Sunday, 22 June 2008

Reviewing – the truth

It's an odd task – reviewing. Someone spends a lot of time and energy on their novel, film or CD and then along comes some smart Alec reviewer with their word processor loaded with attitude (often the same attitude every week, sadly) and sums it all up in witty, pithy, easy little chunks of prose. A reviewer can cut a life's work down to size in 250 words if they feel so inclined. On the other hand, if they want to they can make something a 'must-have', a 'must-buy' – they can turn a person's life around. It's a lot of clout... more in a national paper than in a blog, perhaps... but clout all the same.

I wrote reviews as a job once upon a time (books, music, most things apart from visual art). It wasn't a very well-paid job (small 'radical' magazines mainly) but I did get a lot of free stuff and a lot of good guest list access. It doesn't take long before you get culture overload when you're reviewing though. You have to read and listen to everything so quickly to get it reviewed for your deadline that you can't really give much of it the attention it deserves. You end up with piles of CDs to rush through or heaps of books for Oxfam... plus a huge guilty complex about having all this free stuff and not really appreciating it! I ended up hating reviewing – particularly music – it took all the joy out of listening and I know I wrote some interesting but also some very silly reviews. You get a bit crazy with it after a while. Well, I did... no surprise there.

So it is with some trepidation that I approach anything like a review of Jim Murdoch's novel Living with the Truth... especially as he wrote such a fantastic piece about my book of poems last week. He made lovely comparisons and joined up his thinking and was clear and precise (Jim never rambles!). He didn't make predictable swooping judgements or try and make himself look good at my expense (the reviewer's nastiest trick). So why oh why, I want to know, is he not Professor of Something at University of Somewhere or some equally grandiose personage? He might say that's just not the way his life went and tell me to get on with the review. It is something I think about though... how some people end up doing jobs they're really unfit for whilst other, much more able individuals, do not. One of the first comments I put on Jim's blog was that he 'gives good lecture' and he really does, you know. I had professors at Clever Uni inc. who were nothing like as impressive or good at organising their thoughts. We will just have to crown him Professor James Murdoch of the University of Life and Blogging. And why shouldn't we? University, my arse, as the good Lord Jim Royle might have said.

See how I'm putting off the reviewing... I've been doing it all week. So where can I start, I wonder? OK, the novel is about a lonely guy who gets a visit from the Truth (personified) to help him take a better look at life. There's more than a hint of grown-up fairy tale for me (which I liked)... with Truth as a kind of macho Fairy Godmother come to sort everything out. Beyond that... well, here's a few things that I think are relevant and that I hope are true:

1.Jim Murdoch is a clever bloke. He spends too much time at the computer, I suspect, but who, reading this, does not? He's well-read and well-thought and he has put a lot of this reading and thinking into Living with the Truth. It is a very dense book... lots of information and ideas packed into every page. It gives the reader a lot to consider... a bit like a three year philosophy degree in 181 pages... and it is the kind of book you could read a few times and you would get something different out of it every time. I'm reading it for the second time just now and making lots of connections I missed before. It's not a book to read quickly really. It's more about thinking than the narrative... I think.

2.Jim Murdoch is a funny bloke (as in funny ha-ha). Anyone who reads his blog regularly knows that. There are times in Living with the Truth where the desire to be funny gets, for my taste, a little too much control over the novel and the story – there are lines I would have cut if I'd been editing – but you might not agree. Humour is a very personal matter.

3.Jim Murdoch will want people to concentrate on the novel and not him, the author, so this way of 'reviewing' the book will probably annoy him a bit. Sorry about that, Jim.

4.Jim Murdoch is not much older than me (according to his blog...) but he writes like someone from another era. He uses really unusual words (both in the novel and in his blogs and comments). He wrote to me the other day about someone getting someone's 'dander up' and I don't think I've ever heard that phrase outside of something like 'Jeeves & Wooster' or 'Just William' (neither of which are very Glaswegian... are they?). It's really refreshing, I'd have to say, in this age of 'lol' and 'btw' to read a novel that is so completely uncool... so not at all to do with anything like a zeitgeist. Is it the Beckett, Jim? Is that were you get it all from? Are you really here or just a visiting spirit from a time gone by?

5.Jim Murdoch, you must know by now, is a huge fan of Samuel Beckett. You can feel it in the novel too. I did at times wonder if Living with the Truth wasn't in fact a play (or indeed a TV play or film) masquerading as a novel. As I read I found myself wondering who would play Jonathan (Anthony Hopkins?) and who Truth (please, no, not Jude effing Law!). It would make a good TV drama I think – if TV companies made dramas about things like Truth. Although there was that thing about Christopher Eccleston being the Messiah... it wouldn't be a million miles away from that... in fact Eccleston would make a great Truth... don't you think Jim?

6.Jim Murdoch is not Samuel Beckett. In my eyes this is a good thing – I think he could reach more people or readers than Beckett probably. Personally I have tried to 'get' Beckett a couple of times but it's just so whingey and... overwrought. I find it really empty too. I think Jim has more humour, more of an interest in other people... and it comes out in the novel. There is the bleakness and sadness and alienation of Beckett & Co (but I'm no expert... feel free to defend SB if necessary) but the novel also has warmth and humanity and a touch of sweetness to it too. I think Jim (like another of his favourites and one we both like, the poet Philip Larkin) has it in him to move to a higher level of communication with the reading public than the likes of Beckett (the latter, in my experience, appeals largely to gloomy men who wear a lot of black and could get out more). I'm not sure Living with the Truth quite gets to that elusive higher level... but the signs are there that Jim could do it... I'm pretty sure about that.

7.Jim Murdoch thinks a lot about the man/woman question. This is good... and at least he thinks about it rather than thinking he knows it all already! There is a lot of honesty in this novel about men's views on women and honesty is always a good start. There are some areas that might cause confusion though... for example, I presume that Truth (and indeed 'God') are male in the novel because that is how they seem or appear to Jonathan, the character, but Jim never quite spells that out. It did bug me a little (everyone KNOWS truth is female... as is the future, if you recall) but I gave him the benefit of the doubt and kept on reading. If I hadn't known him via blogs I might not have done and overall I would be interested to know how other female readers react to the novel and some of the issues in it.

8.Jim Murdoch won't slot easily into a genre. This is a good thing of course but it doesn't necessarily help you sell a book in its early days. Maybe it's one reason we get on (a bit…) as I'm neither performance nor literary, neither light nor heavy-going, neither bright young thing nor washed-up old crone. In the same way Jim is not going to fit into young lad lit or posh London lit or academic-writes-a-book-so-all-colleagues-review-it lit or son-of-someone-famous lit... Also his subject is certainly not anything like fashionable... neither is the novel sci-fi or crime or set in any easily recognisable place that will guarantee it a readership of interested parties. I looked back at my list of novels that I have read in past few years (sorry, I do love lists...) and the only book I could possibly see it sitting next to in the non-genre was 'Fight Club' by Chuck Palahniuk and then I'm not even quite sure why. Living with the Truth isn't really much like 'Fight Club' at all (maybe 'Fight Club' crossed with an Alan Bennett play... would that be too weird?) but they are both unusual, both quite male (but not in a crap way), both about feelings and society and how men, in particular, struggle to cope with feelings and survive in our bizarre societies. And 'Fight Club' did pretty well, after all. A cult novel and then a Hollywood movie (and a very good one – I love that film!). In fact thinking about it Edward Norton could play Jonathan or Truth... not sure Brad Pitt's going to get a look in though. Sorry Brad.

And on that rather unusual note... I come to the end of this ramble. I had hoped to get to ten bullet points in a kind of Ten Commandments stylee... but it is not to be. So do I get marks for honesty?

You can buy Jim's very unusual and thought-provoking book here.


Dave King said...

An excellent post. Well deserved and brilliantly written.

Rachel Fox said...

Excellent has always been one of my favourite words!

Ken Armstrong said...

Excellent... excellent. :)

Jena Isle said...

It's good to know that - (May I quote you:)

"the novel also has warmth and humanity and a touch of sweetness to it too."

This is, what I consider, the vital formula why his novel will soon prove to be a success.

Thanks for sharing.

Rachel Fox said...

I think all writers (if they're honest...) like to be quoted long as the quote isn't taken out of context of course...

I think my ellipsis problem is getting out of hand, people. I don't use them in I may have to communicate only through poetry as of now...can you imagine! Life as art-house movie!

Jim Murdoch said...

I like to be quoted. I have no problems admitting that. What I think is sad is when a great author's work gets reduced to a handful of quotes. I love quotation books and I often preface my blog with one as you know. What got me recently was a review I read of my novel where there was a quote and I couldn't remember writing the thing and it took me a second or two to actually realise it was me she was quoting. That was a nice feeling.

And I agree your ellipsisitis is definitely getting out of hand. I believe you can pills for that now. I'm told they're excellent.