.

The story: the British spy, James More (a descendant of Thomas More), who pretends to be a water engineer, is captured by jihadists in Somalia. (Water will become important again soon, right in the next sentence.) Meanwhile, Danny (who’s female), a bio-mathematician is preparing for an important dive deep into the ocean, which will probably supply her with hordes of data about the most ancient, most primeval, most indestructible life forms of the planet.

(Danny is obsessed with depth, and she often ponders about the fact that both for individual human beings, and for humanity as a whole, it’s much more difficult to travel inside, downwards, where there’s more and more darkness and pressure. Compared to this, discovering the space and emptiness above us – traveling outward, forever farther, higher, faster – is much easier and much less painful.)

While James faces deprivations in captivity and Danny prepares for her dive – both locked up in their eternal loneliness and abandonment, both afraid of the unknown inside and out – they often think about the other, and about their story together: a past Christmas in a small hotel in the French countryside where they first met, and where they had an affair that only lasted for a couple of days, yet engulfed their whole life and being in that short time.

The story of these few days unfold slowly, tucked in between the chapters dealing with the present life of the main characters (mostly of James).

The intention is clear: while he’s being brutalized in captivity, the few days of intimacy, real closeness, and deep human bond he experienced with Danny start to occupy a unique place in his mind, and his memories of the time spent together become something he can hold on to in order to keep his sanity – even if all the depth and intimacy he experienced with Danny was more or less an illusion, because Danny is unable to simplify her work – which is her innermost essence – in a way that others can understand it, and James isn’t even allowed to disclose his real occupation.

And don’t get me wrong – both Danny and James do what they do out of a very real obsession, and they even keep working during their Christmas holidays, so in their case we might say that their jobs occupy a crucial place in their life, and that they devote a significant part of their innermost selves to their occupations. The occupations they can’t or are not allowed to share with the other.

Perhaps it’s due to this ultimate impossibility-to-share that this novel often speaks in a language that distances me from the characters to the extent I don’t like to be distanced.

And I feel distanced even if there’s an abundance of beautiful and cosmic passages here – about how we are such a young and perishable species (and the only species that’s mesmerized by its own consciousness), about how most organisms live hiding in the depth, in small nooks – and parallel to this, there’s a deeply human melancholy here, a desire for life, and a desire for intimacy (because, after all, we probably really are enamored by our own consciousness, and we ache to share our secret depths with someone).

(Of course that’s another question whether we feel that the parallels drawn among the themes of the ocean, humanity, individual humans, depth, and so on are too direct or not – for me they are a bit too direct.)

So there’s a lot of fine, telling, often painfully beautiful or unsettling details here – a simple but touching simile; a memory of the now far-away Christmas (for example, when James thinks he can hide himself from Danny and then it turns out that Danny can read him like an open book – which, in this case, isn’t bad because it means that someone truly pays attention); or a present event (for example, when James masturbates in his cell with the intention to soil the space around him – and he deliberately avoids thinking about Danny during his act of rebellion).

But these tender or brutal passages are often lost in the sea of encyclopedic, political, or schoolteacher-like ruminations. I often feel that Ledgard-the-journalist defeats Ledgard-the-fiction-writer, and I don’t think that’s particularly desirable in a novel. For literary fiction, the style of this novel is too dry. Sure, you can write things like: “James was traumatized by certain experiences during his captivity to such an extent that he lost all his ability to act” – but to me this feels more like journalism, not fiction. And before I get completely lost in my train of thought: this isn’t non-fiction. This book is literary fiction, only not very successful as such.

Not always successful – because when Ledgard decides to dig a little deeper (yes!) into his characters, into their thoughts, and into the way they experience their lives (be it either the invocation of memories, or the deprivations and mortal danger of the present), then I also feel this depth, and I’m touched and unhinged, and I can’t stop thinking about the characters, and they crawl into my dreams. However, when Ledgard goes on to deliver a lecture about the political situation in Somalia or about Islam, then I have a hard time willingly suspending my disbelief and accepting that these are James’ thoughts, even if the lectures are prefaced by saying “James thought that…”

In the end, my feelings are mixed. On the one hand, this is an extremely strong and affecting book (perhaps – just perhaps – partly because it’s based on real events), and it more or less works as a novel, too – that’s for sure that I want to find out what happens to the characters (I’m more interested in James’ fate than in Danny’s, though, probably because there’s much more depth to James’ character, and I naturally feel more about him than about Danny). But all the lecturing and explanations do nothing good for me here.

Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk

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Chuck Palahniuk’s book is an intriguing, modern, and successful take on an ancient story-telling technique. In the frame of the narrative, we meet a number of screwed-up would-be artists who all hide shameful faults or sins in their past, and who all answer a tempting newspaper ad that offers a three-month retreat with all expenses paid, all necessities provided. The wannabe writers are all eager to jump on the opportunity as they imagine that far from the madding crowd they will finally be able to write their masterpieces, and then return to their regular life all renewed.

Instead of an idyllic writers’ community, however, they find themselves in a gloomy, abandoned, old theater building where – true – they have everything they need to stay alive, but the simple fact that the circumstances are not exactly as they imagined is enough for them to feel cheated. And just as in their real life they always found an excuse for not writing, here, too, shut off from the world, they always manage to blame their circumstances and avoid writing altogether.

Despite the fact that the characters don’t write the supposed masterpieces that have been blooming in their minds for long, they still become artists, creative people – doubly so. First, they come up with the idea that they make a novel – or rather: a large-scale, bloody, bound-for-success drama – out of their own lives, and jointly they create the fiction that they were forced into the role of the victim and sentenced to three months of suffering by the unknown evil who put in the newspaper ad they replied to. And second, while they get deeply immersed into their roles as victims, they tell stories to pass the time. These stories take up the bulk of the book.

A couple of literary parallels are immediately obvious here – some of them are mentioned in the book, too. The structure of Haunted – that is, the way the true or fictitious stories told by the characters are wedged in between the present-day, real events – resembles the structure of The Canterbury Tales and Decameron. Moreover, the characters of Haunted often mention the holiday taken by Byron and his company by Lake Geneva, where they all agreed to write a horror story – and they all seem to identify with Byron and company. And as regards a couple of plot elements and the way sin/crime and punishment are connected, the novel resembles Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None: in Haunted, just like in Christie’s novel, the characters all decide for themselves that they leave their real life behind and trust their fate to complete strangers.

Despite all these parallels and similarities, Haunted is still original and not at all boring – because Palahniuk uses the possibilities inherent in his chosen narrative structure very well and he asks lots of intriguing questions. Reading this book, you might wonder – among other things – about the questions of what makes reality reality, and what makes fiction fiction, and how the environment shapes the way people perceive themselves. (Like I said, Haunted is set in an abandoned theater, and it seems that the setting forces the characters to imagine themselves as if they were the cast for a play, and makes them live their lives according to an unwritten script during the three months of their confinement.) And the fact that the characters – while living through their carefully constructed tragic present – share their true stories with one another can make you wonder how you construct reality from stories, and how you construct another person’s personality from the stories he chooses to tell. (And of course, we mustn’t forget that the real stories told by the characters can just as easily be fictitious stories, or the pumped-up or toned-down versions of the real stories – if that fits the purpose better.)

Haunted isn’t only interesting because of these questions, though. The stories told by the characters are also good and well-told. They are also very dark and frightening, they are full of tension, and they are deeply unsettling and depressing. Also – their effect doesn’t wither with re-reading. I read this book twice so far, and the second reading was just as enjoyable as the first one. In fact, I found some stories somewhat ridiculous the first time around (for example, „Civil Twilight”), but they filled me with dread and anxiety upon re-reading.

Besides all this, Haunted features Palahniuk’s trademark critical attitude and his smart and merciless remarks about consumer society. I vastly prefer Haunted to some of his other work, though, because here all the cutting observations are sprinkled moderately throughout the stories, and not hammered into my face by a single, perhaps too directly critical narrator.

This is a good, very consciously created and very enjoyable book. It’s a book that doesn’t need the kind of cheap advertising I often read about it (for example, about the number of people who fainted during Palahniuk’s public reading of one of the stories, „Guts”) because it can create its effect on its own. And I’m also pretty sure it’s not only memorable because of the extremely graphic and brutal stories it contains – it goes deeper than mere brutality.

London Fields by Martin Amis

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Martin Amis feels like the Michel Houellebecq for one-time literary majors like me who don’t necessarily like to take everything seriously. Amis writes about the same topics as Houellebecq (the world is coming to an end; the era of emotions and „normal” human relationships is past; the only possible connection between two humans is sex; nothing makes sense any more; and so on) in the same postmodern way, and if I were inclined to take him seriously, he would make me want to cut my wrist like Houellebecq does. As opposed to Houellebecq, however, Amis does have a sense of humor, and he gives me the chance to not take him seriously. And this is a chance I gladly take – partly because I don’t think that life is terribly bad, and partly because – if life were really such terribly bad, I would only be able to stand it with lots of humor.

But now on to the novel. London Fields is the story of a carefully planned murder (or suicide), and symbolically the story of the whole world’s suicide. As regards the particular personal suicide and the characters in the novel: the protagonist is Nicola Six, a mind-blowingly seductive, manipulative sex goddess, and mistress of all kinds of erotic games – a woman who’s always been able to give men anything they wanted, except for love, a woman who’s always been able to get everything she wanted from men – except for love. It’s not at all certain that love would have changed anything in her life (Nicola Six is not exactly a sentimental woman), so her lovelessness in life is not the only reason why she decides to commit suicide – but it’s part of the picture.

Nicola, however, doesn’t want to go through the suicide-business alone – she needs someone who does her the favor of killing her. At the beginning of the story, she finds two possible candidates for this role. One of them is Keith Talent, a violent, not particularly winsome con man whose life consists of sex, booze, and darts, and who generally acts like a man perfectly capable of and willing to kill a woman, should the circumstances arise. The other candidate is Guy Clinch, a soft, gentle, exceedingly naive aristocrat, who doesn’t at all look capable of killing anyone – but Nicola Six is just the person to induce murderous rage in the most peaceful man on earth. And then there’s a third man here (and a fourth, hidden in the background) – these latter two are ironic alter-egos for Martin Amis: one of them is the person who knows the most about Nicola’s plans and is writing a supposedly true-life novel about Nicola’s way to self-obliteration, and the other one is also a writer, and he’s the person Nicola has been the most attached to all her life (or not).

Is this already sufficiently tangled, annoyingly over-complicated, and postmodern? I guess so. But I also guess that this is Martin Amis’ method. I haven’t read all his novels, far from it, but from what I’ve read, it seems that he likes to build his stories around a single joke. This is what happens in Money, this is what happens here, and this is what probably happens in some of his other works I either haven’t read or don’t remember anymore. Another typical Amis feature is that he likes to exaggerate (a lot), thereby making everything hardly-real, hardly-credible. Case in point: his characters’ name, and their habits and behavior: Guy Clinch with his out-of-this-world naivety; Keith Talent with his unsustainable habits of drinking, smoking, and womanizing; and Nicola Six with her one-of-a-kind sexual prowess.

And I’m glad Amis writes like this – this way I can pretend while reading that none of it is true. Sure, if I try to glance behind the exaggerations, the irony, and the unreliable narration, then I see how hideous and horrible all this is – but I don’t necessarily want to see all of this. And I appreciate it that Amis lets me decide when and how much I take him seriously. And I like it, too, that it’s also my decision how much I take this novel to be the suicide story of not just Nicola Six but of the whole world. Right now – not too much. Amis can be awesome when he deals with someone’s personal apocalypse but he hardly ever manages to make me believe in his large-scale apocalypses. In fact, I feel as if he himself hasn’t yet figured out – hmm – why exactly he thinks the world is ending, and what’s this world-scale apocalypse anyway. Which is just as well for me.