The Mandibles: Lionel Shriver

I have been meaning to read this book for ages. It’s been on the must read list for so long, I just have not seen it anywhere. So when I found it in the Waterstones in Exeter I had to have it. Plus, you know, it would make interesting reading material for my trip to the U.S.

The Mandibles is a sort of economic disaster novel. It follows the Mandible family, a typical group waiting upon their inevitable inheritance windfall from the incumbent patriarch in the year 2029. In an echo of the 1929 Wall Street crash the dollar plummets. Queue inflation, unemployment, homelessness and starvation. The only survivors are the increasingly affluent Asian nations. Shriver imagines this reality by documenting the decline of the four generations of Mandibles from 2029 to 2047, as they attempt to survive by pulling together as a family. 

This is such an interesting book. The concept is terrifyingly plausible, which makes it all the more fascinating. In his construction of this future world (not even fifteen years away), Shriver has created a not unrealistic image – the developments in technology and stagnating employment markets are not far off our own. I think reading this book in New York, where a lot of it is set, really helped to create a certain ambiance. It was unsettling, but intriguing. The ending is a little twee, yet true to the rest the last sentence does maintain the inevitability of such financial collapse.

I would really recommend this book to anyone who wants something to stimulate the brain cells. I would tell everyone to read it, just because I would be interested in the debates that would develop, just from its concept. 

Hystopia: David Means

2016 Man Booker Prize longlistee

Not to judge a book by its cover, but the very psychedelic patterning drew me in. Plus, anything making reference to history usually manages to tempt me. I love a good dystopian novel.

Hystopia is a bit of a strange one. It follows an alternative history, one where Kennedy was not shot from the grassy knoll, having somehow managed to secure himself a third term in office. Vietnam veterans returning from the ongoing conflict are ‘enfolded’ into treatment programmes that repress traumatic memories of the war. The book is written by Eugene Allen, as a book within a book written by David Means. Allen is a fictional character, yet part of his history and motivations for writing are explored in interviews and editor’s notes before and after the ‘book’. It is all very complicated and definitely makes much more sense when you actually read the thing, but do not be deterred.

It is a very strange book. Violent, aggressive, on verge of anarchic; it is definitely not the kind of thing that you come across everyday. Often I find violence in a book reads a tad disjointedly, but the extra detail of emotional and physical trauma really added to it. It could have been a real history of the US in the 1960s. To be honest, my American history is not that great, and I could definitely see how Means/Allen draw upon broad events to create such a detailed alternative history.

If you fancy something a bit different, whether you are into dystopian literature or just straight up war stuff, I am sure you will find something that appeals in Hystopia. I definitely enjoyed it, I just do not feel I ever got into the flow of it – potentially due to deadlines and history readings and various other life things that got in the way.

 

The Master and Margarita: Mikhail Bulgakov

Long time no post! – I seem to have gotten lost in the world of seminar readings and procedural essays over the last couple of weeks, reading for fun has been put on the back-burner!

I had to write a review for this book. It is rare to pick something up and love it, even for me (I seem to feel pretty positively about most of what I read). I have come across reference to Bulgakov a couple of times, particularly in relation to other Russian writers like Vladimir Nabokov. I just thought I would give it a try, as a lover of twentieth century literature – I cannot say that I was disappointed.

The Master and Margarita begins with the Devil, otherwise known as Woland, and his arrival at Patriarch’s Ponds in Moscow. From here, havoc is unleashed on the city, with everyone who encounters Satan or his followers; Behemoth the giant black cat, Koroviev the valet, Azazello and Hella the naked witch (apparently to qualify as a witch nudity is compulsory, who knew), are driven to insanity at the sight of such chaos. Thus ensues the slow destruction of the mental state of Moscow. Meanwhile, the story of Pontius Pilate and the truth of Jesus runs parallel to this tale in the work of the Master, a man driven to depression by his literary failures and left isolated from his true love and number one fan, Margarita. Lots of very strange, bizarre and frankly hilarious events unfold, before the Devil and his disciples eventually tire of Moscow.

It all sounds kind of weird, but it only took me a chapter or two, at most, to get into this novel. Whilst I was reading I felt obligated to tell everyone how great it was. That is rare for me! The writing style and wit, do not read like something written around 1928-1940, it is the definition of timeless.

I enjoyed The Master and Margarita tremendously (even enough to use the word tremendous), a definite recommend to anyone who fancies something a bit different.

 

American Psycho: Bret Easton Ellis

To continue along the dystopian theme that came with Filth last week, I would like to talk about American Psycho. I say dystopia hesitantly, as there is not much dystopia in this book. That’s the scary bit. This review is well-timed for me, I think, as I was literally just reading a review by Irvine Welsh (Filth author) about American Psycho, in which he discusses the cultural relevance of the book’s graphic violence and why it should not be read as a patriarchal attack upon the female populous, as much of the controversy centred around the idea that this book glorifies rape and violence.

The book is written from the point of view of Patrick Bateman, a handsome, wealthy, sophisticated member of the elite,with a high-powered job in the city and women at every turn. He’s the self-proclaimed epitome of success, living out the modern American Dream. But the ‘dream’ has become twisted. Bateman’s character spirals into an abyss of depravity and murder to hunt for some meaning in the bland consumerist culture of the 1980s. There are some truly awful scenes in this book, with Ellis blending pornography with gore to emphasise a black satirical point about the culture America and people themselves have created.

I read American Psycho with a sick fascination. Every part of me wanted to put the damn book down and run as far away from it as possible. But it’s a thought-provoking piece. And definitely a classic. Only negative is the chapters just dedicated to Bateman’s obsessive ranting about certain bands or his apartment furnishings in big detail – I understand why they’re needed, to convey the compulsive nature of his character, but they aren’t half hard to read through. This novel is not about the vile rape and abuse of the women (I’m not even going to start on the cannibalism), it is an important part, but the point is that a man like Bateman, the kind of guy that people look up to, is able to function relatively unnoticed in high society. The lack of resolution in the finale is terrifying, as if he will continue forever – unstoppable.

Side point: THE BOOK IS SO MUCH WORSE THAN THE FILM DO NOT EVEN GO THERE – the people who have just seen the film do not understand.

Filth: Irvine Welsh 

You will have to bear with me on this one – I read Filth a fairly long time ago now, so it’s not quite as fresh in my mind. I’d heard good things about the film when it came out in 2013 so when I saw it in an English bookshop in Dubrovnik decided to give it a perusal. This is my first Irvine Welsh novel, having never sampled Trainspotting before (I know, where have I been?!), but his work is considered to be iconic, as provides voices to those that are not normally heard, dealing with the nasty side of fiction as opposed to the light. You are not supposed to like his characters. Pity yes, but not like.

Filth was first published in 1998 and takes the form of the internal dialogue of Bruce Robertson, a corrupt polisman operating in the city of Edinburgh. The dialogue is also interspersed with contributions from his resident tape worm. I know, it’s that kind of book. The novel follows Bruce through his day-to-day, interacting with co-workers, an annual trip to Amsterdam and extra-marital affairs. As the dialogue progresses Bruce’s twisted narcissism and drug and relationship problems are exposed, with everything he does engineered to harm those around him. The corruption unravels the man, leaving a monster – the ending (which I won’t spoil) becomes inevitable as the humanity disappears.

I loved this book. Don’t get me wrong it’s very difficult to get into in the beginning – the writing is vernacular Scottish and every other word is a swearword, something that is actually quite jarring but as a reader you soon become desensitised to. It’s a disgusting vile book that quite probably traumatised me during the reading process. But that is the point. And Irvine Welsh has written Bruce exceptionally well. You hate him, but still pity. You are disturbed by the depravity, but still find the black humour of it. It even passed the emptiness test that I mentioned in the Norwegian Wood review. (Link: here) I had to have a lie-down after the climactic ending. But that is why I have to recommend, with writing like that it would criminal not to.