Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Recent reading: Coupland, Faber, Richards

Generation A by Douglas Coupland (novel, audiobook)

I’ve written elsewhere about my Douglas Coupland appreciation phase as a younger reader (here, for example), and the scales falling from my eyes later on.

However, I still find his books worth the time you invest in them, though not for the same reasons I find most novels worthwhile.

Toby Litt sums it up in his review for the Guardian:
Most readers know pretty much what to expect from Douglas Coupland. Sentence by sentence, he'll be a joy to read. He'll be great on food and technology (and especially great on food technology), good on language, bad on character and abysmal on plot.
Generation A(Note how the UK paperback version plucks "a joy to read" for a cover blurb...)

Compare this with Stephen Abell’s review in the Telegraph which completely misses the point: 
It would be wrong to reveal more [of the plot], because to do so would remove any purpose from Generation A. It is a novel based solely on its clever packaging of plot; it is gadget or gimmick fiction.
I think this is the difference between a reviewer who has read the author’s previous works and a reviewer reading an author’s later (read: less-inspired, prone to re-tread techniques and sentiments) book cold.

Yes, Generation A’s plot is daft, uneven, unsatisfying. Yes, the characters are thin and tend to talk in a similar voice (the plot, as if sensing this, goes some way to explaining their hive mind). But it was still quite fun.

Coupland's 'Monument to the War of 1812'
When I read Douglas Coupland’s books as a teenager I felt like he was talking to me, or at least about a world I knew or would shortly enter. Okay, so I didn’t fear a nuclear holocaust (or the later, smaller apocalypses: high school shootings, the extinction of bees), but here was a writer who didn’t turn his nose up at the everyday: microwave meals and advertising jingles. I realise now it was a kind of camp, something that’s easier to pick in Coupland’s visual art (giant toy soldiers, lots of plastic).

Generation A was my first time encountering Coupland as an audiobook. Each of the five main narrators is voiced by a different actor. The Kiwi character’s sections are read by a genuine Kiwi (the Sri Lankan and French characters are performed by talented actors, but it’s clear they’re putting an accent on), which was a real plus for me. Samantha even comes from my hometown of Palmerston North, but this proved to distance me rather than draw me in as DC gets a lot of things wrong:
  • Palmerston North is not in “Wanganui Province” it’s in Manawatu  (even the term Province sounds too Canadian).
  • There are a bunch of roadside plants/flowers mentioned which I’ve never heard of
  • There’s a reference to Route 56, but we don’t say route, we say State Highway
  • A plane from the states bound for Auckland is diverted to Palmerston North – there’s no way the runway is long enough for such a plane to land in Palmy. Also, lots of people on board are actually bound for Palmy!
The extent of Coupland’s research seems to have been Wikipedia and GoogleMaps. This annoys the writer in me as much as the Palmerstonian.

But I wonder how I would have felt about the great Douglas Coupland writing about Palmerston North when I was sixteen?

And then there’s the fact the Sri Lankan character, Harj, refers to a certain kind of privileged American tourists (and, when he goes to the states, the Abercrombie and Fitch clones) as Craigs and Craiginas. At one point he says, “Oh, to be a Craig.”

There is, of course, the perfect Couplandian cocktail of satire and actual reverence here. Yes, these Craigs are douches, but Harj can’t help wanting to live their lives. When an audiobook has this many “Craig”s in it, it’s hard for me not to feel it’s talking to me.

The first half of the book is classic Coupland finger-on-the-pulse goodness. The second half is classic Coupland collection of melted-Baby-Alive-dolls badness.

C’est la vie.

Under the skin by Michel Faber (novel)

I bought this book because David Mitchell said it was good. He even wrote the introduction for the edition I bought. And I can see how DM might like such a book, but I was less impressed.

I tried really hard to like it. Not coz David Mitchell liked it, but because my darling wife read it before me and STRONGLY DISLIKED it (I almost wrote “hated”, but she finished it, so I settled for dislike and CAPS LOCK). She said it didn’t feel like it went anywhere and the ending was stupid.
Under the Skin (The Canons)
After reading forty or so pages, I told her it seemed quite compelling and was really well written. I wasn’t even lying (though I have been known to stoop to such things to antagonise my spouse).

But the book is really just premise, premise, premise. It’s handled well to begin with: rather than blowing its load, info seeps out. But somewhere in the second third you've got all the answers you're likely to get, and it draaaaags.  And the ending. It was bad. The kind of ending that makes everything you've invested feel rather pointless .

A novel which manages to be both provoking and a drag. [Insert pun about getting under my skin here... no? okay, probably better this way]. 

And now...

Love and Hydrogen: New and Selected StoriesI try to write something about every book I read or audiobook I listen to, but some inevitably fall through the gaps. One of which was You Think That’s Bad by Jim Shepard, which I read a few months ago and mentioned in my interview with Lawrence Patchett last week but never blogged about.

I’m reading another Shepard collection now (Love and Hydrogen) on Lawrence’s recommendation, and will write about both when I’m done.

My current audiobook is Life by Keith Richards (memoir). And wow, what a great first chapter. It starts in media res, with a drug bust in the Southern US, and it felt like the kind of rock 'n roll novel real writers seem unable to pull off.

The first five hours or so are read by Johnny Depp, though thankfully he leaves his Captain Jack Sparrow impression at home and deadpans Keith's words in his bored American voice. It's strangely effective, except when he says to-may-toes when you know Keith would say to-mah-toes...

LifeBut then, suddenly, the narrator changes. Joe Hurley is suddenly 'playing' Keith. He's English, so the accent isn't that much of a stretch, but the deeper tone and slower, druggy drawl he gives Keith is a real contrast to Depp's reading. I guess Johnny was too big of a cat to read the whole book aloud.

After another chapter, I settled in to Hurley's Keith and I'm now about halfway through.

Unfortunately, after the great first chapter, the story went back to Keith's birth and things have flowed chronologically. The childhood chapters are still incredibly vivid: co-writer / ghost writer James Fox deserves a lot of credit here. But things are beginning to drag a bit now that the Stones are big and the drugs and women are plentiful.  There just aren't enough scenes (like the opening drug bust) for a reader to become absorbed in.

Still, it's worth perservering with, I reckon. Plenty of off-the-cuff (read: told to the ghost writer off-the-cuff and inserted into the book at a canny moment) about guitar playing and, um, life.

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