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issue 29: March - April 2002

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Pandora’s Handbag: Adventures in the Book World by Elizabeth Young: Serpent’s Tail, U.K. 2001

Elizabeth Young died in March 2001 at age 50 of Hepatitis C. Her name was slightly familiar to me as a literary critic for The Guardian, but I couldn’t remember if I’d liked her book reviews or disliked them; the name stuck, but I wasn’t sure why. I was drawn to this collection because I’m a bibliophile myself and because the cover blurb states: "succeeds in making literary criticism a good read." I was also drawn because the publisher is none other than Serpent’s Tail, which consistently offers some of the most original, imaginative and worthwhile writing available today.

A quick look through the index showed Young to have been a champion of A. M. Homes’ novel The End of Alice, at a time when it was being banned by certain organizations in the U.K. and dissed by most of the broadsheets. At this point, the name twigged. I pulled up my own review of that novel in which I state that A.L. Kennedy and Elizabeth Young emerged as the only sane voices in the U.K. in their critique of this fine novel. Yes, I’d liked her; I’d liked her a hell of a lot; and I knew I was in for a treat with this collection. It only saddened me to read that she’d died, that we’d no longer have her ‘sane voice’ on books and issues literary and otherwise. But thanks to Serpent’s Tail, we do have Pandora’s Handbag, which brings together much of her commentary over the past decade, taken from such sources as The Guardian, The Independent, The Big Issue and The New Statesman, and falling under such headings as "America and literature," "Writing columns," "In the bag," "U.K. literature," and "Short monographs." For lovers of contemporary cutting-edge fiction - and issues and ideas - this book is simply a must. Each article is prefaced by a recent introduction by Young, which helps put it into a very up-to-date context and often proves as illuminating as the article to follow. A moving introduction by Will Self, a long-time friend, serves up a profile. As he says: "Elizabeth Young was the great, British, counter-cultural literary critic, who we had - but didn’t really deserve; whose elegance, sang-froid, erudition and love of the bizarre were yoked to a rare ability to fully enter into - and even inhabit - the imagined worlds of other writers. Young was a fearless champion of fearless writing, a merciless opponent of cant, convention and hypocrisy, whose prose could progress effortlessly from the painfully direct, to the gnomic, to the discursive, to the outright quirky. She despised sentiment - she didn’t know what whimsy was."

An added pleasure is that you will also get to know Elizabeth Young the person as there is much autobiography in the writing. In the section on American literature, she speaks in the intro of being an "ur-Goth" in her youth and suffering from clinical depression ("I didn’t even notice when my third NHS psychiatrist raped me," she offers nonchalantly.) Reading proved a kind of lifeline, albeit an obsession, and it was the Beat Generation that attracted her at the time. So it was with much enthusiasm that in 1994 she interviewed an ageing but sprightly Herbert Huncke in Bruges ("When I was persuaded, effortlessly, to part with my aeroplane Valium, I felt pleased to have met and been conned by a legendary master"). Articles on other Americans to whom she was drawn - William Burroughs, Jane Bowles, the avant-garde singer Diamanda Galas, Alice Munro - follow. And then the spirited defence of Bret Easton Ellis, taking us through all of his books, and the intelligent critique of A.M. Homes’ novel of a pedophile. As Young says: "I don’t think that there is anything that should not be written about; censorship merely imports the deceit, hypocrisy and ignorance of real life into the world of imagination which is the only place we can, and should, be free."

A little vitriol, too, in a discussion of three writers - Alice Hoffman, Barbara Kingslover and Ann Patchett: "Despite all the good things feminism has achieved it has also produced some horribly twee female authors, predominately North American. They are Pollyannas of political correctness and I hate them." A review of Hoffman’s popular Turtle Moon articulates the feelings of many of us: "At her best Hoffman has something of Truman Capote’s ability to evoke the doom and decay of the South but her style lacks any of the perverse depths and intricacies of Southern Gothic. What she delivers instead, underneath the adjectival incontinence, is a set of romantic conventions, adroitly updated as New Age schlock."

There is a perceptive defence of Dennis Cooper’s work as well: "His fiction attempts to unravel a nightmarishly complex knot of predatory homosexual desire, murderous fantasy and perversion - shot through with shards of tenderness, vision and a fragmented, potent humanity." And a review of Patricia Morriswroe’s biography of Robert Mapplethorpe, which Young dismisses as "high-class gossip" while offering us her own memorable profile. An interview with T. Coraghessan Boyle, whose work she admires, shows him to be a bit of a boor as an interviewee ("Boyle’s messianic zeal on the supreme importance of literature comes across with all the force and conviction of a fundamentalist preacher"); one feels he is addressing his audience in much the way he must address his undergraduate students. An interview with Pamela Des Barres, the famous rock groupie, provides some excellent commentary on the 1950s (" ‘The fifties’ - the very words make me want to spit - especially now when you get shrinks like Oliver James insisting that it was bliss back then and everyone was as happy as Ovalteenies on E. They were not.")

The section "Writing Columns" covers a myriad of topics, from the death of her cat to early efforts to lose her virginity; from nannies killing babies to her favorite reading as a teenager; to a moving piece in which she writes - after having been pushed to do so - on what it was like to have been beautiful, as Young most certainly was.

"In the Bag" also covers a wide range of topics, including her disgust and rage over the drug legislation of recent history - specifically the criminalization of heroin and cocaine - a subject on which she is quite the crusader. Here again we have a much needed "sane voice" on the absurdity of America’s and Britain’s "war on drugs." Articles ranging from rock biographies and rock music to true crime novels follow, along with an early interview with Poppy Z. Brite, whose talent Young unearthed in the horror genre. There is also an informative review of Laurence O’Toole’s book Pornocopia which challenges Britain’s laws on hardcore adult pornography. The section ends with an article on Hepatitis C, which was one of the first to be published on the subject outside medical texts and served - and still serves; it’s a classic piece - to awaken people to the facts and realities of this frightful new epidemic. I have the Hepatitis C virus myself and it was welcoming to read Young’s account of her own and other patients’ experiences - the kind of thing you do not hear from your hepatologist.

In "U.K. literature," we are given a summary of ‘British writing in the 1990s’ ("there is little that seizes the soul"), followed by praise of such writers as Stewart Home, Alasdair Gray, Alan Warner and Irvine Welsh, whom Young was one of the first to champion. There is also a revealing early interview with Welsh. I particularly appreciated her sensitive critique of Warner’s work, especially the brilliant Morvern Callar.

Like Will Self, I too found that I was marking passage after passage in the book. The more I read - and I’ve touched on so little! - the more I found Elizabeth Young to be a woman after my own heart. I know of no one else remotely like her writing commentary today. Her sane and lucid voice will be terribly missed. If, like me, you prefer the writing of a Dennis Cooper or Alan Warner to the likes of Alice Hoffman; if Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is not your idea of excellence in fiction; if you find that current drug laws and censorship campaigns need urgently to be addressed; or if you simply appreciate an intelligent survey of contemporary cutting-edge fiction, then don’t miss reading this compelling collection; you will be richer for the experience. J.A.

Only an Alligator by Steve Aylett: Gollancz, London, 2001

You may be familiar with Aylett’s Beerlight novels - Atom and Slaughtermatic - or the collection of stories Toxicology or his later Shamanspace, all reviewed here in TBR. If so, you’ll know that Aylett is a one-of-a-kind, off-the-wall cult writer, whose works have been described "as a heavy decompression experience, where the reader must re-acclimatise to normal life." As he says of his work: "It insists on leaving out the obvious, and the shapes that are left make sense to some people and not to others, depending on whether they’ve worked out the basic stuff or not." The wacky plots are fun, but somewhat incidental; one enters Aylett territory to wallow in the rich hallucinogenic atmosphere and soak up the clever ideas and provocative sound bites.

In this latest venture, we are introduced to the town of Accomplice, which - as with many of Aylett’s settings - would seem to be some kind of freaky parallel universe in which nothing is quite like life as we know it yet nevertheless has an eerily familiar feel. The town has a mayor, Mayor Rudloe, who speaks of the necessity of keeping "our moral fibre under armed guard." He is speaking literally; "moral fibre" is a "muscle" kept under lock and key: "You know the tower across town? Like a lighthouse? Length of muscle, stretched between two pegs. I’ve seen it of course, as Mayor. Quite a sight. Twanged on the hour. I’d have it here if I could, but . . . tradition, you know." Moral fibre, housed in the Tower of Nowt, may not infiltrate his mayoral palace, but he has a hell of time with floor lobsters, which settle in as the result of a corrupt environment. These "scuttling carapaces" threaten to overtake the place yet Mayor Rudloe holds forth with journalists as though they were not there, nonchalantly smashing them with his foot under his desk while covering the sound with a blustering cough. Welcome to Accomplice!

Our protagonist is Barny Juno, who lives to "care for the winged and stepping animals of the earth and be happy." Trouble ensues when one day Barny slips underground into the "creepchannel" where the "pulsing vessels of the subway wall, which were encrusted with blown clocks, lawyers and other detritus" are also found to contain "some kind of crocodilian caught in the melted pizza cheese of the channel wall." Animal lover Barny rescues the gator, whom he names Mr. Newton, and takes him home to reside in his vast menagerie. Little does he know that creepchannel resident Sweeney, a demon exoskeleton, had planned on dining on the gator which he’d been keeping in a kind of nerve-net marinade, a necessary measure to spice up the blandness of souls these days. Sweeney’s pissed off over the loss and out to get our gentle boy.

Meanwhile, all sorts of other things are going on in Accomplice: one of Barny’s mates, Gregor, has confessed to having a problem with dinosaurs, as in lusting after them. After a trip to Doctor Perfect, it is decided that he should purge the condition by consummating his feelings. Barny and another mate, Plantin Edge - whose balls detach and fly off at night - sneak into a local museum along with Gregor and direct him to the cretaceous section. A guard interrupts and Gregor hides in a fetal position in the dinosaur skull, only to be mistaken for a fossil when he is discovered, which leads to further complications. And then there’s the case of Barny’s dad, Pa Juno, who seems to be haunted by the ghost of his hair. Barney wants to help his dad and so tracks down a Vanta grid, a kind of ghost-catcher, which he plans to give to Pa on his birthday.

Mayor Rudloe is currently running in a mayoral contest against Doomed Eddie Gallo. Both seize on Barny as a symbol of their campaign. It was Sweeney’s bat-like fiend, Dietrich Hammerwire, who put the idea to Rudloe that Barny could serve "as a scapegoat for the ills of the era." Rudloe clings to this idea, but when no one reads his leaflets he switches to an anti-alligator poster campaign - since the town is already scared of Barny’s gator - while Doomed Eddie Gallo, also a pawn in demon Dietrich’s game, puts up Barny-is-a-bastard posters all over town. "Everyone seems to hate me in an unfocused sort of way," complains the hapless Barny.

Who will win the election? Will Sweeney get his revenge? Will Barny’s disguising his gator as a crocodile have any effect? Will Barny be able to find another job when he’s sacked? Will the Vanta grid help Pa Juno get rid of the ghost of his hair? And how does the Ultimatum Restaurant and the Church of the Automata fit in? What about the ancient philosopher, Bingo Violaine, who’s considered a ‘brainsaver’ - someone to be quoted when people go a long time without thinking. Things are popping above and below ground in Accomplice and it’s a delirious, mind-blowing experience to cruise through its weird "etheric." This is the first of a series of Accomplice books, so now is a good time to jump in and get to know the territory. It’s a head trip and it’s fun, and its sharp, canny sound bites - a hallmark of Aylett’s work - can sometimes stop you in your tracks: "The soul’s a thread through the head and under threat it’ll squirm into itself like a burning hair strand, ending as an untraceable atom without ego, breath or danger." Where else can you read stuff like that, I ask you? J.A.

The Death of Sweet Mister by Daniel Woodrell: No Exit Press, UK. 2002

Back in 1999 when I reviewed Tomato Red I said: ‘This was my first Woodrell and it will not be my last. I’m hooked.’ I had to wait a few years for my second dose but it was more than worth it; The Death of Sweet Mister is an absolute gem. Like Tomato it is set in the Ozarks and features ‘white trash,’ but Sweet Mister’s plot is not as complex . . .well, not on the surface.

Thirteen and overweight, Shug’s only friend is his affectionate and doting mother Glenda. The ugly blot in both their lives is Red, Glenda’s husband but not Shug’s father. Red, as the violent, beer-swigging, pill-popping petty thief, could potentially fall into stereotypical territory and Woodrell does well not only to deflect this but also to deftly paint Red as even more revolting than one could imagine. Red and side-kick Basil soon bully Shug into relieving the sick and dying in the area of their pharmaceutical drugs. Such brash thievery can only lead to being caught, which Shug is. The violence that would greet Shug if he ratted on Red would just about be equal to that if Red discovered Glenda having an affair (which she is, while he is with his mistress). Same old plot then with a predictable ending? Not on your life. This deceptively simple tale has a sting.

It is also gloriously written. As with Tomato Red I wondered if a lot of the language was genuine Ozark or artistic license. Shug is the narrator so one would expect a young-boy perspective, regional corruptions and so on but at times it reads almost biblical: "I scouted my hands up to the lamp neck but the button wasn’t found, so I scouted back to the root and did find the button there and did push it. The light made was plenty." The auxiliary ‘did’ is notable of the style and works to good effect. Like the plot, Woodrell keeps the writing tight and sparse; any artistic wanderings, as with the plot, have a sting at the end. "The weather had looped around to where it was good again, too good to last long, and had prompted blossoms to unclench and wild flowers to pose tall and prissy amongst the weeds, plus it bought forth song birds and bumble bees and all the likewise shit of spring." The author doesn’t like to waste words so this bucolic description, at the start of the novel, seems overlong, but later one is able to see it as a subtle foundation to how our narrator really thinks: one lesson that Red seems to be successfully passing down to his ‘son’ is hate.

The Death of Sweet Mister is the type of book that should be used in writing courses. Short, to the point, with the surface story flowing nicely over and around the subtle undercurrents bubbling underneath. So tight and well-crafted it is, with every action and word having weight, that one wonders about the role of one character who only appears to be there purely as decoration or possibly as some type of a red herring to deceive the reader. Why is X in this book? Discuss.

This is a fine book on many levels but most importantly it is a joy to read. M.G.S.

The Cheese Monkeys: A Novel in Two Semesters by Chip Kidd: Scribner, 2001

It’s the late 1950s and our young, unnamed narrator has finally decided on a major: "Majoring in Art at the state university appealed to me because I have always hated Art, and I had a hunch if any school would treat the subject with the proper disdain, it would be one that was run by the government." From roommates to registration, and on to befriending the slightly gormless Maybelle, the novel kicks into college-comedy gear. Dottie Sprang’s drawing class - with surreal still lifes and an inspired if not insane way for teaching ‘gesture drawing’ - is where our young man meets his love interest, Himillsy Dodd, known throughout as ‘Hims’ or ‘Mills’. She’s a bit of an oddball live wire and already spoken for, but the two click and the next semester they decide to continue in an art group, which leaves only one option as the other classes are filled: Art 127 - Graphic Design, run by Winter Sorbeck. No, it does not become an ‘Animal House’ meets ‘Dead Poets Society’ type of thing. Beginning with Sorbeck’s class, the emphasis of the book changes and the laughs become muted as our main protagonists are taught to ‘see’.

Taught to see? Many years ago there was a documentary of some London art students following the first four weeks of their course. They were each given a large, solid polystyrene cube and told not to speak. For four weeks. Eventually some decided to make ‘art’ out of the cube but one student reduced his to bits and made a chess set to wile away the hours. Sorbeck would have loved him. On a personal front I went to a UK art college and this being taught ‘to see’ is not an easy process as, like writing, it really involves some innate talent and a test of one’s own personality while under the gun. When your work is insulted you too are insulted and it is impossible to create good work – ever. You will be criticised. Tears were a common sight. With the thousands of talented people who go through art college it is surprising that nobody has written about the experience. The Cheese Monkeys is the first attempt I have come across and it goes a long way to fill the hole although I feel the author could have taken it further. As it is, however, with Sorbeck’s arrival the book cleverly moves into a new and darker direction leading to an unexpected conclusion.

This is Kidd’s first novel but not his first book. Apart from some non-fiction, he is responsible, as a designer, for many book covers – from Crichton’s Jurassic Park and McCarthy’s Border Trilogy to George Saunders’ Pastoralia – and is highly respected and honoured in his field. It comes as no surprise then that the book’s layout was designed by Kidd and the cover by . . . "Some Guy" (Kidd, of course). The cover, though playful, is actually a bit ugly. There is a sheath, rather than a jacket, that reveals a picture of a hunk of cheese and some monkeys but done in that nasty 1950s cheap encyclopaedia style. The spine is also OTT with title and author fighting with the words ‘Good Is Dead’, which also appears as a smudge on the closed pages. Then on the ridge of the binding are the credits and a warning: ‘Don’t Mention Elephants’. The inside is equally as odd with all the publishing credits and copyrights on one line over a number of pages, which means the title is split over two sides. And the novel ends, intentionally, without a colophon – a page with information about the making of the book. One presumes if Kidd could have, he would have finished the novel on the cover itself.

The end result, layout and story, is obviously a must for anyone who has been through art college or works in design, but the engaging plot will attract readers from all fields. M.G.S.

© 2002The Barcelona Review
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tbr 29              march - abril  2002


Michel Faber: Some Rain Must Fall
Jackie Kay: Physics and Chemistry
Mark Winegardner: Halftime
Jean Harfenist: Pixie Dust
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