Read Some Books. You Got a Problem With That?

Vernon God Little Darkness at Noon - Vintage classics

I haven’t been doing much with this blog recently, as I’ve been knocking out a novel (as opposed to cracking one out).  Anyway, that’s pretty much finished now, bar the editing, the reluctant acceptance by my agent, and the inevitable rejection by my publisher (joking, I’m sure they’ll love it).  Anyway, in my time away from here, I’ve been praised and damned in equal measure, and have read a few books.  As I know my opinion counts for a lot round here in Internetland, here is what I thought about what I read.

I don’t read much contemporary fiction, partly because there’s so much old stuff still knocking about I don’t know if I’m going to get through it all in time, but also because I don’t think it’s a good idea for an author to read too much new things, or their influences will be too obvious, and they’ll end up being ‘fashionable’ and ‘successful’ and ‘not bankrupt’.  I do read the odd thing, however, and only five years after everybody else, I decided to read Vernon God Little by DBC Pierre.

I was attracted to this title because I’d seen the author behave in a pleasingly insane manner in a documentary he’d made about the Aztecs on telly a few years ago.  I was hoping that anybody that barking would surely have written an amazingly unhinged novel that would be right up my street.

Unfortunately, I was a bit off on that front.  Don’t get me wrong, the novel’s ok, there’s a lot of good stuff in it, but like our own Will Self, Pierre’s public persona is ultimately more imaginative and more finely honed than his actual writing.

(I’m not entirely sure exactly where Pierre is from.  He manages to carry off that trick that only literary types can really manage of apparently being from several different places simultaneously.  As far as I can work out, he’s French, Australian, and American.  And Aztec.)

The book itself is a decent enough tale of a teenager wrongly accused of a Columbine-style massacre.  It takes a while for it to really find its voice, with teenage first-person narration littered with observations and metaphors no teenager would ever come up with, but once it gets going the sense of a life being manipulated to meet the agendas of others is very well done.  The build-up to the climax is very exciting indeed, only for it to – well, I’ll just say the ending isn’t exactly the one the story seems to demand.

Vernon God Little won the Booker Prize which is a bit surprising because it’s a very rough and ready novel, and I think could have benefited from another draft or so.  As we now know, however, the Booker entries are read very fast indeed by the judging panel, so perhaps in their haste, they awarded the book they glimpsed within the one that’s actually on the page.

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I first became aware of 20th Century intellectual giant Arthur Koestler when, some years after his death, it was claimed that he had raped film-maker Jill Craigie, wife of Michael Foot.  I was studying at the time and I found one of his books on a shelf of withdrawn books in the university library, free to take away.  Opening it, however, I found that it was not an old library book at all, but from someone’s personal collection.  It seems they could not bear to have it in the house anymore.

Anyway, that’s just an anecdote, and doesn’t really have any bearing on his 1940 novel, Darkness at Noon.  This describes the process by which an old Bolshevik is convinced to admit to crimes against the state in the (unnamed in the book) USSR.  The warped logic by which a Marxist revolution was subverted into its seeming opposite of totalitarianism is precisely laid out here in a slow unnerving game of wits in which there can be only one outcome.  It helps to have a bit of an understanding of the rhetoric of the time, but it’s a key text of the period that’s perhaps been overshadowed by Orwell’s narratively richer 1984.  With a state leader known only as No.1, and its theme of detainment, it also foreshadows Patrick MacGoohan’s The Prisoner TV series.

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Finally, I read The Fate of Mary Rose by Caroline Blackwood from 1981.  I just bought this in a charity shop because I liked the look of it, and had no knowledge of the author, but it turns out she was Lucien Freud’s first wife, and is the girl with the scary big blue eyes in his early paintings.  She was also of that post-war generation of creative folk who spent a lot of time engaging in histrionics, driving each other to drink and just generally needing to bloody calm down.

The novel is about a misanthropic historian whose wife becomes obsessed by the murder of a local girl, and must attempt to face up to his previously neglected role as a father and rescue his daughter from his growingly deranged wife.

At times, it is very atmospheric and genuinely scary, with some real psychological shocks.  Unfortunately, Blackwood relies on a rather clunky device of having many scenes related in conversation, with far more detail included than anyone would ever reasonably give.  Also, the whole story is essentially scuppered by some plain unbelievable behaviour by the investigating police force.

So there you have it.  Koestler wins by a comfortable mile, Pierre and Blackwood battling it out for a distant second place.  Next week, Koestler must take on literary giant Irene Handl in a no-holds barred death match.  There can be only one winner, and Handl’s looking tasty.


Lucien Freud, Girl in Bed, 1952.


4 Responses to “Read Some Books. You Got a Problem With That?”

  1. Derek Thompson Says:

    Good to have you back on the radar, Richard. Are there any writers you’ve read who you think are worth the hype?

  2. To be honest, I don’t think I read enough contemporary literature to give an informed opinion. The trick is probably to look at authors who aren’t hyped that much, but seem to have nevertheless built up genuine support from discerning readers.

  3. Coincidentally, my friend, Jayne Austin-Allegro, is also a book lover.

  4. I picked up Caroline Blackwood’s novel Great Granny Webster recently in a second hand bookshop, inspired by the fact that it has recently been reissued by NYRB Classics. Haven’t read it yet though, so that’s as far as my useful contribution to this post can go.

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