So, at the start of this year, I cast myself across my TBR in what will inevitably be a doomed attempt to clear it or at least reduce it. Here’s the latest update on my old shit.
And for the record, my TBR is now down to 68. I think that is not so bad.
The Ballroom by Anna Hope
So this is One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, except with more kissing. Okay, that’s slightly glib of me. I picked this up largely because the fictional asylum where the book is set is based on High Royds Hospital (previously Menston Asylum, previously the West Riding Pauper Lunatic Asylum) – where I have actually been. Err, not as a patient I hasten to add. I’m just kind of into … places you’re not supposed to go, I guess. And derelict asylums are, well, they’re one of my favourites.
Quite a lot of Menston has been demolished and turned into other stuff, but what was still semi-extant when I was there in mid-2000s was a couple of wards and the admin block, which is so gloriously fucking gothic I can’t even. It’s all chimneys and this clocktower and the slate-gray Yorkshire sky. Like Sharston (the fictional asylum in the book) it was designed to be a self-sufficient community – so it had huge grounds for farming and kitchens and laundries and a dairy and even its own motherfucking railway line. Not much of this is left— there’s just these amazing vaulted corridors, full of endless archways and beautiful mosaic floors, ornately moulded ceilings, the occasional still-vivid stained glass window, the clocktower, which felt super steampunk, and … of course… the ballroom. There’s just something so wildly incongruous about its very existence. I can still remember how strange it felt standing there: this huge, decaying room, with its high yellow ceiling and the watery wash of light from high set windows.
So, anyway, actual book. I felt the atmosphere very keenly indeed, though it was hard to separate that out from my memories of Menston itself. But basically I think I liked everything that wasn’t the actual, um, like plot? You get three viewpoint characters: Ella who has been sent to Sharston for breaking a window in the factory where she works, John who is depressed following the death of his wife and child, and Charles Fuller, a doctor in flight from the expectations of his family. The parallels between them are pretty marked—they’re all, in their own way, struggling against the roles that have been forced upon them, and the way gender, sexuality and class simultaneously restrain and liberate all three of them is genuinely fascinating. Also it’s hard not to be drawn into the love story between John and Ella because, well, I’m a total sap. And it’s genuinely good-feeling inducing to see something hopeful and beautiful flourish somewhere that would seem, on the surface, to be utterly devoid of both.
I should probably mention at this point that I was somewhat relieved Sharston itself was portrayed in a fairly balanced way: it’s unpleasant and dehumanising and restrictive on account of being, y’know, an Edwardian loony bin, but not—at least until the end—ever consciously malignant. A lot of power, I think, came not from cruelty versus kindness so much as the complexities surrounding the care of people who are deemed unable to take care of themselves, especially in times of social flux. The book is set at the height of a big Eugenics debate about sterilisation of the “feeble-minded”.
Of course, all stories that involve mental asylums are required by cultural mandate to have a doctor go off the deep-end and commit, or attempt to commit, acts of terrible inhumanity. And The Ballroom does not disappoint. Sigh. The third POV character, Dr Charles Fuller, undertakes this role and I honestly felt pretty meh about it. Clearly the dude is a mess (which of these three people is really the mad one, oh d’you see) but … I dunno. While I got that he was driven by a need to make something out of his life to spite his father, I wasn’t entirely convinced that this would outta-nowhere manifest in trying to non-consensually sterilise another dude. It didn’t help that part of Fuller’s messed-upness is related to his homosexuality so essentially we have a book in which a heterosexual couple find the beauty of love in a dark place and a deranged gay in a position of authority gets upset about it and tries to de-dick the dude. And I mean obviously being gay in 1911 was probably rubbish. But so was being a working class man. Or a woman. I guess I just think a lot of things got tangled up in problematic ways in Fuller—I understand why you might go for tormentedly queer character while exploring themes of social alienation, but once you combine that with eugenicist the optics, well, they’re not great are they? Villainous gays who are jealous of heterosexual penises is a pretty damn tired stereotype.
But I still romped through the book, mostly appreciatively.
The Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St Aubyn
This is five books, by the way. FIVE. Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, Mother’s Milk, At Last. And they are so magnificently awful that I actually took a break from reading altogether after I finished the fifth one.
So: Edward St Aubyn is a rich-ish, upper-class English bloke whose father raped him when he was five-years-old. His fictional alter-ego, Patrick Melrose, shares this history and the five novels cover Patrick’s life from the time of his father’s abuse to the death of his mother. What prevents them being a five-volume misery memoir (although I’m pretty sure they’re that too) is the thin layer of fictionalisation St Aubyn has spread gently over the top. While the novels are about Patrick, who is a barely bearable tangle of extreme privilege and extreme suffering, they are just as much as about his world, and the other (let’s be honest here: awful) people in it. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever been quite so thankful to have been born working class.
The books are bleak and hilarious, and offer titillating glimpses of a decadent, fading, entirely inaccessible social class. Which is to say: they’re absolutely irresistible, if you like that sort of thing. Obviously the overriding but mostly unspoken theme across the whole series is the abuse Patrick suffers at his parents’ hands (his father, of course, is obviously a sadist but over time he slowly comes to understand his mother’s complicity in that sadism): the ways it has shaped and irreparably damaged him, and to what degree he can ever really come to terms with it or recover from it. The thing I … liked is not the correct word in this context … but what I appreciated about the way the abuse, and its affects, are treated across the series is that its literal unspeakableness is fundamental to its presence. It is rarely addressed directly but its reality is absolute and ever-present, a shadow from under whose darkness it is impossible to step.
Which is not to say it’s completely hopeless. While conventional sources of both solace and destruction consistently prove to be either inadequate or otherwise inapplicable, I felt the final book left Patrick in about as good a place as he could reasonably expect to be. I think the way St Aubyn termed it in an interview with him that I read somewhere or other: not consoled, but not inconsolable either.
Obviously, there’s stuff I could criticise. Pacing is sometimes a little off. The second half of the second book is mainly Patrick wandering around New York trying to acquire heroin. And then using the heroin. And I’ve read a lot of books about young men wander around New York trying to acquire drugs and then use them. Patrick’s kids, who star in the final two books, are unbelievably wise and charming—which strikes an odd note in a series that otherwise recoils in upper-class horror from anything approaching sentiment. But equally I could see why, if you were St Aubyn and writing a book series that explicitly references Larkin’s This Be The Verse, you might be enthralled and bewitched by the innocence of your own, as yet unfucked up children.
I find it really difficult to do anything as banal as recommending these books. I found reading them to be profoundly moving and terrible.
What Belongs To You by Garth Greenwell
I read this out of a vague sense of obligation because it seemed like everyone in the world was raving about it. Although I am a seriously non-ideal audience because my tolerance for dreary queer lit has hit a lifetime low. And, honestly, I nearly checked out on the first page when I ran face-first into ‘coterminous’. I mean, I know I have precisely zero grounds to complain about excessive use of inkehorne terms but … coterminous. Seriously. This is what we’re doing now?
Anyway. I didn’t actually hate this.
It’s relatively slim little thing, divided into three parts. In the first, our narrator—a teacher—is obsessed with a Bulgarian prostitute called Mikto he meets in the toilets of the National Palace of Culture. So far so dreary queer lit, although the stripped-down style intrigued me. There was something so deliberately alienating about it, despite fairly tedious material. In the second part, he receives a letter informing him his father is probably dying, which propels the narrative into something else entirely: a fragmented, rage-filled meditation on growing up in America surrounded by implicit and explicit homophobia. In the third part, his father is dead, the narrator is in a relationship, and then, of course, Mikto comes back into his life, essentially tangling the various themes of the previous sections—love and desire and language and identity and shame and the transactional nature of all of these—into a painful and unresolvable knot.
I had many sad feelings. And, coterminous aside, genuinely loved the writing.
In a strange sort of way of it reminded me of Cucumber: an exploration of unspoken historical shame within a context of presumed liberation.
Blue Days, Black Nights: A Memoir by Ron Nyswaner
This was a slightly unfortunate phase of reading in which everything I seemed to pick up was about a gay man falling in love with a hustler. So, uh, yes. This is a memoir. About that.
It’s fine. I mean, grim and honest and darkly funny. And, yeah, fine.
I’m glad I read it. That probably sounds like the faintest of faint praise but I’d already read three other books on this exact same subject.
But in general I prefer fiction—or at least fictionalisations—because life is random and fiction is subject to rules. It is genuinely to Nyswaner’s credit that he manages to weave a meaningful narrative out of this particular part of his life, and also to his credit that he resists turning it into a story. But the downside of things-that-have-happened-to-you is that, when you get right down to it, they are just things that have happened to you. And taking a lot of drugs is a relentlessly dull thing to be happening to you.
I am glad Ron Nyswaner is okay now.
Doc by Mary Doria Russell
This is beyond amazing. The end.
Well. I guess I could probably say a bit more.
Basically, I admire the fuck out of MDR. She just inhabits genre and character and language with such utter conviction. If I could write like anyone it would be her – except I never will because she is monstrously good at what she does. And I am me. In general, I try not approach books in a writerly mode. I do what I do and I’m fine with it. Other people do what they do and I value that. But MDR makes me painfully aware of the unfathomable distance between people. I can’t even aspire to be like her, because I have no idea where to begin.
Anyway. So Doc is about Doc Holliday. A book about Doc Holliday written by Mary Doria Russell. There is not enough yes in the universe for this. It’s set in Dodge, before the (in)famous events in Tombstone, which brings a freshness to familiar stories. And, interestingly, it is the relationship between Doc and Morgan Earp (rather than Wyatt) that takes centre stage—making his untimely death even more of … well … a bummer.
God, I don’t know. I’m having a really hard time talking about this because I’m so full of feels my brain won’t work and the only thing that’s coming out of my mouth is a passionate burble. I loved this book so fucking much. It is so full of things: life and death and ugliness and beauty and love and despair. And the characters have such depth and realness, such vulnerability and strength. And then there’s atmosphere and the language and the way the book inhabits its genre so completely.
I felt I was there. Like I knew these people. Maybe that I was them.
God. I’m embarrassed by my own vulgar sincerity here … but sometimes reading is fucking magic, y’know? Sometimes it is living.
And that is how I feel about Doc.
I recommend it, is what I’m saying. It is my favourite.
*stamps it with a kiss*