I’ve had lots of recent reminders that, whatever you might think of me as a writer, I’m an even worse reader. It culminated in me deciding that Vikram Seth was trying to kill me but I suppose, like all stories, it’s better to start at the beginning.
The thing is, when it comes to books I have always been an awful philistine. A teenage diet of science fiction and fantasy probably played a big part in that, as my father never ceased to remind me. He told me repeatedly that I should try the classics (his favourite book is apparently Pride And Prejudice, something I still can’t square with everything else I know about him). When I asked him what was so special about them he told me that they illuminated the human condition. He couldn’t tell me what that meant, or what the human condition was for that matter, but he said it in a manner which suggested it was a truth universally acknowledged and not to be questioned. He had that tone a lot in those days, although he normally used it to explain that it was his turn to play on our trusty ZX Spectrum rather than mine.
Of course, he might have just been trying to put it to me subtly that I ought to read a few books in which all the characters were humans, just as a starter for ten. If he was, given that it’s taken me over twenty years to figure that out, I think I can safely say he did it very subtly indeed.
I studied English at A Level which gave me easily enough exposure to the classics to realise that they weren’t at all my cup of tea. Highlights included The Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence, which is billed as a coruscating study of love and the eternal struggle between women and men across three generations but is in fact an indigestible doorstop of a book in which the passages about working life in the early twentieth century read like lectures and so do the sex scenes. Enduring the whole book was a bit like being cornered by an unbelievably tedious man, with a huge beard and halitosis, at a party you’d never planned to attend anyway.
Not that you can always tell there are sex scenes, of course; I also read Tess Of The d’Urbervilles. While the debate in academic circles rages about whether poor innocent Tess had been raped or seduced I was still scratching my head, unaware that she’d even had sex in the first place. When I subsequently discovered that she was pregnant I was completely dumbstruck, flipped back, reread the chapter in which she apparently loses her virginity and was still none the wiser.
At first I assumed that this wasn't a failing on my part but I soon worked out that, when it comes to the classics, if you don’t enjoy them it’s because you aren’t a good enough reader, rather than because they aren’t by a good enough writer. It’s an important lesson which will stand you in good stead for many years of being patronised by people who know better than you. It was also my first, but sadly not my only, experience that when people ask you what a book is “about” they don’t necessarily mean the plot. There is always a horrible danger that they are talking about a book’s Themes, its Big Ideas. Because of course, all books have them and they’re deliberately planted in there by novelists rather than dreamt up after the fact by critics. Heaven forbid.
All of this came together recently when I decided to try improving myself by reading one of the classics, to see what all the fuss was about. I picked up The Great Gatsby, because I knew everyone raved about it and perhaps more importantly because it was nice and short. Under two hundred pages, in fact, which proves that I at least learned something from reading The Rainbow. And it was okay, I suppose, in fact there were some beautiful sentences and paragraphs which at times quite stopped me from thinking hard about the fact that not a lot was really happening. I will admit though that I had to read the ending a couple of times to work out what had actually taken place, but I reckon that was down to extreme tiredness brought on by the exhilarating prose. That’s my story, anyway, and I’m sticking to it.
It was handy that all those critics were on hand to tell me it was all about the American Dream, because I’m not sure I would have figured that out without their help. Isn’t it brilliant how classic novels always have that introduction at the start where somebody clever tells you how important and seminal the book is? How would we manage without them? Anyway, like I said, I didn’t mind The Great Gatsby and I remember putting an update on Twitter saying that I thought it was good but not great. Almost immediately somebody responded.
“Oh, you must read it again.” they said.
Only in literature would this ever happen. If you'd had a shit meal, seen a dreadful film, stayed in a grotty hotel or had a crap shag and somebody urged you to return to the scene of the crime as soon as possible you’d very quickly tell them where to go, but for some reason books seem to be different. If we judged everything else the way books are judged you would be told “You just don’t have the palate to appreciate the Aberdeen Angus Steakhouse, I suggest you go back tomorrow and try not to be so jejune about the onion rings.” or “Ah, maybe you just aren’t ready yet for Hudson Hawk. Maybe when you’re in your thirties, with more life experience, you'll understand.”
You might take from this that I am more at the Dan Brown end of the spectrum when it comes to reading matter. Would that that was true; if it was, my life would be so much easier. Unfortunately, just as I can’t seem to enjoy the high end of literature the multi-selling accessible stuff bores me to tears too. A little while back Kelly got a book called I Heart New York free with a copy of Glamour magazine and, in between books with no idea what to read next, I decided to dip in. What was the worst that could happen?
It turned out that the worst that could happen was reading I Heart New York.
I couldn’t really imagine anybody whose intelligence wouldn’t have been insulted by the book, including people in a permanent vegetative state or on life support. If you put a million chimps in a room with a million typewriters for a million years they would knock out the collected works of Shakespeare. If you put one of them in a room with a typewriter for a couple of days it would write something better than I Heart New York. It featured a lead character who had three main ambitions – to find love, buy lots of shoes and handbags (probably in pink, though I can’t be sure because I tuned out quite a few of the paragraphs, as you do with anything annoying) and be even thinner than the plot of I Heart New York. She ends up achieving the first two, though I suspect the third isn't physically possible. Reading it was a bit like having a lobotomy and drinking a strawberry milkshake at the same time.
Don’t for a second think I don’t appreciate the utter hypocrisy of ranting about critics and sneering about a fun frothy disposable novel at the same time. I’m painfully aware of it, I just don’t know what it means. It’s even more hypocritical given that I write myself. I know I’ve also just compared the Great Gatsby to the Aberdeen Angus Steakhouse, but let’s gloss over that; it’s the principle of the thing.
I read quite a lot of books, and what genuinely stumps me is how few of them I actually enjoy. I wouldn’t watch this many films I don’t like or buy this many records that bore me. And of course, it’s not so easy to download the first chapter of a book, or see a trailer for a book which I reckon is why people make so many bad decisions. And I don’t think it’s just me, either. Kelly reads easily as many books as I do, and in many cases her answers to my questions are always the same.
“What’s it like?” I’ll ask her.
“It’s too early to say.” she'll reply. This is her stock answer at any point from the beginning to about two-thirds of the way through the book. This is my cue to wait a while.
“What’s it like?” I’ll ask again, once I have figured out, through my unnerving powers of observation, that she’s on the home stretch.
“It’s okay, but it will all depend on the ending.” will invariably be the response at this stage.
“What was it like?” I’ll ask again when the book is finally closed for the last time. At this stage I reckon it’s no longer too early to say and, at least in some cases, the ending should have been comprehensible. The response, very often, is “Disappointing.” On the occasions when it’s not, it’s usually “I liked it,” followed by a pause, followed by “but you wouldn’t.”
Every now and again, I try again to read something that has a fighting chance of improving me. You could be forgiven, looking at this account, for thinking that doesn’t rule out an awful lot of books and you might be right. Sometimes, this is more successful than others. For instance, a while back I decided to tackle one of the giants of twentieth century literature, the series of four Rabbit novels by John Updike. Naturally, this too is about the American Dream, and about the state of America across the fifties, sixties and seventies. Because it’s by John Updike, it’s also about shagging, and maleness, and no doubt loads of other things I would have picked up if I’d been paying more attention or read the introduction.
I have to say, I quite enjoyed it, so much so that I didn’t even mind the effort involved in feeling like a better person. The second book in the sequence sagged a bit when a token black guy moved into Rabbit’s house for no discernible reason and lectured him at great length about race relations for what felt like several hundred pages. It was like D.H. Lawrence all over again; why can’t novelists resist the urge to crowbar lengthy polemics into their novels? I could understand them loving the sound of their own voice if they were, you know, writing a blog or something, but in fiction? But it wasn’t all bad, it picked up in the third novel when there was plenty of shagging and even a bit of swinging, and you didn’t even need to squint at the paragraphs with a magnifying glass to figure out who was sticking what into whom.
Emboldened by my success, I decided to move onto another Big Important Proper Clever Novel Of Substance. This time, it was time for a biggie. Well, not Moby Dick or Ulysses - because I’m many things but I’m not a masochist. Instead, I decided to go for A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth, a huge sprawling family saga. The quote on the front cover said Make time for it. It will keep you company for the rest of your life. Isn’t that a lovely, comforting suggestion? Not just a book, but a friend too! Lucky old me.
Well, or so I thought. Over the space of several weeks, I manfully went to bed every night and looked nervously at the gigantic tome squatting malevolently on my bedside table. The thing is, A Suitable Boy is about a number of things. It’s about life in India post-partition. It’s about romance and the expectations of family. More importantly, it’s about sixteen hundred pages long. And I tried, I really did. A journey of a thousand miles probably does begin with a single step, but it’s still likely to take considerably less time than reading A Suitable Boy. And there were so many characters. Even with the family tree at the front (which listed about a third of them and was therefore virtually no help at all) it was slow going. Bedtime started to feel more like a punishment than a reward, especially as I’ve always thought there was something wrong with abandoning a book before the end.
It will keep you company for the rest of your life started to take on a rather sinister interpretation. By the time I was at the end of the first chapter it was beginning to feel a lot like You will never finish this book, even if you live to be a hundred. As I struggled from page to page like wading through concrete, even that started to sound overly kind. By page 200, it translated as You will die without finishing this book. At the 300 page mark, it was more like This book will follow you round from flat to flat, job to job, hairstyle to hairstyle, hastening your demise. There is no escape. This book is a life sentence in paperback form. Even that was too benign. By the time I got to about page 400 the meaning of the quote was clear: Vikram Seth is trying to kill you. And when he has, they will probably pop this copy of A Suitable Boy in your coffin to keep you company in the afterlife for all eternity, and you’ll still never finish it, not even then.
Chilling stuff at midnight, I think you’ll agree.
There was nothing for it, I dumped A Suitable Boy and picked up the latest Jilly Cooper instead. Ostensibly they do share some characteristics - both are colossal novels, both have lots of characters and both have a handy list of the characters right at the start of the book. But in Jilly Cooper’s list she tells you everything you need to know about them in a one-line summary so you know if they’re a good egg or a bad sort (as a general principle, if a character in a Jilly Cooper is kind to animals they’re probably all right, and if they so much as look funny at a dog they are all kinds of evil incarnate). And there was even an orgy scene at one point, although orgies are always bad things which leave somebody terribly upset and violated in Jilly Cooper novels (you need to read a spot of Jacqueline Susann for a decent orgy scene in my experience). And there were jokes! Bad jokes, awful puns, characters with preposterous names, a sheer comforting predictable hug of a hardback. So that’s me done with highbrow fiction for a while, and I think I might give my brain the rest of the year off because I think it’s suffered quite enough for now.
I’ll tell you this one last thing about the Jilly Cooper novel for nothing though: eight hundred pages has never passed so quickly before in my life.
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