issue 39: November - December 2003
index of book reviews for all issues
|Note: TBR encourages readers to buy books at their local independent booksellers, but not all UK books are available in the US and vice-versa. For on-line book ordering of UK books Amazon UK carries all titles reviewed in TBR; all US releases carried by Amazon.com unless otherwise noted.|
Timoleon Vieta Come Home: A Sentimental Journey by Dan Rhodes: Canongate Books, 2003
You may know Dan Rhodes name from Grantas Twenty Best Young British Writers 2003, an honor resting on two short-story collections and what was then the upcoming novel Timoleon Vieta, which, by the way, is anything but "sentimental." I could write at length about who should have been on that list but wasnt as well as who, in my opinion, dubiously made the grade; and about how I get a bit fed up with the hype of the whole thing; but I do have the highest regard for Ian Jack and at least he gets us all talking about the writers and writing - as does Bloom with his lists - which is a good thing. In any case, Im thrilled to see Dan Rhodes slide in as an outsider because the quirky, tragicomedy Timoleon Vieta ranks as one of my favorite novels of the year and the author indeed deserves the recognition.
Timoleon Vieta is a marvelous story of an aging English homosexual named Cockroft who was once a well known musical composer and bon vivant in London until a drunken appearance on TV ended everything. After many lovers, which left him brokenhearted, and his TV disgrace, which turned everyone against him, he had spent his time thinking of ways to commit suicide, but never quite followed through. On his alternative list of things to do in lieu of killing himself, one option was to move to the country in Italy, which is where we find him at the beginning of the novel. Here, in Umbria, he lives meagerly on the little bit of royalties money that comes his way. Occasionally he takes binge-drinking weekend trips to Florence and tries to pick up a guy. Mainly, he sits at home downing alcohol and thinking about his past. Then, into his lonely life comes a stray dog, a mongrel, whom he names Timoleon Vieta. Timoleon Vieta, with his lovely eyes, becomes Cockrofts best friend, a friend to whom he can tell all the stories about his past.
Five years later, a man known only as The Bosnian appears at Cockrofts run-down country home. He and Timoleon Vieta are sitting out front, watching this strange man walk towards the house:
Of course he is not Italian, and mercifully speaks some English. Cockroft cant remember the guy for the life of him, but when The Bosnian, who moves right in, offers to pay his rent - sucking off Cockroft at 7:00 pm every Wed. - Cockroft recognizes the line hes used many times in inviting guys to come stay with him, but of course had never intended in a literal sense. Thrilled and bemused, Cockroft accepts this arrangement, even though The Bosnian hardly ever speaks or pays attention to him. Worse yet, The Bosnian doesnt like Timoleon Vieta and Timoleon Vieta definitely doesnt like him. Finally, The Bosnian says that either he goes or the dog goes. In a thoroughly drunken state, Cockroft lets The Bosnian talk him into driving the dog to Rome and leaving him there to "enjoy" life around the city. "Ive been holding him back all these years," the old man said. "Hell have such a wonderful time."
This takes us about halfway into the novel. From here on the book turns to various stories of the people that Timoleon Vieta meets on his long journey through Italy, trying to get back to Cockroft. The dog isnt the principal character in these stories; hes just there and often offers solace to those around him, who take him in for a day or so and give him various names. These stories are all wonderful in their own right. They each deal with love and heartbreak, sometimes involving physical disfigurement. The common theme is one of hope. Example: a popular town hooligan sits on a bench next to a sweet, deaf high-school girl. They begin having a "conversation" by jotting notes to each other and "within five pages they had exchanged solemn vows of love." The girl later ends the relationship and the worst of tragedies befalls the reformed hooligan, who nevertheless returns daily to the bench where he met his love. Tragic as the stories are, there is also a darkly comic tone, often just because they are so outrageous. And, of course, we never lose site of Cockroft and The Bosnian, whose past histories are interwoven amongst the stories.
I dont dare give the ending away. Like the entire book, it is tragicomic. The novels epigraph, taken from Lassie Come-Home, serves well: " . . . dogs are owned by men, and men are bludgeoned by fate."
I adore this book because of its originality, its eccentric humor, its wit and its compassion. Several times I laughed out loud, and I was moved. Above all, the author is a great storyteller, but he also manages to convey a sense of eternal hope amidst human (and animal) suffering which actually proves to be quite profound in its peculiar way. The dark humor is decidedly British; the tone and the meandering, unpredictable direction of the novel reminded me somewhat not of another British author, but of Haruki Murakami (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle). Timoleon Vieta, however, contains more rollicking humor and doesnt require the patience that Murakami does. Our protagonist may not be wholly sympathetic - otherwise there would be that danger of sentimentality - but Cockroft is a divine creation and one youll long remember. The doggy, too. Dont miss it. J.A.
The Last Summer of Reason (St. Paul, MN: Ruminator Books, 2001) and The Watchers (Ruminator, 2002) by Tahar Djaout; paperbacks released by Ruminator, 2003
This review begins with a confession. When I first saw a copy of The Last Summer of Reason while browsing in a bookstore off Harvard Square, it wasnt Tahar Djaouts name that caught my eye, but the name of Wole Soyinka, who supplied the introduction to this short novel. Intrigued as to whom Soyinka, Nigerias 1986 Nobel laureate in literature, might take the time to introduce, I quickly discovered a writer who merited such attention. Born in Algeria, Djaout was assassinated in 1993, an event attributed to members of the Islamic Salvation Front, a fundamentalist group that interpreted Djaouts writings as a threat to their interests and those of other Muslims. Djaout had been a novelist, poet, and journalist, publishing eleven books total by the time of his death at the age of 39. He received the Prix Mèditerranèe for his novel The Watchers (Les Vigiles), originally published in 1991. All told, a life and promising career in literature cut short for political reasons, a situation no doubt familiar to Soyinka who has similarly dodged the capricious violence of postcolonial Nigerian politics. But what is his writing like, beyond these tragic circumstances?
Recently released in paperback, The Last Summer of Reason was found as an unedited manuscript among Djaouts belongings after his death. Soyinka describes it as a posthumous allegory . . . beamed at the complacent conscience of the world, and it certainly does contain a political purpose, in many ways appearing as a prophesy of Djaouts own fate. The story is a simple one: Boualem Yekker, the storys central protagonist, is a bookstore owner in an unnamed coastal town in a country meant to approximate an imagined Algeria of the near future. The state is fundamentalist in orientation, led by a group known as the Vigilant Brothers. Given this context, Boualem is consequently forced to watch his every move, for fear of receiving some form of punishment or a violent end at the hands of this intolerant regime. Djaout successfully creates a claustrophobic atmosphere, with the city feeling simultaneously empty and ready to explode in violence. However, despite this sense of menace on each page, not much happens. Djaout describes Boualems day-to-day life, takes us through his dreams and memories, and leaves us in the end with the immensity of an uncertain future. We read of a final vacation with his family (the last summer of the title), his friend Ali Elbouliga, his unconventional political opinions, a vivid nightmare involving his son. An ironic process of character development therefore occurs the more he loses, the fuller his character becomes with Boualems life being one of increasing isolation, where his children, family, and even his books gradually fail him. By the end of the novel, he, like the reader, is left hollowed out.
Taken as a whole then, The Last Summer of Reason resembles other dystopian novels such as Orwells 1984 or Atwoods The Handmaids Tale. The individual versus the state provides the primary dramatic tension. There is also an affinity with Camus The Stranger, with its Algerian locale, its concise prose style, and its modern, existential angst. However, Djaouts novel falls short in embodying a philosophical perspective in the same way that Camus does. There is a set of politics to be sure, with a clear critique against the oppressive nature of fundamentalism towards individual freedom. However, this message often dogmatically pursued within the text comes off as a conventional political stance rather than a deeper, philosophical one. The slightness of the story therefore, unfortunately, serves to undermine any larger achievement. Given the unfinished nature of the manuscript, one is left to wonder what it might have become had Djaout been able to finish it.
The Watchers provides something of an answer. Reading this novel after The Last Summer of Reason, one is gripped with a fuller sense of Djaouts ability with allegory as well as his capacity to draw a broader social and historical panorama. This expansiveness is to some extent achieved by doubling up. This novel contains two characters: Menouar Ziada, a veteran of an (again) unnamed countrys revolutionary movement, and Mahfoudh Lemdjad, an aspiring and potentially seditious inventor whom Menouar is assigned to watch over. Mahfoudh has designed a loom symbolism intended and goes through a process of applying for a patent and then for a passport to present his invention at a fair in Heidelberg. These situations are (no surprise) Kafkaesque with their combination of surface absurdity and hidden threat. If Mahfoudh finds himself confronted with the suspicion and inertia of the state, Menouar in parallel finds himself questioning the legacy of his past participation in that states revolution and his current role as one of its supposed defenders. Each experiences periods of introspection, with Djaout supplying dialogue pregnant with political import. Menouar: Does having liberated the nation give one the right to be so heavy a burden on it, to confiscate its riches as well as its future? Mahfoudh: Arent we running the risk of being carried back centuries in time and losing the values that people have created with their sweat and blood, such as democracy, sexual equality, individual freedom, freedom of expression, and religious freedom? Djaouts central theme of the individual versus the state again surfaces.
Menouar and Mahfoudh appear destined to meet; although, without foreclosing the ending, Djaout leaves a surprise. The novel finishes by underscoring the dangers of both resisting and collaborating with the state. In this sense, Djaout offers a striking allegory regarding the complex legacy of postcolonial Algeria, with its origins in a violent anti-colonial revolution and its contemporary struggles between secular and religious political parties. The individual, caught in these changing, fluid social conditions, is forced to decide between the risk of affiliation versus the risk of individual desire. The past, present, or future: none offers comfort or certainty in this matter.
The transparency of politics within Djaouts fiction may, for some readers, become tedious. As briefly hinted at above, his characters do not often speak about the mundane, only the political or metaphysical. The sense that they are intended to express Djaouts own opinions is consequently pervasive, with their development as fully achieved persona feeling limited. However, unlike 1984, The Last Summer of Reason does not take place in a distant future but appears as an expression of what is currently happening or, at the least, what might happen in the very near future. Djaouts death all but confirms this. In leaving these books, one is forced to consider this entanglement between fact and fiction, to ponder what Djaout might have accomplished. By leaving these books, Djaout suggests a path of clear ambition and, in all likelihood, eventual importance. Christopher J. Lee
Kids Stuff by Henry Sutton: Serpents Tail. U.K., 2003
The book begins: "Words dont come easy to Mark when hes in shock. They dont come easily to him at the best of times. He can read, but doesnt. Hes into practical things. Making stuff and repairing stuff, and sometimes taking stuff to bits as well in his world not everything has to be put back together correctly." Short, no messing about intro into a take-no-prisoners opening chapter of just four paragraphs that had me hooked. It neatly introduces us to Mark, the man whose ups and downs we will follow over the next couple of hundred pages; we also get a quick glimpse of the mans character, his current marital status - happily married (Nicole), a daughter (Gemma) - and even a wee insight into his criminal past. But chapter one also finds Mark, a doer not a thinker, shocked, confused and scared. His first wife, Kim, after ten years of silence, has phoned.
This marriage from hell had produced a daughter named Lily. She was an ugly baby whom they cruelly laughed at and even once dressed and posed to look like the garden gnome she resembled. Kim has a huge sexual appetite and that meant she slept around. This led to rows and violence and she ran off with Lily, leaving no trace. Ten years later, the phone call: she wants to settle down with a new man and thinks its about time Lily met her true dad who should now take some responsibility. No problem. Nicole, the brains - and the cement - in the family is naturally wary, but blood is blood so she goes along with her husband. Then we meet thirteen-year-old Lily. Oh boy. With a mum like Kim, and having lived most of her life on the road with crusty travellers, Lily is a mess, a disaster, a virtually illiterate, foul-mouthed yob with no social graces or redeeming virtues. But blood, being blood, the hapless Mark attempts the uphill struggle of bonding with this teen-bitch daughter.
If this were a Hollywood movie youd possibly flick the DVD off at this point, already guessing the ending. But this is not a Hollywood movie. Marks balancing act of trying to please his re-found daughter and his current wife begins to wobble, but Lilys presence has upset something that was never really that stable in the first place, and we begin to see deeper into what really makes Mark tick.
Tick, tick, tick
This is a brilliant novel about human powerlessness. About the futility of not only actions but also words, and how what we think will help others, doesnt. Marks heart is always, almost, in the right place, but his actions just seem to make matters worse or to end in a pointless gesture. From the wham-bang beginning, Suttons lean style doesnt flag for an instant and this means that there is a bombardment of information which, strangely, doesnt seem to clutter or bog down the story one iota. We really do get into Marks skin and almost begin to see through his eyes. Cleverly, Sutton doesnt allow us to sympathize we, like Mark, have to stay balanced, but like Mark, we feel ineffectual, a bit like trying to punch someone in your dreams and nothing coming of it. A test of a good book is not just the writing and plot but how long it stays with you after you have finished it and Kids Stuff, I warn you, will stay a long while; firstly, because, apart from being unnerving, it is bloody good; and secondly, because every tattooed, pierced, screaming, obnoxious teenaged girl you meet will conjure up the revolting but pathetic Lily. Highly recommended. M.G.S.
The Long Haul by Amanda Stern: Soft Skull Press, U.S., 2003
A novel in the sense that it has a beginning, a middle and an end, but not in that order, The Long Haul is actually a collection of stories concerning the relationship of the unnamed narrator (a girl in her twenties) and her musician lover, simply referred to throughout as the Alcoholic.
It is a relationship that somehow lasts six years. The reader is made aware very early
on that the Alcoholic is a self-centered jerk who throws I love yous
around with abandon, but the girls ability to see the moron for what he is becomes
blurred by her own insecurities that require treatment by a therapist called
guessed, the Therapist. Though the girl is obsessed with the divinely handsome Alcoholic,
her thoughts of love and dreams of the future drift to the ugly therapist. This is
important as this isnt a love is blind scenario, but rather a story
about being addicted to people; in fact, it is about addiction and dependence full stop:
the girls early dependence on the Therapist, and the Alcoholics drink habit
which is cured only by relying on another crutch. When the girl confronts her
addiction, she must go through withdrawal as painful as that of any junkie.
About Soft Skull Press: You might know their name from having published J.H. Hatfields biography of George W., Fortunate Son, in which the frat boy from hell is said to have once been arrested for possession of Columbian marching powder. Soft Skull is a Brooklyn-based press that has its roots in the indie press-zine world. One of TBRs favorite periodicals, Willamette Week from Portland, Oregon, writes: "Thoughtful, critical, committed to expounding an openly manifold perspective toward all modern life, . . . Soft Skull endorse[s] a new, enlightened way of looking at society. Harsh politics and inspired fiction aside, in a nation that starves for real reality, Soft Skull Press has solidly grounded, daringly provocative food for the brain. http://www.softskull.com for more info.
Back Around the Houses by Amanda Boulter: Serpents Tail, U.K., 2003
Enter middle-aged Pearl, whose "future disappeared like shit round a U-bend" after learning of her husband Gordons confession to a fifteen-year infidelity. In a bedroom scene, the distraught Pearl must also struggle with her attraction to brother-in-law Charles:
Popular soap opera? Romantic sitcom? "As Seen on TV," a chapter heading, also applies to many scenes of Amanda Boulters novel, Back Around the Houses. A cross between Friends and Sex in the City, Houses uses humor to touch upon the issues of suicide and infidelity, and, of course, sex, with retorts such as, "If I was demonstrating oral, darling, I wouldnt have been giving head to his head," and situation comedy like "..he became unbearably conscious of the sweat collecting around his groin in the lycra all-in-one. Before he presented himself at the house, he was going to need a discreet scratch and a jiggle. He looked down at his suit trying to work out the best way in. Up the leg or down the chest? He glanced around to make sure he wasnt about to traumatize a papergirl, and shoved his hand down the front."
Like a thirty-minute episode, each chapter introduces a domestic drama, left unresolved, but revisited later. Plot is furthered largely through a script-like dialogue, redeemed by sharp observations: "The garden had the same manicured lawn hemmed in by the same relentless ranks of petunias. Over the years shed [Pearl] come to see them, with their timid leaves and trumpeting flowers, as being like the Smedleys marriage: Keith wilting in the shadows; Pam pink and brutal on top."
The twist? We are in a gender-bender world of sexual minorities, where traditional ideals of family life are redefined and the line between male and female is increasingly blurred. A lesbian couple struggles to raise a child. A man tries to accept his transsexual brother. Unlike their perfectly coiffed, gym-sculpted, Prada-toting counterparts, these characters wear kohl eyeliner and loose purple swirled dresses. The men paint their nails blue and sashay in beaded skirts. Women sport tongue piercings, prefer black combat boots and the ease of a shaved head. At the Cosmic Café, an ultra-liberal joint in Balham, England, nobody blinks an eye at an aging man in a lipstick red coat, fishnets and four-inch heels.
Meanwhile, when Pearl kisses Charles, aka, Charlene, she faces a relationship complexity most people never have to worry about:
They are interrupted by Shirley, Pearls daughter, a heterosexual college student, who sums up: "My dads been screwing around for years, and weve just found out that Ive got twin brothers I never knew about. And then theres Uncle Charlie, who is not dead like I was told, but sitting on the sofa, wearing a dress and calling himself Charlene. And now to top it all, I found out my mother is a bloody lesbian."
There is enough angst, drama, and humor to fill several seasons. Like a good sitcom, this book promises entertainment, moments of pure hilarity, and likeable, flawed characters who ultimately draw their strength and courage from their relationships with one another. Pearls life is relatively uncomplicated compared to those of her friends. Forty-one-year-old Ruby, the daughter of an abusive father, fights alcoholism and cannot allow herself to be loved by Johnny, a man half her age; while Cass and Anna, two lesbians, are raising a daughter, Florrie, fathered by their gay friend Andy, who finds out that his partner, Tony, has been cheating on him.
In a world where the marginal has become the mainstream, Amanda Boulders Back Around the Houses should be scooped up by a syndicated network. After this sequel to her first novel, Around the Houses, the author may have to provide her hungry audience with a third season. So, until next time, folks. . . Whitney Lee
Bliss Street by Kris Kenway: Sceptre Press, U.K. 2003
Cultures collide in Bliss Street, a colorful novel set in Beirut, Lebanon. James Hamlyn nurses a bruised ego as a failed director for a video production company, and a broken heart as the victim of an ill-fated relationship. Stranded in Beirut on an aborted business trip, he has hit a low point in his life when a beautiful woman appears before him: "Maya Hayek didnt light up a room when she entered, she detonated it. She was aware of her beauty, but never understood the obsession it caused." It turns out that shes not just your typical gorgeous Middle Eastern babeshes intelligent and ambitious too. Rebelling against traditionalist society, she has dreams of getting her MBA in the United States. Amidst a kaleidoscope of events, the unlikely couple falls head over heals in love. James, like a modern knight, must defeat his rivals, overcome numerous hurdles, and prove himself worthy before he and his princess can live happily ever after.
This seems like a light, charming romance at first glance, but the main narrative is enriched by the lives of a diverse cast of characters with deeply human desires and needs. We meet nosy neighbor Mrs. Jihad, Mayas concerned mother Mrs. Hayek, and a line-up of Mayas wealthy suitors, along with Hassan, the renegade nephew of Haj Ahmad, a businessman entrepreneur who, against his personal taste, has opened a pizza restaurant. Enter resistance fighters, diamond smugglers, bombs, prisons, police, wild chase scenes through congested streets, and you have a small taste of what a wild ride it is.
And as these little human ships navigate the waters of hope and failure and violence and romance, it is the complex and alluring city of Beirut itself that reaches out to grab the reader too, and hold us in its grip. Whitney Lee
issue 39: November - December 2003