Journaling

Being in between books recently I decided to reread William Boyd’s Any Human Heart again (I’ve banged on about this novel loads of times, still as joyous and evocative and tinged with sadness as ever) and it got me thinking about the art of diary writing, and how this blog is perceived by it’s readers.

I used to have a journal in my late teens, and I wrote something every day for going on 8 years I think. Sometimes I would pick up my pen and not have much to say at all. Other times events in my life flowed onto the page. Looking back now I don’t know if it was cathartic. Indeed the reason I gave it up was because of the pain it caused me. Writing the truth about stuff when in emotional turmoil was too much. I was having a great deal of relationship angst at the time, drinking more than I should, and seeing a shrink to work through some past issues, and I just couldn’t do it any more. It was strange going from writing every day to not doing it at all. And after a few months I decided to get rid of them. 8 years of diaries, hundreds of thousands of words, all in the bin. I can hardly remember any of what I wrote now, and the confused and unhappy young man I was at the time I would struggle to recognise.

So what is this blog, if not a diary of sorts? Well over the years I’ve not talked about my personal life too much. I wanted this to be a place for book reviews and to talk about the pleasures and travails of writing novels and trying to get my heart and soul out onto the page. And I’ve pretty much stuck to that. Of course it is inevitable that life events will be discussed at times, as my state of mind is reflected in my work. I wonder how people will think of me after I’m gone, based on my fiction and this blog. Probably as a self-indulgent writer with a drinking problem. Which I guess isn’t that far wide of the mark. But I suppose it doesn’t matter. I’ll be dead, so who cares?

I guess we’re talking about legacy, really. I’m single and childless and I suspect it will stay that way for the rest of my life. My spirit won’t live on in my children or any of that stuff. So what will I have to show for it? What will people have to get a flavour of my life and my personality? This blog, in it’s own little way, is one of the few things I have. Maybe I should write more about my life, to give a more well-rounded picture. Or probably the best idea would be not to worry so much, and let the evolution of this blog progress in a natural manner.

Frantic

So I’ve got a trip back to Australia booked for mid-October, and the time has come around with frightening speed. I actually booked the flights pre-Covid, so rearranging the flights felt like a free trip, as they had already been paid off. I had a quick look back over the early posts of this blog, when I lived in Melbourne, and how excited and happy I was, and it kind of made me feel sad. How precious those times were, and how certain I was that I had found my place, that I was exactly where I wanted to be with the person I wanted to spend the rest of my life with. All seems a long time ago now, and shows the fragility of dreams.

I’m actually approaching the trip with excitement, although I know its going to be emotional in parts. even heartbreaking, and a reminder of all I have lost, but what I wanted to talk about in this post is how its given me a deadline to get the first draft of this damn novel completed. I leave in 42 days. That’s 21,000 words at 500 a day. I never write seven days a week though, so you can scratch a couple of thousand off that. So 20,000 or thereabouts. But my feeling is, despite being almost at 120,000 words now, is that there is going to be more to say than that. Time wise I’m into the last weeks of the novel, but that mean’s nothing with my tendency to overwrite.

So the challenges to get the draft finished in that timeframe is going to be a huge one, and will no doubt result in some frantic writing sessions as I go hell for leather for the finish line. I’m worried about quality, as if I go too fast it diminishes. I’m sure there are huge plot holes that will only widen with extra speed. But I can’t leave without having it done. I don’t want to have a three week break to have it gnawing away at me whilst I’m on holiday. I want to try and relax as much as possible in Australia, as it will be hard enough as it is to cope emotionally, and I want a clear mind to try and make the attempt. So God knows how the first draft will turn out. I suspect there will be noticeable changes in pace. But I don’t care too much for that right now. I have to get it finished, and the rest I can worry about when I’m back.

Girl

A straight-to-the-point title this month, the title of the latest novel discussed at my sister’s book club, in my first visit of 2022 (they are moving back to the UK in the next 12 months, so could be my last, but let’s not dwell). The author Edna O’Brien is one who has had a major literary career, but somehow her name has skipped me by all these years. Her main theme, and one that caused a scandal with its honest and provocative exploration in the 1960s in Ireland, is the inner feeling of women and their often brutal, hostile relationships with abusive men. I believe some of her books of the period were banned and even burnt in Ireland, such was their power in breaking silence on sexual issues in a repressed religious society.

With this in mind you can see why, after the emergence of the Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram, and their appalling atrocities against women and girls in Nigeria in the 2010s, that O’Brien saw this as fertile ground for a novel. All the themes that make up her life’s work are present, and told in brutal and harrowing detail. The first half of the novel is an almost linear telling of the abduction, multiple rape, arranged marriage and pregnancy of Maryam, and every page brings fresh horrors at the hands of her kidnappers that almost defy belief, and the fact they are based on true incidents never fails to shock.

The second half of the novel is more creative and dreamlike, as Maryam returns home, and unbelievably, her child is considered tainted by the community and she is tricked into believing her daughter has died. In some ways this part was more troubling, as the superstition of Christian religion in this part of Africa reveals its ugly head. Dreams and nightmares are mixed with reality in this section, which really shows O’Brien’s talent and makes for some hallucinatory passages.

We touched on the cultural appropriation criticism of the novel, but having read the acknowledgements, O’Brien did make numerous trips to Nigeria to research the novel (remarkable for a woman pushing 90) and interviewed numerous survivors of Boko Haram’s wrath. The depth of her research and the strength of the narrative voice are testament to the strength of that research. And surely giving these girls a voice, and reminding people that in many cases the atrocities have not been fully resolved, is more important than the race or skin colour of the author.

It’s difficult to say I enjoyed this book – it’s subject matter is too disturbing for that. But I’m very glad that I read it.

Squaring the Circle

Just looked back on my post in January, and ever the optimist, I commented on being 50,000 words into the novel, thought I was halfway, and hoped to finish by summer. Well somehow August has crept up on us and those ambitions have crashed and burned. I’ve been lucky, I think, in that despite my lack of planning with my novels, I’ve never gotten myself so helplessly entangled that I couldn’t see how to resolve it. The characters have always managed to work it out for themselves, and that makes my job far more easier. But this time, I’ve found myself with two conflicting strands of the narrative, and no solution on how to resolve it.

Part of the issue is that, to touch on character again, is that the main protagonist is alive and well in my head, but the supporting players are flitting in and out, and I can’t get a handle on them. In previous novels the lesser characters have sometimes appeared fully-formed, as if I’ve known them all my life, and tell their story seamlessly. At the moment this isn’t the case. It’s like I’m watching them with myopic eyes. It’s only occasionally that they come close enough to swim into focus.

The way forward? That’s a good question. Part of me is tempted to go for it hell for leather and ignore the gaping hole in the narrative. That’s what rewrites are for, after all. But I think if I do that when I come to mould the novel a second time I could read it back and find I can’t make head nor tail of it. And I always find that once the first draft is complete, the characters voices start to fade almost straightaway. They’ve done their bit, as it were. If I have to do a complete overhaul any dialogue or characterisation I will need to add is going to sound stilted, disjointed. I know this is always the case when re-writing, but on the whole I’ve only ever had to remove all the extraneous stuff and tidy up the plotting, not make enormous structural changes. As it stands the opening 2,000 or so words will need extensive editing, which I will hate, as I’m always the weakest at the beginning of books anyway. Plus there is much more flashback in this novel than any other, and trying to keep a handle on timelines is going to be a struggle. The whole prospect, as you may have gathered, will be daunting, and is one I fear.

So I’ve got to square the circle somehow, otherwise the probable 18 months of writing will have all been for nothing. I need to push the doubts to the back of my mind and run like the wind.

Stubborn

For some reason it has always been beyond me to say that a novel I’m writing just isn’t working and to abandon it. The obvious riposte to this is all the time I’ve spent working on the damn thing (it’s the one year anniversary tomorrow and I’m still not at 100,000 words) and to give it up now would see hours of work frittered away.

But the counter argument does appear more compelling. You could argue that I’m wasting my time regardless, for two main reasons: First, that it’s a load of crap anyway, so the time spent is not worthwhile, and if that somehow isn’t true, no-one will care about the finished result or want to read it. I see that. I know what will happen when the first draft is done. I’ll breath a sigh of relief, feel that weight lifted from my shoulders, drink too much and watch crap TV for a couple of weeks, then either go back and do a re-write of something or launch headlong into something new with a cavalier regard for my mental health, and more importantly, whether the idea I have is any good at all, or will turn into a pale imitation of a novel I’ve written before (which I’m sure this one is. I can’t shake the feeling).

So if I bother to finish it I’ll end up back in the same place as always. But I know I’ll persevere. Partly because of an optimistic hope that I can pull something from the wreckage of the first draft and wield it into a workable manuscript, but mostly because I’m to stubborn and stupid to sack the whole thing off. This state of mind is clearly not helping the smooth flow of words to erupt from my subconscious, but it’s all I’ve got at the moment, and I’m clinging to it with all my might.

Same Old, Same Old

This is going to be a short post, as I’m basically in a very similar mindset as this post from last year. I usually try to write something on here at least once a month, and it was only this morning that I realised April had come and gone with nothing to show for it. Such is my frame of mind. Everything of a creative bent feels likes a struggle. I’ve worked the novel almost to a standstill, and I can’t see where it’s going to go from now. The end seems beyond reach, an impossible mountain to climb, and it weighs heavily on my mind and exerts a pressure that I find harder to handle with every passing year.

I’m in a massive reading rut as well. I vowed to make Ulysses my one really challenging read of the year, but totally against rhyme or reason I have broken that rule twice in succession. Once with Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, basically because I wanted to see what all the controversy was about it, with the fatwa and the death threats made against him. Like all Rushdie it’s a mix of magic realism, fable, religious allegory and whilst I get the importance and the artistry of it, it felt like a battle all the way through to really tackle the themes. Then from there I moved to the Booker winner The Sellout, which I was curious about because it’s the first U.S winner of the prize and is regarded as an excellent satire. I haven’t quite finished it yet, and I’m sure its praise is warranted, but a lot of the jokes are beyond my station, riffing on African-American culture and history, some of which went straight over my head due to ignorance on my part. I’ve struggled to read more than 10 pages in a session, so these two books have probably taken 2 months to complete. Which for someone who likes to read a book a week, is glacial.

So the writing and reading is a drag, and the alcohol travails continue, my intake is still much too high, and it consumes my life more than I would like. I hate being weak, but when it comes to the booze, I’m hopelessly in thrall. Which is pathetic to write, and even worse to admit. So everything feels like a huge weight on the shoulders at the minute. Finishing the novel and then having a holiday and a couple of clean months sounds like heaven, really. But I might as well wish for the moon.

Bad Habits

I really didn’t want to write another post about drinking. The tribulations I went through in 2019 were some of the worst of my life, and I swore to myself that if I was going to drink again I had to be sensible. And I’m sure I did, at least to start with. But my fear that old bad habits would start to creep in has been proven right.

Much like to the catalyst to my period of abstention in 2019, a drinking session got wildly out of hand in exactly the same manner and produced the same gnawing anxiety and vicious hangover. My recollections of the back end of the day start as flashes and become non-existent. No idea of how I got home. A vague memory of having an argument with some strangers outside a pub, which is something completely out of character. Making a general fool of myself on the train home with loud talk and obnoxious behaviour. I cringe just thinking about it.

What’s worse of course are the effects. The hangover is bad enough (and always worse the older you get) but the mental symptoms are what destroy me. Trying to piece it together and failing. The accompanying guilt. The people I have to apologise to (all of whom I haven’t seen since). The general self-loathing. And so on. I’ve basically hidden at home ever since (other than working). It leaves me unable to write as well, as my mind can’t focus on the task at hand. Which increases my hatred of myself, and the wheel keeps on turning.

Last time I managed to put together a longish period of sobriety, but this time around I haven’t even done that. Played poker with some friends last night and had a couple, always cautious, clock-watching to make sure I didn’t drink too quickly. I’m a grown man acting like a child. It’s pathetic. But I really don’t know if I can give up. I’m too weak. Theoretically it shouldn’t be too difficult – I only drink a couple of days a week anyway. But after a while the craving is so strong, and sometimes I can’t stop until I’m hopelessly drunk.

I know there are a few practical things I can and will do. No alcohol in the house. No pre-loading before socialising. Drinking lower ABV beer. But it all feels like re-arranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. I fucking hate feeling like this, and I hate thinking about it. It would be nice to focus on something else. Where all this goes from here, I’ve not got a clue.

Ulysses

Ulysses is one of those books that has always been considered a must-read, and has a whole mythology that has built up around it – impenetrable, complex, the forefather of modernism, stream-of-consciousness, and so on. This mythology has always made me want to read it, just to see what the fuss is about. And 2022 is the centenary of its publication, so there has been a few articles in the press and online about it. All points seemed to be leading to cajole me into finally taking the plunge and reading the novel, and over the last three weeks, I have done so.

The first thing to say is that a description of the plot, such as it is, is kind of futile. The action, for want of a better word, takes place over the course of a single day, but I didn’t really feel like I was reading a story, more experiencing a wild, far-reaching, sprawling narrative that takes in a vast array of styles, languages, and ruminations on virtually any topic you can think of.

All of the modernist traits are present. The stream-of-consciousness stuff is really condensed into the final chapter, from the point of view of Bloom’s wife, and once you get a handle on the lack of punctuation and long paragraphs, it’s not too difficult to tackle. The most challenging sections are those with lots of inner monologue, as there is no direction in the narrative, so you don’t know if something is being said, thought, if it’s a memory, if that memory is true or an embellishment of the truth, or a fantasy. So everything you read is layered, often multiple layers, which makes deciphering what’s going on a huge challenge.

Basically this book requires an enormous amount from the reader. Sentences written in other languages are not translated (mostly Latin, but some French, German and Irish). Joyce’s grasp of the English language is extraordinary, and will have most readers reaching for the dictionary at various intervals. On top of that are the made-up words, usually consisting of existing words that have been joined together and run on in long streams that are almost jargon. The sentences themselves are formidable, and almost dizzying in their complexity. There are tangents on Irish history, religion, local and international politics, for which you would need an incredible world knowledge, plus insight into the inner working’s of Joyce’s mind, which is of course impossible. As already stated, the inner monologues go from one subject to another very abruptly, so the reading experience is never comfortable. You have to be on your toes for all 870 pages. Even the scenes of dialogue are hard to follow, as a lot of the language contains slang and is not always clearly highlighted with speech marks, so again the task of working out what is being said and what isn’t is a tough one.

This probably sounds like I hated every minute of reading Ulysses, but that honestly wasn’t the case. I’m certainly in awe of Joyce, just for the sheer scale of the novel and the undoubted genius of the man’s mind. I don’t doubt that repeated readings would uncover more of the book’s hidden themes, but I don’t think I’ll ever go back to it. I like the fact that Joyce threw all this stuff at the reader and allowed us to get on with it. No sensitivity reading or explanatory footnotes here. But to say I liked the novel wouldn’t be quite true either. I experienced it, I marvel at it in many ways, but I feel more like I wrestled with it and came off a little bruised and confused than actually enjoyed it. Very glad I took the plunge though, and I’d recommend anyone to do so.

My Corona

I guess it was almost inevitable considering the spread of the Omicron variant, but earlier this month I finally succumbed to Covid. I must say it is slightly surreal when that red line finally shows up on a lateral flow test, a hint of panic but some relief as well, that it’s here and I’ve got to get it over with. I knew it was coming as a lot of work colleagues and people I know from sporting events were falling foul of it, and I was mildly symptomatic (nothing more than a sore throat and runny nose though). It wasn’t enough to keep me from working (at home, obviously) but I did have to go the full 10 days before consecutive negative tests. Self-isolating for that period is not fun. My house only has a small garden, so walking up and down there for exercise is nothing short of tedium, especially when I started to feel better. I had a couple of social events that I had to cancel as well, which was frustrating. But all in all it could have been a lot worse. I was glad I got my booster jab before Christmas, as I’m sure that limited the symptoms. It does feel good knowing I’ve had it and now have gained extra immunity. It does, touch wood, feel like we’re in the endgame of the pandemic now anyway, with restrictions all but lifted, so catching it in the tail end from the minor variant should hopefully mean that’s my only brush with Covid.

So how did all that affect my writing, I hear you ask? Well not much, really. During those self-isolation days my routine was pretty much identical day-to-day, and I factored in a window to write on each of those days. And I’ve pretty much carried on in that vein since, so my work ethic has improved as a result. I’m up around 50,000 words now, and my feeling is the novel is about halfway, so I’m well into it. I’m certain that I’m going over similar themes that I explored in Gaslight, and probably in a more mediocre way, but I’m content with the daily sessions, which I wasn’t a few months ago, when everything was a grind.

How I’ll feel about it in a weeks time, let alone 6 months, is a mystery. I’m sure I’ll finish it now, probably in the summer, but other than a sense of accomplishment, I suspect I won’t have any great feelings of joy about it. It’ll join my ever-growing collection of novels and that will be it.

2021: The Reading Year

Took my reading challenge down to my lowest ever total this year, a measly book a week. Completed the 52nd novel about an hour ago, and had to read some smaller novels across December to squeeze home. Only reason I can think of for this tawdry pace is the slowing down that comes with age. Which is a depressing thought. Anyhow, here’s my favourite 10 books of this year’s crop:

Melissa Maerz: Alright, Alright, Alright: The Oral History of Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused. Couldn’t really go wrong with this one, as I love this movie, but it provides insight and some great anecdotes from all the main players. A must for any fans of the film.

Kent Haruf: Benediction. On the face of it nothing much happens in a Haruf novel, but that misses the point entirely. Everything happens, but in a quiet, haunting, way. Ordinarily lives told with compassion and empathy.

Jorge Luis Borges: Ficciones. I had to include Borges simply for his dazzling mind, mixing magic realism, fantasy, worlds of infinite possibilities and a reading experience like no-one else.

Stephen G. Michaud, Hugh Aynesworth: Ted Bundy: The Only Living Witness. I was reluctant to include this as it’s about a serial killer, but for a true crime buff such as myself this is a magnificent work of journalism. The definitive account of Bundy.

Ursula Le Guin: The Lathe of Heaven. My first ever Le Guin, who is incredibly well regarded across the fantasy and science fiction genres. A riveting and disturbing tale of a man whose dreams can alter reality, and the psychiatrist who manipulates him for his own ends.

Shirley Jackson: We Have Always Lived in the Castle. The godmother of horror fiction. This is a seemingly quiet tale of the reclusive Blackwood family, but it’s a masterpiece of unreliable narration, ever increasing claustrophobia, and a hypnotic sense of foreboding that runs throughout.

Ryan Gattis: The System. I’ve included Ryan Gattis in a top 10 before (along with another author on this list…), but this book surpasses any of his previous work. A drug crime told from a multitude of viewpoints, tackling all aspects of the criminal justice system in 1990s L.A, this is his magnum opus. Stunning.

Philip Gourevitch: We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. The title is sad and horrifying enough. But this account of the Rwandan genocide of 1994, in which nearly a million people were murdered in 8 weeks, almost beggars belief in its sheer, chilling brutality. A tough book to read, but essential.

Graham Greene: The Quiet American. My 2nd Greene to make a list. I absolutely loved this novel. At its heart a love triangle but so much more that that. The characters symbolise the opposing positions of the British and Americans in Vietnam, and Greene masterfully sketches these differences through the viewpoints of Pyle and Fowler. Plus a welcome dose of British humour.

Cormac McCarthy: Child of God. Another to make the list more than once, and this short novel is pretty hard to stomach, but utterly compelling and full of that wondrous, dreamy language than only McCarthy can provide.

It felt like this year I got off to a slow start, and only really found my groove in the last few months. It was nice to tick off a few classics as well (read my first full-length Dickens novel, finally). An aim for 2022 is to read more contemporary stuff, I never seem to be up with modern trends. But whatever I read, I hope it will always provide the pleasure it has until now. Happy New Year!