Payne’s Complaint

Had a first for Book Club this month, in that I disliked both of the choices. In fact one I would go as far as saying I despised, which is unusual for me. I can usually see some redeeming features in any book I read and maybe in time I will with this one, but not at the moment.
So, the book: Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. I can imagine when the novel was released in 1969 it caused an uproar due to its sexually explicit material, so I guess Roth deserves some credit for pushing the boundaries. According to some of our members its a laugh-out-loud funny read, which surprised me as for most of it the only urge I had was to gouge out my eyes with a rusty spoon. I found the narrative voice so boring. Portnoy is an arrogant, self-centred prat, to put it mildly. The novel is structured as a continuous monologue from Portnoy to his psychiatrist, mostly taking about his sexual experiences that are taking on an ever extreme turn. Whilst being disgusted by his deviancy Portnoy can’t help himself, wanting more and more dubious sexual pleasures.
OK, a fair theme to mine. I wasn’t put off by the sexual stuff (although masturbating into a piece of liver that is then unknowingly served for the family dinner is not pleasant to say the least), just the endless repetition of it. The writing itself jarred with me too. Using capital letters and exclamation marks in descriptive passages is always a cop-out in my opinion. In good writing the reader should know how a sentence is being said, whether loud or angry or sad etc; using extra punctuation to drive home the point is not the way to go.
It was safe to say that I wasn’t alone in my feelings. Indeed, a couple of members failed to finish the book at all. Others loved it, so I’d call it a ‘Marmite’ book and move on.
Our second choice was Karen Joy Fowler’s We are Completely Beside Ourselves, which deals with a young girl who grows up with a chimpanzee for a sister. The structure of the novel is not linear, so this revelation comes about 75 pages in. And yes, it was a twist that I didn’t see coming. There was some interesting stuff on the effects her childhood had on the narrator Rosemary, who grew up into a non-responsive adult who spoke more with gesture than voice. But unfortunately my overriding thought came from a documentary I saw recently about Americans who had chimps as pets. Most of these people were, to put it bluntly, stupid. Trying to equate a chimp with a child and excuse its natural, aggressive behaviour is idiotic and infuriated me when I watched it. I could never detach that memory whilst reading this novel which in the end spelt its downfall.
So not much success for me this month, and my first real struggle with the material at hand. All part of the reading process I suppose…

The Master of Splatterpunk

Over the last few months, in between reading for my book club, I’ve been having great pangs of nostalgia for the books that first set my literary wheels spinning when I was a teenager. I’ve written a little on this blog before about my formative years of reading, which were a great source of pleasure. As always in life, time moves on and a novelist or genre that was once captivating moves into the background to be replaced by newer tastes. Those early likes retain a special place in the heart of the reader but generally are not revisited too much, perhaps for the fear of ruining an early memory or discovering that perhaps the writer wasn’t as good as originally thought.
It’s for this reason that I rarely go back to those writers. Some, Stephen King being the most obvious example, are writers I’ve picked up in my teens and carried them with me ever since. With King it’s due to his sheer variety and amazing ability to write disturbing, compelling fiction that always contains an ‘everyman’ quality. His originality always kept me coming back too, the man has an incredible imagination and is never constricted to the horror genre as some of his critics might suggest. Basically, you never know what you are going to get.
Others though I grew out of pretty quickly. I was a voracious reader of Dean Koontz back in the day, and devoured his early mysteries and suspense thrillers. He wrote about serial killers and some pretty disturbing characters with a cool, calculating eye which I found fascinating. A lot of his early work had a sort of ‘Area 51’ flavour, where a group of characters stumbled across some secret that had the chance to change the world, and not necessarily for the better. He wrote a few like this but Strangers is the one that I remember most vividly. I loved how Koontz built up the suspense until the big reveal where the secret was unveiled, and his characters, though plentiful, were always drawn with emotion and background.
But I just stopped reading his books after a while. I can still remember when it happened – I forget the name of the novel but it contained the sentence ‘Fric in a fracas.’ Just one sentence, which jarred with me that none of his writing had before. My reading experience had widened substantially by then and I just thought, ‘this is poor prose,’ and put the book down. Maybe you don’t notice these things as a teenager, or you don’t care. You just get swept up in the story. But once I had gained more knowledge of the craft of writing and read more widely little bits of prose started to wind me up when I read them. ‘Fric in a fracas’ is by no means the worst of it, but I hated the unnecessary cleverness of it and still do. Sadly, I haven’t returned to Koontz since.
But the one writer who I have gone back to is the US horror and splatterpunk writer of the 80s and 90s Richard Laymon. This guy was barely known in his home country but had a small cult following in the UK, which is where I first picked him up in the mid 90s. I know why I enjoyed his books back then, for they are extraordinarily graphic in every sense of the word. Firstly, the books are drenched in gore. Laymon had a no-holds-barred attitude to scenes of violence. Characters are decapitated in any number of ways by a range of mostly insane serial killer types. The villains were sadistic and more often than not no explanation was given for their insanity. I genuinely couldn’t believe what I was reading when I first got into Laymon. There are arguments all the time about violence in video games and films and their effect on impressionable youths, but very little is ever said about books. I was astonished that he could get away with it, and as a 15 year old, thrilled that he was. It felt like my little secret when I read Laymon, the fact that my Dad didn’t have any idea what I was reading gave an extra layer of excitement to proceedings.
And boy oh boy, the sex scenes. There are some extremely graphic passages in Laymon’s work, too many to mention. Group sex, masturbation, lesbian scenes, extensive descriptions of foreplay, you name it. His novel Body Rides is the most explicit book I have ever read. Again, for a hormonal teenager this was an intoxicating thrill, and again, I was staggered that this sort of writing was free and available. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no advocate of censorship, but to discover this sort of stuff was out there waiting to be read was an amazing discovery at the time and a little bit scary, too.
The morality of the villains towards women in Laymon’s work is pretty disgusting, too. His novel Resurrection Dreams was basically about a teenage boy trying to resurrect the corpse of a dead female classmate who he was in love with, so he could have sex with her. To put it bluntly. In much of his other work women are subjected to horrendous torture, rape and violence that is described in frank detail that is not for the faint-hearted. Re-reading him now I am still struck by the horrific nature of these scenes.
I appreciate I have now created a picture of Laymon’s work that will be outrageous and off-putting for most, and you may be thinking that I am some sort of degenerate being. So, why did I go back? And why do his books still effect me so much? The main reason, and one that came through loud and clear second time around, is the emotional core of the books. The villains are disgusting for sure, but for every villain there has to be a hero. Laymon wrote some horrible stuff but he always countered it with heroes who you knew would win through in the end. He wrote brilliantly about adolescence and the first stirrings of love and made his female characters strong, independent women who still had an air of vulnerability and a desire to be loved. I remember I developed a huge crush on the lead female character in Come Out Tonight and for a few months after was almost in love with her myself. Such was the emotional punch. A lot of the male leads were teenagers who you always knew would have a chance with the beautiful heroine and for a shy bloke who had trouble even talking to girls at that age this was my opportunity to be that guy, at least for the book’s duration.
Obviously those days are long gone now, but I still have a respect for Laymon’s writing style too. His books proceed at a frantic pace, with very little exposition. Characters are thrown in at the deep end from Page 1 and left to get on with it. Keeping an even pace throughout is a difficult accomplishment and Laymon does it with aplomb, building the suspense perfectly before the final climactic scenes. The dialogue is great too, dark in places but very funny at times. He was clearly a talented bloke.
Sadly Laymon died in 2001 and his posthumous releases tainted his work for me, with all of the violence of his previous work but none of the heart. Still, his novels were very important to me as a young man and re-reading some now only reinforces that view. If you have the stomach for it, check him out.