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Paul Bowes (Wales, United Kingdom)
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African Psycho
African Psycho
by Alain Mabanckou
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.45

2.0 out of 5 stars Something of a misfire for this interesting writer, 7 Oct 2014
This review is from: African Psycho (Paperback)
The title suggests that this novel (a translation of the French original, which appeared in 2003) is an African spin on Bret Easton Ellis' rather better known 'American Psycho' (1991). This is superficially obvious. The protagonists of both books are – depending on your reading – murderous psychopaths, or at the very least murderous fantasists preoccupied by scenarios of mayhem and revenge. Both authors have larger points to make about their societies, and about the relationship between personal and economic violence. Both novels are set in major cities - New York, and a barely-disguised Brazzaville – that serve as microcosms of the larger society, with great disparities of wealth and class thrown into high relief among a mass of people living in close proximity. Each book has a vein of grotesque humour.

In the end, however, these are two rather different approaches to a superficially similar scenario. Mabanckou is less of an ironist than Ellis: his literary roots are in the French existential tradition, which was heavily influenced by the agonised moralism of Dostoevsky. His protagonist, Gregoire Nakobomayo, is a classic marginal man: a 'picked-up child' – that is to say, an abandoned and adopted child – who has accumulated enormous resentment towards others and contempt towards himself. He has become fascinated by the notorious murderer Angoualima, whose campaign of violence is terminated only by his suicide – a final act of contempt against a world that could neither satisfy nor stop him. Though Angoualima has passed into legend, Gregoire is convinced that he lives on supernaturally, and adopts him as his mentor.

Mabanckou has drawn a great deal of attention, primarily in the French-speaking world – in which he is a multiple prize-winner - but more recently in Anglophone territories as his work has been translated. 'African Psycho', it has to be said, is not one of the works that has been most lauded. A relatively crude piece, the novel has things to say about the roots of violence and the role of male fantasy in Mabanckou's Congo of the imagination: but the novel is poorly structured and repetitive, and in the end fails to make any of its points with sufficient force. Unlike Ellis' Patrick Bateman, who can seem a reasonable Everyman in everything but his murderous propensities – a source of much of the humour in 'American Psycho' - Gregoire Nakobomayo seems from the beginning a deluded and damaged young man whose inability to translate his grandiose fantasies of destruction into reality is neither genuinely amusing, in the familiar vein of black humour, nor diagnostic of the failures of his culture. As a result, the violence that erupts at intervals often seems undermotivated and merely nasty, and the book ultimately fails to convince either as documentary or as moral farce.

By all means read Mabanckou, who has written much better than this: but don't start here.


Taipei
Taipei
by Tao Lin
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.34

2.0 out of 5 stars The real Blank Generation?, 3 Oct 2014
This review is from: Taipei (Paperback)
'Taipei' follows the career of Paul, a Chinese-American writer in his late twenties, over the course of a year that encompasses the making and breaking of a number of friendships and love affairs, and a book tour. These events, heavily repetitious in character, are bookended by parallel visits to Paul's parents, who after living in the United States for many years have returned to their native Taiwan. Heavily medicated, Paul stumbles through his conspicuously aimless life fending off his mother's worries, reflecting uncertainly on his childhood, and weaving an uncertain path through parties, book readings and abortive relationships.

This book was published as a novel, but as a glance at Tao Lin's social-media presence will confirm, it is so heavily autobiographical that it is almost impossible for the reader to determine what - if anything - is invented. From the point of view of a likely target audience more familiar with Twitter, Facebook and reality television than with literary fiction this may actually constitute a recommendation: old-media access to a new-media star.

For me, one of the most frustrating aspects of reading Tao Lin was the persistent feeling that he has something to say and potentially the ability to say it, but through laziness and distractibility has preferred to substitute barely filtered and unstructured documentary for fictional art. The prevailing mood is emotionally muffled, dispirited and anxious, in a way that will be familiar to older readers of American drug fiction. (I hesitated to call the book 'drug fiction', but the omnipresence of prescribed and recreational medications, without which Paul and his acquaintances seem unwilling or unable to function, is the abiding impression left by 'Taipei', and the source of its few moments of humour.)

Paul inhabits his world completely, to a such degree that his experience - itself as weightless and insignificant as an indulged teenager's long summer vacation - is almost continuously mediated by his drug diet and his omnipresent MacBook, with which he records anything and everything that briefly engages his attention. After a while the names of medications - Klonopin, Ambien, Adderall, Seroquel and a dozen others - their dosages and associated moods become more reliable, familiar and fleshed-out landmarks than places, events and persons. (Most of the other human characters in 'Taipei' are at best paler editions of Paul: only his mother escapes this fate). The MacBook, physical symbol of the virtual world, is bed companion, umbilical cord and recording angel.

The book has a certain sociological value in documenting aspects of the lives of a set of privileged, bored young people - nobody in the book seems to work - but is seriously lacking as a work of literary art, being effective neither as serious reflection nor as satire. Like other writers with extensive personal experience of this world, Lin greatly overestimates its fascination for the less involved. Certainly some of the passages of dialogue later in the book read as straightforward transcriptions of drug-addled conversations, with all their tedious hesitations and dead ends preserved alongside cursory editorial additions for context. At intervals, usually at the conclusion of a chapter or section, Paul has an uncharacteristic moment of lucidity - rarely for more than a paragraph; the tone changes, intelligence sparks, and the author gives a glimpse of what he might be capable of, given time, aesthetic distance and application. As a whole, however, one has to admit that over its length 'Taipei' is simply boring, when it isn't actively irritating: a natural consequence of trying to build a story around a figure who seems little interested in his own incoherent life.

Bret Easton Ellis' 'Less Than Zero', which critics were quick to invoke by way of comparison, was by contrast concise, eventful, tightly and stylishly written, and in many ways a straightforward morality play. 'Taipei' is what is left of that '80s world when any shred of moral perspective has vanished, leaving only the sense of a slowly decaying orbit documented with slightly cooler technology. Paul is so relentlessly childish and self-absorbed a character - so trivial, so lacking in insight into his own condition, so absent a centre - that it is as hard to criticise as to sympathise with him, and the author offers no other perspective.


The Seven Madmen (Extraordinary Classics)
The Seven Madmen (Extraordinary Classics)
by Roberto Arlt
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars An early Dostoevskian classic of twentieth-century Argentine literature, 23 Sep 2014
'The Seven Madmen' (Los siete locos, 1929) is one of only two books by the Argentine novelist Roberto Arlt to have been translated into English. By common critical consent, it is also considered to be his best: but the reader without Spanish will have to take that on trust.

Arlt is sometimes considered to be one of the first, if not the first modern South American novelist. 'The Seven Madmen' is set in Buenos Aires in the late nineteen-twenties, at a time when Argentina's booming economy had made it one of the wealthiest countries in the world - but also one of the most politically fragile. In fact, Arlt's novel includes a prescient fantasy of a military coup that anticipates the reality of the coup of 1930.

The author's protagonist is a classic 'marginal man' of the interwar period: Remo Erdosain, a debt collector and part-time inventor who, as the novel opens, stands accused of defrauding his employers. His marriage is in trouble: his acquaintances are a motley collection of fantasists and petty criminals, none of whom is entirely what he seems. Erdosain, in the grip of an existential crisis, allows himself to be drawn into a conspiracy to found a secret society that will exploit the tensions of the time to overthrow the government.

Arlt's most obvious debt is to the tradition of metaphysical anguish inaugurated in fiction by Dostoevsky; but Arlt has his own, distinctive psychology. Like Dostoevsky, he is an uneven and hasty writer - he was a journalist by trade - who marries occasional clumsiness with intense passion and episodes of visionary power and penetration. His view of women is very much of its time and place. Nonetheless, 'The Seven Madmen' is a compelling portrait of a mind at war with itself and with external circumstances.

It also provides sharp insights into the temper of the times. This was the period between the first genuinely global war and its widely-anticipated successor, in which both democracy and capitalism, unstable and under savage attacks from extremists of right and left, seemed unlikely to survive, creating an atmosphere in which almost any paranoid fantasy, however surreal or nihilistic, might be entertained. 'The Seven Madmen''s fluid movement between reality and fantasy captures perfectly this febrile mood, in which an ordinary man might dream of being a Mussolini, a Lenin, or a leader of the Illuminati without incongruity.

Arlt continued the story in two further volumes, neither of which appears to have been translated into English. Nonetheless, 'The Seven Madmen' is complete in its own right. Any reader of fiction of the period, or of South American literature, will want to have read this book. It stands up well to comparison with European and North American literature of the period, and although largely ignored at the time of publication has since been acknowledged as an influence by Cortazar, among others.


The Children Act
The Children Act
by Ian McEwan
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £11.00

7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Novella set in the legal world, 13 Sep 2014
This review is from: The Children Act (Hardcover)
'The Children Act' is a brief novel - really a novella - set in the legal world. The principal character is a judge specialising in cases involving children. As the book opens, she is performing her professional duties while dealing with the strain of the potential collapse of her marriage.

Ian McEwan has clearly done a great deal of research for this book, but I didn't feel that the story ever became merely a vehicle for hard-earned detail. The central character is convincingly inhabited, and the conflict that McEwan sets up when the clear and ordered world of the law is required to deal with the messy world of human emotions generates real tension.

Nonetheless, I felt that the book was only partially successful. McEwan writes well, in an understated way, and can create believably complex characters, but is much less secure in matters of plotting. The first half of the story works well. McEwan is at home in the world of successful professional people. How the reader feels about the whole, on the other hand, is likely to depend on how convinced he or she is by the second half, in which the judge becomes personally involved in a difficult case involving an adolescent who is refusing medical treatment. Although the outline of this fictional case is drawn from life, its presentation in fiction is curiously unconvincing: the denouement succumbs to melodrama.

The real fictional interest lies in the relationship between the judge and her restless husband, which is well handled and sustains interest. The legal material, which might have made for an interesting piece of journalism, here serves first as a pretext and ultimately as a distraction, even a red herring. As a result, the book carries less of a charge, and matters less than it might. The effect is less of chilliness than of distance: as of a judge carefully excluding emotional matters from a considered judgement.


Flight to Arras (Penguin Modern Classics)
Flight to Arras (Penguin Modern Classics)
by Antoine Saint-Exupery
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

4.0 out of 5 stars A classic of war literature, and a memorable reflection on mortality and meaning., 9 Sep 2014
'Flight to Arras' (originally 'Pilote de guerre') appeared in 1942 and was almost immediately translated into English. The present edition offers a newer (1995) translation.

The book is an account of a single, near-suicidal reconnaissance mission flown by Saint-Exupéry and two colleagues during the Fall of France in 1940. It blends a gripping boys-own adventure with the author's personal and philosophical reflections on war, on community, and on what it meant at this dark time to be French.

The style will be familiar to anybody familiar with the author's other books, though 'Flight to Arras' is less obviously novelistic than the earlier books that made his name. There are several bravura chapters: notably those that deal with the chaos of the civilian exodus from the combat zone, and the final approach to heavily defended Arras itself. As a first-person account by a man both intimately involved and, as an airman, unavoidably somewhat distanced, it could hardly be bettered. The only flaw is the sudden change of tone in the last few pages, in which Saint-Exupéry tries to formulate an ethic that will reframe a catastrophic defeat as cause for hope: and this may surely be excused in the circumstances. Even this offers important insights into the state of mind of French intellectuals at the time.

A classic of war literature, and a memorable reflection on mortality and meaning.


The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
The French Revolution: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)
Price: £4.12

4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent short introduction to the French Revolution, 8 Sep 2014
This is a good short introduction to the subject. William Doyle provides an account of events - a timeline is supplied - but concentrates on the lasting significance of the French Revolution. There is an even-handed discussion of the origins of the event, and of the historiography of the Revolution inside and outside France. The bibliography is up-to-date, as of publication, and a useful guide for further reading. The book is readable for the non-specialist.


Flying Creatures of Fra Angelico, The
Flying Creatures of Fra Angelico, The
by Antonio Tabucchi
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.79

3.0 out of 5 stars Thin collection of '80s stories, 7 Sep 2014
This brief book translates a collection of stories or fragmentary texts that appeared in Italian in 1987. The influence of Borges, and perhaps Calvino, is more obvious here than in Tabucchi's later work: admirers of those authors may find this book more attractive than those readers coming to 'Flying Creatures' from the later, better-known Tabucchi.

Most of these pieces are readable short fictions. A couple of the shortest are enigmatic, as Tabucchi points out in his introduction. As a collection, it's short measure - you will be able to read the whole thing in ninety minutes or so, though it's better taken in bites - and stylistically and thematically various, without any obvious unifying thread. Best appreciated as a snapshot of Tabucchi at the time. Fans will want to read this, but the uncommitted are unlikely to be convinced.


Andre Gide and the Second World War: A Novelist's Occupation
Andre Gide and the Second World War: A Novelist's Occupation
by Jocelyn Van Tuyl
Edition: Paperback
Price: £18.80

4.0 out of 5 stars A useful account of André Gide's war throws light on issues around the Occupation, literary Resistance and the postwar épuration, 31 Aug 2014
This is a detailed, nuanced account of André Gide's negotiation of the tricky waters of the Occupation and the immediate postwar years.

Neither Gide nor most of his critics come well out of this. Gide was accused both (from the Left) of covert support for Vichy - or at the very least of hedging his bets - and (from both Right and Left) of having been one of the leading cultural figures whose libidinous and irresponsible writings had undermined the French character and led to defeat in 1940.

His accusers were in many - but not all - cases hypocrites or bigots. Nonetheless, there was a case to answer. Gide, fêted as a writer and commentator, but approaching the end of his life, was inconsistent in his behaviour: attracted by some aspects of fascism; inclined to rewrite the past in the light of changing events; seemingly unable to transcend his relentlessly self-absorbed perspective; and at some level persistently anti-Semitic even after having experienced, as a homosexual, what it might be like to be a member of a despised minority.

Jocelyn Van Tuyl has written a quietly absorbing book that shines a light into some dark corners without resorting to caricature or reducing complex issues and states of mind to black and white certainties. Anybody interested in Gide, in French literary culture, in the intellectual climate of these years, or in the history of the French under Occupation will benefit from a reading of this book.


Works (French Literature Series)
Works (French Literature Series)
by Edouard Leve
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.50

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An earlier work of indirect autobiography from the author of 'Autoportrait' and 'Suicide', 25 Aug 2014
'Works' is a translation of Edouard Levé's 'Oeuvres' (2002). Presented without comment on its form, it is a bald list of 533 numbered descriptions of art projects "conceived but not executed". The first of these projects describes, paradoxically, the book itself.

The reader has a choice of strategies. The book may taken straight, as a list of proposed projects conceived by a writer who had already produced work in the general area of conceptual art: as a conceptual artwork in itself; as a parody or pastiche of such a work; as a work of fiction, postmodernist and ludic in its formal choices; or as a form of disguised autobiography. In truth, 'Works' is all of these things: but the last seems the most interesting and fruitful for the reader.

Taken individually, the proposals are of varying interest, seriousness and feasibility, but not much out of the general run of conceptual art as we have known it since the 1960s. Collectively, however, they form an indirect portrait of the author, as one might form an idea of a man's body purely from his cast shadows and reflected images on and in a variety of surfaces.

If there is a underlying theme that holds the proposals together, it is Levé's love of indirection: of that which cannot be seen or grasped directly. In this sense, 'Works' anticipates Levé's later books, 'Autoportrait' and 'Suicide'.

Admirers of the latter will want to read this. They are likely to find that it is best approached in small bites. I found that each proposal – they vary in length from a couple of lines to a couple of pages – demanded a certain effort of visual imagination that is fatiguing over the long run, and the repetitive list form encourages distraction. The sense of collective significance emerges over time, and requires patience. This short book is not necessarily a quick read.

One caveat: unusually for Dalkey Archive Press, this edition appears to have been inadequately proof-read. There are numerous instances in which the necessary space between two adjacent words has been omitted (see, for example, items 22, page 10; and 35, page 12). This is more of a minor irritant than an obstacle, but I was surprised to see this fault at all, and it recurs at intervals throughout the book. One hopes that the next printing will correct this.

Recommended for anyone interested in conceptual literature and contemporary French writing. Readers new to Levé might do better to begin with 'Autoportrait', from the same publisher.

[Note: the printed book is 118 pages long, not 208 as described here.]


Paris After the Liberation: 1944 - 1949
Paris After the Liberation: 1944 - 1949
by Antony Beevor
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.09

4.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining and informative overview of the post-Liberation period with a Parisian and upper-class focus, 24 Aug 2014
This book manages a difficult task: to make a serious historical account readable for the non-specialist. The authors have achieved this by narrowing their focus - making Paris central to the narrative and depending heavily on diplomatic, intellectual and artistic sources - and by relying fairly heavily on a limited range of personal accounts.

Nonetheless, 'Paris After the Liberation' is real history, and a useful pendant to general histories of France or Paris during the Occupation. Beevor and Cooper do a fine job of explaining the politics of the period, while humanising a potentially dry subject by weaving personal stories in and out of the detailed explication. For the most part, the narrative is even-handed, blaming neither the French nor the Anglo-American allies exclusively for the problems both experienced in the task of re-establishing a legitimate French political authority. The French and Russian communists do come in for consistently rough handling, however: a fact that may be justified by the conduct of those concerned, but can obscure the authors' apparent relative lack of interest in matters below the purview of the governing classes.

Recommended for the general reader interested in the history of the period, but expect to supplement this. Readers with more specialist knowledge, or seeking a broader social and geographic canvas, are advised to look elsewhere.


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