Confessions of Another Common Reader

José Saramago – Blindness

January3

Jose Saramago - Blindness - jacket imageSaramago’s 1995 novel is a classic “what if..?” story: without any warning or prior symptoms, one by one, the citizens of a vaguely authoritarian state begin to be struck by a “white sickness” as they go about their daily lives, which effectively renders them blind – they see only a luminous whiteness before their eyes. Acting on initial suspicions that the sickness may be contagious, the government reopens an old mental asylum to quarantine the infected and those who have had contact with them, each group in a separate wing of the hospital. But as the fear and chaos grows, and the epidemic spreads, the care afforded to the asylum’s inmates deteriorates rapidly – as do their moral standards.

Saramago is interested in big questions about human nature – how we would behave towards each other if the ordinary checks and balances of society were removed, and nobody could see what we were doing? At a very basic level, standards of hygiene lapse entirely. Saramago’s descriptions of the state of the asylum – as viewed through the eyes of the one sighted inmate, “the doctor’s wife”, who has pretended she has been struck blind in order to accompany her husband to his incarceration – are revolting.

More significantly, Saramago wants to explore attitudes and adherence to (or lack of it) sexual morality, and law and order. As chaos outside the asylum increases, the support systems fail: the electricity switches off, the water cuts out, and the food supply becomes unreliable. A gang of “hoodlums”, in the “third ward on the left” assume control by force, restricting the availability of food still further in exchange for at first the few valuables and useful items the inmates have brought with them, then later for a disturbing ordeal of systematic rape, ward by ward, of the women inmates.

The style won’t be to everyone’s liking – there are no paragraphs, no speech delimiters, and little punctuation, mimicking the blanketing confusion of the blindness and forcing the reader to proceed slowly and cautiously. And Saramago pushes his pre-apocalyptic vision to levels of almost unbearable grimness, before allowing some light of redemption to filter through towards the end of the book. Without the eyes of society on us, Saramago seems to say, we will quickly degenerate to a base selfishness. Those characters that do act with philanthropy and care for others have all at some point come under the influence of the sighted doctor’s wife and are ‘seeing’ through her eyes, coping thanks to her care. Yet in the end, Saramago seems to say, this is the only way we can survive.

A Confederacy of Dunces – Am I the Dunce?

May16

There’s a certain kind of queasiness that accompanies not loving a book that appears to be universally raved about. What did you miss? Were you not paying attention? Is there something wrong with you? Sometimes it passes quickly, a quick flick back through the pages reaffirming your well-placed confidence in your own literary taste (I’m looking at you, One Day). Sometimes it lingers for longer, scratching away at the back of your mind like an unshiftable stone in the shoe, and this is where I find myself with A Confederacy of Dunces.

Published posthumously thanks to his mother’s unflagging commitment to seeing it in print, I’ve always seen John Kennedy Toole’s novel hailed as a comic masterpiece. Set in New Orleans, it follows the enormous Ignatius J Reilly, lazy, overeducated, staggeringly self-absorbed, and suffering from a severe case of arrested development. Ignatius is tortured by poor digestion (nothing to do with his poor diet, of course) and a slave to his “valve”. Obsessed with his own genius, he is tormented by the need to prove said genius to one Myrna Minkoff, who he met while at college and who goads him from afar with aggressive, scribbled notes describing her own successes in transforming the political landscape through the magic of sex. As he endeavours to do as little as possible in order to create a space for his literary talent to flourish and bear fruit, Ignatius blunders through New Orleans, chaos rippling outward from his searingly self-centred acts of random cruelty.

Ignatius is an unforgettable creation: utterly ruthless, addicted to medieval culture and excess verbiage, living his life at a tangent to the rest of the world. Yet I can’t laugh at him, or at any of the other equally well-drawn characters whose lives he disrupts. Partly this is a fault I’ve been noticing more and more in my own literary appreciation – a tendency to place too much emphasis on character as I read. I increasingly seem to be running the risk of mistaking characters in books for Real People, over-empathising with their suffering.

But this is also more generally true of how I feel about humour: I cannot laugh at monsters. I’ve never been able to find David Brent funny in The Office, or others of his ilk. Those with a white-hot belief in their own centrality to the universe – whether in books or in real life – inevitably damage those with who they interact. And all too often, they get away with it; their self-belief wraps around them like a cloak of invisibility, insulating them from outrage and disapproval, while others around them pick up the pieces and deal with the fallout. Being habitually a picker-up rather than a distributor of such pieces, my latent levels of resentment at this kind of behaviour are already too high to tolerate further augmentation without discomfort. I just don’t find it funny, even when it’s only make-believe.

In other words, despite no longer being in my teens or twenties, I’m still incurably romantic and idealist, and want to believe that the world should be fair. I am doomed.

The Coincidence Engine – Sam Leith

April22

Those who know me well IRL may have noticed that I have a bit of a thing for the coincidence as literary device. I’ve worked my way through all of Barbara Trapido, devoured Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie books, and still experience a little shiver of delight when something extremely improbable happens in a book’s plot (tastefully, of course). As Jackson B himself puts it, “A coincidence is just an explanation waiting to happen”. So I’ve had Sam Leith’s book on my wishlist ever since I saw it in the Bookseller‘s new titles selection. Coincidentally, the day I read the Grauniad Review‘s piece on it was Mother’s Day, and I happened to be visiting the London Review Bookshop to pick up my mother-in-law’s present. Self-gifting can’t be wrong on Mother’s Day, right? Even with three books in my bag already? Especially when the people who should have been gifting didn’t bother, the rotters.

The Coincidence Engine follows Alex Smart, a clueless Cambridge mathematician, on an roadtrip-on-a-whim across America to meet (and propose to) his girlfriend in Las Vegas. Unbeknownst to him, Alex is carrying a coincidence engine – a device that improbably manipulates the circumstances around it – and at least two shady organisations, one corporate, one governmental,want it. The Directorate of the Extremely Improbable (or DEI – “It’s a silly name, but it’s always been called that, and the silliness acts as a sort of camouflage,” the organisation’s director, Red Queen, tells a hapless physics professor who has been pulled in for questioning) dispatch a couple of its agents in pursuit of Alex, while MIC Inc. has set a couple of its hired thugs on his tail with the same objective.

The broad canvas is of the Douglas Adams/Jasper Fforde school of daft probability, albeit with less aggressive and outlandish comedy. Yes, the book begins with a plane constructed by a hurricane from junkyard scraps, piloted by a somewhat surprised male stripper who’s only stepped out of his car a moment before to relieve himself, but Leith doesn’t overegg the coincidence pudding; the book is seasoned with just enough of these sorts of events to remind us of the Point Of It All without becoming repetitive, and there’s just enough ‘sciencey stuff’ to convince us to suspend our disbelief. The Grauniad called it a “comedy thriller”, but the comedy is, for the most part, gentle, and the thrills often mined with slapstick grenades.

Three main areas set The Coincidence Engine apart from others of its ilk. Firstly, the skilful pacing: too often authors can allow the plot of this sort of novel to spiral wildly out of control, until the book generates into a kind of silliness we become weary, as readers, of tolerating. There’s none of that here – there is silliness, but it’s kept firmly within the bounds of our patience. Secondly, the quality of the writing – unexpected similes and thought-provoking observations pepper the narrative, and the descriptive passages are beautifully done. Finally, and most surprisingly, perhaps, for a comic novel, the book is noticeably infused with melancholy. As much as the making of connections, The Coincidence Engine is concerned with the breaking of them, and the inability to make them in the first place; with the difficulty of being and knowing one’s own self. Behind the farce, the exploration of the human engine is what makes this book stay in your mind long after you’ve finished chortling.