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Saturday 28 December 2013

Review: Junot Diaz, This Is How You Lose Her

This is the kind of book I like to read: under 200 pages of text and double spaced 26 lines to the page - maybe 50 000 words. You have to be a real cool dude for Penguin Books and Faber & Faber to allow you to write so little, like you were a poet or something.

It's an easy read. I don't know more than a few words of Spanish but I know enough French to work out some of the Spanish expressions which are crafted into the text and help give the stories credibility as "street smart" (to use The Financial Times'  dust jacket expression) and as representations of "working-class Latino life" (Daily Telegraph)

The troubles with writing in any street smart urban dialect are considerable. The words on the street change quite rapidly so you risk writing prose which will be dated when published, though not so street smart folks like me may not notice. And many urban dialects are tediously dependent on curses, sometimes to the extent that to the passing pedestrian ear they don't seem much more than permutations of fuckshitwankercunt words.

Diaz tackles both problems ruthlessly and this is where his craft skills as a writer are most in evidence. There are virtually no curse words to block the flow of his narrators' thoughts. And his narrators show distinct lack of interest in Sport and Music and Drugs - things which would date the prose. Instead, they are obsessively focussed on two things: the finer points of ethnic profiling and the precise description of female anatomy. Both are discussed with verbal dexterity, deploying an exuberantly baroque vocabulary. If they weren't so good with words, the guys who tell the stories would be nasty little racists and sexists.

Life ain't fair, but whether life ain't fair to his narrators is a question we are unlikely to ask. If we do, I think the answer is that they deserve most of what is coming to them. They are for the most part young men so full of themselves that they invite their own undoing. That's the moral of the book's title. That said, I find that I bear them no ill-will. They are engaging characters, likeable for the way they are tense combinations of amusing cockiness and painful vulnerability.

There are nine stories here. You can probably read them in a couple of hours. They won't do you any harm. They will make you smile. But the critics quoted all over the dust jacket do seem over-excited.

Thursday 26 December 2013

Review: Jonathan Coe, What a Carve Up!

Almost, but not quite. It's easy to read even at 500 pages and even though narrative drive has to be sustained across forward and back time shifts and changes of viewpoint which give many of the numerous characters their say. There is a great deal of "post-modern" allusion and inter-textuality, most obviously to the Gothic novel, Ealing movies, popular culture more generally.

The basic story line is simple: a novelist (Jonathan Coe / Michael Owen) accepts a lucrative commission to write a family history for a vanity press. The Winshaws are an odious bunch and they are used by Coe/Owen to exemplify all that is Nasty with the Nasty Party (Mrs Thatcher's Conservatives). The problem here is that they are gothic-horror-B-movie nasty and so fail to evoke any real repugnance. They are comically repugnant - though the book is not particularly funny. I was surprised to see one reviewer quoted on the cover using the word "hilarious". It isn't.

The members of the family hate each other with a vengeance and even the commission to write the history comes from a member of the family with a very big grudge to settle. As the narrative unfolds, we discover that Michael Owen has not been selected by chance. But when he too is killed off at the end, well, in this reader it evoked no emotion. The death is too contrived, too obviously crafted to create a parallelism with an earlier death.

Yet Jonathan Coe can write heartfelt and moving prose. This he does in the harrowing chapter in which Michael Owen's (platonic) lover Fiona dies at the hands of the NHS. She would probably have died anyway; the NHS just contrives the death to be faster and more gruesome. The writing here is very powerful and owes nothing to Ealing comedies. It skewers its political target more effectively than any of the cardboard cut-out portraits of the Winshaws.

He succeeds in a similar way in passages set in Iraq (Winshaw arms dealing with Saddam). Here the scenes are also Gothic and horrible - but in this case we know that they are for real - and Coe acknowledges his sources for them at the end. The effect is quite different from that one gets from the depiction of horrible family murders later in the book. These remain trapped in the frame of Professor Plum in the Library with the lead pipe.