Skip to content Skip to sidebar Skip to footer

Stuff I’ve Been Reading: July 2004


  • The Invisible Woman—Claire Tomalin
  • Y: The Last Man Vols 1–3—Vaughan, Guerra, Marzan Jr., Chadwick
  • I Never Liked You—Chester Brown
  • David Boring—Daniel Clowes
  • The Amazing Adventures of The Escapist—Michael Chabon et al
  • Safe Area Gorazde—Joe Sacco
  • Not Entitled—Frank Kermode


  • Train—Pete Dexter
  • This Is Serbia Calling—Matthew Collin
  • The Invisible Woman—Claire Tomalin
  • Y: The Last Man Vols 1–3—Vaughan, Guerra, Marzan Jr., Chadwick
  • I Never Liked You—Chester Brown
  • David Boring—Daniel Clowes

If you wanted to draw a family tree of everything I read and bought this month—and you never know, it could be fun, if you’re a writer, say, or a student, and there are several large holes in your day—you’d have to put McSweeney’s 13 and Pete Dexter’s novel Train right at the top.2 They’re the Adam and Eve here, or they would be if Adam and Eve had been hermaphrodites, each able to give birth independently of the other. McSweeney’s 13 and Train never actually mated to produce a beautiful synthesis of the two; and nor did any of the other books actually get together, either. So it would be a pretty linear family tree, to be honest: one straight line coming out of McSweeney’s 13, because McSweeney’s begat a bunch of graphic novels (McSweeney’s 13, edited by Chris Ware, is a comics issue, if you’re not from ’round these parts), and another straight line coming out of Train, which leads to a bunch of nonfiction books, for reasons I will come to later. Train didn’t directly beget anything, although it did plant some seeds. (I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, Well, if Train and McSweeney’s 13 never actually mated, and if Train never directly begat anything, then how good is this whole family-tree thing? And my answer is, Oh, it’s good. Trust me. I have a writer’s instinct.) Anyway, if you do decide to draw the family tree, the good news is that it’s easy; the bad news is that it’s boring, pointless, and arguably makes no sense. Up to you.

Pete Dexter’s Train was carefully chosen to reintroduce me to the world of fiction, a world I have been frightened of visiting ever since I finished David Copperfield a couple of months back. I’ve read Dexter before—The Paperboy is a terrific novel—and the first couple of chapters of Train are engrossing, complicated, fresh, and real, and I really thought I was back on the fictional horse. But then, in the third chapter, there is an episode of horrific violence, graphically rendered, and suddenly I was no longer under the skin of the book, the way I had been; I was on the outside looking in. What happens is that in the process of being raped, the central female character gets her nipple sliced off, and it really upset me. I mean, I know I was supposed to get upset. But I was bothered way beyond function. I was bothered to the extent that I struck up a conversation with the author at periodic intervals thereafter. “Did the nipple really have to go, Pete? Explain to me why. Couldn’t it have just… nearly gone? Or maybe you could have left it alone altogether? I mean, come on, man. Her husband has just been brutally murdered. She’s been raped. We get the picture. Leave the nipple alone.”

I am, I think, a relatively passive reader, when it comes to fiction. If a novelist tells me that something happened, then I tend to believe him, as a rule. In his memoir Experience, Martin Amis recalls his father, Kingsley, saying that he found Virginia Woolf ’s fictional world “wholly contrived: when reading her he found that he kept interpolating hostile negatives, murmuring ‘Oh no she didn’t’ or ‘Oh no he hadn’t’ or ‘Oh no it wasn’t’ after each and every authorial proposition”; I only do that when I’m reading something laughably bad (although after reading that passage in Experience, I remember it took me a while to shake off Kingsley’s approach to the novel). But in the nipple-slicing incident in Train, I thought I could detect Dexter’s thumb on the scale, to use a brilliant Martin Amis phrase from elsewhere in Experience. It seemed to me as though poor Norah lost her nipple through a worldview rather than through a narrative inevitability; and despite all the great storytelling and the muscular, grave prose, and the rich-ness and resonance of the setup (Train is a golf caddy in 1950s L.A., and the novel is mostly about race) I just sort of lost my grip on the book. Also, someone gets shot dead at the end, and I wasn’t altogether sure why. That’s a sure sign that you haven’t been paying the right kind of attention. It should always be clear why some-one gets shot. If I ever shoot you, I promise you there will be a really good explanation, one you will grasp immediately, should you live.

While I was in the middle of Train, I went browsing in a remainder bookshop, and came across a copy of Frank Kermode’s memoir Not Entitled. I knew of Ker-mode’s work as a critic, but I didn’t know he’d written a memoir, some of which is about his childhood on the Isle of Man, and when I saw it, I was seized by a need to own it. This need was entirely created by poor Norah in Train. There would be no nipple-slicing in Not Entitled, I was sure of it. I even started to read the thing in a cab on the way home, and although I gave up pretty quickly (it probably went too far the other way—it’s a delicate balance I’m trying to strike here), it was very restorative.

I bought Claire Tomalin’s gripping, informative The Invisible Woman at the Dickens Museum in Doughty Street, London, which is full of all sorts of cool stuff: marked-up reading copies which say things like “SIGH here,” letters, the original partwork editions of the novels, and so on.The thing is, I really want to read a Dick-ens biography, but they’re all too long: Ackroyd’s is a frankly hilarious 1,140 pages, excluding notes and post-script. (It has a great blurb on the front, the Ackroyd. “An essential book for anyone who has ever loved or read Dickens,” says P. D. James [my italics]. Can you imagine? You flog your way through Great Expectations at school, hate it, and then find you’ve got to read a thousand pages of biography! What a pisser!) So both the museum visit and the Tomalin book—about his affair with the actress Nelly Ternan—were my ways of fulfilling a need to find out more about the great man without killing myself.

Here’s something I found out in The Invisible Woman: the son of Charles Dickens’s mistress died during my lifetime. He wasn’t Dickens’s son, but even so: I could have met a guy who said, “Hey, my mum slept with Dickens.” I wouldn’t have understood what he meant, because I was only two, and as Tomalin makes clear, he wouldn’t have wanted to own up anyway, because he was traumatized by what he found out about his mother’s past. It’s still weird, though, I think, to see how decades—centuries—can be eaten up like that.

Ackroyd, by the way, disputes that Ternan and Dickens ever had an affair. He concedes that Chas set her up in a couple of houses, one in France, and disappeared for long stretches of time in order to visit her, but he won’t accept that Dickens was an adulterer: that sort of explanation might work for an ordinary man, he says, but Dickens “was not ‘ordinary’ in any sense.” The Invisible Woman is such a formidable work of scholar-ship, however, that it leaves very little room for doubt. Indeed, Claire Tomalin is so consumed by her research, so much the biographer, that she actually takes Dickens to task for destroying evidence of his relationship with Nelly Ternan. “Dickens himself would not have welcomed our curiosity,” she says. “He would have been happier to have every letter he ever wrote dealt with as Nelly… dealt with the bundles of twelve years’ intimate correspondence. [She destroyed it all.] He was wrong by any standards.”

Don’t you love that last sentence? The message is clear: if you’re a writer whose work will interest future generations, and you’re screwing around, don’t delete those emails, because Claire Tomalin and her colleagues are going to need them. Zadie Smith and Michael Chabon and the rest of you, watch out. (I’m not implying, of course, that either of you is screwing around, and I’m sorry if you made that inference. It was supposed to be a compliment. It just came out wrong. Forget it, OK? And sue the Spree, not me. It was their sloppy editing.)

This Is Serbia Calling, Matthew Collin’s book about the Belgrade radio station B92 and the role it played in resisting Milosevic, has been lying around my house for a while. But when my post–McSweeney’s 13 research into comic books led me to conclude that I should buy, among other things, Joe Sacco’s Safe Area Gorazde, I wanted to do a little extra reading on the Yugoslavian wars, and Collin’s book is perfect: it gives you a top-notch potted history, as well as an enthralling and hum-bling story about very brave young people refusing to be cowed by a brutal regime. It’s pretty funny, too, in places. If you have a taste for that hopelessly bleak East-ern European humor, then the Serbian dissenter of the 1990s is your sort of guy. You’ve got warring nationalist groups, and an inflation rate, in January ’94, of 313,563,558 percent (that’s on the steep side, for those of you with no head for economics) which resulted in a loaf of bread costing 4,000,000,000 dinars. You’ve got power cuts, rigged elections, a government too busy committing genocide to worry about the niceties of free speech, and, eventually, NATO bombs. There are good jokes to be made, by those with the stomach for them. “The one good thing about no electricity,” one cynic remarked during the power failures, “is that there’s no television telling us we’ve got electricity.” This Is Serbia Calling is essential reading if you’ve ever doubted the power or the value of culture, of music, books, films, theater; it also makes a fantastic case for Sonic Youth and anyone else who makes loud, weird noises. When your world is falling round about your ears, Tina Turner isn’t going to do it for you.

Y: The Last Man is a comic-book series about a world run by women, after every man but one has been wiped out by a mysterious plague. It’s a great premise, and full of smart ideas: the Democrats are running the country, because the only Republican women are Republican wives; Israel is cleaning up in the Middle East, because they have the highest proportion of trained female combat soldiers. It’s strange, reading a comic—a proper comic, not a graphic novel—in which a woman says “You can fuck my tits if you want” (and I can only apologize, not only for repeating the expression, but for the number of references to breasts in this month’s column. I’m pretty sure it’s a coincidence, although we should, I suppose, recognize the possibility that it marks the beginning of a pathetic middle-aged obsession). Is that what happens in comics now? Is this the sort of stuff your ten-year-old boy is reading? Crikey. When I was ten, the only word I’d have under-stood in the whole sentence would have been “you,” although not necessarily in this context. Daniel Clowes’s David Boring—yeah, yeah, late again—is partly about large bottoms, but as one of the reviews quoted on the back called the book “perverse and fetishistic,” I’d have wanted my money back if it hadn’t been. It’s also clever, and the product of a genuinely odd imagination.

There’s no rule that says one’s reading has to be tonally consistent. I can’t help but feel, however, that my reading has been all over the place this month. The Invisible Woman and Y: The Last Man were opposites in just about every way you can imagine; they even had opposite titles. A woman you can’t see versus a guy whose mere existence attracts the world’s attention. Does this matter? I suspect it might. I was once asked to DJ at a New Yorker party, and the guy who was looking after me (in other words, the guy who was actually playing the records) wouldn’t let me choose the music I wanted because he said I wasn’t paying enough attention to the beats per minute: according to him, you can’t have a differential of more than, I don’t know, twenty bpm between records. At the time, I thought this was a stupid idea, but there is a possibility that it might apply to reading. The Invisible Woman is pacy and engrossing, but it’s no graphic novel, and reading Tomalin’s book after The Last Man was like playing John Lee Hooker after the Chemical Brothers—in my opinion, John Lee Hooker is the greater artist, but he’s in no hurry, is he? Next month, I might try starting with the literary equivalent of a smoocher, and move on to something a bit quicker. And I promise that if there are any breasts, I won’t mention them. In fact, I won’t even look at them.

1I bought so many books this month it’s obscene, and I’m not owning up to them all: this is a selection. And to be honest, I’ve been economical with the truth for months now. I keep finding books that I bought, didn’t read, and didn’t list.
2We do indeed pay Nick Hornby to write his monthly column, but we didn’t pay him to mention McSweeney’s 13.—Ed.

Leave a Comment