The Fiction Faction - Archive - July-December 2011
Elizabeth Baines

July 2011
Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada

John chose this book because of the huge attention it has received since the English translation appeared in 2009. Originally published in Germany immediately after the war, with the encouragement of the new Soviet authorities, and based on a real-life case, it concerns an act of resistance by an ordinary working-class and middle-aged couple under the Nazi regime, the writing and dropping of anonymous postcards attacking Hitler and the war. The book is promoted by the English-language publishers, Penguin, as having been 'lost', although James Buchan informs us that it has in fact enjoyed a certain continuing life in Germany with television and film adaptations. It has however only now been translated into English.

By the time of the meeting I had managed to read only fifty or so pages, and some time has passed since, so my memory of the discussion is sketchy, but I'll do my best.

Written in twenty-six days or so by a man weakened and dying after a tortured and dissolute life (Hans Fallada was the pen-name Rudolf Ditzen's father persuaded him to adopt after his first, youthful involvement in scandal), the book is a miraculously exuberant 600-pager, if somewhat baggy and at times florid. The discussion, however, did not initially touch on the novelistic qualities of the book, as people were so taken with the story itself, and the revelations in the book about society under the Nazi regime. Fallada was uniquely qualified to portray this last, having taken the decision, unusual for a writer, to stay in the country for the duration of the war, and, it seems, at times bowing as a writer to Nazi pressures. What emerges is a vivid and horrifying depiction of economic hardship and squalor bringing out the worst and most bestial in citizens, and a culture of fear permeating from the lowest members of society to the highest-ranking Nazis themselves, with people daily shopping each other to save their own skins, and, contrary to what we are often told, a general paralysing awareness of the concentration camps and the murders that took place there. There is no doubt for the resisting couple, Otto and Anna Quangel, that they will be executed if they are uncovered, and their act is all the more remarkable for the fact that before the event that triggers their action, the death of their soldier son, they are entirely unpoliticised - as John said, it seems a deliberate authorial choice that they are the most ordinary of couples. Neither is there any guarantee that their action will have the desired effect - and indeed it leads to trouble for others and at least one death - but it is the shining focus of a good moral choice in a situation where good moral choices have become practically impossible.

John had found the book very important and Trevor had really liked it. Ann found it of great historical interest. I asked them what they thought of it as a novel and they all instantly said, Not much. Mainly they found the prose pretty primitive and thought there were too many characters - although I have to say that when I came to read the whole thing I didn't agree about the latter: in terms of plot, as the book progresses everything including the characters is pulled together. There is constant seemingly uncontrolled slippage of tenses, and some repetition, but apparently much of the book is written in dialect German, and I did relish Michael Hofmann's rough-and-ready idiomatic translation. Doug said that he thought the book was atrociously written and he just hadn't liked it at all, but had thought it worth reading for the political content. They all agreed that the characters weren't at all well developed - though I have to say I subsequently found the insight into the psychology of the Gestapo detective Escherich, for instance, quite sophisticated. However, it's true that often the prose and especially the dialogue, most notably that between the Quangels, is stilted and naive. On the whole I'd say that the book suffers from unevenness - which is perhaps unsurprising, given the speed with which it was written and the fact that Fallada died before publication - and I'd agree that despite its aesthetic faults, for political reasons it's a must-read.


August 2011
In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje

Once again I have left it so long to write up a report that my memory of the discussion is unlikely to be comprehensive, but here goes.

Jenny chose this book because, she said beforehand, her daughter is teaching it in Toronto. At the meeting she said that what attracted her to it also, and the reason she liked it when she came to read it, is that it is indeed set in Toronto, which she knows very well, and she always likes books set in named places she knows, with street names and landscape she can identify. This is interesting to me as a writer, since however closely my settings are based on real-life ones, I often don't name them in an attempt to universalize: I have the sense that if readers aren't familiar with the real-life places, pinning them down with names can create an effect of alienation, a jarring injection of reality which can potentially destroy the spell of story.

Jenny then went on to describe Toronto to us, its great canyon dividing the city and its various immigrant communties - the book very much concerns an immigrant community - and a discussion started up, mainly between Jenny and Trevor, about how quickly immigrant societies become assimilated in various cities, and whether or not the geography of Toronto has slowed the process down.

Feeling vindicated in my view, I said, But what about the book? A concern with facts was leading us right away from it, a book with indeed an atmosphere closer to myth or dream than the factual accounts of history or geography.

Jenny said she thought it was a book about identity, which seemed to me an astute assessment. Set in the 1920s around the building of the Bloor Street Viaduct which will bridge the city, it is essentially the story of Patrick, who, like the moths he watched flinging themselves against the lighted windows in his isolated country childhood, comes to Toronto 'searching', for a home, or an identity, or maybe a narrative of his own, but drawn with the logic and coincidence of dream into the stories of others, and in particular the immigrant Macedonian community. As Trevor said, the blurb on his edition bills the book as a love story, but it's not really, or rather it's more complicated than that. As in dreams, and as in Ondaatje's better-known sequel The English Patient, love stories become displaced from the centre, are left hanging or morph: a nun falls from the bridge and is caught by the worker Nicholas, an incident that hangs over the rest of the story like an iconic miracle, bonding the two souls together, yet later we will learn that Nicholas has married another. Indeed, as in dreams, characters central to the The English Patient appear on the edges here, waiting in the wings with the centrality of their own narratives. The language too is dream-like, and there are constant references to dreams - The bridge goes up in a dream - and, as in The English Patient there is the ache of loss and longing that characterises the most affecting dreams. Right from the start we are clear that the whole thing is couched in the dream of narrative:

This is a story a young girl gathers -
note that word 'gathers': like daydreams? - in a car in the early hours of the morning... She listens and asks questions as the vehicle travels through darkness. The man who is driving could say, 'In that field is a castle', and it would be possible for her to believe him. (My bolds.)

Trevor said with a big grin that this was the most romantic book he had ever read, with all its coincidences and miracles, in fact quite frankly it was a load of bollocks, but that wasn't a criticism, he had really loved it. Doug, and especially Ann said they had found it frustrating with its shifts of focus and unbelievable coincidences. Some people didn't even agree with me that what they thought of as two characters were the same woman (I won't plot-spoil here), the coincidence would be too forced.

All of this seemed to me too literal a reading of a book not intended to be so read, but I did have to agree that while for me The English Patient succeeds by drawing me into its dream, I too often had the sense here of being on the outside observing the author's dream, a problem compounded by the fact that the characters are constantly having their own affecting dreams.

John told Jenny that he had been absolutely sure that she would hate this book with its psychological dimension and poetic prose, since what she likes best is a good clear story. Jenny grinned and agreed that that last is true, but she still really liked this book.


September 2011
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

Trevor suggested this book on which the Stanley Kubrick film of the same name was based, a film Kubrick famously withdrew after accusations that it had provoked copycat acts of violence.

Published in 1962 and set in a projected time when the cult of youth has turned the world into a place where gangs of teenagers rule the streets with drugs and violence and theft, and adults cower away from them behind closed doors, the novel is narrated in a hermetic teen-speak by ultra-violent fifteen-year-old Alex. Alex considers himself the leader of his gang or 'droogs' but is ultimately betrayed by them and ends up plucked from prison to be the guinea-pig in a government-run aversion therapy scheme to turn criminals against violence.

Trevor was unfortunately unable to make the meeting, and was surprised to hear afterwards that the book had not in fact stimulated a particularly heated discussion. As far as I remember, Doug opened things by commenting that he had found the book far superior to the film. Firstly, there was the interest of the teen vocabulary, based largely on Russian and rhyming slag, which caught so well the exclusivity of the teenage cult. The first-person narrative voice makes you complicit with it, and thus with Alex's psychology, in a way the film doesn't. Clare said she had found the vocabulary quite hard to follow, though, but others disagreed, saying that Burgess cleverly provides context for the words so that their meanings are soon clear. Clare clearly hadn't been that engaged, however, as she now said that she thought Alex was a pretty horrid character and she simply didn't like reading the book as a result. Jenny didn't agree with her: she said that she thought he was amoral rather than immoral. He wasn't evil, he was just having a laugh in the way teenagers do, with no thought for the consequences for others. I think the rest of us needed to think about this, as the point was left hanging. Jenny went on to say that she wondered why Burgess had made Alex love classical music rather than the popular music espoused by all the other teenagers. Ann and I said that the point Burgess was making was that art doesn't civilize. Alex himself makes the point: 'I had to have a smeck, though, thinking of what I'd viddied once in one of these like articles on Modern Youth about how ... Great Music ... and Great Poetry would ... make Modern Youth more civilized. Civilized my syphilised yarbles.' In fact, classical music induces particularly violent fantasies in him. Jenny said, But what was the significance of the fact that it was played during the aversion therapy so that Alex then began to feel ill not only at the sight and thought of violence but the sound of his previously beloved music? This was another point that people needed to ponder and was left hanging. What's clear, however, is that the doctors' choice of music is arbitrary, and they are surprised and interested to learn that Alex loves classical music and is distressed to have been made physically averse to it. Later, however, and in consequence, the aversion will be employed by another faction deliberately and cruelly to use Alex, so that classical music, already disconnected from morality, becomes even an instrument of torture.

People noted that the main point of the novel, expressed by the prison chaplain, is that there is no point in making people behave morally simply through fear (or aversion): no one is truly moral unless they are so by choice; without moral choice Alex is simply a 'clockwork orange'. Inevitably, as the circumstances change, Alex regains his enjoyment in both classical music and violence. People said that they found very interesting the way that most of the victims in the book became vengeful and some of them formed a faction that was just as manipulative and callous as the government that had imposed the aversion therapy. It's a very cynical book, with a very cynical view of human nature, they all agreed, and this seemed generally to be considered a drawback of the book.

I said but what about the final chapter, which was left out of both the American edition and the film, in which Alex does start to grow up and finally lose his taste for violence - although I did think it was a bit too pat, and was inclined to agree with the choice of Kubrick and the American publisher. Everyone immediately said that it was more more than a bit pat! Where did that come from: suddenly, out of the blue, Alex starts feeling different, and it's just because he's growing up? Such authorial cynicism up till that moment and then suddenly so sentimental! I said that there is that bit where Alex says he knows however that his own son will behave as he did, and his sons after him: that's pretty hopeless and cynical. However, I did think it was rather pasted in, and I couldn't help sensing a kind of authorial struggle here. I felt that the logic of the story had led Burgess to a place he wasn't comfortable with: he had painted himself into a cynical corner and the more upbeat ending was his attempt to pick his way out.

Finally, Doug said once again that he had found the book profoundly better than the film. The film had inevitably depicted the violence objectively and graphically and made one a voyeur, but the book, mediating everything through the narrative voice and Alex's psyche, was extremely thought-provoking, and he was really glad he had read it.


October 2011
The Spare Room by Helen Garner

Ann chose this book as she had watched a TV Review Show in which it received unusually unanimous praise. It is related in the first-person narrative voice of a character who shares the author's name - 'Hel' - and charts the period during which she has a friend to stay, she expects for just three weeks - Nicola, who is suffering from cancer and visiting a nearby alternative cancer clinic. As soon as Nicola arrives it is clear that she is a dying woman, and Hel ends up caring intensively for her and having to deal psychologically with Nicola's denial of the truth and of the quackery of the clinic, and with the prospect of having Nicola to stay indefinitely and possibly to die.

So, Ann said, what did she think of it? The main thing she found in this book, she said, was a huge and searing anger, and there was a general nodding of agreement. She said she had found it very easy to read, and there was agreement here too: people put in that the prose had great energy which gave it, John noted, an amazingly light touch for such dark subject matter. Ann said, however, that she felt that the book was somehow too easy to read for the subject matter. I commented that I suspected that that was why it had had such generally good reviews: people tend not to want to confront painful issues, and a book that is easy to read keeps a certain distance from the pain, while leaving readers able to congratulate themselves that they have in fact confronted it. Ann said to agreement that the book was very vivid and that it had a very strong ring of autobiography. However, she had to say that she hadn't liked either of the two characters, Hel with her anger or Nicola with her imperiousness and denials and demands.

Now there was disagreement. Doug strongly disagreed about Nicola. She was a wonderful character, he thought: so characterful and strong in the face of her predicament, and wouldn't you, if you were suffering from a terminal illness, be tempted to deny it? Jo pointed out that when people are dying they are necessarily demanding. Trevor talked about his own denial when his mother was dying. I talked about my own experience of the stress of keeping up the fantasy for a dying person when they are in denial about it, and the focus of the discussion turned to Hel. People noted that the particular thing about Hel was that, eventually at any rate, she refuses to keep up the fantasy and works to force Nicola to face the reality. I think this was felt by some to be what was unlikeable about her: her anger, and her consequent insistence on the truth, seemed to be as much on behalf of herself - tricked into looking after Nicola, already worn out and with the prospect of the situation going on indefinitely - as on behalf of Nicola. I said, but doesn't this make the book a telling comment on a society where this kind of caring is left up to individuals (usually women) and it was agreed that that was so.

Up to this moment Jenny had said nothing and Clare asked her what she thought. She said she hadn't liked the book at all: she didn't like Hel's attitude as it came over in the narrative voice.

I said I felt that the problem was that there's a whiff of martyrdom, which I had particularly noticed in a passage near the beginning. Hel's daughter Eva lives next door and at the point that Nicola comes to stay Eva's whole family come down with bad colds so that they must stay away from Nicola with her depressed immune system, and therefore of course from Hel. After cancelling her work for the day, taking Nicola to the clinic and returning and laundering Nicola's drenched bed linen, Hel sees the suffering Eva in the garden with her ill child lying listlessly over her shoulder:
I drove, I bought, I paid [It's that not being able to resist telling us that she paid]. I delivered to Eva's doorstep cardboard cartons overflowing [overflowing!] with organic foodstuffs [organic!]. She wouldn't even open the screen door till I had closed their front gate behind me.
It is true that Garner ends the section with self-irony: How competent I was! I would get a reputation for competence. In retrospect one can thus read the whole section as self-ironic, but in the first instance the paragraph doesn't strike like that, and I don't find the irony sustained. Everyone now agreed, especially Doug who thought strongly that there was indeed a whiff of martyrdom about the whole book. People had commented that it was odd that Eva doesn't once appear to help out although she lives next door. John said he felt that giving Eva and her family a cold so that she had to stay away and thus intensify Hel's aloneness with the situation seemed like a narrative device, which contributed to the air of narratorial /authorial martyrdom - especially as Eva still doesn't appear even when she and her family are free of the cold, which people in the group thought very strange indeed.

Jenny noted that on the whole, though, we kept talking about the characters rather than the book. I said I thought it was because there was no distinction between a narrative and an authorial voice, which in turn was an aspect of the probably autobiographical nature of the book. The narrative voice (to which Jenny objected) was both the voice of the character and the voice of the author. (There was now a brief objection to assumptions of autobiography until Clare, who had the hardback edition, read out a section of blurb which implied that the book was indeed based on the author's experience.) Someone said that it wasn't possible to make that distance in a first-person narrative, but someone else pointed out that you could do it with satire (a discussion I am sure we've had before!) and someone else said that if it were done with satire, though, that would take away the anger. I didn't say this at the time, but I'm not sure I agree with that last: satire is a very elegant way of communicating distilled anger. In fact in this book there are some fine moments of ironic commentary, but on the whole I feel the anger is raw, undistilled, and there was comment that perhaps the book was written too closely in time to the author's experience.

Jenny then did make a point of talking about the book as opposed to the characters. She said that it runs along the surface of the experience and doesn't really confront it. She compared it with Simone de Beauvoir's account of her mother's dying which really takes you into the heart of the pain of the experience. Clare said that when she has worked all day with people undergoing similar experiences (as she does), she doesn't want to go through it all again via a book, and she is very grateful to have a reading experience which gives her some distance from it all. Ironically, the conversation slid immediately back towards the characters: someone said, Hel did love Nicola, though, didn't she? but others said, But did she? Someone answered, Well, why else would she end up doing that for Nicola? Someone else said it was odd that she did: after all, others of Nicola's friends have known her for a lot longer than Hel. Someone else pointed out that Nicola only comes to stay because Hel lives near the clinic: she's simply using her. Jenny said, This is the point: we just can't tell. Hel tells us she loves Nicola, but that's all. This was what Jenny meant by the book skipping over the surface: we are told things but they are never really proved in a way that convinces. Every so often there's a hint of something in the past that brought these two women to be in this situation together but they are never developed: we never find out. For this reason, Jenny felt there was a dishonesty at the heart of the book.

I said I thought the book was a commentary on the way that ex-hippy types like Hel and Nicola rejected in youth the notion of traditional family, and turned instead to friendship groups, but that the latter don't sustain you into the frailties of old age.

John said he found the symbolism at the start of the book (but soon abandoned) heavy-handed - the mirror that crashes and breaks in the spare room the night before Nicola arrives, the gourd which when cut into turns out to be empty, the overripe banana left lying around and which Nicola eventually eats - but others said they hadn't even noticed that these things were symbolic.

I said I liked the way that the end of the book leaps forward via hindsight to Nicola's care by others and death (I think that, formally, this highlights beautifully the intensity of the three weeks she is at Hel's house and the relief when she is gone), but everyone else hated that, and the way that structurally (and consequently emotionally) it dismissed Nicola, contributing to their suspicions of self-centredness in the narrative.

All in all, I'd say, at the end of the discussion people were more negative about the book than when we began


November 2011
Homer and Langley by E L Doctorow

This book, Clare's suggestion, is the story of two brothers, Homer and Langley Collyer, sons of a bourgeois doctor - one of whom, Homer, is blind; the other, Langley, suffering shell shock - and who, after their parents' death in 1918, hole themselves up in their upper Fifth Avenue brownstone, stuffing it with junk that Langley compulsively amasses, while the greater part of the twentienth century washes up against their doors.

It is based on the case of a real-life pair of brothers of the same names, who were found dead amongst their piles of collected detritus in 1947, Langley having barricaded them in and falling into one of the many traps he set for intruders. Doctorow takes some fictive liberties with their story, including that of reversing their ages and extending the brothers' lives into the late 1970s or early 1980s.

Unfortunately Clare was unwell and didn't attend, so Mark introduced the book in her place. He said he was an admirer of Doctorow: he really liked his way of taking individuals and placing them within the great events of the twentieth century. However, compared to Ragtime, where Doctorow does this brilliantly, this book, Mark felt, was not so successful. Several people agreed that the characters somehow weren't truly related to the events of the twentieth century, although most of those events touched their life in one way or another. The trouble was, they were only touched by them, since the point was that they were largely shut away from them. Yet at the same time most people felt that the characters themselves didn't really come alive - though Jo was astonished: she thought they were wonderfully rich characters, touchingly portrayed.

I said I agreed that they were touchingly portrayed: blind Homer, who narrates the story with nicely wry economy, has a touching affection for the increasingly mad brother who - in turn touchingly - cares for him, with his all-too sane insights into American society. Mark particularly liked Homer's account of Langley's assessment of the moon landings:
Can you imagine the crassness of it, hitting golf balls on the moon? he said. And that other one, reading the Bible to the universe as he circled around out there? The entire class of blasphemies is in those two acts, he said. The one stupidly irreverent, the other stupidly presumptuous.
However, like the others, I still found that there was something about the brothers that didn't really engage me on the deepest level.

We tried to work out why that was. Ann wondered if the lack of a sense of real connection between the brothers on the one hand and the events of the twentieth century on the other was something to do with the fact that this was a real-life story, that this last fact had somehow hobbled the author. Mark said he thought that the fact that the characters were such eccentrics rather than Everymen contributed to the sense of things not gelling - they just weren't representative so couldn't take the weight of it all (though once again Jo cried out in disagreement). But now some people began to point out that the brothers were more touched by the events in the outside world than we had been saying: what about the fact that they hold tea dances during Prohibition and get raided; what about the fact that their house is used as a refuge by gangsters on the run from the police? What about the fact that hippies come to live with them for a while? John pointed out that surely the brothers were representative, exaggerated examples of certain twentieth-century and American political traits, compulsive acquisition and isolationism - with which Doug readily agreed. It's all rooted in Langley's shell-shock after the First World War, John said: he's representative of the damage inflicted by wars; and the barricading and hoarding starts after the tea dances, when the police invade their home, ie the state invades the private domain (there's an argument in court as to whether they were holding public meetings or private parties), and they react by creating an exaggerated separation of their private world and the public one.

Still, we felt dissatisfied, but failed to come to any real conclusion as to why. Trevor reminded us about Langley's scheme to create a single-edition generic newspaper that would be useful for all time, based on his Theory of Replacement (everything, including news items, becomes replicated in the end simply in a new form) and for which he collects the stacks of newspapers which will jam the house and eventually topple over and kill him. Trevor thought this was great, and in theory it seems like a central metaphor in the book, but it was interesting that we had failed to mention it, and we couldn't at that moment see the artistic point of it. Finally, Jenny more or less ended the discussion by saying that she had found the book extremely upsetting, as it had made her think about what can happen to you in old age.

In retrospect it seems to me that the problem is that, while the brothers do come into collision with the outside world, they are essentially unchanged by those collisions: their fate is determined right from the moment when Langley begins the hoarding, and nothing that happens to them changes that trajectory (or lack of it) - which to some extent is determined, as Ann hinted, by the real-life story. They fulfil the static conditions of Langley's Theory of Replacement. Although I have been known in the past to rail against the tyranny of the conventional 'narrative arc', I find the lack of one detrimental here. While the twentieth-century follows its narrative arc (although Langley would deny that it does), the brothers themselves are simply static points at its centre, or rather edge, with no narrative arc of their own beyond a slow disintegration, and in spite of the wit and the lightness of the prose, there is a hermetic, stifled feel to the novel and ultimtely a lack of tension (though I'm sure that Jo would disagree).


January 2012
The Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster

Warning: plot spoiler. In order to report our discussion, I've had to reveal the ending of this book.

Doug suggested this book, a departure from Paul Auster's usual more high-wire postmodern storytelling mode. It concerns narrator Nathan Glass who, after a divorce and in remission from lung cancer, returns to his birthplace Brooklyn, he says 'to die', and his nephew Tom whom he unexpectedly finds there working in a second-hand bookshop, dropped out from a brilliantly promising academic career and also in retreat from life. However, the two soon find themselves embroiled together in the lives of colourful others - among them the eccentric bookshop owner Harry Brightman with his dubious past, and the nine-year-old daughter of Tom's lost sister, who turns up on his doorstep out of the blue, strangely mute. Before they know it, Nathan and Tom are engaged on quests to save others from various fates, and en route to their own personal redemption.

Doug said he really liked the wry, urbane narrative voice of Nathan who, while purporting to be curmudgeonly, is in fact touchingly humane and generous. He did, however, feel that the second half of the book was less satisfying with its plot twists, or rather its sudden changes of plot - one story thread being dropped for another - and that here it rather fell apart. Trevor and Ann agreed with him on this latter point, and Trevor said he thought the ending fizzled out.

I said, But don't all the threads come together in the end? and they agreed they did, but still seemed unsatisfied by the way they diverged along the way. I said that Auster was making the point that all stories are contingent to other stories and each story (and each life) is as important as another - this structure, postmodern after all in spite of the seeming greater conventionality, was the author's conscious way of making this point, rather than a failure in storytelling. As for the ending: Nathan relates that, with people saved and all the threads apparently tied up, and newly happy himself in a relationship, he puts his new partner on the subway on her way to work 'only forty-six minutes before the first plane crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Centre.' Surely that clinches the point, and also makes a point about the precariousness of happiness, and the fact that you therefore have to grab it while you can.

They seemed to feel they couldn't argue with this, but they were still unsatisfied by the book. John suggested that maybe Auster had been commissioned to write a 9/11 book, as most prominent American writers probably had, and that that explained what he suggested was a tacked-on 9/11 ending. Others however now said that the ending had in fact been signalled, mainly with references to dates and the political background of the time, 'the right-wing takeover of America' and the election of Bush. I said I thought the book was a conscious and deliberate reminder of the innocence and optimism of the pre-9/11 world and its contrast with our fearful and suspicious post-9/11 world, and above all a reminder of what we had lost in terms of our humanity and generosity towards others. Ann said that what made the book a 9/11 book was indeed the fact that it was about tolerance, the tolerance that characterises Nathan and Tom with their acceptance of everyone and their foibles, and the melting-pot setting of Brooklyn.

Clare and I agreed at this juncture that this sense of generosity and acceptance was the thing we really liked about the book, and new member Chris felt the same. But Trevor now said he didn't buy it. There was an inconsistency, he said: right at the start Nathan admits to being a curmudgeonly old sod, and it simply doesn't fit with the way he turns out to be so generous and humane. I said that that was one of the book's jokes - right at the start Nathan is being an unreliable narrator, indeed he is making fun of himself, and the humour of the book was another thing I really liked about it. Chris had already commented appreciatively on the verbal humour - he particularly liked Harry's instruction 'Keep your nose job out' - and Doug nodded in agreement. However, Trevor was unconvinced, and Jenny now said that though she had liked the book she hadn't found it funny.

Mark, who had been quiet so far, now spoke up. He said that he hadn't appreciated the humour, either. He found a joke of Tom's - Tom calls greasy cheeseburgers 'cheesy greaseburgers', if I recall correctly - simply puerile, rather than, as I do, amusing and heart-lifting evidence of Tom's ability to move from gloomy academically-couched existential angst to simple life-affirming humour. In fact, Mark, said, he hadn't liked the book at all. He said he had to admit that this was largely because as an admirer of Auster's previous style, he was disappointed by the change, but also he thought it sentimental. He didn't, as most of us did, find the book touching. He didn't think the nine-year-old niece's mutism credible - though he also announced that he hadn't found the book worth finishing, so he would have missed the explanation provided at the end. He said he strongly agreed with John's suggestion that this book had been written cynically to commission as a 9/11 book and had failed.

At this things got heated, with everyone talking over everyone else, and Doug and I found it quite hilarious that Mark, a fatherly primary school teacher with young children of his own, was sitting there being such a curmudgeon, and in effect doing a pretty good impression of Nathan.

This whole discussion was altogether far more unruly than my account has rendered it, and when at the end someone asked new member Chris what he had thought of the group, he said, in a phrase Tom and Nathan would have appreciated: 'It's like a honky-tonk lagoon!'


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