September 8, 2008

Have You Met My Wife?

By Tom Boncza-Tomaszewski

Controversially left off the Man Booker longlist, this brief novel is mercilessly depressing Paperbacks


Dreaming Iris

By John de Falbe

Cuckoo Press 11

Occasionally you read a novel by an author who you know instinctively loves books; someone who has read widely and lovingly, and cares so much for every word he or she commits to paper that the end result will never leave you. John de Falbe is that kind of writer and his third novel is exceptional.

Jimmy Hood narrates the story after inviting a business acquaintance, Lucas, to his new home, Sweynsend Hall, only to find that the man already knows the place. He also knows Jimmy's wife, Teresa. Sweynsend was for generations the home of the Carew family, and when Teresa was young her family rented a nearby manor from the eccentric Major Carew and his occasionally poisonous, often heartbreakingly generous wife. After the elderly couple died, their grandson, William, a hapless, self-obsessed poet, inherited everything. He became engaged to Teresa's sister, Elizabeth, and Teresa fell for his wild, bohemian friend, Lucas. But Lucas eventually broke up Elizabeth's engagement to William by flirting with her at a party, and the consequences were disastrous.

Set against this history, recounted by Teresa, is Jimmy's undiminished passion for Iris, a woman for whom he left the US. He doesn't want to think about her but finds it unavoidable, as if doing so would be "turning away from a part of myself". When he learns that Iris is visiting Europe he plans to meet her. At the same time, Lucas decides to visit Teresa on his own.

This is a witty novel about how memory works and how men love. It's complex without ever feeling over-complicated. On the contrary, de Falbe has worked out his own way of discussing the intricacies of human experience. His description of how Jimmy longs for Iris, unable to forget her, follows a pattern familiar to anyone who's read psychoanalysis, but it never seems dependent on theory; it sits alongside it, saying virtually the same thing in an unprecedented way. De Falbe really deserves to be better known. There will be few finer books published this year.


Trickster Makes This World

By Lewis HydeCanongate 8.99

Who or what is "trickster"? According to Lewis Hyde, trickster is a "boundary crosser". Wise fools, cross-dressers and creative idiots are all tricksters; characters who confuse distinctions; individuals who are the "mythic embodiment of ambiguity and ambivalence". Driven by strange appetites, tricksters such as the Coyote in Native American cultures, or the Greek god Hermes, are heroes of culture and often worshipped as its creators. Hermes, for instance, "doesn't simply acquire fire, he invents and spreads a method, a techne, for making fire".

Identifying themes central to the trickster myth, Hyde's energetically argued chapters slide from discussions of mythical heroes to modern-day tricksters such as Allen Ginsberg and Marcel Duchamp. Throughout, though, it's impossible to ignore the absence of women. A superficial chapter tucked away in the appendix hardly helps. It cunningly avoids the serious discussion of sexual difference which would, one imagine, give the entire project a different complexion.


Serious Things

By Gregory Norminton

Sceptre 7.99

Bruno works at the Department for Transport, overseeing projects he'd much rather didn't succeed but lacking the courage to do anything about them. The reason for this peculiar relationship to his work becomes more apparent after a chance meeting with Anthony, his former best friend from the shabby Kent boarding school both men attended in the early 1990s: it lies in the awful secret they share.

This novel is told in chapters alternating between then and now. In the present, Bruno wrestles with his conscience and struggles with his repressed homosexuality. In the past, we learn of Bruno's infatuation with Anthony and his attachment to Mr Bridge, a kindly English teacher. Following a demonstration Mr Bridge organises against a road being built across the Downs, both boys begin visiting him at home for evenings of reading, a situation that leads to Anthony writing a novel based on the teachers and pupils at the school - and the boys' eventual crisis.

Norminton's naive, blunt book, like Anthony's novel, seems more interested in punishment than redemption. A desolate story of men behaving unspeakably badly, it is liable to leave you brim full of sadness.


The Scandal of the Season

By Sophie Gee

Vintage 7.99

Strange things start to happen when you invoke the names of great writers, and unfortunately, Sophie Gee's account of the events that inspired Alexander Pope to write "The Rape of the Lock" almost reads like a parody. A character can't even witter a "'tis" without the likes of Jonathan Swift or John Gay stepping into the room. The relationship between Arabella Fermor and Robert, Lord Petre has all the grace of a Carry On romp; the plot against Queen Anne involving Lord Robert seems the kind of affair Frankie Howerd might pop up in, to whisper something about britches.

If you forget the wooden dialogue, scatter gunning of historical detail and proliferation of literary egos, there are some strengths. The way Gee portrays Pope's passion for London life and his insecurity about his physical frailties will interest anyone who has read his work. Perhaps if she'd written for people who might like the idea of Pope instead of trying to cater for readers looking for a celebrity soap opera, this would have been a very good book. It remains, nonetheless, an entertaining read.


DIY: The rise of lo-fi culture

By Amy Spencer

Marion Boyars 7.99

It's difficult to know quite what to make of this book. Spencer is an enthusiastic writer with some good things to say, but maybe she isn't the best person to say them. That's the problem with the DIY ethic and the people who remain rooted in it. Hard work regularly wins out over inspired creativity and in her earnest, leaden way, Spencer's writing epitomises what you regularly find when you dip into lo-fi culture. There's a reason why most of the best artists who begin by doing things for themselves either messily implode or cross over into the mainstream, finding their niche on record labels, in galleries or at commercial publishers: doing things for yourself can force bigger compromises on your energy and time than coping with the soulless demands of business.

The book is at its strongest when it stays in the present, discussing contemporary 'zine writing or the current music scene. The historical sections, the major part, are horribly dry and have very little new to say: "Punk was, in part, a reaction to the era of supergroups, glam rock bands and disco. Popular music at this time, which was predominately hard rock and disco, was seen by many as uninspired."

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