Barcelona Review Book Reviews:
issue 20
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The Room Lit by Roses by Carole Maso
Break Every Rule by Carole Maso
Defiance by Carole Maso
Moonlight Bowl Manifesto by Barbara Jones
The Bad Book by Stephen Jones
Nalda Said by Stuart David
Please Don’t Call Me Human by Wang Shuo
Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain

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 unless otherwise noted.
The Room Lit by Roses by Carole Maso: Counterpoint, U.S. Nov. 2000

As the subtitle states, this is a "A Journal of Pregnancy and Birth." The author being Carole Maso, however, we know that we are not in for the usual maternal mundanity found in women’s magazines and flogged by publishers. We know that it will be intelligent and without cliché; that it will be strong, uncompromising and original - and so it is. For starters, Carole Maso is a lesbian and she was 42 years old when she conceived her child - hardly a saleable formula for the proverbial mothers-in-waiting market. Maso and her partner Helen, companion of the past twenty-some years, had "prayed over relics of every saint in Tuscany and Umbria for a child," finally ending with prayers to St. Clare in Assisi, who apparently did the trick. The miraculous conception, we learn, took place soon thereafter on an airplane with a "mysterious l’etanger from a far off land, who uncannily had also existed in my pages for many years . . . .

We came together without will almost, caught in motion, without choice -- and this pull, unlike anything I had felt before, this strangeness might have been called in another time destiny, fate. The child just outside us, asking for the mere chance to live. Mere, indeed. Did we dare turn away from her? Did we dare ignore her pleas? In that night of ever expanding circles, heavenly bodies. The stars aligned. A primal ancient motion -- the violence of creation, and then rest."

If it sounds a touch new age, it is, here and there - especially passages taken out of context -- but that "double jeopardy" of "maternal" and "new age" isn’t, fear not, the stuff of this startling, unique journal. One is left in genuine thrall of Maso’s homage to the female body’s creative powers and to Maso herself, who was determined to have a baby on her own terms:

Why shouldn’t the old models, which are working with less and less success be challenged -- the world re-imagined. Heterosexual privilege and power -- and all its attendant rigmarole. Such a system if it were to be taken seriously would have precluded me from having a child. Am I supposed to be grateful to it, acquiescent? Luckily I have never taken it the least bit seriously.

This is classic Maso, who has been accused of writing to agenda, but can in her journal acceptably cut loose and does so:

This child is freedom even now. Detached from its cumbersome accoutrements: husband, sibling, mini-van. Its blandness, its arrogant directives. All the smug heterosexual clubbiness -- its pleased as punch self-congratulation. This child, a child created outside the usual constraints and enclosures. Without the usual prescriptions, hierarchies, sentences, leveled on her head.

I pray, should she come to be, that she will not hate me for it.

It’s a refreshing look at the whole business of childbearing/childrearing, revealing much about society’s preconceived ideas and expectations. It is interesting to note, for example, how people react to the pregnancy: "Mainstream heterosexual breeding sorts try to invite me into their club now. I don’t think so." And elsewhere: "I get many Normal Person Credits for being pregnant, for having a baby. For joining the human race./For forging the husband, for writing all night, for living in my own private Idaho, and for being in general, a basket case, I get points taken away." And from her own circle of friends: "It is a little disconcerting to have those friends who did not have children -- those who made that decision, those who had counted me among them, one of the childless -- to turn away now, if only slightly." She can come down hard, too: "People who have vaguely despised me for having something they did not have: love, talent, confidence. Now their rage, undisguised. Who do you think you are?" Apparently there was more to contend with within her own circle than without, the hetero world being there to embrace her - and easier to ignore.

Sexual politics naturally enters in, appearing in revealing, heartfelt entries, but whatever the topic, this is above all a journal of lush and lyric beauty, much of it reveling in the miracle of the female body and its astounding powers of transformation. Maso speaks of her "Buddha spirit" during pregnancy, and the "glow" she experiences comes shining through on the page.  Indeed, she sings the body electric . . .

My mane grows wild and I stare. Into space forever. Lion haired. My nails grow long and sharp. The eye searching for the horizon line . . . .
I am all beauty. All beast. Something so startling. Like
Rilke’s panther. I am all want, hope, desire, fear.

. . . .

We are two hearts, four arms, four legs, two brains, four eyes,
in one body. It’s the oddest thing . . . . As if I were not strange
enough already - now, this eight-chambered heart.

. . . .

The baby begins her graceful descent, undeniably.
Mozart’s floating line of sixteenth notes.

. . . .

No, there are no somersaults now. She’s outgrowing her
house of blood and light.

With moments of pure poetry:

The bones in the pubis opening like a butterfly.
The bones of the hips unhinging.
The ribs floating open like water.
All this to allow the child through.

On the page it looks similar to Maso’s novel Ava: there are many short entries of a line or two, with wide spacing between entries to set them off, each little gem enclosed in its own sphere.

As befits a journal -- and in this sense it is fairly traditional -- the more-or-less linear progression of the pregnancy is interspersed with asides, quotes, diatribes (against big-house commercial publishers, for example, as well as the hetero club), flashes to the past (to a time as a young girl when she feared pregnancy and "bargained shamelessly" to please let her period begin), meditations on her mother (who had five children) and Maso’s early desire not to have children, which wavered over the years; musings on her own writing, including the act of journal writing ("Who do I concoct in these pages as the Protagonist?"); her preoccupation with finishing a work on Frida Kahlo and her resistance to reading the proofs of Defiance, her latest novel - one filled with so much rage that it seems "poisonous" to her during pregnancy. Of special note is the Aids death of a close friend, who died in St. Vincent’s Hospital where Maso refused even to walk by thereafter - until 12 years later the decision was made to give birth in that very hospital. Amidst these reflections we follow the pregnancy from conception to birth; thus, early on we have the entry: "I have been very busy making bones today, I say when Helen calls." And later there is Carole reading Gertrude Stein to the baby in utero, also listening to an audio reading of Lolita by Jeremy Irons. The discussion of names (it is "Rose," of course), the "bovine happiness," the special fatigue (she speaks with students in her office with her head on her desk), the childbirth classes and the actual birth, replayed in the journal.

Two years on, one wonders how Maso and her partner are coping with the Terrible Twos. More than anything one would just like to read more journal entries by Carol Maso, stylist supreme, who poses the question (in Break Every Rule): "How to prolong the lyric moment?" - and then gives us, time and time again, writing that does just that. J.A.

Break Every Rule: Essays on Language, Longing, and Moments of Desire by Carole Maso: Counterpoint, U.S. 2000

In these ten essays Carole Maso explores the limitless possibilities of language to awaken the senses and open the mind to new levels of thought and creativity. The old prescriptive models - those tired old white men who set the standards - must go. Good-bye Edmund Wilson, Alfred Kazin, and Harold Bloom. Good-bye John Updike. At least, move over and make room for those who don’t fit the established mold. That would be women for the most part: "The future is feminine, for real, this time," Maso pronounces, and it can’t be denied that she is an inspiring example.

In the opening essay, "The Shelter of the Alphabet," Maso gives us an 18-page overview of her life, a mini-bio of sorts, in which language, beginning with that "miraculous handful of charms - the alphabet," is shown to be (and always to have been) her one, true refuge, her "home": "The continued exploration of the possibilities of language is the only real life I know, the only place I’ve lived truly, fully, all these years."

In "Notes of a Lyric Artist Working in Prose: A Lifelong Conversation With Myself Entered Midway" we have a re-evaluation of the novel with all its hidden potential: "A new energy is needed to sustain a contemporary lyric fiction. The energy of writing into one’s desires, passion. The energy derived from many things might sustain such a voice. The energy from writing outside of fashion, against the fictive fashion, even. Easy to be a renegade in such an inauspicious fiction milieu. Use it to your advantage." "Surrender" is a recollection of her first teaching stint, at Illinois State University, a job taken out of desperation but turned to a creative venture. Other essays look closely at her novels, Ava and Aureole, where she explains her method and intent. In "Richter, the Enigma" she writes of her friend, composer Gustave Richter; and in "A Novel of Thank You" for Gertrude Stein - a playful novel/essay à la Stein - she pays tribute to her literary mentor. "The Re-introduction of Color" is a moving personal chronicle of how the free, imaginative, uncompromising young child hit the wall of conformity in her teens: "Having roamed freely and unencumbered, the voices out of nowhere started demanding in a kind of staggered unison and from every direction the same thing -- conform, conform. Abandon song, conform. Abandon reverence, conform. Surrender your freedom. Against nature, against intuition, do something useful." Which she tried, by working in a law firm, until a near suicidal depression took hold and she ended up seeing a therapist - one of a kind, it would seem, who refrained from the "pyscho-babble" (a violation of language that she feared) and set her free to write.

"Break Every Rule" is the paper presented at Brown University’s Gay and Lesbian Conference in which she questions heterosexual models and their reality: " . . . why when we write . . .does it so often look like the traditional, straight models, why does our longing look for example like John Updike’s longing? . . . . Does form imply a value system? Is it a statement about perception?"

In the final "Rupture, Verge, and Precipice Precipice, Verge, and Hurt Not" (published in this issue of TBR) Maso confronts, taunts and cajoles the literary mainstream with their prescribed rules and conventional beliefs. It begins as a litany of a series of one or two lines in which she addresses the collective mainstream "you."

. . . .

You imagine yourself to be the holder of some last truth. You imagine yourself to be in some sinking, noble, gilt-covered cradle of civilization.

You romanticize your fin de siècle, imbuing it with meaning,overtones, implications.

You are still worried about TV.

You are still worried about the anxiety of influence.

. . . .

You think you know what a book is, what reading is, what constitutes a literary experience. In fact you’ve been happy all these years to legislate the literary experience. All too happy to write the rules.

. . . .

You say hypertext will kill print fiction. You pit one against the other in the most cynical and transparent ways in hopes we’ll tear each other to bits.

while you watch. You like to watch. Hold us all in your gaze.

. . . .

But I, for one, am on to you. Your taste for blood, your love of competition, your need to feel endangered, beleaguered, superior. Your need to reiterate, to reassert your power, your privilege, because it erodes.

Let’s face it, you’re panicked.

You think an essay should have a hypothesis, a conclusion, should argue points. You really bore me.

But, says Maso, "Couldn’t we, maybe just possibly coexist?" She interjects here and there with her "wishes."

Wish: that all graduate writing programs with their terminal degrees stop promoting such tiresome recipes for success or go (financially) bankrupt.

. . . .

That the writers and the readers stop being treated by the mainstream houses like idiot children. That the business people get out and stop imposing their "taste" on everyone.

Throughout the essays, she frequently quotes her cultural heroes - Woolf, Stein, Susan Howe, Jean-Luc Godard, Tarkovsky, etc; she employs her trademark repetition of line (a form of "the sentence as incantation"); and, as with the Stein essay, she shows by example the liberating power of lyric prose. Momentum builds in the collection, slowly creating an ecstatic, Ginsbergian howl - let fully loose in the final piece - which decries the conventional and challenges the reader and writer alike to break every rule, as a way of saving oneself, a way to artistic salvation, to freedom. Reading these intelligent and impassioned essays is an exhilarating experience. And the message - so loud and clear and so necessary in this market-driven world - is nowhere better expressed, better "sung," than it is here. Essential reading. J.A.

Defiance by Carole Maso: Penguin, U.S. 1998/Plume 1999

Land of the free. Home of the brave. Give me a break.
Bernadette, from Defiance

Defiance is the "death book" of Bernadette O’Brien, daughter of Irish Catholic, working class, "normal" parents. There is nothing normal, however, about the child prodigy Bernadette. Sent to a school for gifted children, she soon progresses to graduate from Harvard at age 15, where, after taking her doctorate in physics at 17, she then teaches advanced mathematics . . . until, that is, she murders two male students, is caught in Georgia, and sentenced to the electric chair. While she awaits her fate - which she views with relative indifference - a colleague encourages her to keep a journal. Reluctantly she assumes the task, exploring the labyrinth of her psyche and revealing in circuitous twists and turns the rage and the making of the rage that led to the murders.

The haughty and self-assured Bernadette - far from a Lizzie Borden or a "Dead Woman Walking" figure of pity - pulls us into her inner world and dazzles us with her language, her passions and her keen but fractured intellect. Falling under her spell, we ultimately come to understand and even respect her (a part of her anyway), as does the black social worker, Beatrice - who reaches out to her (my "usherette," as Bernadette refers to her dark-skinned, Dantean guide) - and tries to instil in her a will to live. A flicker of hope, fueled by an unexpected desire, finally takes spark in Bernadette, who previously looked down her nose at the "self-righteous, tedious, sentimental, pathetic" social worker, and although it proves short-lived, it serves to push Bernadette to new levels of awareness. A growing solidarity with some of the other female prisoners further tempers her fury and helps break down her mental and physical isolation. As she attempts to reconstruct her past and discover the "click of the box" - that elusive, Zen-like key to understanding - she reaches into deeper and deeper recesses of the mind: not to find "Something salvaged from the wreckage," she says, but to explore the wreck, to make sense of it. Yet inevitably, in the process a part of her soul is salvaged.

Bernadette’s rage has been developing since her earliest childhood when her mother, a telephone operator without money for child care, had to smuggle her five-year-old to work before anyone else arrived and hide the child under her desk. In this dark, cramped area the little one had to remain quiet for hours at a stretch, and once had to watch (as best she could) her poor mother perform humiliating sexual conduct to please the boss. She chose to lose herself in the numbers of her "exhausted mother’s voice" in order to shut out the pain. Numbers are "safe"; there is also safety in her older brother Fergus’s tree house. Bernadette idolizes Fergus and when he goes off to the Vietnam War at age 18, an undiagnosed dyslexic filled with his own rage, Bernadette becomes an "elective mute" for several years. Upon entering university at age 12, she is called "freak" and gawked at by the older boys. Soon, presumably to gain some leverage, she begins giving them sex for money. Prior to this, she had to be dragged along with her alcoholic father while he conducted his numerous sad affairs.

Abuse, in many forms, spills across the pages. "Every goddamned cliché in the book," as Bernadette says at one point. And that is exactly what Maso is sporting with in this age of "abuse fiction." Much in the way that Tarantino explores violence - taking it to new heights and thereby subverting it, turning it on its head - so Maso systematically works at deconstructing abuse. One is genuinely caught up in the plot and feels Bernadette’s pain and rage while at the same time enjoying a snicker here and there at the obvious overload. Those who have criticized the novel for being too "dark," have completely missed this vital point - and probably aren’t big Tarantino fans either.

But it is true that Bernadette’s powerful rage dominates the pages - rage against sexual inequality, class inequality, smug complacency, apathy . . . and inane politics:

That awful man who had caused our family and thousands of families like ours such grief, that actor. By casting their meager vote for him they were, as usual, securing their own misery once more. The stupidity born of fatigue, of hopelessness. It’s the mindlessness, I detest -- the endless strategies of self-deception among the poor who are not so dim-witted, just tired and grabbing at straws.

She is arrogant, yes, and patronizing, but there is truth in much of what she says. And by the time this poor, now beautiful, Irish Catholic genius comes to dominate a Harvard classroom, the pampered and privileged sons of robber barrens don’t stand a chance. She seduces them all, her "sweet phallocentrics," with her "chic sadomasochism" - demanding celibacy, insisting on no urination for two hours before the three-hour class, ordering nails to be cleaned and clipped, cuticles trimmed: "I want you to be aware of your body during the time you are with me, and begin to bring those energies to bear on the work. . . " They comply, and she does take them to a high and heady realm, revealing the mysteries of numbers, "the most demanding, most gratifying lover you shall ever encounter."

Indeed, yes, they are an exalted lot, my students. My young men. Jaunty, bouncing, brilliant with privilege, and its attendant attributes: confidence, optimism. Summering in Newport or Martha’s Vineyard, still children only several years away from little boyhood, digging on a beach, constructing great towers in the sand. Mother is not far away. Come now, Preston, Theodore, Sterling, to lunch, to lunch. The winds blow gently on them, in the distance a boat’s mast bisects the horizon on Donner on Blitzen. The extraordinary blue where they’ve detected already great mathematical properties, harmonies, proportions. With their natural aptitude for living, their love of assonance and pleasure. Lobsters, crabs, Wellfleet oysters, please, on their plates. Danger is still some ways away. It is part of their ease, their largesse, to believe it is elsewhere, and always shall be so.

But they are "altogether too cozy, too gentle, too slack. . . . Too protected. Not in love with the right things." They’re too safe.

She refers to her students as "patients - dreaming - etherized on [a] table." These and other reworked refrains of Eliot (one sees Shakespeare and others as well) shoot through Bernadette’s dark narrative, providing an apt, perversely erotic running metaphor. ("Let us look then you and I for what.") When the first murder is committed, the victim is so intoxicated by his mentor, now also sexual seductress and dominatrix, that he all but asks for it: "There’s an edge I can’t get without you," he says - and she takes him to it.

It may not be all that conventional, but along with the structural and stylistic intricacies, it is as suspenseful a novel as any in the suspense genre. The reader, like Bernadette’s students, is pulled along by the hypnotic, lyrical power of seductress Maso. As revelation follows revelation, building to the inevitable "click," one is left in awe of the genius manqué Bernadette - one of the most memorable characters in contemporary fiction - and her divine creator, Ms. Maso, who gives voice to the underlying rage - often unrealized and unarticulated - that is as much a part of American society as apple pie . . . and the NRA, the Boy Scouts, and Huntsville, Texas. J.A.

Moonlight Bowl Manifesto – A Cure for California by Barbara Jones: Russell Dean & Co., U.S. October 2000

Be it England and Scotland, Madrid and Barcelona, or the East and West Coast of the United States there is a love-hate relationship that can sometimes turn nasty. In Barbara Jones’ satire things spin horrifically out of control for the politically-correct citizens of California when a group of disgruntled Easterners (Easters) half-jokingly hold the state, and the General Sherman Tree, for ransom with a new, deadly weapon one of them has accidentally discovered. Easter ringleader George, though a non-native Californian, loves the place for its natural beauty. He moved west "to share a dream but found a coma". He and his Moonlight bowling buddies hijack a charity event with the intention of getting support and expressing their views: "… half of you are starving yourselves and the other half are having flesh peeled back from their faces and sutured into new position.... You name your children after soap opera characters and you don’t know the names of your next-door neighbors. You put your grandparents into nursing homes, then hire nannies to watch your children… Something’s wrong here. You’re not real people, you’re figments of the rest of the world’s imagination, images on a screen, electric shadows". But their plans to negotiate backfire when the President says they can have the state: "Me and the boys in Congress have been trying for years to figure out what to do with those loonies on the left coast. Other than sawing the state off at the border and floating it out to sea, we haven’t come up with anything. Don’t expect any interference from us." And it’s at about this point that the plot takes a sinister turn.

What had been a sort of update on Cyra McFadden’s wonderful 1976 Marine County satire The Serial, and seemed to be heading into the kind of upside-down world of a David Prill novel, takes a whole different tack. The Easters think they are helping when they force people to change their ‘Nate’ (Native) names from Harmony to Horace, Vivica to Betty and so on. Then they herd up all the attorneys and send them off for "retraining". Groups are sent to camps, restrictive laws are passed ( for example,everybody must dress in the same type of clothes, usually bowling gear ) and enforced. In their naïve innocence, the power the Easters have, and use, goes against the whole point of being an American: the right of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The laughs slow up the darker the book gets: a Nate asking for mayonnaise on a corned-beef sandwich – a foodstuff totally alien to a Californian – could get a laugh but not when he is then taken outside and beaten up for his mistake. After starting on the Californians, the author then pulls back and shows just how thick, insane and small-minded the rest of the nation can be. In short, like all good satirists, Jones shows the errors of our ways and our society through a twisted mirror, but one gets the impression that even she became a little disturbed over the way the narrative was heading - into a very unfunny story about ethnic cleansing - and decided to pull the plug with a quite abrupt ending. The writing is good, the chuckles there but short-lived, the message sinister, and the ending a bit over the top. An interesting little number, to say the least, and the name Barbara Jones is worth remembering.

Note on Russell Dean & Co: TBR is always interested in small independent presses. Russell Dean are two years old and have four titles in print with more to come – another Barbara Jones, The 101 Gun and Pawn, is due about now. Unfortunately they seem to be not very 21st Century and have no website or even e-mail address so contact can only be made via the dear ol’ pony express:
Russell Dean & Co
P.O. Box 349/22595 K St.
Santa Margarita, CA 93453

The Bad Book by Stephen Jones: I.M.P Fiction, U.K. 2000

The Bad Book covers two days in the life of eight-year-old Jay Cee, who prefers to be called Hit, and his reactions to the possible death of his mother in an automobile crash. No one, including his so-called father, seems to want to explain the situation and Hit is forced to find refuge in his memories of his mother. And if that isn’t enough to be getting on with, the author then places Hit in a dying, seedy, small coastal town called Standstill, just two houses bigger than a village. Standstill is a settlement for people who need to escape from something back home. They are allowed to stay only three years, but due to the slow deterioration of the town, Hit has spent all his eight years here. Standstill is built on top of a nuclear rubbish dump that helps warm the houses, but must also be responsible for the weird bulge on Hit’s face and his blindness in one eye. His diet seems to consist of pig-head soup, hammerhead steaks and eggs. His father, who has mental blackouts, eats turtle eggs and pins dead flies on a board, giving each one a name. The TV shows gruesome programmes and Hit’s computer games are as bizarre as they come.

Just what time zone or country we are in remains unclear. So Hit’s current misery over the loss of his mother is compounded by his dark and desolate surroundings. Then, with a storm looming, the sense of alienation and depression is complete. Most of the story, narrated in the third person, is seen from Hit’s young, uninformed point of view and these parts are the strongest. Occasionally, however, the author is forced to switch to an omniscient narrator to help add missing details, things that Hit wouldn’t obviously know, and they sadly break the bleak cocoon in which Hit has wrapped the reader.

Stephen Jones may be familiar to some as the band Babybird. I’ve never heard of them, despite a top 10 album and eight top 40 singles – is this in the U.K.? If he/they are anything like this intriguing little book, they might be worth looking into. This short, 124-page novel is a remarkable debut. M.G.S

Nalda Said by Stuart David: I.M.P Fiction. U.K. 1999

O.K, so a year late, but this gem of a book has to be brought to your attention, as it was recently brought to mine by one of TBR's translators who discovered it in Scotland. Narrated in the first person in a slightly childish voice ('Have I told you any proper things yet about the lady who used to live in our town who didn't like winters? I've been just about to a few times, but I don't think I quite did do any') by an excruciatingly shy young man, who refuses to give his name for fear we would find him and kill him because of his 'secret', Nalda Said is a poignant tale of suffocating paranoia, naiveté and loneliness. Our nameless narrator (later nicknamed Reynard - because of his foxy attributes - by the hospital workers where he is the gardener) was bought up by his Aunt Nalda in a rundown caravan. Nalda, herself a sandwich short of a picnic, refuses to send her nephew to school and brings the boy up on colourful stories, mixing fact and fiction, little realising that in his socially-deprived world he has little ability to filter out what is true from what isn’t. To make money they tend gardens, a job he is good at but hates. When Nalda is finally taken away – to the loony bin or to die – he is left to fend for himself. Which would be simple if it wasn’t for the 'secret' that means he must always be ready to flee to a new town should anyone come close to guessing the truth. It is from running away yet again that he ends up working at the hospital and painfully, slowly, not only learns the ability to make friends but also falls in love. This leads him into exploring the strange world around him with newly opened eyes, but will Nalda’s stories and his secret ever really let him go? For me, this book is faultless. The clever plotting gives this sad story the sense of a thriller and I read it in one sitting, engrossed in the narrator’s alien world, feeling his every setback or small success. Wonderful. Stuart David is the bass player for the Scottish band Belle and Sebastian – not on my Top 10 list, so no bias from that area – and is also responsible for the critically acclaimed spoken-word project called Looper. Watch out for the name, I think it will outlive Belle and Sebastian.

A word on the publisher: I.M.P Fiction is an imprint of Independent Music Press who have made a name for themselves by publishing books about the music scene – from Bowie to Travis to Prodigy. The addition of fiction began in 1998 and, with the two books reviewed here - The Bad Book and Nalda Said - they have got off to an impressive start with two authors who also work in the music industry. There are also books by Ian Winn and Martin Millar that look very interesting. Check out for more info.

Please Don’t Call Me Human by Wang Shuo: No Exit Press, U.K. 2000

This Chinese satire is a bold and major departure for No Exit, who have built a solid reputation for publishing some of the finest crime books around. The English translation is by Howard Goldblatt, who certainly had his work cut out and fully understands that most of the jokes, references to books, TV, etc, are totally lost on a western audience, and has sensibly decided not to clutter the pages with explanatory notes. It does mean, however, that what has the general Chinese populace (not the officials who have banned his books) rolling around the aisles, sometimes leaves its western readers baffled. Wang Shuo’s artistic goal, so we are told, is "never to write anything that he or others find necessary for society, particularly if it is uplifting." Well, this book isn’t uplifting but it is sure as mad and as surreal as they come. Basically, the Chinese don’t like to lose face so when a whole bunch of wrestlers are defeated by Fatso, a westerner, it is MobCom’s task to try and find the last of the legendary Big Dream Boxing martial arts experts from the Boxer Revolution and beat the living shit out of Fatso. They accidentally come across pedicab driver Yuanbao (who has had the basic skills handed down from his still-living father, who took part in the Boxer Revolution in the 1900s). Dad is taken off, supposedly as a hero, to be interrogated - which being China, of course, leads to the total destruction of his house for museum artifacts. Son Yuanbao is trained to fight tanks and anything that gets in his way. The power structure of MobCom changes with the wind as each member struggles for control. Then Fatso gets wise that he is going to get slaughtered so takes the easy way out, leaving MobCom with a dilemma that could easily be resolved if only Yuanbao were a girl. As I say, this is wacky stuff that makes for an enjoyable, if somewhat confusing, read. Someone with an understanding of China will obviously get a much better grasp of who is getting lampooned, but a modern reader doesn’t need to read up on eighteenth-century England to appreciate Gulliver’s Travels (as much as it helps enhance the reading) and the same applies here.

If the story is a bit odd, it's not as odd as No Exit’s blurb on the back. Here they get the basic plot completely wrong: it has nothing to do with the Olympics; in fact, the word only appears once in relation to the Korean Olympics; and they commit the cardinal sin of giving away the end. Spanked bottoms all round on that one, No Exit (or is the paratextual writing a part of Wang Shuo's high jinks?), but thanks for bringing us a small slice of modern Chinese culture. M.G.S.

Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain: Bloomsbury, U.S., 2000

I got a job working in a hotel kitchen when I was in my late teens and, boy, was that an eye-opener. One chef walked around with a rotting quail stapled to his jacket and had a leg of lamb in the freezer that he wouldn’t let anyone touch because it was one of his best friends. And woe betide a customer who asked for à la carte one minute before closing as Reggie, the skinhead commis chef, could sure come up with revolting mucus that would end up you-know-where. Then there was… well, it all actually pales in comparison to Bourdain’s delightful non-fiction tell-all. If you like eating out or have a desire to open a little restaurant ’cause your friends like your cooking, this book may make you rethink and save you either food poisoning or humiliation and thousands of dollars into the bargain. And if you have a desire to be a chef – seeing that it’s the new, hip thing to be in the U.K. – there’s a chapter, 'A Day in the Life', that might persuade you otherwise and should be required reading at all catering schools.

The first thing you notice as Bourdain kicks in with his childhood discovery of French food and oysters is the sharp, engaging writing style. He’s got some acclaimed fiction books to his credit (and a short story in this issue of TBR), and somehow manages this while maintaining his current job, which can involve a workday of seventeen hours. Written by a man who adores his profession and went through hell and back to get to where he is today, this book lifts the lid on just what goes on in the kitchen - and there's not much that doesn't. Although the book is divided into sections like a menu – Appetizer, First Course, Second Course, etc. - it actually breaks down into two almost equal parts. The first, told in non-chronological order, deals with the bumpy, pothole-riddled road he went down to become a chef. From summer slave labourer working kitchens in Provincetown, Bourdain quickly learnt that lines of coke, gallons of booze, sex, and plenty of hash were as much a part of a chef’s life as the actual cooking. Interest peaked and he went off to the CIA (Culinary Institute of America) to study the fine art. In a way, his generation is the last to have been taught the traditional skills from France (Escoffier, etc.), and he is still a huge supporter of the ‘old’ school, spitting on Pacific Rim cooking and bloody vegans. For a long time he even held Italian cooking in low esteem until his eyes were opened to the simple, fresh delights of Tuscan cuisine. He is also highly critical of the amount of useless hardware people seem to think they need – don’t even think of mentioning a garlic press to him! He uses two types of knife and that’s about it - one only costs about $25.

From Provincetown and the CIA he ends up in New York working in the famous Rainbow Room. It’s run by the mob, who I can’t believe are too happy over his remarks: about the clients, the food and how it was re-served, and other shady goings-on. (Avoid eating out anywhere on Mondays, by the way.) After the Rainbow Room he becomes the head chef for a couple of theatre promoters who think that a restaurant is just what they need. It is a failure and Bourdain learns a lot from the place dying. He then spends a lot of time moving from place to place - most of them already doomed, as he himself seems to be with a heroin problem that he manages to suppress with cocaine. Unemployment follows. The guy is a mess, a bit of an egoist upstart but in love with his art; then, in the nick of time, a guardian angel comes to his rescue. Bourdain refers to him as ‘Bigfoot’, but from the description it is pretty obvious that everyone in the trade in New York knows this real name. Bourdain worships the ground he walks on and is heavily influenced by Bigfoot’s organisational skills. Once back on his feet, it is reasonably plain sailing to today where he is the executive chef at Les Halles.

The second half is self-contained chapters dealing with various aspects of the trade, including the one on the ‘day in the life’. Bourdain also devotes individual chapters to some of the people he has worked with, showing just how important the bond between a chef and his workers must be. The chapter on chef Scott Bryan gives Bourdain the chance to play the ‘I am not worthy’ role, eat humble pie and backtrack on everything he has said previously. But in comparing kitchens, I’m sure the owners of Les Halles must have gulped on reading of the tranquillity of Bryan’s surroundings and looking at Bourdain’s "noisy, debauched and overloaded with faux testosterone" kitchen.

Kitchen Confidential is an amusing confessional, full of sage advice, titbits, and over-the-top characters - of interest to anyone who's ever wondered what goes on behind kitchen doors. The crowning glory, in my mind at least, comes near the end when I found out Bourdain likes The Cramps. God Bless him. M.G.S.

© 2000 The Barcelona Review
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