As is customary in January, I’ve found it hard to settle into a book for any significant amount of time, flitting from one piece of literature to another on whims, leaving a good few in progress even though I was enjoying them. Give it another month and maybe I’ll have found my focus.
I started the year finishing off Moneyball, Michael Lewis’s fantastic book about Billy Beane, the general manager who revolutionised baseball by focusing on approaches to talent spotting and team selection than no-one else put any stock in. His methods helped transform the Oakland Athletics from an unsuccessful outfit to regular playoff contenders; interestingly enough, the success of his methods – not to mention of Moneyball – led to other individuals adopting them wholesale, and in recent years Beane’s team has struggled.
The story that unfolds is far from a conventional sports narrative, however, and the way Lewis tells it is somewhat out of the ordinary too. Rather than following a linear path, Lewis jumps back and forth, sometimes without warning, and allows himself any number of diversions and meandering interludes, all the while crediting the reader with enough intelligence to keep up. Some of the most illuminating passages involve Beane’s new guard clashing against baseball’s old guard, be it coaching staff, scouts, or sportswriters, all of whom are strongly resistant to the new ideas of the upstarts. Prior knowledge of baseball is not necessary to enjoy Lewis’s account.
I also picked up Everything’s Fine, the promising debut from Manchester’s own Socrates Adams. Literature that is actually laugh-out-loud funny is a rare thing indeed, yet Adams delivers in spades on the humour front. Which is a good job, really, because the focus of the story – a man named Ian’s workplace-based woes and general failure to function as proper adults are expected to - does not allow for much light to filter in, his dream of a holiday to the French alps notwithstanding.
Adams seems to have found his particular milieu, marrying mundane slice of life material with surrealism and the odd shock tactic, as well as social commentary that may or may not be earnest. It’s an effective blend, and certainly a unique one – it seems safe to say I’ll read nothing quite like Everything’s Fine again this year. The simple conceit does become ever-so-slightly stretched at points, tasked with carrying an entire novel (well, novella might be more accurate), but that doesn’t detract too much. Given its subject matter, it’s likely that a good few of you will readily be able to relate to the trials and tribulations of Ian. If nothing else, it’s worth reading because it’s likely to be the only time you experience a narrative in which a length of pipe is the most sympathetic character.
I rounded off the month with Stephen King’s Misery, the tale of Paul Sheldon, a writer famous for a series of bestsellers starring Misery Chastain. When Paul suffers a car crash, he’s rescued from the wreckage by Annie Wilkes, who just so happens to be Misery’s biggest fan. Problem is, Paul killed her in his last novel, and Annie’s grasp on sanity is tenuous at best…
Misery is a gripping, ambitious tale, one that King uses to explore what it means to be an artist, how possessive and demanding fans can become, and whether or not releasing a work of art commercially means it belongs to the public as much as the person who created it. In one glorious passage, Sheldon ponders to himself:
“It was crazy. It was funny. It was also real. Millions might scoff, but only because they failed to realize how pervasive the influence of art – even of such a degenerate sort as popular fiction – could become. Housewives arranged their schedules around the afternoon soaps. If they went back into the workplace, they made buying a VCR a top priority so they could watch those same soap operas at night. When Arthur Conan Doyle killed Sherlock Holmes at Reichenbach Falls, all of Victorian England rose as one and demanded him back. The tone of their protests had been Annie’s exactly – not bereavement but outrage. Doyle was berated by his own mother when he wrote and told her of his intention to do away with Holmes. Her indignant reply had come by return mail: ‘Kill that nice Mr Holmes? Foolishness! Don’t you dare!‘”
The passage continues, and is a wonderful, profound ode to the all-consuming effect art can have on us, how passionate a person can become over a fictional character, and why we’re willing to invest so much of ourselves into worlds that do not exist. As it turns out, it’s only easy to dismiss King as populist fare if you’ve never read one of his better novels. I’ll certainly be seeking out more.
Currently reading: The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins, Jacobs Beach by Kevin Mitchell, Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to its Own Past by Simon Reynolds, and Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.
Next on the agenda: Finishing all of the above and reading The Melancholy of Resistance by Laszlo Krasznahorkai for February’s book club.
How goes the novel?: After a strong first week, things ground to a halt. It’s currently ‘on the shelf’ as I ‘concentrate on other projects.’