Friday, 17 April 2009

A novel idea...

If you have difficulty deciding what book to read when you next wander around a bookshop, worry no more as I might have the solution. For years, the thought processes behind my choice of novel were based on the recommendation of others, a book review in the Sunday papers or simply an impulse purchase based, perhaps, on the dodgy practice of judging a book by its cover.

I was getting frustrated. I needed some kind of structure to my reading life. I wanted a goal, something I could achieve. I was having problems knowing what to read next. Chick lit was always a no-go zone and so were bestsellers. I have always been a bit leftfield where literature is concerned. I don't want to follow the pack. I veer towards the sort of books you tend not to see people reading on the tube: Patrick Hamilton, Philip K Dick, Richard Wright, Saul Bellow to name but four authors whose work I have enjoyed.

A novel idea sprung to mind. What if I read an author for every letter of the alphabet starting with A and finishing with Z? I set about working out the ground rules, the main one being that I could not read any author whose work I had read before. The idea was to find new authors and tread new ground.

This would be an exercise in purity, so translations were out of the question. I had to follow the alphabet and I couldn't stray from A to T to Y to F. The challenge lay ahead and there was nothing else to do other than get started. What I didn't realise until I reached the letter F was that I needed a guide, something to keep me on the right path and provide scope, depth and enlightenment. I wanted to remain outside of the mainstream, but not having a guide meant that I fell at the first fence.

I chose Jake Arnott's The Long Firm, a bestseller recommended to me some time ago. Crime fiction is not my bag. Another rule sprung to mind: I would only read books that I bought personally. No outside influences. Everything had to be my decision. Next up was David Baldacci's The Christmas Train, a rather schmaltzy tale of a journalist who meets his ex-girlfriend on a train from Chicago to LA. It was like reading the screenplay of an American 'rom-com' – the sort of thing you might expect to watch in the afternoon on Christmas Eve.

JJ Connolly's Layer Cake followed. This and Arnott's The Long Firm were what I call 'shut it you muppet' books, the sort of novels Guy Ritchie might adapt into feature films with Vinny Jones and Bill Nighy in leading roles. Not my cup of tea, but the gauntlet had been thrown down and another rule too: I had to finish every book as, to the best of my knowledge, the police had no intention of announcing an amnesty on unread novels.

A lot of people find it hard to believe that I have never read any Roald Dahl. Even I wondered whether or not I had broken my golden rule unknowingly as I sat down to read Kiss Kiss, a collection of Dahl's excellent short stories, especially Parson's Pleasure. Dahl proved to be the best so far and in many ways acted as a kind of bridge to better things ahead, starting with the letter E.

Dave Eggers' first novel, You Shall Know Our Velocity, drew me into the realm of 'cult' fiction. It is the story of Will and Hand and their decision to journey around the world in a random fashion giving away inherited money in obscure countries. "Everything within takes place after Jack died and before my mom and I drowned in a burning ferry in the cool tannin-tinted Guaviare River, in East Central Columbia, with forty-two locals we hadn't yet met." That is the novel's opening sentence. I expected great things and found them.

My guardian angel appeared in the shape of the Rough Guide to Cult Fiction, an excellent directory of cult novelists billed as 'genre benders, beats, gurus, drunks, junkies, sinners and surrealists'. I didn't have to follow the guide, but it steered me away from the junk and into the path of some interesting writers like John Fante whose Ask the Dust, one of four novels collectively known as the 'Bandini Quartet' was next on my list.

Fante, an American born in 1909 went largely unnoticed as a writer until novelist Charles Bukowski, who listed Fante as a key influence, mentioned him in one of his novels. Both men were key exponents of what became known as the hard-boiled style of writing: unpretentious and to the point. I stuck with the hard-boiled style for my letter G and a novel by another American writer, David Goodis, billed as 'the dark prince of paperback pulp'. I chose The Moon in the Gutter, the story of docker William Kerrigan looking for a way out of his sorry existence in scrag-end Philadelphia. Not bad, but I needed something a little heavier and found it when I chose my next book, Michel Houellebecq's Atomised.

I had to break one of my rules. My copy of Atomised was translated by Frank Wynne which meant that I was not reading the original text. I decided to go ahead based on the theory that rules were there to be broken. Atomised proved to be emotionally moving for me and I can't figure out why. It is the story of two brothers who share the same mother but live completely different lives. One is a libertine, the other a thinker and idealist. The book was tinged with sadness and tragedy which, I admit, brought a tear to my eye.

The letter i proved problematical as I had decided, thanks to the Rough Guide to Cult Fiction, to read something by the American author Gary Indiana. I considered and rejected Guillermo Cabrera Infante, the only other author listed under i, because I had already broken my rule on translations with Atomised. The bookshops had proved uninspiring where the letter i was concerned and this sorry state of affairs meant breaking another rule – that I should not jump out of alphabetical sequence – as I had to move on to the letter L and my first non-fiction title, Richard Lomax's The Railway Man which I picked up in a charity shop for 99p. Lomax was one of many prisoners of war tortured by the Japanese while constructing the Burma Siam Railway.

Getting hold of a copy of anything by Gary Indiana in the UK was proving a big problem so I had to abandon my quest and carry on with the task in hand. I chose BS Johnson's Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry as my letter J. Johnson, much to his own dislike, was billed as an experimental novelist. He didn't believe in beginnings, middles and ends and produced one of his novels in 27 different pamphlets so that readers could shuffle and read it in any order. Christie Malry is the story of a man who gets even with society using the principles of double-entry bookkeeping.

Johnson was one of two novelists on my list who committed suicide, the other being another so-called experimental novelist, Ann Quin, who walked into the sea at Brighton and drowned. Like Gary Indiana, however, I never found copies of her work in any bookshop in the UK. It took a trip to Portland, Oregon, and a visit to the world famous Powell's Books to finally pick up Horse Crazy by Gary Indiana; Ann Quin's Three; and Will Self's How the Dead Live. By this stage in my challenge I had moved along to the letter R and was reading Derek Raymond's How the Dead Live. The reason I bought Self's novel was because I was intrigued to read two completely different books sharing the same title. Self openly admits in the foreword to Raymond's book that he blatantly ripped off the title, quoting Auden who said 'Bad writers borrow. Good ones steal.'

Raymond, born Robert Cook in 1931, died in 1994. According to the Rough Guide to Cult Fiction, drink had taken its toll. He was billed as the 'Godfather of English noir fiction' and used the pseudonym of Derek Raymond in homage to detective novelist Raymond Chandler. Raymond's How the Dead Live concerns the investigation of a previously unexplained death. The novel's central character – a nameless detective – features in Raymond's so-called Factory novels of which this is one.

Self's novel is all about Lily Bloom, a former PR executive who dies of cancer and moves to Dulston, a part of London where the dead live alongside their spiritual guides. Bloom spends her dead life watching over the calamitous lives of her two daughters and is eventually 'reborn' as her own granddaughter. It is a good novel and while there are those who criticise Self for his use of 'big words', Self, like Henry Miller and JG Ballard, is a technically brilliant writer in my opinion.

But what about the letters J through to P? Jim Giraffe by Daren King was the ludicrous story of Scott Spectrum, a man haunted by a ghost giraffe. Perhaps I missed the point, but I found King's book too silly for words and a little bit tiresome as a result. I chose Patrick McGrath's Asylum for my letter M. The Rough Guide to Cult Fiction had good things to say about McGrath, the son of a medical superintendent at Broadmoor. Asylum is the story of a doctor's wife who falls in love with a violent mental patient at an institution not dissimilar to Broadmoor. The letter N gave me the chance to read Nabokov's controversial Lolita, the story of Humbert Humbert and his obession with a 12-year-old girl. Looking back through my copy, I note that I have underlined interesting words throughout the text such as 'favonian' , 'acrosonic' and 'phocine', none of which can be found in my Concise Oxford Dictionary.

For the letter O I had plenty to choose from: Patrick O'Brian and Edna O'Brien being two novelists I could have chosen. Instead, I opted for somebody less well known and with a less conventional O' name. Stewart O'Nan's Night Country was the story of the aftermath of a car crash and the story of the victims' ghosts who come back from the dead to visit those they believe are responsible for their deaths. O'Nan, an American writer, has seven other novels to his name.

There were so many Ps I could have chosen, but I foolishly started judging books by covers and opted for Chuck Palanuik's Haunted, a novel of different stories told by people imprisoned in an artists' retreat. It was alright in parts but it dragged and I was glad when I finished it.

Ann Quin's Three was another book I was unable to find in the UK and bought at Powell's Books in Portland, Oregon. I was hesitant about Quin because I was uncomfortable with 'experimental' novelists. I didn't want to read a book written, say, with no consonants, or a novel that could be read backwards. Quin's novel, I am pleased to say, was not that experimental. In Three, she experiments with different kinds of narrative. The book centres on the lives of three people living together in a house on the south coast (Quin lived and died in Brighton). Ruth and Leonard are middle-aged and married and S is a young woman who comes to live with them. The novel starts with the girl's suicide and then becomes a haunting snapshot of their lives together, their suspicions of one another, told through the different narratives. The thoughts of S are expressed through a diary she kept while living at the house. I approached Three with trepidation and under the impression it would be a hard slog, but I was pleasantly surprised and like all good novels, it haunts me now.

Derek Raymond's and Will Self's How the Dead Live were next and then another non-fiction book, this time Mark Thomas' Belching Out the Devil, the story of how Coca Cola has exploited work forces and ruined water systems in Turkey, Mexico and El Salvador. Thomas' book was good but it was ruined by a staggering number of literals. Here's just one, "They did not asked us to come."

The letter U was absent from the Rough Guide to Cult Fiction and nothing really inspired me in the bookshops. Fortunately, I owned a dog-eared copy of John Updike's Rabbit, Run, the first in a series of stories about Harry 'Rabbit' Angstrom, his doomed marriage to Janice and his pointless affair with Ruth.

I checked out my Rough Guide for the letter V and found only Kurt Vonnegut and Jules Verne, two authors I had read before so they were out of bounds. At the bookshop I found Willy Vlautin's Northline, the story of Allison, a young woman who escapes an abusive boyfriend and moves to Reno where she meets a succession of people who renew her faith in human nature. I loved this book for its clarity and atmosphere, its vivid characters and, ultimately, its hope. Vlautin has been labelled the 'Dylan of the dislocated' and I look forward to reading his other novel, This Motel Life. Vlautin also fronts the band Richmond Fontaine who will be playing in London in the autumn.

The letter W offered plenty of authors including Evelyn Waugh and PG Wodehouse, novelists I haven't read, but again I wanted something more leftfield and opted for Christopher Wilson's The Ballad of Lee Cotton, the story of a 'white' 'black' man with psyhic powers who wakes up after an accident to discover he's a white black man that has changed sex. For some reason, I read this book with a Chris Rock accent.

I thought the letter X would prove problematical but it was no problem at all. I found a copy of Village of Stone by Xiaolu Guo, which I bought, but then I found myself breaking out into a cold sweat. Guo, that's G, not X, so I rushed back to Waterstones and opened up another book by another Chinese author beginning with an X. I forget the name of the author, but in the preface it is pointed out that Chinese people put their surnames first, hence Xiaolu Guo. Guo is her first name.

I am half way through Village of Stone, the story of a young Chinese girl living in Beijing remembering her life in the Village of Stone, a coastal fishing village seemingly miles from anywhere.

The end of the project is nigh and I can already see the light at the end of the tunnel, which says I can read something else soon. And I really do want to read something else. There are other novels by the authors I have been reading for this task that I want to read, like Michel Houellebecq's Platform, like the rest of John Updike's Rabbit novels and, of course, This Motel Life by Willy Vlautin – and not forgetting Paul Auster's The New York Trilogy, which I started reading a hotel in Italy.

There are also novels that I simply have to read, like Joseph Heller's Catch 22, the red spine of which has been staring me out for years as I sit at my desk, mildy fretting that I have yet to read it.

I know what comes next. Metaphorically, I have skipped a few chapters of my task and checked out the ending. For my letter Y it will definitely be something by Richard Yates, probably Revolutionary Road, but I'm not sure yet; and then, with Z, I'm not sure – possibly Richard Zimler – but I'm going to scour the bookshop shelves before I reach for his The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon.

Has all this been worth it? Yes it has. I have introduced myself to novelists I would never have read, I have brought structure into my reading life and an element of randomness that has been exciting. Twenty six books – well, almost – and I will continue to the end, in true and then, in true John Fowles fashion, come back and write another ending for this mammoth article.

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