marcel barang

Posts Tagged ‘Philip Roth’


In English, Reading matters on 05/10/2011 at 12:36 pm


Don’t ask me how it happened, but last week I bought two novels and – John Irving’s still unfinished, mea culpa – gulped one down right away, I who was confessing here the other day I haven’t read English novels in years.

That novel is Ian McEwan’s latest, Solar: a wonderful romp through the English language at its finest – McEwan writes as succulently well as John Updike did – for a disjointed novel of ideas and satire on the hottest topic of the times, global warming, whose whimsical plot turns find their coherence in the degeneration of its antihero, one of the most despicable I’ve ever come across in modern fiction, a larger-than-life character in the fashion of Henderson the Rain King or Sabbath or Martin Amis’s fictional monsters, but a thousand times more toxic: Nobel Prize-winning physicist Michael Beard who, from 2000 to 2005 to 2009, will go from fat to obese to porcine, from anhedonia to carcinoma, from wives and flings to flings and wife-with-child, from England to the North Pole to New Mexico, from has-been status to fraudulent saviour of mankind, while remaining a monster of overconsumption, greed and hypocrisy, a philanderer, a liar and a thief, self-centered and callous beyond belief: in other words, as a negative replica to Saturday’s brilliant neurosurgeon Henry Perowne; another, here black-on-white embodiment of the times we live in, allowing our author to wax satiric on a huge spectrum of phobias: the Blair government, George W, opportunistic second-rate scientists and academics, modern art circles, feminist viragoes, environmentalists, the mass media – the whole caboodle. Everything here is solidly grounded in scientific research regurgitated in perfectly pitched lectures or sallies that will either worry, bamboozle or bore you; and everything here is highly improbable, starting with being crowned with a Nobel prize in your early thirties; or with the same, fiftyish man in his adipose state being able to attract so many broads; or getting away with disguising as murder an accidental death; or not having his pecker actually frozen off when he pees in –26oC open country; and so on.

Mind you, it’s fun, with satire stretching to farce to gallows humour (“Here’s the good news. The UN estimates that already a third of a million people a year are dying from climate change. … Toby, listen. We’re facing a catastrophe. Relax.”). It’s a measure of the author’s storytelling genius that by the end, as dramatic tension builds up to fever pitch, I found myself rooting for such a loathsome character and hoping his artificial photosynthesis experiment would indeed succeed and save the world.

But all in all this novel is too much of an assembly of parts, a collection of stories, too much predicated on dichotomy and paradox, and – like Saturday – too preoccupied with petty contemporary quarrels beyond real planetary concerns to ever rank among the classics or even alongside McEwan’s best, Atonement and Chesil Beach.

The other book I bought is Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. Getting into this latest novel last night I found myself thrown back to Irving’s prose level – and might as well get on with the last hundred-odd pages of The Cider House Rules, though I must say on reflection I don’t quite like them, apples.


Last light in Twisted River

In English, Reading matters on 17/08/2010 at 8:44 pm


I’ve been a lifelong fan of John Irving ever since The World According to Garp put him on the world literary map in 1978. Since then, I’ve read all of his later novels, except The Cider House Rules (1985), which many consider his best or at least on a par with Garp and A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989), my favourite. Few notable American writers make you laugh out loud as a matter of routine, and of those that do fewer still have his reach and his punch. That his delightful farcical sequences and satirical shafts hovering between the macabre and the impish come along too many lengthy stretches of workaday prose can be excused in his best works as they are in, say, Moby Dick, given his grandness of purpose and scope, as well as the obvious tenderness he feels and makes us feel for his characters and mankind in general. Irving is a writer out of the Sinclair Lewis mould, yet his Babbitts have a sense of humour.

But then…

After Owen Meany came, at three to five years intervals, A Son of the Circus, A Widow for One Year, The Fourth Hand, Until I find You, and now Last Night in Twisted River, and taken together it should be obvious from these novels that Irving’s powers to entertain are on the wane and he is reduced to imitating himself and posturing in the manner of a post-modernism he doesn’t quite understand.
A Son of the Circus was as powerful a settling of scores with his father as John Le Carré’s Perfect Spy was with his own – the latter by far the better read, being undiluted and better focused.
As if that wasn’t enough, twelve years later the mammoth Until I find You was a reworking of the father-son attraction-repulsion act. I remember plodding through hundreds and then hundred more pages asking myself where all the fun had gone and what the point of it was, but also of my delight and admiration when the second part of the book turned the plot inside out like a glove, a rare accomplishment outside of whodunits: that piece of legerdemain was deft, was brilliant, even if the ‘main’ in question went heavy with the salt.

As for the Widow and Fourth Hand, well, I just had to go back to the blurbs to remember what they were all about.

And now Twisted River, meandering over 568 pages in the Black Swan paperback I bought.
What a bore of a book!
I’m on page 233 and doubt I can go through with the ‘stately, sophisticated rumination on the nature of storytelling – and love’ the authoritative literary magazine Marie Claire assures us it is. (Talk about killer references in bookdom.)
It takes over a hundred pages for the plot to begin to firm up and move, the first fifty painstakingly telling us all we surely don’t need to know about the obsolescent business of a small logging community in Coos County, New Hampshire, with its collection of crippled or otherwise impaired oddballs with complicated Italian names (the roots and variations of which are fussily explained for local flavour), whose cousins or twins people previous books by the same pen or have sauntered over from other people’s yarns: thus, larger-than-life Ketchum, a cross between Sabbath and Henderson dipped in ketchup when he was small. Once the plot is afloat, it drifts away with the incoherence of a log caught in sluggish rapids, before ‘stately rumination’ raises its ugly head, or should I say dentures.
To compound the pain, the book was shoddily proofread, if at all: from page 70 to page 215, I noticed no fewer than eleven misprints or punctuation lapses.
Reading on, I’ve had the same feeling as when watching a Cassius Clay drifting past his Muhammad Ali phase into Parkinson’s. The belaboured wisdom of storytelling, the posturing, the creaking at the joints, are disheartening. Clearly, that Last night is the last light in the fecund twisted river of the writer that was.


In English on 10/09/2009 at 1:28 pm


There is this famous text in recent circulation where all words are misspelled and yet are still understandable as long as the first and last letters of each word are the same (I dni’t konw tihs! Deos it wrok in ohter lnaugaegs, too?). Meaning that we have a built-in spellchecker of sorts in the mind.

And then there are typos, the pimples of fair printed prose.

This morning, reading Sanitsuda Ekachai’s Commentary in the Bangkok Post (‘Stressed out helping the stressed?’) I did a double-take – twice.

The council’s order brought to mind a conservation I had with the abbot of my neighbourhood temple some time ago.

My mind read ‘conversation’ but my eyes said otherwise.

And then, further down the column, this:

During my conversion with my neighbourhood abbot…

Stressed out indeed. Next time, talk to the monk, or chat with him, rather than converse.

Fast or casual readers never see typos and miss most linguistic mishaps. I must be a slow reader. Years of professional editing and proofreading have taken their toll on me: I can’t read a book or any text without a pen in hand – and even I can’t help shaking my head at this, knowing full well that, like everyone else, I’m blind to my own cock-ups.

The French call it ‘déformation professionnelle’ as if it were something quaint and vaguely shameful. I’d rather call it plain ‘formation professionnelle’ dividend. Cautious book reviewers hide behind notations like ‘needs editing’, ‘better proofreading would have helped’, which doesn’t help much. When a reviewer lists howlers, he or she is accused of being prissy, or nitpicking, or what have you, as nobody in this age cares – well, some do, otherwise Eats, Shoots & Leaves wouldn’t have been such a runaway bestseller.

In my reading experience, not one novel in a hundred is entirely clean of typos. I usually find at least a half dozen even in the works put out by the best publishing houses, where texts are perused three to five times rather than one.

One author who seems to be blessed with top-notch proofreaders is Philip Roth. His Indignation, in its Vintage, August 2009 version, was spared any strike from my blue pen. But then Exit Ghost (Vintage 2008) has ‘the offspring of the socially elite’ on page 243. Or is that an Americanism?

Another blessed writer is John le Carré. His latest yarn, A Most Wanted Man, is ‘clean’ – and very good. That book is produced by Hodder and Stoughton. Which reminds me…

Last year, I read with pleasure James Clavell’s Whirlwind (1986), in the Hodder and Stoughton 2008 paperback version. It’s a huge book, 1232 pages long, beautifully produced, but marred by more than a hundred and fifty ‘boobs’ of all kinds, from typos to errors in a variety of languages – that’s more than one every ten pages. I listed them and mailed the list to the editor – to improve a next edition, and hoping she’d hire me as a proofreader. Her answer? For such a long book, it’s pretty much ‘industry level’ performance.

Yaeh, rhigt.