Tuesday, 14 June 2016

****: the narrator, Kim Kardashian and Lolita

Still reading Matthew Selwyn's ****, or, The Anatomy of Melancholy
Look at this passage: 
“Shoes off, I climb the stairs and drop down onto my bed, covers still falling into the inviting pool of my carpet where I left them this morning. Reaching up, I hit the power button on my laptop, which sits on my desk. Kim Kardashian appears briefly, then the familiar loading screen. Longest 2 minutes of the day. 
I lie back on my bed; close my eyes and rest, wishing away the seconds until I have something to open my lids for once more. The computer’s fan whizzes, the CD drive begins to spin—the familiar routine, the comforting commotion only inches from my ears. 
The computer lets loose another chime, a double-take. I look up, concerned, but see Kardashian’s famous bust right where it should be, the cursor spinning over her right nipple—teasing me and her at the same time. […]
The chimes fire across my thoughts again and I sit up a little, pulling the laptop onto my belly. The icons scatter across Kim’s perfect body before my eyes, the cursor still spinning but more slowly now, easing off, preparing to draw the world into my bedroom. All looks fine, my heartbeat slows, and I rest back on my elbows as the final few programs load. Admiring those perfect caramel tits, hidden now by the mess of files dropped on top of them, I relax—but then the chime goes again. Shit. Maybe the sound card is busted; not the end of the world, but fuck scenes are less animal without the groans. And I certainly don’t want any lovely to be competing with that dull chime, orgasmic screams being beaten out by the repetitive drone.”
Here the phone rings. 
“My eyes focus, I look down at it: ‘Josie’, it tells me, ‘Josie’ is trying to connect with me.” 
Who’s Josie? we wonder. The narrator picks up the phone—Josie turns out to be his mother, telling him to open the door, “knobhead”. 
“The chimes start again, insistent. I blink at Kim’s boobs before they disappear into another loading screen, brother to the one from 5 minutes past…” 
Selwyn gets points for the bit about Josie—an element of surprise (though I’d probably write “I glance at it. Josie.”—that is enough). Here we have a young man who has spent pages boasting of his size, performance and experience, of his conquests, of his independence and nonconformity—despite occasional hints that the narrator isn’t who he says he is, everything has led the reader to expect Josie to be anyone but his mother. When the narrator introduces himself to us, he appears to dominate, to be in control of everything, to understand “the system” and exploit it for his own use, to see through all falsehoods and pretences, to know everything of which everyone else is ignorant. All of a sudden we realise that he’s unemployed. Then it turns out that he lives with his mother and his father left a while ago. Later, we see him with a psychoanalyst. And so on. Slowly, slowly, the character’s revealed to us. 
My chief problem with **** is the prose. If you like it, or don’t mind it, **** might interest you as a book about a loner, a loser, a misanthrope, a kind of sociopath. Now and then I’m not very convinced—for instance, look back at the passage quoted above, does that sound like someone that likes Kim Kardashian? I don’t think so. Clearly, the author doesn’t like Kim Kardashian, and only tries to slip into the mind of someone who does. But in general, Selwyn does depict the character’s misanthropy and cynicism, as well as the insecurities beneath it.  
Another thing that might interest you is the picture of modern society—(if you think) this is an age of the screen, of porn, of plastics and virtual worlds, of sex prioritised over love and hook-ups preferred to relationships, etc. 
On my part, I’m not much of an aesthete, compared to some readers (I’ll pick Tolstoy over Flaubert any time), but I like poetic and rhythmic prose, original and striking metaphors, and have always valued artistic genius over ideas. It’s not that I like elaborate prose (not always), nor that I mind a colloquial style, nor that I have issues with the harshness and vulgarity of the narrator’s language, I simply find it clumsy and clunky. Should we think it’s the character rather than the author that writes clunky prose? Should we think the clichés are his rather than Selwyn’s? 
Let’s talk about another scene. The narrator yells “Where the fuck is Lolita?”. That doesn’t refer to a girl named Lolita, but to the Nabokov book that he has misplaced somewhere and now has to find. What’s the purpose of the scene? 1, he reads Lolita (earlier in the book, we’re told that he reads Kierkegaard and Sartre and Flaubert, knows about Auden and Kingsley Amis, and is familiar with Freud’s ideas). 2, his mother is a philistine, who doesn’t care about books and doesn’t know the difference between Fight Club and Lolita. 3, as a result, the mother and the son are too different to be close—to be precise, he sees her as an ignoramus.
He closes the door and blocks her out. 
This is the passage that follows: 
“Looking around, there’s no sign of Lo. Not that there’s too many hiding places. My single bed, covers thrown all over the place: signs of a good night. My desk, leaning unsteadily against my bed and covered with a few used bowls, the odd piece of discarded toast, and my laptop. A swinging chair, the back broken clean off—this is where Lo should be, it’s where my books live. My wardrobe, cheap and tiny, doesn’t even hold my clothes, which spill out from the open doors and onto the grey-brown carpet, mixing with the normal cocktail of crumbs, dust, and condom wrappers. Shit. There’s nowhere for Lo to hide. Even nymphets won’t lower themselves to hang about in a place like this. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got everything I need. But fuck, life in a box isn’t much to shout about. It’s nothing but a holding pen for the inevitable, for the final box. State-sponsored housing? State-sponsored euthanasia.” 
(The last line reveals the 4th significance of the scene). 
The better passages of the book are when the narrator’s talking—when all we have is his voice, with his remarks and ideas. Once he starts to describe (I shall not type the scene where he talks to his girlfriend Lexi over the screen), it doesn’t work very well. 
What do you think? 


  1. All other issues and criticism aside, almost any writing so loaded (larded) with time-sensitive pop culture tropes is doomed to oblivion. The word-game gymnastics, which seem to be attracting you to the text, are not sufficient for me to attempt reading this one. I applaud your explorer-patience, and I hope you enjoy your trek, but I will not make the trip. I'm headed elsewhere, choosing the sublime over the pointless: Shakespeare.

    1. I just finished reading it today.
      Change of plans: instead of moving onto The Sympathiser, I think I'll return to the Melville book for the time being.
      Which Shakespeare are you reading?

    2. Spent day with _King John_. Now I'm off to other reading options. My blog explains.

    3. Oh OK.
      Do you watch football, btw? Soccer I mean.

    4. Not even a minute of it. Sorry.

    5. Hahahaha. Sounds like you hate it.

  2. It seems a little self-consciously edgy-- trying to be interesting with crudeness. I've noticed some very similar writing in another modern 'literary' book-- will try to look up specific passages later, when at home

    1. This review is more negative than my posts: