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Notes riffing on a few novels I read in November

The library in town’s doing this thing of trying to get adults to read more. They’ve done versions of them for kids for a while now. This time the grown-up program is a calendar for the month - read half an hour a day for the month, or that amount in total minutes, or if you like you can count minutes. If you get to 900 minutes or pages at the end of the month you get entered into a drawing for a free pizza, and who doesn’t like pizza? I taped the little paper on the wall and have been slowly X-ing in the days. I would go a few days hitting my daily thirty then a few days of nothing. I read some for work, but that doesn’t count since the point is reading for enjoyment. I liked the activity, liked the reminder to actually spend time on things I want to spend time on. There’s a small barrier to entry but a real one, that first little step, a lip you can catch your toes on if you’re not careful and I am rarely careful, too busy being busy, tired, angry, self-pitying. Once over the barrier though it goes well, the old reading, for about 15 minutes. Then my attention flags. Sometimes I’ve set a timer, and when I poke my head up in the sagging middle stretch I see that it’s not THAT much time left and I clear the small lip again and then I’m off and once again the reading stops feeling like work. I read four or five novels this month in that time, though maybe it was two and the second half of three others which I’d started earlier and abandoned in limbo, I’m not sure.

I thought I’d write up some thoughts on some of these books, just for the sake of the thinking and the typing. One of them I didn’t like in the end and I don’t see the point of getting into it, not a kind of thinking I’d enjoy. Suffice it to say that close the ending of the book something happened that didn’t really make sense, wasn’t believable - and I’m a pretty credulous reader, I enjoy suspending disbelief, if a writer wants to sell me a used car I very much want to buy it, I’m not given to looking for holes in a book, if anything I’m trying to actively avert my eyes from then. It felt like a thing where the unbelievable event was a plot device that made a Big Thematic Point, when there were several other believable events possible to get to the same place in the plot but without the Thematic Relevance. I was so mad I almost quit reading entirely but there were only like 30 pages left so I basically skimmed the rest and set it down disappointed.

The other four books were a pair each by Irvine Welsh - The Blade Artist and Dead Men’s Trousers - and Roddy Doyle, Love and Smile. Love is really warm and touching by the end, with some relatable tension along the way: two old friends drinking together catching up on life changes since last they talked, reminiscing about old times, reconnecting and also disconnecting, potentially explosively so, tottering along in a process held together - but also threatened with breakdown - by gradually getting drunk together. The other three are dark and by the end violent. The Welsh ones are more gratuitously and graphically so, though Dead Men’s Trousers ended up being somewhat uplifting, to some extent anyway, which was alright since it concludes the arc of the lives of the surviving characters who first showed up in Trainspotting. Smile was much more reserved and for a lot of it much lighter but ended up being the most upsetting and disturbing book of the three, up there with Doyle’s two Paula Spencer novels. Moments of the book read like bits of Love and of his Barrytown novels, about family and friendship and regular people muddling along with small ordinary dramas that Doyle presents as having their own dignity, but by the end the book became far harsher in a way that took me by surprise.

A few themes in the four: masculinity, aging, struggling for and only partly achieving both self-understanding and connection with someone else, memory as involuntary: limits on what can recall plus difficulty stopping recalling some things, comparing your present circumstances to your past self’s aspirations, being underequipped in terms of emotional vocabulary and coping skills - and then having some real shit go down - and coping with all that through a mix of music and substance use, and, related, cultural objects and substances as both social lubricants and tokens to mediate relationships and facilitate connections. And all of the bits in that list that aren’t explicitly gendered are very much so in the novels, being all about men, with women appearing largely adjuncts to the men, facilitating men’s interactions with each other and with themselves. That’s sexist, but I don’t think it’s authorial sexism so much as it’s accurate depiction of sexist social realities. In the background of each novel are glimpses of ongoing social and economic transformation as well.

I’m inclined to say these novels are at least in part all about how men achieve some measure of stable selfhood as individuals in collective/small group interpersonal and larger cultural settings. That achievement’s a fraught, fallible process and that self’s stability isn’t ever all that stable really: the masculine self the characters achieve is internally volatile, as are the interpersonal and cultural contexts, and there are also transformations over the life course. And as I said, there’s a lot violence, plus a good deal of casual cruelty as well as unnecessary and painful confusion as young men, who are really closer to children than to mature adults, fumble out from families that didn’t equip them, all raw nerves and only partially understood urges, into a hostile and indifferent world that stomps on them and enlists them into stomping on others, especially women and each other. One other thought: these weren’t especially hard novels to read but they weren’t especially easy either, emotionally, but by the same token the relatively ugliness depicted and the less than fully pleasant feelings evoked felt right for the state of the world and how I feel about it right now. It wasn’t exactly escapist reading but it did distract me from the awful hellscape of the news right now yet it did so by depicting other events that evoked some similar feelings - a bit like feeling sad about something in particular and putting on music that’s sad for (or expresses its sadness in reference to) other particular things and so being simultaneously distracted in the intellectual content and affirmed, and so offered a sense of community and connection, in one’s emotional state. It’s a good thing, I think.

Those are a few impressions made for their own sake. I’ve got one final thirty minute session to go if I’m going to hit my goal of 30 sessions of 30 minutes. I’ve dug out another novel that I’ve got out the library, I’ll take a run at that. Reading’s good, novels in particular. I want to get back to doing it avidly, the way I used to, the way my oldest kid does it - get back to not having any use for this silly calendar and x-ing out the days. I’m going to make an effort to keep all this up, we’ll see. Alright off to read a little more then drink a beer and wash dishes then bed.

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