the twilight saga saga: chapter 1

Yesterday I pulled the insanely stupid move of publicly committing to reading the whole fershlugginer Twilight Saga (which, unless it's an epic Icelandic poem or a lame '80s metal band, is not a saga) and talking about it on my weblog. I have buyer's remorse. But I'm the kind who will gamely try to live with an impulse buy, so never mind the regret. We forge on.

Chapter 1: First Sight

Not a bad chapter title. You think she's going to fall in love at first sight, don't you? Not so fast. Stephenie Meyer is going to piss around and waste our time for a while. Maybe she would call it irony. I would not.

"My mother drove me to the airport with the windows rolled down. It was seventy-five degrees in Phoenix, the sky a perfect, cloudless blue... my carry-on item was a parka."

I like this opening. She's just about to make a change, and to all appearances it's a radical one. She's leaving the heat and unblemished perfection of a desert city for somewhere cold. As in the prologue, Meyer is putting her character in a moment of transition.

Where she's headed is a cloud-covered town in the Pacific northwest called Forks. Christ, Meyer, why not send your heroine to a town called Choices? Or the District Of Growing Up Is Tough And You Have To Make Difficult Decisions? But the word is nicely loaded; there's something cruel about it, calling to mind images of teeth and metal edges. It even reminds me of the inspiration for Burrough's Naked Lunch - "a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork". But given the fogginess of Forks, I'm not sure this book is about ecstatic and apocalyptic visions. I think it's about sublimated adolescent horniness.

"It was to Forks that I now exiled myself - an action that I took with great horror. I detested Forks.

"I loved Phoenix. I loved the sun and the blistering heat. I loved the vigorous, sprawling city".

I quote these twinned paragraphs because they kind of stopped me in my tracks. How old is Bella Swan? Presumably she's a minor. I'm already running into a problem, and I'm not sure if the problem lies with me or with with the book. After all, this is a fantasy work aimed at a youth audience, a book with glittering vampires - so why should I find it difficult to accept that a teenage girl is allowed to leave her mother and go live with her father after years apart? I should be ready to accept her exceptional mobility without blinking.

I think the problem may lie with Meyer's vocabulary, and the particular voice she's constructed for Bella Swan. Even in the first chapter, Bella doesn't sound like a teenage girl. She doesn't even sound like a precocious teenage girl, except to the degree that she's often lost in the hormonal paranoia of adolescence. Bella sounds like an adult reading from a series of guide books and trade journals. Who, for example, would describe her hometown as "the vigorous, sprawling city"?

(And who the hell loves Phoenix? It's a dust-caked wasteland of swimming pools and fast food huts and foreclosed properties turning up their cracked dying bellies to the sun. That's not vigor. Sprawl, sure.)

"My mom looks like me, except with short hair and laugh lines. I felt a spasm of panic as I stared at her wide, childlike eyes."

It's at page four when I feel my first twinge of dislike for Bella Swan. Describing your mother's eyes as "wide, childlike" kind of verges on disrespect. It's also a vague description that says less than it seems to. Her eyes are wide? How exactly? Are they wide apart? Wide open? Does her mother go around holding her eyes really wide? What for? That's kind of weird.

I also wonder why Bella says that her mother looks like her. I think it's the other way around, since her mother precedes her. This is a small point, but it's indicative of the way Bella looks at the world. I would usually call this 'character,' but I don't think the author is in control of the voice. I think there's Meyer all over this thing, and it won't wash out.

But never mind about her mother. She's already gone by page five, having passed the Torch of Blossoming Womanhood to her daughter. The trip to Forks takes a paragraph, which is pleasingly quick. But the drive from the airport to the house? That takes pages. And pages. While she's stuck in a car with her father, whom she calls Charlie.

"But it was sure to be awkward with Charlie. Neither of us was what anyone would call verbose, and I didn't know what there was to say regardless".

I've picked this sample paragraph to demonstrate why and how this book could profitably be reduced to the size of a hotel brochure. Instead of saying that "it was sure to be awkward with Charlie," why not show the awkwardness with sparse dialogue and awkward, affectionate gestures? Since Meyer does that throughout the scene, we can get rid of that sentence altogether.

Next up. For "Neither of us" subsitute "we". For "was what anyone would call verbose" substitute "were not verbose". Actually, verbose is a clunky, overripe word. Let's try "talkative" in place of "verbose". Wait a second. That's still a bit weak, with a flat copular verb and an adjective just sprawling there like a couple of dead possums on a highway shoulder. I'll turn the adjective into the verb, so "We were not talkative" becomes "We didn't talk much".

How about "I didn't know what there was to say regardless"? It's funny how when you take this phrase out of context it makes no sense. Chop the "regardless" off and let the poor thing regain some dignity. So now Bella "didn't know what there was to say," which means that she "didn't know what to say". Why doesn't she know what to say? Because she and her father haven't seen each other in a long time and she rejected him a few years back. Plus the subject of Bella's mother is emotionally difficult territory. But we know this already because Bella says so. So it's obvious that they don't know what to say to each other. Why have this at all?

So with a few small edits, "But it was sure to be awkward with Charlie. Neither of us was what anyone would call verbose, and I didn't know what there was to say regardless" becomes "We didn't talk much". And you don't even need to say that.

The next few pages is devoted to Charlie and Bella talking about a secondhand truck, which is not what I expected from a teen vampire novel. This better be a haunted truck, Meyer. But it gives us time to explore the relationship between Charlie and Bella, which is mostly him trying to reach out and her shutting him down. Then there's this:

"Do you remember Billy Black down at La Push?" La Push is the tiny Indian reservation on the coast.


"He used to go fishing with us during the summer," Charlie prompted.

That would explain why I didn't remember him. I do a good job of blocking painful, unnecessary things from my memory.

There are two possibilities here. One is that some trauma occurred on one of those fishing trips, and part of the Twilight series will deal with this trauma. The other possibility is that Bella is kind of a bitch.

Actually, the truck turns out be important, because Bella likes it. In fact, it's the first thing we encounter that Bella actually likes, and since this novel could be called What Bella Is Thinking About Everything She Sees, we should examine her reaction:

"It was a faded red color, with big rounded fenders and a bulbous cab. To my intense surprise, I loved it. I didn't know if it would run, but I could see myself in it. Plus, it was one of those solid iron affairs that never gets damaged - the kind you see at the scene of an accident, paint unscratched, surrounded by the pieces of the foreign car it had destroyed".

So now we know a bit of what Bella likes: old handsome things that are destructive by their very nature. Let's remember that. But I get stuck on the phrase "I could see myself in it". That is straight sales language, literally part of a car salesman's patter, a piece of psyops designed to weaken customers' defenses by prompting them to imagine themselves inside the car - 'picture yourself behind the wheel of this baby'. Why is a teenage girl talking like this, as she does when she describes Phoenix as a "sprawling, vigorous city"?

And the truck is not "a faded red color". It is a faded red. A TRUCK IS NOT A COLOR. LEARN TO WRITE.

She's still looking at the truck. Let's skip forward to the part where Bella's looking at herself. Because when she looks at herself in the mirror, it gives her an opportunity to talk about her looks and reflect on her character. Why Meyer is adopting such a literal strategy, I don't know. But if I had to guess, it's because the soil in which the language of Twilight grows is a mulch of soap operas and teen drama. The language of Twilight is images, not words, which explains why so many of Bella's expressions and sentences seem like they've been stored in freezer bags for too long. I think this book was microwaved, not written.

Anyway, as Bella is "facing her pallid reflection in the mirror," which is strange because in the previous paragraph she says her face has turned sallow, she lets us in on the heart of her character. I think this is intended to generate some sympathy for her:

"I didn't relate well to people my age. Maybe the truth was that I didn't relate well to people, period. Even my mother, who I was closer to than anyone on the planet, was never in harmony with me, never on exactly the same page. Sometimes I wondered if I was seeing the same things through my eyes that other people were seeing through theirs. Maybe there was a glitch in my brain".

Now there's a possibility. Maybe Bella's upcoming star-crossed love is just the product of a glitch in her brain, and some handsome dude is freaked out because the new girl at school insists he's a glitter-covered vampire and that they're in love forever.

By the way, here's what Bella has to say about her dad's house. The one she has chosen to live in.

"There was only small bathroom at the top of the stairs, which I would have to share with Charlie. I was trying not to dwell on that fact too much".

You suck.

And here's a snip from her first day at Forks High School.

"When the bell rang, a nasal buzzing sound, [Bells are not sounds. Bells make sounds] a gangly boy with skin problems and hair black as an oil slick leaned across the aisle to talk to me.

'You're Isabella Swan, aren't you?' He looked like the overly helpful, chess club type.

'Bella,' I corrected.

Oh, you corrected the guy who was friendly enough to talk to you. You suck.

She talks a bit about her new teachers:

"My Trigonometry teacher, Mr. Varner, who I would have hated anyway just because of the subject he taught..."

God, you suck so much.

"After two classes, I started recognizing several of the faces in each class. There was always someone braver than the others who would introduce themselves and ask me questions about how I was liking Forks. I tried to be diplomatic, but mostly I just lied a lot. At least I never needed the map".

In just three sentences, Bella congratulates herself, subtly compares her classmates to animals, lies to them and finishes off with a snide insult about their town. It's clear why she doesn't relate to other people; she holds them in contempt and has difficulty investing them with the same degree of humanity that she sees in herself. She has more regard for her truck than she does for anyone else in this novel. Why are we caring about her? Why has Stephenie Meyer chosen to make the reader look through the eyes of a glum psychopath? I'm hoping that there will be an answer to this question at some point.

Finally, while she's sitting at lunch with a group of genuinely nice people whom she despises for their friendliness, she spots Teen Vamp Squad. And she likes them, because they are beautiful.

Beauty is hard to describe. You can say that people are beautiful, that their mouths are perfect or their chin is well-defined or their eyes are "liquid topaz," but the truth is that language is always in danger of exhausting itself or falling short of the mark when it attempts to stick a pin through beauty. It's easy to describe what makes someone ugly, because ugliness thrives on detail.

Dante solved the problem by blinding his narrator with God's light at the moment he reaches the summit of Heaven. The nature of beauty in literature is to erase itself even as it is displayed (Satan, by contrast, is described in incredible detail: three heads chewing on humanity's worst betrayers, body locked in ice, and so on.)

The point is, if Dante had trouble encasing beauty in physical form, it's not going to be easy for Stephenie Meyer. After a page of cataloguing the Cullen Clan's body parts and hairstyles, Bella concludes:

"I stared because their faces, so different, so similar, were all devastatingly, inhumanly beautiful. They were faces you never expected to see except perhaps on the airbrushed pages of a fashion magazine. Or painted by an old master as the face of an angel".

That's it. They are images, torn out of some transcendent book and stapled to our lousy, boring reality. Like celebrities, they move on top of our world, somehow exempt from it, and as a consequence make everything else seem flat and unreal. Meyer manages to sell us on the Cullen's beauty by the way it penetrates Bella's contempt and unbalances her.

Of course, Bella also likes her men hostile and potentially threatening - hence the next scene: Biology class, when she sits next to Edward Cullen and is treated to a display that would have anyone else filing a restraining order on the guy:

"I peeked up at him one more time, and regretted it. He was glaring down at me again, his black eyes full of revulsion. As I flinched away from him, shrinking against my chair, the phrase if looks could kill suddenly ran through my mind".

Here's an idle question: if Bella's internal voice speaks almost entirely in clichés, why is she suddenly thinking about what she's thinking? Why comment on the phrase 'if looks could kill' instead of just thinking it? I don't have an answer for that, but it's odd. Or how about this, from a couple of pages on:

"But Edward Cullen's back stiffened, and he turned slowly to glare at me - his face was absurdly handsome - with piercing, hate-filled eyes. For an instant, I felt a thrill of genuine fear, raising the hair on my arms".

Genuine fear. Just as she distanced herself from the clichéd thought in biology class, she now emphasizes the authenticity of the experience and matches it with a specific physical detail. It seems that terror and the body are the way to the truth for Bella, the only fork to take in Forks (see what I did there? Yeah, you saw that)

She drives home, trying not to cry. You know what? I think I like Edward just for that.

Next up, if I can stomach more of this: Chapter Two.

the twilight saga saga

So. That Twilight book and its sequels. Everyone has read them now. Elderly people have read the Twilight Saga. Russian men drowning their insensate livers with vodka have read the Twilight Saga. Even babies, who can't read, have read The Twilight Saga.

Up until noon today, I had not read a single word of Stephenie Meyer's wacky vampire opus. Then I opened a mass-market copy of Twilight and looked at a word (I think it was "the"?) and now I am sitting here with a copy of the book, reading all the other words, in order. Daring sorts like to read novels in completely random fashion, jumping from page 22 to 505 to the dust jacket to a road sign. But me, I'm kind of shy when it comes to reading. I take it one word at a time. That's how I'm taking Twilight.

Say, come join me on my epic saga (?) of reading the Twilight Saga.

To guide us on our shared journey of discovery about a miserable pale girl and the freakish monster who expresses his love by hiding in her bedroom, I've gathered the following materials together:

1) The 1926 two-volume Oxford English Dictionary, which comes with a slipcase and a magnifying glass to read the crazy reduced print. The text is nearly 100 years old, but you know what? They talked English better then.

2) The mass-market movie tie-in edition of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight, the New York Times bestseller that is now a major motion picture (you can learn a lot from a book cover).

3) The internet, which has Twilight fans, whom I fear.

4) Iron-clad will, because I suspect this is going to get rough before it's over.

The Preface

'Preface' is the first word of the entire Twilight Saga. Before you get to any of the other words, before you can bathe yourself in the grandeur of Edward and Bella's love, you need to get past the word Preface.

What is a preface, exactly? The OED (see, we're using it already) defines a preface as 'the introduction to a literary work, usually containing some explanation of its subject, purpose and scope'. The preface is not part of the literary work, but stands outside it and provides commentary on it. So how does Stephenie Meyer start her commentary on Twilight?

"I'd never given much thought to how I would die - though I'd had reason enough in the last few months - but even if I had, I would not have imagined it like this".

Hold on a moment. Prefaces usually don't start at the moment of the author's death. I'm beginning to think that the words don't belong to Meyer, but to someone else. If I had to guess, I'd say that these are the words of the narrator. What Stephenie Meyer meant to say, instead of 'preface', was 'prologue'.

It is not a good sign when the first word of your novel is wrong.

There is another possibility, but it's even worse than just getting it wrong. A preface is a part of the Christian liturgy, an exhortation of thanks and praise to God just before the Eucharist gets served up. Is that what Meyer is up to? Writing a Christian book disguised as a teen horror novel? And if so, why disguise it? Why hide the structure of the work and leave some exposed pipes and joints for only a chosen few to see? If you're going to be religious, be religious. Own your supernatural belief system. Don't be clever about it or I'll throw your book across the room.

Anwyay, let's take a look at that first sentence again. The narrator is at the cusp of death. She (I admit to cheating here - at this point the narrator could be anyone at all) is caught on a point between life and death. It's an in-between state. It's like standing on a shoreline, or the moment when day blends into night - you know, twilight. Which is the title of the novel. High five on recapitulating your themes, Meyer! Academic types would call this a liminal state, where categories and identities bleed into each other.

But really, if I were about to die, I probably wouldn't think in such careful and cute phrases. I would not reflect in the most tortured way possible that the circumstances of my death were unexpected. I'd be scared. Or ready to fight. Or something. But Meyer is setting up a situation where death is going to be met with - fortitude? Calm? Or maybe numbed passivity.

"I stared without breathing across the long room, into the dark eyes of the hunter, and he looked pleasantly back at me".

Okay. First off, I did not know that staring and breathing were so closely related, but whatever. The directness of the phrase negates the strange passivity of the first sentence. Her breathlessness, and the muscular tension that accompanies it, is not exactly fear. So what is it? What else makes you breathless?

Then there's that hunter who looks pleasantly at the narrator. It's hard not to hear the phrase "looked pleasantly" echoing as "pleasant-looking". It's also hard not to conclude that the hunter is in some way intimately connected with the narrator's impending death. Put it together, and there seems to be a deliberate conflation of sexual desire and death.

I know this entry is getting long, but can we have fewer books and songs and movies that like to jam sex and death together into one necro-schtuppy ball? Get a little older and you see that death is about collapse and decrepitude, and sex is a way to keep the lights on in the house even as the power fails throughout the city. But I'm old and grumpy, and this is what I get for reading a book for the young folks.

"Surely it was a good way to die, in the place of someone else, someone I loved".

Okay, enough with the fucking adverbs already. Three adverbs in three clunky, clause-heavy sentences? In a work of fiction, adverbs are what you use when you don't know the right verb. For example: instead of 'eating quickly', you can gobble your food. Instead of 'moving down really quickly,' you can fall. And 'surely' is probably the worst adverb out there. The only one worse than surely is sheepishly. I hate it when people smile, look, or do anything sheepishly.

"Noble, even. That ought to count for something".

I don't know how noble it is, considering her breathless staring into the dark eyes of some pleasantly looking hunter who's about to kill her. How about we substitute 'hott' for 'noble' and call it a day?

"I knew that if I'd never gone to Forks, I wouldn't be facing death now".

But a few pages later, the narrator says that she spent her earliest years in Forks when her parents lived there. So if her death is conditional on any appearance she makes in Forks, then her death is predetermined and entirely out of control. Which, as we've already clarified, makes her kind of horny.

It's more likely that she means to say "I knew that if I hadn't gone back to Forks this last time, and not all the other times that I went there, I wouldn't be facing death now", but that's not as catchy. But she could always say "I wouldn't be facing death now if I hadn't moved to Forks". That would have been a clearer, more direct sentence with greater expository density. Meyer didn't write it this way because clumsy phrasing is part of the way the narrator thinks. Her narrator can't think or speak properly. The flame of my ardor is cooling.

"But, terrified as I was, I couldn't bring myself to regret the decision".

At this point I have to point my finger at Stephenie Meyer and say "Write better now please". First: if you were in Forks as an infant, this moment has nothing to do with your decision, because the conditions of your premise preclude your ability to make a decision. Second: who, on the brink of death, brings him- or herself to thing or feel anything? This kind of circumlocution is coy. I want to empathise with this speaker about to die, but instead I feel as if she's trying to be clever with me. And since the narrator is futzing the logic of her statements, I don't think she's being clever at all.

"When life offers you a dream so far beyond any of your expectations, it's not reasonable to grieve when it comes to an end".

At this point it's as if Meyer is standing next to a giant boiler, and the boiler has a plaque with the words "ANY DRAMATIC TENSION AT ALL" engraved on it, and Meyer is just opening the valves and letting all that tension bleed away. It suggests to me that Meyer is either inept, or her narrator is not a character with the kinds of motivations that human beings can relate to. Combined with the words 'noble' and 'sacrifice' and 'count for something', it seems that the narrator is not so much a character as religious archetype: the martyr, who balances cosmic accounts with her willing death.

So which is it? Bad writing or a religious tract?

Can't it be both?

Finally, the last sentence of the prologue preface.

"The hunter smiled in a friendly way as he sauntered forward to kill me".

Saunter. That's a good word. A very specific but conversational verb that expresses the ease and confidence of the hunter character. He's sauntering because he knows he's in complete control, and he wants the narrator to see that he knows it. I'd saunter too if I were that hunter.

I like that word so much it's almost enough to make me forget the phrase "smiled in a friendly way". Holy crap, Meyer. What is wrong with you? You know what's more effective than saying 'smiled in a friendly way'? SMILED. Smiles are already friendly - but they're also implicitly hostile. You're greeting somebody by showing them what is essentially part of your skeleton. Let language do some of your work for you. You don't need that adverbial phrase to tart up your prose.

Meyer: trust your verbs. Write about people, not horny martyrs.

That's the preface.

Next up: Chapter 1. In less detail than this.

murakami on jazz

I don't remember exactly when I discovered Haruki Murakami, but I think it was some time in the early '90s, back when people enjoyed globalization and the Asian tigers had not collapsed under the abrupt venting of their economies (remember those grand days? Somewhere between 1990 and 1997? That was the dawning twenty-first century utopia we all imagined, and it was gone before most of us could really appreciate it). I was working at secondhand bookstore, and Alfred Birnbaum's translation of A Wild Sheep Chase ended up on the shelves. I stole it.

What I liked most about Murakami was the way he would attack weighty, even transcendent subjects with prose that could best be called whimsical, with a slightly detached tone, as if he were telling you an anecdote at breakfast about a strange, half-remembered dream from the night before, or maybe it was a couple of years ago, who knows. Passages dip into homespun sentiment or cliche, then suddenly leap into some startling and original place. It was a palette-cleansing change from the Cormac McCarthy and Richard Russo and the Don DeLillo I'd been reading.

Somewhere along the way I lost my interest in his work. I don't mean to say that I started to dislike it; it's just that I ceased running to the bookstore or library, depending on my finances, to pick up the latest work. News of new Murakami no longer made my stomach flip. Part of the reason is that I prefer Alfred Birnbaum as a translator to Jay Rubin or Philip Gabriel, and I think it's significant that my favourite Murakami works are all Birnbaum.

The most recent issue of The Believer contains a piece by Murakami called "Three Short Essays on Jazz," and there's a passage on Stan Getz that makes me think I should run back out to the bookstore or the library and start picking up Murakami again:

Of all Getz' works, my very favorite is the two-disc set recorded live at the Storyville jazz club in 1951. Getz truly surpasses himself in this performance - every facet of his art is superb. It may sound trite, but I find these records eternally nourishing. Try listening, for example, to the track entitled "Move". The rhythm section of Al Haig, Jimmy Raney, Teddy Kotick, and Tiny Khan is perfect: they come across straight and cool, yet their rhythm flows with the smoldering force of subterranean lava. Even so, Getz is far and away the best. Soaring like Pegasus, he sweeps away the clouds to reveal in a single, blinding movement the bright panoply of stars. The music crashes against us in vivid waves, transcending time. What explains this power? It is because his melodies mercilessly awaken the pack of starving wolves each of our souls holds within itself. The breath of these beasts sinks wordlessly into the snow, so thick and white and beautiful you feel you could almost cut it with a knife. It is this that Stan Getz' music allows us to contemplate, the fateful cruelty that lies shrouded in the deep forest of our souls.

This is virtuosic stuff with a blanket of purple prose thrown over it. Phrases like "far and away" and "it may sound trite" cover up the unexpected Pegasus image (a flying horse? WTF, Murakami?) and then the kicker, the sudden bounding of a pack of starving wolves. Suddenly you wonder what the Pegasus is leaping for, and what appetites are being sated by Getz' "eternally nourishing" music. And then the bewildering introduction of snow that "you feel you could almost cut ... with a knife," an image that makes no immediate sense, because cutting snow with a knife is an easy feat. What he means, I think, is that this imagined snow, this white ground of the soul that is evoked by the music, evoked to allow the wolves a grounds on which to hunt and track, is so perfect and beautiful that it resonates at nearly the same frequency as reality. You hold it in a space in your mind and send in your senses to investigate further, but they can't quite penetrate.

The essay also made me put on Stan Getz for the first time in a year, which I imagine would please Murakami to know.

how not to read richard price

This is the story of how I got around to reading a book. Some time ago, I ordered Richard Price's Lush Life, Richard Morgan's Black Man (Thirteen in the States) and Ian MacDonald's Brasyl. I started on Lush Life but it felt so much like reading an episode of The Wire (for which Price wrote) that I ended up watching a bunch of episodes of The Wire, just to satisfy the urge to listen to that fine dialogue coming out of actors' mouths. Of course, you don't get the grace notes of reading that a lieutenants eyes, confronted with the incompetence of everyone in the room, are "starred with marvel". But you do get that mesmerising scene in which the two detectives, going over a very cold crime scene, speak only in f-bombs (except for one astounded “Motherfucker” when a detective finds a well-hidden bullet) as they reconstruct a murder.

After watching nine episodes of The Wire, I went back to Lush Life, but the novel has a funny rhythm, a series of peaks and troughs, and after the irrestible push of the television show I wanted something that would just pick me up by the collar and boot it down the street. So I started Black Man, which is a charming tale of a genetically engineered nasty man living in a near-future world where his kind are restricted to Mars or hunted down whenever social pressures demand a scapegoat. Morgan is not exactly an acquired taste – his sentences are quick and harsh without getting too self-consciously gritty – but I suppose violent cyberpunk(ish) scifi is not for everyone. It's certainly for me.

Once that brick of book was done, Richard Price was still sitting on the nightstand and looking at me a slightly world-weary glint in his eye. Soon, I promised, and went to the library. Reading Richard Morgan put me in the mood for more of the same, so I grabbed a couple of Neal Asher novels – The Voyage of the Sable Keech and Brass Man. Asher is another British scifi author who writes far-future space operas with a good deal of wit and characters that carry over from novel to novel until you reach a familiarity with them, like they were friends who breezed through town two or three times a year.

I felt a touch guilty about putting off Price for another two novels, so I borrowed another Richard Price novel (Samaritan). I also had a sudden hunger for Beckett, so I plucked Molloy – Malone Dies – The Unnameable off the shelf. I had now insulated my time with Lush Life by five novels. I thought Fuck It and got a graphic novel as well. They go quick.

Either I have grown past Neal Asher or Neal Asher has grown past senescence, but I found Sable Keech and Brass Man both close to unreadable, long uninspired slogs that felt like clever Asher imitations. I doubt I would have enjoyed them at all if I hadn't read his earlier stuff. Nonetheless I bored through both of them, because I am incapable of putting down plot-driven books, even if the payoff is a pile of damp pennies.

Having been contaminated by slack writing, I felt the need to floss my brain with Beckett's Molly. Beckett is the filthiest floss you've ever unwound and Molloy is the most relentlessly funny thing I have ever read How Beckett manages to draw comedy from an old man who can barely remember his own name but can describe in exhausting detail an intricate system of distributing pebbles in his pockets for the purposes of sucking on them (the explanation takes pages), I do not know. But funny it is, as Molloy dredges up memories, contradicts himself, retracts the contradiction and then complains about his feet, all the while wandering a featureless countryside in an attempt to find the town where his mother lives.

I got as far as part one of Molloy when I realized that I had two Richard Price novels to get to, but they were both in hardcover and not suitable for carrying around. Brasyl was also hardcover, but small enough to qualify as portable, so I started in on that. After forty pages of MacDonald, I decided that I needed a break from fiction altogether, so I bought Howard McGee's On Food and Cooking and the unbelievably good Perfumes: A Guide by Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez. My father's only comment was I hope you bought a remaindered copy. Nope. Amazon is cheap, but not as cheap as that black streak stroked across a book's tail. The book purports to be the first of its kind, a “definitive guide to the world of perfumes,” featuring a brace of essays up front and a long rundown of hundreds or maybe thousands of perfumes, each one described in synaesthetic but precise prose that you can appreciate even if your're new to the jargon. If you ever read it, chypre is pronounced shee-preh.

I also ordered my own copy of Samuel Beckett, because I knew I'd miss the book when I returned it to the library.

I'd like to take a quick break at this point to mention that back in my first year of university, writing one thousand words on a given topic seemed like an immense labour. Now I can write that much without getting up to refill my coffee cup.

Finally, last weekend I dropped by the book store to buy a book for my mother. Because she deserves it, damnit. And while scanning the shelves, I found Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives, which all the cool folk are reading these days. So I started in on that one as well.

Two nights ago I picked up Lush Life from my nightstand and opened it up to a spot that looked familiar. I read one hundred pages in one gulp and found myself somewhere deep inside the terrible hours of morning, when you know that you've overstayed your welcome in the waking world, and that you're going to spend the next day in your office, sipping on the gruel of wakefulness. I've made a deal with my books now: Bolaño at lunch, Price in the evening, Beckett at bedtime. It doesn't leave me much time for the most recent episodes of Battlestar Galactica, but I'm clearing out some extra hours.

action-packed literature throughout history

Never mind Cloverfield or Transformers or The Passion of The Christ. For sheer action, with high production values and incomprehensible plot points, I recommend the following highlights from the Western canon:

1. Epic of Gilgamesh (~2000 BCE): The ultimate buddy movie. Grumpy King Gilgamesh and wild Enkidu get crazy in ancient Mesopotamia. They fight, argue, move mountains, kill monsters and do tons of things that make no sense at all. If Bad Boys II were a one-man show starring and directed by Nicolas Cage, Gilgamesh would be the result.

2. The Odyssey (~700 BCE): What happens when you irritate the gods on your way home from the Trojan War? You spend twenty years pinballing around the Mediterranean and smacking into every nutbar island the ancient world had to offer. Odysseus and his crew go from one bad situation to the next and handle it all with Jedi-like aplomb.

3. The Revelation of St. John (~68-95 CE): Even if you factor out the begats, the Hebrew and Christian scriptures probably contain more action per page than any work of literature on the planet. But there’s no Happy Meal quite so crunchy as The Revelation of St. John. Best summed up as "What the hell just happened? Beasts and signs and vials being poured out on the Earth? A harlot sitting on the water? Was I reading or did I just get beaten on?"

4. The Inferno (1308): Dante gets lost on a walk and ends up bushwakking through Hell with Virgil’s ghost. Stinging wasps, rivers of boiling blood and sinners abound. By the time he reaches the ninth circle at the centre of the Earth, he has the most freakishly overdeveloped legs you’ve ever seen. Does he challenge Satan to a kicking contest? I wish.

5. In Search of Lost Time (1913-27): A man bites into a piece of tea-soaked cake and his memory erupts like a volcano, spewing out a novel in seven volumes. Remarkably, none of the tea gets spilled.

6. Finnegan's Wake (1939): One drunken night the English language stages a riot at a stand-up comedy bar. The rest of the Indo-European languages join in, all of them screaming at once for more drink. This goes on for hundreds of pages. There must be some action in there somewhere.

buying the library

Found via things magazine - you can buy all 1,082 titles of the Penguin Classics Library from For the low price of 7,989 and a half USA Lucky Bucks! Shipping, quite generously, is free, although I wonder what would happen if I were to place an order from here in Canada (Update: I read the fine print, and the answer is Nothing. They won't ship this big bag o' books to the 51st State. Honestly, what's the point of NAFTA if we can't get 1,000 paperbacks delivered free from a warehouse in Denver or Washington or wherever?). Overall you save over $5,300, which is good incentive not to go down to your local Bookalomart and pick them up there.

This is not an offer for people who just love books. This is something for lovers of excess, for people who strip naked and roll around in outrageous units of measurement. Witness this bit of purchasing porn from someone who actually bought all 1,000+:

This is an orgy for a book-lover. I have had a wonderful time from the moment I placed the order. They arrived in 25 boxes shrink-wrapped on a wooden pallet, over 750 lbs. of books. It took about twelve hours to unpack them, check them off the packing list (one for each box), and then check them off the list we downloaded from They take up about 77 linear feet.

Note the barely repressed glee, the careful teasing out of details - the checking off of two lists, just to verify it all. I keep on imagining the cutting and tearing of plastic, the mounds of paper and wrap, and the smell of all those new paperbacks.