The Quantity Theory of Insanity, by Will Self

October 27, 2012 at 08:15 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Magic Realism, Mediocre Books) (, , )


Patience is always required when reading compendia of short stories, especially when the author makes little effort to include closure or symmetry in his writing. This collection by Will Self is meandering and self-indulgent, dreary and dripping with a little too much pathos to be taken entirely seriously. Readers will often suspect that Self is trying to be funny, and will grow rather tired of constantly waiting for a punchline that never comes. The forced limitation of a short story is that the author must decide either to condense a story arc into an immensely tight space, or else simply dispense with traditional things like story arcs and characters, and lean closer to a stream of consciousness style, or at the very least a brief and uncontextualised snapshot of a scene. Privately, readers could be forgiven for wondering if choosing the latter again and again might not be a form of laziness.

Her face had the clingfilm-stretched-over-cold-chicken look of an ageing woman who kept herself relentlessly in trim.”

-The Quantity Theory of Insanity

This early offering is less gratuitously grotesque than some of Self’s other works, which makes it at the very least readable. Some of the stories contained here are paltry things that might be offered up at amateur fiction readings: Mono Cellular certainly fits into this category, being a short and superficially “insane” exploration into the mind of some housebound imbecile, and displaying none of the subtlety or intelligence that a writer like Will Self owes his readers as a matter of course. Others are markedly improved, such as The North London Book of the Dead and Waiting, both of which are written with strong elements of magic realism, ably carried off and the closest he comes here to writing something that does not sound terminally bored.

Therein lies the fatal problem with this book as a whole, in fact: boredom and ugliness. Self spends altogether too much time unleashing his formidable vocabulary in order to viscerally describe things that are as hideous and unnatural and contorted as possible, and things that are so utterly meaningless and nihilistic and starkly tragic, that it becomes difficult for the reader to avoid feelings of discomfort, and the sensation that the author is sneering at them, caricaturing them, and painting them with the same smutty brush he uses on his world. Possibly worth riffling through, but unfortunately its brevity is one of the things that recommend it.

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The Bourne Identity, by Robert Ludlum

October 21, 2012 at 15:44 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Fiction, Poorly Rated Books, Thriller)


It is a simple and solid fact that any author who places an exclamation mark and a question mark immediately side by side should have his pen confiscated from him until he ceases to be disagreeable, and that anything written in his delirium ought to be treated with supreme suspicion and prejudice. Probably because of the extreme success of the motion pictures based on this book, it demands to be treated with a little more respect than any common-or-garden spy thriller. It insists upon being given a chance to thrill with smooth and professional plot twists, fluid writing and an effortless understanding of what it’s like to be a spy on the run. These expectations, however, are not borne out in the slightest.

Put quite simply, Robert Ludlum is at best an amateur writer with a totally unwarranted streak of luck. It might well be considered that the sort of people who generally read spy novels are unsophisticated boors; the same rationale behind seeing purveyors of science fiction as exclusively acne-ridden boffins. But if that is the case–and if indeed The Bourne Identity can honestly uphold the claim by Publishers Weekly that it is the second best spy novel of all time–then this is a genre badly in need of a shakeup.

“He dove to his right, spinning on the rug, shoving a heavy floor lamp toward the cripple, spinning again until he was at the far side of the wheelchair. He crouched and lunged, crashing his right shoulder into Chernak’s back, sending the legless man out of the chair as he reached into his pocket for the gun.”

-The Bourne Identity

It is not just the elementary grammar mistakes that litter the book; it is the embarrassing fact that these grammar mistakes are the sort of mistakes made by people whose literary ambition stretches little further than a shopping list. It is not just the tedium of the unnecessarily twisted plot; it is the nagging suspicion that the plot was dreamt up by a man who sought complexity for complexity’s sake. The depressingly regular fighting scenes are full of words like “pivoted” and “propelled”, and are as jumbled a bag of past, present, and future tenses as anyone might care to avoid. Reading the interior monologues is like watching a hammy actor on a stage, fully aware that the one thought running through his head is, “Act! Act as hard as you can!”

It might be suggested that in a spy novel, one should not look too hard for verisimilitude or deep and believable characters. The sort of person to say such a thing does the entire genre a gross disservice, and promotes the very attitude that enshrines slovenly rubbish like The Bourne Identity in the first place. Every reader should have a right to expect great literature, whether picking up a romance, a thriller, a fantasy, an historical piece or a book about a depressed butler. For a maladroit like Ludlum to achieve the status he has on the back of such a generally incompetent piece of drivel is unacceptable. The Bourne Identity might have inspired a multi-million dollar franchise, but it makes Tom Clancy read like Voltaire.

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The Wretched of the Earth, by Frantz Fanon

October 13, 2012 at 10:29 (Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Politics, Twentieth Century, War) (, , )


As a rule, polemics are nasty, complicated things. They exist to provide brief shoutable slogans, and to gather dust in libraries. They are not supposed to throb with such vibrant energy and impassioned rhetoric as Fanon’s last will and testament. They are not supposed to inspire strong feelings in readers decades removed from their context. Frantz Fanon makes himself a difficult man to like, trumpeting loudly in bifurcated absolutes, and frequently presenting conclusions before arguments (if he deigns to argue at all).

“The very same people who had it constantly drummed into them that the only language they understood was that of force, now decide to express themselves with force.”

-The Wretched of the Earth

His book is at its dullest when he describes the problems facing revolutionary groups transitioning into legitimacy, and the correct organisation of a progressive order. Here he becomes another coffee-room radical, prattling about bourgeouise and propaganda, the party, the meetings, the rallies, reactionaries, the doctrine. He is at his most convincing when presenting carefully chosen examples of colonial outrages, always slotted meticulously into his broader worldview, and always ready to support his fiery ultimatums.

“We are all in the process of dirtying our hands in the quagmire of our soil and the terrifying void of our minds. Any bystander is a coward or a traitor.”

-The Wretched of the Earth

As political science this is an imperfect work, but as an intelligent and furious response to the western world in the twentieth century, it is powerful and starkly relevant. Richard Philcox’s translation appears to do Fanon credit; the book’s fluency and inviting tone make it remarkably easy to read through even the most convoluted politispeak, and seize upon the pith of Fanon’s complaint easily. Quick to digest and quick to make an impression, there really is no excuse for avoiding this book.

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