In gaining a greater appreciation of great authors, ‘well read’ doesn’t translate to ‘most read’.
I’m a bit of a frenzied reader. I don’t particularly stick to any one thing for a long time – genre, style, or author. At the literary buffet I’m that arse who has his plate piled high with a little of everything. Yes, it’s more than I can realistically consume, maybe none of it goes together and it’ll disintegrate into a brown sludge, maybe I’ll just fall over and throw it on someone, but variety is the spice of life, no? The trade-off is that, honestly, I can’t say I’m too well read on any singular author, period, or much else. Perhaps it’s strange to love books but never willingly go deep-diving into any one author. Still, even in the midst of my screaming scramble through the literary tunnels, every so often an author makes a deep enough impression on even me that years later I will still remember them and I will be driven to seek out their other work. Sometimes it’s a singular book, sometimes it’s some aspect of the writing, sometimes it’s some other piece of context or information, or a conversation that I’ve had, that drives the desire to find out more. I like a lot of the books that I’ve read, but that doesn’t mean I want to stop for them. I tend to find that when I want to go and get a closer look, then it’s a sure indicator that I’ve found something truly interesting.
Blood Meridian is a fever dream of violence and alcohol. You get the impression that you should be bored by the cycles of meaningless violence. There’s little in the way of overt reason, beyond greed, for anything that happens. Similarly, the context of any point in the book becomes increasingly abstract. You start to notice the run ups and lead ins to certain leitmotifs; you recognise how everything is about to play out, and it does. The overt nuts and bolts of storytelling are more or less absent, things like narrative structure and character arcs, get buried beneath omnipresent blood and corpses. This should, in theory, make it an awful book – if you told me you were writing a book where every chapter was about another massacre, I’d tell you your idea is awful. Apparently, I know nothing. Yet it’s far from mindless. There’s a very specific intent that you can feel throbbing in the background. Numerous individual scenes and individual lines emerge in the noise and stand out starkly amongst the fractals of the rest of the book, and those scenes will probably never leave you.
Similar to Blood Meridian, The Road is relentlessly recursive and grim. But where Blood Meridian is a literary artillery bombardment, The Road is solitary confinement in an infinite space. This book juxtaposes Blood Meridian’s endless carnival crush of bodies with an endless stark emptiness. It is grey, it is bleak, it is post-apocalyptic fiction stripped of any power fantasy. There are no Mohawks, there are no cobbled together drag racers, there are no action sequences. There is no colour. There is desperation and fragile hope. It is concerned less with making a better future from the ruins, more with conducting a study of the way in which artificially preserving the concept of hope in those who can believe in the notion, is the function by which humanity preserves any future at all. Nothing good is going to happen for anyone, ever, that much is clear, but by repeating the mantra that they are preserving ‘the light’ the father and son shamble onwards and onwards and onwards. Depending on how you read it, this is a testament to human resilience or human insanity.
I love McCarthy’s pervasive bleakness. It’s unremitting. There are few authors who can be that consistently pessimistic about existence and remain readable – the vast majority of us just end up numbing the reader. They roll their eyes, they get bored, they close the book. The impact gets completely lost. If you can write constant misery – or consistent any emotion for that matter – and keep it compelling, then you need to tell the rest of us plebs what we’re missing.
J. G. Ballard
I’ve read The Atrocity Exhibition twice now. This was my introduction to Ballard. As introductions go it isn’t the smoothest. The Atrocity Exhibition was more or less incomprehensible as a straightforward narrative, but it’s not really meant to be read that way. It’s one of the most obsessive jagged things you’re ever likely to read. The text itself is a series of splinters that, like the characters, must be pieced together bit by bit. As a rule of thumb, I’m against the idea that a person should read the entire book in order to make an accurate judgement about it, but books like The Atrocity Exhibition tend to break that rule. It’s a textual collage. Only by reading the entire thing do you get a clearer picture. That final picture, in this case, is still up for interpretation in its psychogeometric-sex/violence abstraction.
Crash is a more linear affair, derived from The Atrocity Exhibition, where the car crash eroticism becomes the focal point and gains some much-needed context. Crash is unsettling in a different way to The Atrocity Exhibition; it’s a little slimier, a little more focused on the machinic lensing of trauma and impulse, but Ballard’s ability to get under the skin is no less present.
High-Rise is the most straight forward. A little like if you took Lord of the Flies and transplanted it into a block of English flats – also known as a block of English flats… Hobbes, Marx, Freud all seem to have a shade in this novel. The automobile-human descriptive elements colouring Crash take on a brutalist architectural skin, but the effect remains jarring. What’s most interesting is that, unlike Lord of the Flies, everyone in High-Rise has a very clear ability to leave the deteriorating situation. The fact that they don’t is not an oversight.
The façade of civilisation is a topic that is more than well worn across literature at this point, but Ballard seemed to be a man who understood, better than most, the fragmented savagery of mankind and the many juxtaposed manifestations therein. While others would have put some sort of moralistic spin or anthropocentric shrug on the end of these delves into decadence and mayhem, Ballard had the stomach to resist condemning or whitewashing it.
Bret Easton Ellis
I’m re-reading American Psycho, roughly fifteen years after I first read it. How do you make banality compelling? American Psycho is a book that almost exclusively concerns itself with the kind of thing you would want to minimise in, if not entirely cut out of, a book. The kind of small talk circling food, daytime television, and who’s saying what about who, that you stick your head into a book in order to tune out. It’d be interesting to know what percentage of this book consists of solely clothing and brand lists.
It’s not until more than a third of the way through the book that events start to take off. There’s plenty of allusions to the background mayhem that is gradually oozing into the foreground, but for a long time it’s really not certain whether any of it is real or just in Patrick’s head. He’s a yuppie rich kid. Much like the world he inhabits, the reader draws his capacity for murder into question because nearly nobody takes him seriously – after all, why would a rich pampered banker need to murder anyone? This is exacerbated by the nebulousness of the world – nobody has identity. Every man in the book is suspenders, slicked back hair, horn-rimmed glasses, and a bank account. Every woman is a body, a hair colour, a set of tits. Nobody has a face; nobody has a personality. They all talk like generic-brand ad copy. The complete absence of individual characteristics, in favour of their clothing, and the fact that nobody can remember who anyone else is, deepens that sense of decoherence and interchangeability. This is a book that fully embraces the idea that individuals in the modern world are products more than they are people. In one sense, the murders aren’t really the point. The complete lack of meaning, identity, and the self-perpetuating nature of mechanical economic dehumanisation, is.
American Psycho actually reminds me a bit of Moby Dick’s habit of making every even-numbered chapter a tedious lecture on the finer points of whaling… In American Psycho there are entire chapters where Patrick is just monologuing about well-known music – you may be more familiar with the, very well done, way it was presented and integrated in the film. In the book it is just an entire stand-alone chapter devoted to a rich man babbling about Genesis or Huey Lewis and The News.
It’s yet another book that, had someone told me that they were writing nothing but restaurants and suit tailors, I’d have nodded, smiled, and walked away at a brisk pace. For some reason I find myself wanting to read more lists of clothing, arguments about what cufflinks go with which ties, and unnecessarily tense conversations about reviews of the food in a restaurant that it costs a month’s rent to eat at.
So why haven’t I read more from these authors I so enjoy? I wanted to read other things. I knew I’d circle back around eventually, but the world is full of books and authors and that list is growing and growing. There’s no need to binge an author just to say you have, I’d rather have a real craving for an author and then read that author, over some bizarre completionism. My general idea currently, given that it has been a long time between books, is to go through a book a year. It should keep their work compelling while helping to add more depth to my reading. My tastes have shifted over time and I’m growing more interested in building on what I’ve got, rather than simply expanding an endless number of new authors.