The Secret Footballer by The Secret Footballer

I had this great idea, about fifteen years ago, that when I finally wrote a novel I would do so anonymously. Not that I had any great need of anonymity, I didn’t have anything to hide or anything to protect. It just seemed like a cool device. Something to break the fourth wall and have the reader feel like there was more to the book than the words on the page. It’s been done, of course, and when I did start putting my work out there it had my name on it. I imagined any interest that having an anonymously written book might create would be more than undone by the revelation that the author was someone you had never even heard of.

Apparently, an authors name is his brand. This, while creating a cynical little shiver inside of me, makes perfect sense. If nothing else the aim is to get to the point that people associate a name with good writing. The obvious reasons for a writer maintaining anonymity are because they are writing something scandalous, or to build interest in the book. The Secret Footballer does both. The hook is clever, by maintaining his anonymity the Secret Footballer can tell us things about football that no one else would ever be able to say, and it is double clever because who it actually is of real interest.

I’ve only read half of it so far. Bad form, I know, but this blog has been neglected for a while and the idea of anonymous authors got me thinking. Reading The Secret Footballer is half expose, half Sherlock Holmes mystery. Its fun to tick off players as they get mentioned as being ineligible candidates for who this guy is. There’s a lot of discussion about it on a website devoted to the mystery. But the truth is, I don’t want to know who it is. I doubt I’d have ever been interested in the book (or the Guardian column from which the book is derived) had he been named from the start. The anonymity also offers authenticity. His opinions carry more weight and his version of events seem more reliable purely because the fact that we don’t know who he is suggests he has little to gain from lying. His candidness would be less trustworthy if he were named and his picture were on the cover. And the distinct lack of ego required to write anonymously also causes him to stand out from other football players. For right or for wrong, the stereotype of a professional football player is well established and the creation of The Secret Footballer as an entity in its own right is clever. He mentions reading Shakespeare as a boy, and there is a Proust reference in one chapter. These might be deliberate attempts to undo the stereotypes and give some weight to his abilities as a writer, but what it has done is create an author that is more intriguing than if he had written under his own name. He has been able to shake off some of the baggage that being a football player carries with it.

I tend to be wary of books by celebrities that are not necessarily celebrated for their writing. I almost missed out on reading Andrew Kaufman because he has the same name as the other Andrew Kaufman. I don’t automatically trust a celebrity chef to write an entertaining and enlightening book any more than I would trust a novelist to open a restaurant. For some people a book is just another outlet, another product that can be delivered from their brand. For other people, the book is everything. The Secret Footballer has managed a little of both.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

After finishing this book I went and had a look around the internet for other peoples thoughts on it and found one review on goodreads saying that this book isn’t proper Magic Realism. I’m going to disagree and say that that is exactly what this book is. It is the story of a girl, told in several stages of her youth, who can taste emotion in food. Whatever feelings were being experienced by the chef, she can taste in the finished meal. It’s not entirely dissimilar to Midnight’s Children in the way it sets itself up. A young person with a magical ability is used as a vehicle to explore larger issues. In Midnight’s Children it is the birth of India’s independence, in The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake it is Rose’s dysfunctional family.

The trouble with The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake (wonderful title by the way), is that the magical element and realism element never quite seem to come together properly. For much of the book Rose fights against her talent, choosing to eat only factory produced food, and so some of the conceits power is lessened. Toward the beginning there is a scene where a young Rose and her brothers friend go to a shop and taste cookies to test what she can do. This, for me, was the point where the book seemed like it was going to come alive, and then instead she decides not to use this ability of hers and the book goes off somewhere else. It’s not that where the book goes instead is bad, it just felt like a missed opportunity. In writing it is considered good form to show rather than tell, and this could have allowed us to be shown hidden emotions. There could have been really exciting juxtapositions between what someone was saying and what they were feeling. But instead there weren’t.

This is not to say that it is a bad book. Much of what happens while Rose is refusing to taste emotions is excellently done. I especially enjoyed the awkward relationship between Rose and her father.

The father, for much of the book seems a superfluous character; literally on the sidelines of the story as he witnesses the birth of his daughter through a pair of binoculars from the street outside the hospital. Later he becomes more fully depicted, and in doing so somewhat sidelines the mother, who has been a much more active character. It’s a clever twist, which I am trying very hard not to spoil for anyone that might read it.

I feel very split about this book. It is beautifully written and charming at times, and seems to frustratingly miss the mark at others. The concept of tasting emotion was an intriguing one, but rather than really tasting emotion, all Rose ever really tastes is something over-whelming that she doesn’t like. Happiness, joy, contentment; these are not really explored. Rose, as a central protagonist, seems a little too passive; the central concept of tasting emotion seems underused. The weirdness toward the end of the book feels a little contrived. But there’s just something about it that is haunting and memorable.

The Art of Fielding

I was going to write a blog post about how I have just finished reading The Art of Fielding, and how it is a Great American Novel about the Great American Novel. I was going to talk about how The Great American Novel, such as it is, tempers the American Dream and how the two things together create a really nice dichotomy of ideas, wherein one tells us that amazing things can happen, and the other reminds us that they probably won’t.

But then as I sat down to write it I felt totally ill-equipped. I don’t think I have read enough Great American Novels to justify having an opinion on the subject. I haven’t read Moby Dick yet, though I’m now pretty keen on doing so.

So anyway, The Art of Fielding. One of the things that I heard most about this book before I read it was that if you don’t have a working knowledge of baseball (which I don’t) then this novel can be pretty impenetrable. I think that statement is sort of true, but also kind of irrelevant. I don’t mind novels being about things that I don’t understand. In fact, most of the time I want them to be about things I don’t understand, against a backdrop I do. I know a bit more about baseball now than I did before reading it, but that’s hardly the point. It could be about any sport.

Henry Skrimshander, a truly astonishing short-stop, gets recruited by a college team. Things are going well until a bad throw injures his teammate. Then he loses his nerve, and is never quite the same player again. But a lot of the time this story serves as a backdrop to all the others. The story about the college presidents daughter who comes home after her marriage falls apart. The story about his teammate who is having an affair with the college president. The story about the guy who recruited Henry into the baseball team and how things are coming apart in his life.  Baseball is a prominent part of the book, but it’s far from being the most prominent.

It reminded me a lot of Jeffrey Eugenides The Marriage Plot, only with sport instead of semiotics. Young people finding themselves, sixty-year-old college presidents finding themselves too. President Affenlight, for me anyway, was the most compelling character. Like a lost kid who has suddenly opened his eyes and found himself all grown up and just as lost as ever. It’s an excellent book with some truly beautiful moments and a totally unpredictable ending. Have a go at guessing what happens toward the end. Not right at the very end, not the very last chapter. A few chapters before that. Go on, have a guess.

Whatever you just guessed, you’re wrong.

1Q84 books 1 and 2, Haruki Murakami

Recently I have paying more attention to the one star reviews on amazon than the five star ones. It’s not as negative as it sounds, I have found that gauging what the one stars are saying can give an interesting perspective. Five star reviews can be a bit gushy, but if they are tempered by one star reviews that offer thoughtful critique then a more balanced view starts to form. If, however, the one star reviews are just raving on about something much less thoughtful then they can actually add weight to the good reviews.

Looking at the one star reviews for 1Q84 (books 1 and 2 only, I have yet to read book three and will more than likely write about it separately) I see that a number of the reviews are suggesting that the book is over-long, derivative, not as good as his previous work, and the product of a writer who is more powerful than the publishers.

Thoughtful critique or tosh worth ignoring?

There can be no doubt that Murakami is a writer with a significant weight behind his name. Doubtless, that will influence the way he is edited. At 623 pages (with a further 364 to come in book 3) it is a pretty long book, but Murakami isn’t exactly new to writing long books. My paperback copies of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka on the Shore are 607 and 504 pages long respectively. A debut author wouldn’t get away with a 900 page epic, as one reviewer suggests, but Murakami can because he has earned the right to do it. I’ll happily embark on a book that length by him because I trust he knows what he is doing.

But is it 623 pages well spent, or should it have been ruthlessly edited down to something a bit more sensible. Could the bloat have been trimmed? I guess it could have, but would we, as fans of Murakami, want it to? There is a chapter in the book in which Tengo, one of the point-of-view characters, does nothing more than muse about things while cooking dinner. Sounds like exactly the sort of bloated, empty prose than could easily be chopped out, but I want chapters like that. I want precise description of expert cookery set to classical music. It’s part of Murakami’s signature. Not every book needs to be set at an electric pace. Sometimes that slower speed with more breathing room is the right thing.

Another part of Murakami’s signature is a lack of explanation. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle doesn’t make any attempt to explain itself or answer any of the questions it poses at the start of the book. By the end of the book none of the questions posed at the beginning have been answered, and that is, I think, largely what that book is about. 1Q84 is a little more explicit. Indeed Murakami seems to make a statement in the prose that almost feels like his remit as a writer.

If you can’t understand it without an explanation, you can’t understand it with one.

Which, ironically, is about as heavy handed an explanation as he has ever made. Toward the end of 1Q84 a lot of the questions posed at the start of the book are, if not answered, at least explored in a fairly literal way. We, along with the characters, understand quite well what has actually happened (I’m being careful not to spoil it) in a way that is unusually definite for Murakami. But 1Q84 is not The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and it seems worth letting it be its own book. Murakami has his own particular style and oeuvre, but this doesn’t mean he has to write the same book over and over again, ticking off the boxes of what has made his previous work a success.

Personally, I found the concrete explanations a little frustrating. I know that for some people 1Q84 is going to be their first read of Murakami, but it did occasionally feel a little heavy handed. I didn’t mind the repetition too much (another point raised in those one star reviews) but setting key points in bold was a bit much. It was like having a big arrow pointing at the bit you really need to be attention to. When I see bold text in a body of prose I can’t help but glance down at it and read it out of sequence with the rest of the page. That felt a bit much. Not enough for me to go and write a scathing one star review over, but a small frustration.

I don’t really know what would make a legitimate one star review. I don’t really know how to write a review at all. Certainly this post is testament to that. But the idea that this book is lazy, derivative and not as good as his other books doesn’t seem fair. Neither is it perfect. All I can say with any certainty is I enjoyed reading it a lot, and am looking forward to reading the third book.

Boxer, Beetle by Ned Beauman

 

A debut novel can be the purest glimpse into the mind of a writer. Before becoming saddled with the weight of expectation and an awareness of having to live up to what came before, the debut can seem like an unshackled, carefree, gleefully un-self-conscious thing. Boxer, Beetle is like this. It reads like Beauman had a head full of ideas, and decided to find a way to fit as many of them into the novel as he possibly could. Boxing, entomology, Nazi’s; it shouldn’t really fit together as well as it does.

The story is of a modern-day Nazi memorabilia collector and the trouble he manages to get caught up in, told alongside the story of what happened back in the 1930’s. The 1930’s chapters are like little archaeological digs that reveal the secrets being slowly uncovered in the modern-day chapters. It has a large cast of characters, and at times it is not always clear who we ought to be rooting for. They are flawed and despicable some of the time, human and sympathetic at others.

The book, like its plot, manages to be many things at once. It is clever, funny, thoughtful. What really comes through is how much fun Beauman must have had while writing it, hurling ideas at the page. He writes with great flourishes and gigantic sentences that seem like they won’t ever end. But I didn’t get the impression that this was because Beauman is a naive or undisciplined writer, more that for all the benefits there are to following the rules, sometimes you can just chuck the rule-book away and do whatever the hell you like. Writing, after all, allows you to conjure up whatever you want simply by putting the words down on the page. So why not just go nuts and have a great time doing it? If you want a protagonist with a weird medical condition you can have one. If you want a violent, nihilistic, homosexual boxer, you can have that too.