six weeks of looking at pieces of paper

I’ve been reading: Some Books. I’ve been reading Some Books because the movies and televisions insist on speaking foreign languages. They speak French, German, Spanish. The people go around speaking Allegmanisch, Wallonian, Flemish, Provencal, but the TVs keep the mainstream languages flowing nicely. Behind the walls of Europe people murmur their dialects as the electronics squawk in tongues. So yeah. I didn’t get to watch much TV in Europe. But I read Some Books. And here they are.

The day before I left I walked into Buzzword Books and asked Gord to recommend something. He handed me William Boyd’s Any Human Heart, which has a lousy cover but turned out be one of those books that you read feverishly, one of those books that you spend the entire day thinking about, one that you are so impatient to return to that meals and work and conversation becomes an irritant, pointless filler. Why, I kept thinking, am I sitting here talking to this [European citizen] when I could be sitting at a café or in my hotel room reading my book? Even basic hygiene began to tax my patience. You can’t read a book in the shower. You can’t read a book and shave at the same time (without severe injury). I experimented with simultaneous reading and toothbrushing, with limited success. If Boyd’s novel had been another few hundred pages I would have given up on ablutions altogether and given over my body to its basic tendency to make men smell like goats. I would have been the Shaggy Canadian frightening the children of Europe. They would have cowered in their highchairs in all the Autogrills of France, all the Little Chefs of Britain, all the Valks of Holland. The fever and concentration with which I approached Any Human Heart reminded me of my reading habits of childhood, when I would sit in the doorway of my bedroom after my parents had turned off my light, and read by the light of the hallway. When my parents’ footsteps sounded too close to the base of the stairs I would leap up with my book, run across the room to my bed and pretend to sleep. Hmmm. I’m sure they couldn’t have heard the sudden thumps from upstairs and the squeak of bedsprings. Later I discovered that a small flashlights would allow me to read under the covers, but nothing felt quite as comfortable as my old habit of reading in the doorway, positioning my body between the uprights, one foot for a brace and the book tilted to catch the light properly.

If anyone’s curious about Any Human Heart– because I haven’t mentioned one word about its content – I will gladly lend it to you. Serious callers only. Limited time offer. No reasonable request refused. Void where prohibited.* In accordance with federal, provincial and municipal laws. Held over three big weeks!**

*By which I mean to say: Defecate in Public Places.

** Remember when movies were held over in theatres? E.T. hung around for months in 1982, just sucking people into theatres like they were strands of spaghetti. In the papers the ads would proclaim, “Held over two more weeks!” as if they were live productions. Now movies just persist or vanish.

Instead of flying direct to Amsterdam from Toronto, we stopped briefly in Heathrow to switch from Air Canada to British Midlands. As far as I can tell, the hour flight to Amsterdam on BMI is a kind of reward for the gruelling ten hours on Air Canada. If you ever fly international on Air Canada, do not opt for the vegetarian meal. You will get your food served twenty minutes before the carts come creaking down the aisle, but the food tastes like piping hot moist cardboard. Or freezing cold but somehow damp cardboard. You can’t outsmart Air Canada into satisfying your needs or giving you a pleasant experience. They’ve been around way too long for that. Anyway. At Heathrow I bought three books: Martin Amis’ Yellow Dog, China Meaville’s Perdido Street Station and Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex.

First on my reading list – after Any Human Heart betrayed me by ending – was Meaville’s big fatty of a novel. I tell you, Meaville can not turn down an adjective. Or an opportunity to use words like “beguile” and “judder”. He’s like the guy down the street who ends up with an empty garage because he can’t say no to the neighbours who come over to borrow his tools. Run from Perdido Street Station before the adjectives catch on and come after you. The most frustrating thing about the book is its reliance on plot, such that you can’t put the book down because you need to know what happens next. So you slog through the swamp of adjectives, ford the waist-deep river of archaic verbs, just to see what comes after. What comes after is an inconclusive ending that will almost certainly get its sequel. Which I will read with gritted teeth and a cup of coffee. Mmmm, gritted teeth. It’s like cream of wheat with more calcium.

After eight hundred pages of Meaville’s bring-this-man-an-editor prose, I was grateful that Martin Amis was next on my list. And this was not just any Amis – this was Yellow Dog, the novel that had Tibor Fischer howling with derision, the one that just about everyone agrees hits the depths of depravity. The nadir of Amis’ talent and the squandering of his gifts. The novel that draws on an empty well of the spirit and comes up with a bucket of muck and worms. Yeah, well, I liked it, even though the complaints are justified. Yellow Dog doesn’t really feel like a novel so much as a bunch of collated notes for a longer, more substantial book. Or maybe several books. There’s a story about a successful modern middle-class man whose violent past hits him on the head and transforms him, by dint of a brain injury, into a yob with a conscience, a primitive fighting a rearguard action against his atavistic instincts. Which may be a good way to describe the novel: a text that takes a prurient interest in pornography and incest but keeps stepping back to examine itself instead of diving in wholeheartedly. Instead of gratifying desire, Amis seems to enjoy wallowing in desire’s repulsiveness. The result is all titillation, a striptease of a book, a porn movie in which everybody sits down to dinner instead of having sex.

Interleaved with the A-plot is the risible tale of the Englands, a fictitious Royal Family who end up embroiled in a sex-tape scandal. Perhaps this bit was allegorical, perhaps it was supposed to suspenseful or maybe even funny, but I didn’t waste time on piercing its veil. Complications ensue, other characters do other things, an airplane full of smokers comes screaming across the sky, eventually the whole thing ends. I left the novel in a hotel in southern France for the next off-season guest.

Enough for today? I think so. Next up on the Palinode Review Revue: Middlesex; Oryx & Crake; Snow Crash; The DaVinci Code.