Read #155

Virginie Despentes: King Kong Theory (translated by Frank Wynne)

“I am not sweet. I’m not loveable. I’m not middle-class. I get hormone rushes that trigger searing flashes of aggression. If I wasn’t a punk, I’d be ashamed of who I am. Can’t even fucking fit in. But I’m a punk and I’m proud of not really fitting in.

This is ferocious: angry doesn’t really touch it. A feminist tract that will likely enrage its fair share of feminists. And with chapter titles like “Who’s taking it up the arse, you or me?“or “You can’t rape a woman who’s a total slut“, she is not taking any prisoners.

“it is not so much the notion of our own inferiority that we women have internalised…It is the idea that our independence is destructive that has penetrated to the marrow of our bones.

(we women) “…have become a crack team that polices itself…Capitalism is an equal opportunities religion in the sense that it subjugates us all…

Despentes is an author and film-director, in her early 50s. The book looks back at her younger years (teenage through to late 30s) and takes from her experiences to build this fury against both the patriarchy, in its broadest sense, and against the enablers of that patriarchy. Born into a regular working-class family, sectioned by that family at 15, left home at 17, hitch-hiking round France – her passion was to follow punk bands as they toured, which led her in to all sorts of places that might be considered ill-advised by more timid souls – gang-raped alongside her female travelling companion by 3 young men, in her late teens, she had a flick-knife in her pocket but discovered she was afraid to use it – she went straight back out hitch-hiking again, refusing to be limited by the rape and its violence, she went on to work as a prostitute / escort for a few years in to her 20s. By 30 she had ‘lived a life’.

“…in my case, prostitution was a crucial step in my reconstruction after I was raped.

Despentes is probably best know for her first novel, Baise Moi, and the film that followed – and got banned – which she co-directed. The film is defiantly a female production – written, produced, directed and starring women, some of whom were better know as porn actors. It is extremely violent and highly sexual – full-frontal nudity, a variety of sexual practices, and bloody death after bloody death. Essentially an x-rated Thelma & Louise, that she has previously described as a comedy. The two main protagonists go ‘on the road’ killing all sorts of men – mainly punters – following a horrific and prolonged gang-rape. The rape scene is difficult to watch, but is there to contextualise what follows.

She is strong on being anti-patriarchy, but also strong on reminding us that the patriarchy is a (mainly) capitalist construct, or at least a convenient cover and enabler for capitalism, which as soon as the going gets tough displays its disdain for working class men, non-white men, almost as much as it has for women (and again the women’s ‘disposability’ is on a sliding scale according to class and race):

they (men) forget that the political advantages they enjoyed always came at a cost: women’s bodies belonged to men only in as much as men’s bodies belonged to the means of production in peacetime, and to the state in time of war.

nowadays states despatch their poor to the frontlines. Battlefields are now equal opportunity…the real disparity is one of social class.

The language she uses is defiantly not academic, which is a breath of fresh air: it is every day, slang and sometimes crude. None of which detracts from her arguments or thoughts: where she is from, what she has experienced and what she has taken from those experiences, is what matters. Clearly none of that is a commentary on her intelligence or reading around her subject, she has that, she has done that, she just doesn’t care to try and impress anyone by showing it. It is both hugely admirable and hugely accessible.

She describes her time as a prostitute as one of a great deal of personal freedom – contrasting the fact that she could have been working for 40 hours a week in a dead end shop or office job, going home with little money, exhaustion and not much spare time, but instead a few hours work – all at her choosing, with punters she selected – gave her much more money, autonomy and spare time to read. She acknowledges that it wouldn’t be for everyone, and also that in the main she was lucky in having few bad experiences. Her thoughts on her punters are interesting:

If memory serves…it was not their aggressiveness or their contempt I found difficult to deal with… but their loneliness, their sadness, their pallid skin, their wretched shyness, the flaws they couldn’t conceal, the weaknesses they showed. Their age, their need to feel young flesh against their wizened bodies. Their paunches, their micro-dicks, their flabby arses, their yellow teeth. It was their vulnerability that complicated the whole thing.

There isn’t much of a “Theory”, despite the title, her reviewing of King Kong – the movie – leaves her with conclusion that the relationship between the giant ape and the movie star is “resolutely asexual“, it is more a commentary on how the world of men seeks to, and usually succeeds in, robbing women of their strengths, often with their unwitting collusion. Talking about being a 15 years old punk in therapy, when the psychiatrist asks her why she “makes herself ugly“, she writes “...I’m sitting there thinking the guys got a fucking nerve – with my bright red Mohawk, black lipstick, white fishnets and fuck-off army boots. I think I look pretty awesome…”

She does not profess to have the answers; this is not a manifesto, but a scream that grows from outrage to fury at all the everyday nonsense and violence that women have to face, pages 111-115 contain a long and eclectic list of “dos and don’ts” contrasting “womanhood” with “manhood”. They are stone cold brilliant.

Poetry Read #1/23

Carola Luther: On the Way to Jerusalem Farm (140 pages. Carcanet)

Sublime. Restorative. Showing how poetry can bring a fourth dimension to writing: poems that create more space for themselves, within themselves. Poems that slow time down. An enormously generous and contemplative collection.

An example, from On Ghosts:

Yesterday it wasn’t so but today there is sadness

in this sea-city A concavity

like the small cleft that thumbs remember

between the wishbones of birds

Last week I found a washed-up bird Rasool

still as a stopped clock

empty on the inside feathers

stiff with salt

Today a man stands on the promenade

staring out to sea At this hour

if there was work

he’d be there

Some poems – deersuddenly, sheep, losing the swan – which are doing something fantastic in the natural world and in the way the poet interacts with the natural world, invite re-reading after re-reading. It seems to me that Luther prefers to see and contemplate the beauty in the world, but that there are some very real thoughts or events that are simply inescapable: Dawn on Nab Scar, which is ‘doing nature’ beautifully, when it suddenly throws in the question of culpability for the Sharpeville Massacre, in South Africa – “Was I implicated? No, yes, where does it begin, and end?” – before moving back to considerations of the natural world waking up around her. But the intrusive thoughts won’t rest, “...the little birds whistle / in their swept-clean market place as if no more conflict can ever come, // no bombs, no divided Jerusalem; just there in the distance, spring brightening / the greygreen, green. maroon trees reflected in the water.

We can rise above for a while, we can block out a great deal, but in the end, if you are at all sensitive or concerned you will have to think on the horror – and it is a mainly man-made horror.

I can’t recommend this collection too highly.

Reads #153 & 154

Cormac McCarthy: The Passenger and Stella Maris

Might as well start the New Year with a biggie, something I have been looking forward to for a while. As I understand it, the initial sketches for The Passenger were laid down by McCarthy in the mid-80s before he had published The Border Trilogy or Blood Meridian, and that he worked and re-worked them through to around 2014, when it seems the final draft of The Passenger – at least – was submitted to his publisher.

Although they are separate novels, Stella Maris is presented as a coda to The Passenger: you can read either singularly, but Stella Maris will make a lot more sense if you have read The Passenger first.

The Passenger has a stylistic trick – a rarity for the author – in that he alternates stories in the opening chapters, and to indicate this they are presented in different type: the straight forward narrative is the story of Bobby Western (a lone cowboy-type, if you like) who we meet when he is a salvage diver based on the Gulf of Mexico – he has previously been a Formula Two racing car driver in Europe, until a near-fatal crash ended that. His story alternates with some hallucinatory episodes, which it becomes apparent are transcripts of psychiatric ‘treatment’ sessions of his younger sister Alice / Alicia – a Maths prodigy who kills herself while still young, after several spells in institutions – that are presented in italics. The passages / chapters in which Alicia is ‘interacting’ with the creatures she is seeing – possibly as part of her psychosis or as dream figures – are disjointed, illogical and uncomfortable, by design. The creatures, her nightmares, seem to be more or less the cast of the infamous 1932 film “Freaks”.

The Passenger initially seems that it is going to be a take on the 1940s noir thriller, with Bobby and a diving partner tasked with finding the wreckage of a light plane that recently crashed into the ocean. This they do and report back that all 8 bodies are still buckled into the seats on the plane, which seems to have little by way of visible damage. Except the flight manifest records that there were 9 on board when the flight took off. It quickly becomes apparent that someone is out to get them for possessing this knowledge…his flat gets raided, his car impounded, his bank account frozen…and he becomes a hunted man. On the run, he lives in a shack on an isolated farm in the Midwest, visits his grandparents, returns to a coastal shack where he lives without accessing money, working cash in hand – the IRS are also after him – before finally moving away from the States altogether.

Along the way characters appear, some take centre stage for a spell, before they vanish again. There are expositions on the Atomic Bomb (Bobby and Alice’s dad was Oppenheimer, it transpires; and both parents died of cancer), a friend discusses his posting to Vietnam – “I was there to inflict painful death“, which morphs into a horror-memory of elephants exploding under fire from helicopter machine guns, the killing of JFK and attendant conspiracy theory, a conversation with a trans woman who is a nightclub performer in New Orleans, and a long discourse on Maths / Physics which made me very happy that I had just read Carlo Rovelli, in that I knew some of the names and had a vague grasp of what they were talking about. It seems that recently McCarthy has devoted himself to studies in this area, meeting with luminaries in the field, as they pass through the Santa Fe Institute to which he has been affiliated for a good few years.

The sudden switches of location and time – not to mention the alternate reality of the alternate chapters – made for some feeling of disjointedness in the reading…but there were also times when the paragraphs and the sentences flow with all the muscularity and grace you expect from McCarthy: as Western is living on the Gulf Coast “Where he walked the tideline at dusk the last red reaches of the sun flared slowly out along the sky to the west and the tide pools stood like spills of blood.” He’s just too good a writer for it not to be ‘readable’, but I remain to be convinced that it is as satisfying as his earlier novels.

The ‘great secret’ that overhangs both books and therefore links them, is the love between the siblings. Both admit to being completely in love with the other, although Alicia, at least, is candid enough to insist that the love was unconsummated in real life, if not her dreams. This admission comes in Stella Maris (which I can’t help saying to myself as the PJ Harvey song “Stella Marie, you’re my star”), which is entirely a series of dialogues / sessions between Alicia and her psychiatrist Dr Cohen, with the exception of the first page, which is the ‘admission note’ of Alicia’s arrival at the facility: “twenty-years-old Jewish / Caucasian female. Attractive, possibly anorexic. Arrived six days ago…patient had a plastic bag full of hundred dollar bills – something over forty thousand dollars…(patient) is a doctoral candidate in mathematics…resident of this facility on two prior occasions“. In this Alicia and Bobby join a long list of “troubled / troubling” or “impossible couples” through whom narratives are played out, explained: The Kid and The Judge (Blood Meridian); John Grady Cole and Lacey Rawlins (All the Pretty Horses); Billy Parham and the she-wolf (The Crossing); John Grady Cole and Magdalena (Cities of the Plain); the man and the boy (The Road)

I have never undergone analysis, nor have I been a teenage girl, so I would shy away from writing from either position, McCarthy does not: whether he is successful in this endeavour in terms of verisimilitude I have no idea, for the reasons stated. But also, it is a work of fiction so, does it matter? Again, I don’t know. I enjoyed them for what they were and accepted them as presented. I was struck by the amount of writing that springs to mind when thinking about authors / characters reporting from psychiatric units: Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Salinger’s Glass family stories, Elizabeth Wurtzel, Sarah Kane, Ginsberg, and Ken Kesey – off the top of my head. I don’t know what to make of this tangential thought. Except that, in keeping with these other works / authors, we are in the hands of unreliable narrators: where the telling gets tricky.

Alicia is a prodigy – rattling off names and theories, often before explaining why they are wrong – she graduated school at 12, gained her degree at 14 and was working towards her PhD when she suddenly quit. She is brutally logical and focussed. The things that matter to her in her life are Maths and her brother, who at the point when she is re-committed to Stella Maris, she believes is dying, as he is in a coma following a bad crash while racing – she refused permission to turn off his life-support.

She answers Cohen’s sometimes hesitant questions pedantically, monosyllabically at times, while at other times she is verbose, holding forth on a variety of subjects at some length – perhaps the most surprising is her view that language should be seen as a virus, an aberration in human evolution, not something that is particularly relevant to our survival, in fact perhaps something that will prove antithetical to it. Having said that language appears to be necessary “for craziness“, she goes on:

… you have to understand what the advent of language was like. The brain had done pretty well without it for quite a few million years. The arrival of language was like the invasion of a parasitic system… The extraordinary usefulness of language turned it into an overnight epidemic. It seems to have spread to every remote pocket of humanity almost instantly… The brain had no idea any of this was coming. The unconscious must have had to do all sorts of scrambling around to accommodate a system that proved perfectly relentless. Not only is it comparable to a parasitic invasion, it’s not comparable to anything else… What makes it interesting is that language evolved from no known need.

There is a case to be made for Alicia being some kind of mouthpiece for McCarthy, in some PhD, sometime in the future.

I would not be surprised if earlier drafts had the two books as one, with the Alicia analysis episodes as part of a larger whole. But I can see how that would give an unwieldy 600-650 page novel, not to mention one that veered off all over the place. The decision to have two books is wise, but they will always sit next to each on shelves.

I need to read them both again – like any McCarthy – to have a proper view, but I did enjoy them. If you’re looking for something that will sit alongside Blood Meridian, the Border Trilogy or even The Road you will probably be disappointed, these are not on that scale: that bell that chimed so loudly over American literature is diminished. Plus, there are no cowboys.

2022 in books:

The novel most enjoyed: new (to me) writers: 

Cold Enough for Snow by Jessica Au; 

Salka Valka by Halldor Laxness

Novels most enjoyed: 

The Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov; 

The Living Sea of Waking Dreams by Richard Flanagan; 

Northline by Willy Vlautin; 

Single most astonishing novel of the year:

The Books of Jacob by Olga Tokarczuk

The most striking non-fiction work:

Ghost Signs by Stu Hennigan, which in turn led me to The Condition of the Working Class in England by Friedrich Engels.

The most beautiful & uplifting work:

Helgoland by Carlo Rovelli; & Modern Nature by Derek Jarman, 

Most uncategorisable & yet bloody brilliant book:

Excavate: The Wonderful and Frightening World of The Fall – edited by Tessa Norton and Bob Stanley

Novel that disappointed:

Solo Faces by James Salter

The year’s most striking fictional character:

Jacob (although how fictional was he?); Salka Valka; Mark E Smith (?)

…and the most-dastardly villain(s):

The ruling, land-owning, worker-supressing, profit-robbing class

The best authors encountered for the first time this year:

Jessica Au & Annie Ernaux

The most beautifully written novel:

Cold Enough for Snow by Jessica Au

Poetry most enjoyed: 

Four collections really stood out this year – although I found many more to be fine and beautiful and challenging:

Natalie Diaz: When My Brother was an Aztec

Terence Hayes: American Sonnets for my past and future assassins

Helen Mort: The Illustrated Woman

Joelle Taylor: C+nto and Othered Poems

If I had to pick between these, it would probably be a tie between Mort and Diaz.

Anthology of the Year:

We’re All in it Together: poetry for a DisUnited Kingdom, edited by Michael Stewart, Kayleigh Campbell and Steve Ely 

Most disappointing poetry:

Ted Hughes: The Hawk in the Rain

Full list


Au, Jessica: Cold Enough for Snow

Bulgakov, Mikhail: The Heart of a Dog

Degerman, Stig: A Moth to a Flame

Ferrante, Elena: Troubling Love

Flanagan, Richard: The Living Sea of Waking Dreams

Foley, Lauren: Polluted Sex

Harrison, M John: Climbers

Kang, Han: Human Acts

Laing, Olivia: Crudo

Laxness, Halldor: Salka Valka

McGregor, Jon: Lean Fall Stand

Murakami, Haruki: Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki

Myers, Benjamin: These Darkening Days; The Book of Fuck; Male Tears

ni Dochartaigh, Kerri: Thin Places 

Porter, Max: The Death of Francis Bacon

Salter, James: Solo Faces

Shafak, Elif: 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World

Sigurdottir, Lilja: Cold as Hell

Stewart, Michael: Four Letter Words

Taddeo, Lisa: Animal

Tokarczuk, Olga: The Books of Jacob

Tsushima, Yuko: Woman Running in the Mountains

Vlautin, Willy: Northline

Volckmer, Katharina: The Appointment: (or, the story of the cock) 

Whitehead, Colson: Harlem Shuffle

Zhadan, Serhiy: The Orphanage


Annie Ernaux: Simple Passion

Carlo Rovelli: Helgoland

Deborah Orr: Motherwell 

Derek Jarman: Modern Nature

Excavate: The Wonderful and frightening World of The Fall – edited by Tessa Norton and Bob Stanley

Helen MacDonald: Vesper Flights

Folke Henshen: The Human Skull: a cultural history

Friedrich Engels: The Condition of the Working Class in England

Freire Paulo: Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Grayson Perry: The Descent of Man

John Healy: The Grass Arena

Robert MacFarlane: The Wild Places

Stu Hennigan: Ghost Signs

Susan Sontag: Regarding the Pain of Others


Anthology: A Blade of Grass: New Palestinian Poetry

Anthology: Wagtail; Roma Women’s Poetry

Anthology: We’re All in it Together: poetry for a DisUnited Kingdom

Berry, Emily: Unexhausted Time

Berryman, John: Berryman’s Sonnets

Bird, Caroline: Rookie

Carson, Ciaran: Breaking News

Diaz, Natalie: When my Brother was an Aztec

Duhig, Ian: The Blind Roadmaker

Evans, Suzannah: Space Baby

Hadfield, Jen: The Stone Age

Hayes, Terrance: American Sonnets for my past and future assassins

Hughes, Ted (w/ Leonard Baskin): Cave Birds; The Hawk in the Rain

Kaminsky, Ilya: Deaf Republic

Kinsella, Thomas: Butcher’s Dozen

Lambert, Gill: A Small Goodbye at Dawn

Lowe, Hannah: The Kids

Mort, Helen: The Illustrated Woman

Mort, Valzhyna: Music for the Dead & Resurrected

Nicholson, Matt: Untanglement

O’Brien, Sean: Embark

Olds, Sharon: Odes

Patterson, Don: Landing Light

Shaw, Clare: Towards a General Theory of Love

Stewart, Michael: Couples

Taylor, Joelle: C+nto, & Othered Poems

Read #152

Lauren Foley: Polluted Sex

Short stories – and poems and perhaps a short piece of drama and some diagrams – by this multi-award winning writer, Lauren Foley, who identifies as Irish/American, bisexual and disabled – the majority of her work is dictated.

Overall this is like being stood in a gale in the dark: repeatedly and unpredictably blasted off your feet by the sheer force – sometimes the chutzpah – of the thing, but then the sudden quiet, still moments are equally destabilising precisely because of all that has gone before.

I would describe it as a tour de force that is in the main, although not wholly, successful: some stories / pieces just didn’t click with me. Others blew me away. The sex is fast, short-breathed – the sentences short and panted – and compelling. Not all the pieces are about the act of sex, some explore the environment in which sex happens, or its aftermath – most memorably in the “play in one act”, “Hills Like Hemingway’s”, which tells of several unnamed women making the ferry trip from Dublin to Holyhead in search of terminations.

You get the feeling that this is Foley flexing muscles, and that you shouldn’t be at all surprised if, in five years or so, she is back with an award-winning novel.

Read #151

Olivia Laing: Crudo (130 pages)

A novel quite unlike any other I have read: engaging, page-turning, eccentric, scandalising, disorientating, misdirecting – carried out with aplomb. Reading it “cold” it seems to employ an odd splitting with the narrator and main character being both Laing and someone called Kathy, switching between the first and third person, apparently randomly. It opens:

“Kathy, by which I mean I, was getting married. Kathy, by which I mean I, had just got off a plane from New York.

There is no spoiler in telling that the notes at the end of the book make it clear that Laing has been inspired by the life and works of Kathy Acker – writer, artist, provocateur – and many of the more interesting (scandalising) quotes and anecdotes are lifted from Acker’s work (“My life is delicate – more delicate than my cunt”). The closest I can get to a category is a sort of autobiography as imagined by someone else, told with brio and conviction. It is testament to Laing’s skill that none of this ever seems “wrong” or “forced”. Adding to this sense of permeability is the fact that Laing’s career has been in non-fiction, thus far at least, and some of the details are apparently based on Laing’s biography.

We whirlwind through Kathy’s marriage – the days leading up, and the event itself – inhabit her thoughts as she ponders what it means for her previously untrammelled lifestyle, whether it is what she wants – granting always that she loves the groom to be, who is a fine man, by all her accounts – and how she will wear the vows and expectations: not least the expectation that she has to consider someone else when thinking about consequences to her actions or words. Her intended is an older, English man – both the age and the fact of his Englishness seem to be of importance to Kathy, in that to her it confers a sense of worldliness, of “knowing things” and of a rootedness, all of which she appears to judge herself as lacking.

Simultaneously, Kathy is trying to comprehend the Trump / Brexit axis of self-harm nonsense that western electorates seem to have foisted on themselves, while also worrying more broadly about “The State of The World”. Kathy lives a five-star hotel lifestyle, flitting across the globe on what seems like a weekly basis. She is almost never off-line – checking news updates, Twitter etc which feed both her desire to be up to date on the important issues, and her crippling anxiety.

The novel is undoubtedly clever, it is also exhilirating, funny and raw. It seems to be written by two writers holding the same pen.

Read #150

Colson Whitehead: Harlem Shuffle

Whitehead has a substantial and well-deserved reputation as a writer tackling serious issues – specifically America’s racist past / present: witness two of his previous novels The Underground Railroad (2016) and The Nickel Boys (2020) both of which earned him the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Harlem Shuffle is a novel in a different key – it is still superbly written, with all the necessary facets you come to expect of a “good” novel – one he has appears just to have written for kicks.

Essentially it is a heist-gone-wrong story set in the Harlem of the late-1950s to mid-1960s: think Chester Himes with polish (not that there is anything wrong unpolished Chester Himes).

Ray Carney, son of a well-known criminal, is living a more or less “straight” life with his wife and kid, another on the way, running a furniture store with a good reputation among the black community. He occasionally fences stolen goods, mainly at the behest of his cousin, Freddie. A mercurial presence, whose arrival more often than not, heralds trouble for Carney. Freddie masterminds the heist of a hotel in town, which he persuades Carney to take part in and which goes wrong. This brings a more serious league of criminal to Carney’s door, not to mention the police.

Told in three parts, over three years: 1959, 1961, the book culminates in the Harlem Riots of 1964. There is a cast of sharps, mobsters and other characters you might expect from that scene / that era, the white cops who are racist and on the take, the Jewish jeweller and so on, each of whom is dextrously sketched. The dialogue is whip-smart. The story races along.

Put simply, an excellent, entertaining read.

Read #149

Elena Ferrante – Troubling Love (trans by Ann Goldstein)

130 pages of the kind of scintillating dissection of human relations that you expect from Ferrante. And at which she is pretty much unsurpassed at the moment.

Delia’s mother has died, unexpectedly. Was it suicide or murder? And what was the motive in either case? And why was she found naked except for a bra from a high end lingerie store, the type of store her mother would never set foot in?

As she moves through her own idiosyncratic “investigations”, Delia finds out a great deal more about her own history, her family and herself, than she can have envisaged. She also finds that her memory may not be the most reliable reference for her own history.

The humid chaos of Naples dominates; the language at times is tactile. This is one of those “in one sitting” books.

Read #148

Richard Flanagan – The Living Sea of Waking Dreams

Want a book that out-Murakamis Murakami? That just chucks surreal at you and moves on without batting an eyelid…That deals with despair, hopelessness and tops it off with more despair? Stopping along the way to bewail the destruction that man is reaping on the Earth. And is beautifully written.

This is the Christmas present you probably didn’t know yet that you wanted.

Anna’s mum Francie, is dying. For all the 280 pages or so of the book, she is in ICU or hospice care, slipping away inch by inch. Anna’s surviving siblings try to decide what is the best course of action, often not with the best of motives – they change their minds, but can’t reach consensus.

Meanwhile, bits of Anna disappear – they don’t drop off or rot, or get removed by purpose or accident – the next time she looks her ring finger has gone, or her knee, or her breast…and later an eye and what had been her son. There is no pain and no “phantom limb” feeling. These pieces of her anatomy just cease to exist – she describes it as her “silent leprosy“. Not everyone appears to notice, which is equally distressing to Anna. As you can imagine.

Terrifying, compelling, bizarre – just slightly off-centre, as the best things usually are. I have yet to read anything less than superb by Flanagan.

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