Book Review: Will Self, “The Butt”

No, this is not pornography or a learned American treatise on the gluteus maximus. The butt is a cigarette butt. The book is a kind of dark if sometimes funny fantasy, but with the realistic elements stronger than in much fantasy. Apparently it’s won a humorous writing prize. I didn’t laugh a lot, but it is very well written.

The story starts with Tom, a middle-aged tourist in an imaginary country, deciding to give up smoking and throwing the butt of his last cigarette from his hotel balcony. Unfortunately it lands on the head of an old bald man below and medical complications follow. It turns out that the old man, though an “Anglo”, had by marriage become a member of a tribe whose traditional law was based on the idea that nothing happens by chance – so whatever ill the old man suffers, Tom is fully responsible.

Will Self is a British columnist on a British paper, so I initially assumed Tom was British, but a few things such as a mention of a “cell phone” in his conversation with his country’s honorary consul made me think he was American. After a while that didn’t seem to quite fit either. Tom is from an English-speaking rich country with a Western culture, but we’re never told which. We’re never told his job either, just some of his family relationships, which include a marriage which seems to be struggling and a withdrawn, computer-game-obsessed son.

The country they’re in is a strange mixture. “Anglos” are one ethnic group among many. The law of the land incorporates various traditional tribal laws. It’s fervently anti-smoking except that some tribes in the hinterland allow smoking. There is an insurgency going on in the hinterland but most people seem to ignore it or take it for granted. It isn’t a realistic land, but if you suppress disbelief in the original premises, things follow quite credibly.

The case against Tom goes on and on. The rest of his family go home. Tom finds himself having to journey into the interior, into the area of the insurgency, to pay reparations, guided by messages from his local lawyer and the honorary consul (neither of whom he trusts), a fellow offender called Prentice and a wordy anthropological tome by a German father and son duo.

Some of the physical description – of scenery, of illness, of squalour – is altogether brilliant. Self also handles descriptions of violent death in a way which emphasises the pointlessness and gracelessness of it. Various strange things happen which make Tom – and the reader – wonder if things are really as they seem. As with a detective story, we start to look for clues to some hidden motif. There is indeed one, and it’s clever and nasty.

I have to stay vague to avoid giving too much away, but the thinking behind the book is strong on philosophy. The politics is totally incredible – some things just wouldn’t work – but I said you needed to suspend disbelief.

The blurb said the book would grip me. It didn’t, though I was interested. I think the reason why I stayed detached was that I couldn’t quite believe either in Tom or in the country he was stuck in. The fantasy fell somewhere between the total fantasy of, say, Gormenghast and a realistic if unlikely thriller. But the bigger problem was Tom. He was a credible character – a little self-centred, mainly well-intentioned, decidedly passive – but I’d have liked to have a real nationality for him, a home, a profession. After all, he has to stay ages in the country and he’s worried about money yet we’re never told if his absence means he’s lost his job. He could have been more grounded and realistic and then his stepping into nightmare would have meant more.

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Book Review: The Imperfectionists, Tom Rachman

It’s widely said that the short story is dead, or alternatively, that it’s alive but almost impossible to get published. One way round this, as Ishiguro and others have shown, is to write a series of short stories around a theme. They may then be accepted as a novel. Tom Rachman has essentially done the same, though the unifying theme is quite strong and the series of stories collectively tell a single story of the rise and fall of a newspaper, based in Rome but apparently English-language. All the main characters work for the paper and the main character in one story may well reappear in a minor role in another.

This requires some plotting skill and it’s neatly done. The characters ring true, the dialogue is realistic and revealing and while the overall tone is often sad, it’s never desperate or dull.

This was Tom Rachman’s first book, or at least his first published one. He must have been practicing.

What poetry is not

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Here are two poems I wrote to make humour out of frustration and say something about what I think poetry is not. My suggestion is that it is not something that excuses the poet from treating other human beings like human beings. Also if something is claimed to be art, it shouldn’t be protected against being criticised for being, say, racist or personally mean and vituperative.

The second poem reflects my belief that poetry is first and foremost an art of the spoken word. Clever shapes may amuse or impress, but they tend to distract from hearing the sound of the words and thinking about their meaning.

I’M A POET

 

I have anger, sore opinion,

Nudge it and I go vermilion.

 

I am special, I’m a poet,

Folk revere me. You should know it.

 

These are my words on the paper:

Worship them, you brainless gaper.

 

What I hold you must not question,

Not by statement nor suggestion.

 

I am special, I’m a poet…

Keep your bile bottle. Stow it.

 

 

POEM

 

If I draw out

These words

Down the

Page

Like this

Someone may

Think it is a

Poem

And be

Impressed.

Copyright Simon Banks 2013

Sprouting Wings

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I’ve sprouted wings, I don’t know why,

I’ve risen up and I can fly.

I’m not too pleased if this is death:

I hadn’t finished that last breath.

If it’s a dream, I’d like to wake

And call the whole experience fake.

I haven’t taken something bad,

But if I’ve died, I wish I had.

I see the world is all at peace –

Bad news for journalists and police.

I stand before a golden throne

And moan and moan and moan and moan.

Ceramic angels gather round

My falling form: I hit the ground.

I’m quite alive, though I have bruises.

My smart-phone tells me what the news is.

 

 

Book Review: Patrick McGuinness, The Last Hundred Days

This novel is set in Ceausescu’s Romania just before his violent fall. The author is stated to have been in Romania at this time. I remember the atmosphere of amazement and excitement in Europe at the sudden and revolutionary changes of that period, when the certainties I’d grown up with about the Soviet Union became uncertain and Communist regimes across Eastern and Central Europe crashed (East Germany, Czechoslovakia) or legislated themselves out of existence (Hungary, with Poland and Bulgaria in between) and the dramatic events in Romania, an uprising, the army changing sides, a couple of weeks of confused fighting, the execution of the former dictator.

 

I’m fascinated by authoritarian regimes, how they arise, how they operate, how they fall. Patrick McGuinness’s book seems true to life – a huge proportion of the population spying on others, spies spying on spies, the official propaganda inhabiting a different world to the people, the privileged and powerful enjoying their pleasures but insecure because of purges and mysterious reorganisations. It does read a bit like someone took Kafka as a blueprint for a new society and political system, but with more heavy eating and drinking, poverty and squalidity.

 

So as docu-drama it works, I think. What about as a novel? The narrator is an Englishman arriving as a lecturer at a university, a relatively decent but rather weak man who is easily led. He’s a credible character. There are some oddities: the nature of his work is barely explained and the reasons for his appointment seem mysterious (but he isn’t either a Securitate or a Western agent). I’m not sure this approach works better than a naturalistic one. The other characters are credible, but with the exception of an old Jewish former Communist minister who’s fallen out with Ceausescu and is manoevring to help bring him down and return to power, they don’t have much depth. It reads easily, though, and held my attention right up to the ambiguous ending (some evils end but some flourish in the new setting).

 

A good docu-drama, then, and a middling to quite good novel.