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Doing It His Way

Adam Mars-Jones, 11 May 1995

Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard 
by Timothy Mo.
Paddleless, 286 pp., £13.99, April 1995, 0 9524193 0 0
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... Was it Randall Jarrell who defined a novel as a long piece of prose fiction with something wrong with it? By that yardstick, Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard is a novel thousands of times over. Timothy Mo has decided to go solo with this book, and has set up his own press for the purpose. This is not vanity publishing as that phrase is normally understood (Mo has in the past made money for himself and his publishers) but vanity certainly seems to come into it ...

Big Books

Adam Mars-Jones, 8 November 2018

... A big​ book is a big evil. That’s what Callimachus said, but really, what did he know? A book wasn’t a bound and folding thing for him, a codex. He could only have known scrolls, like the ones that toga-wearing actors consult with bogus assurance in plays set in classical times, as if what they were holding was some sort of Kindle-in-waiting ...

‘Not I’

Adam Mars-Jones, 6 March 2014

... Lisa Dwan​ has been performing Samuel Beckett’s immensely demanding Not I since 2005. What audiences saw at two short London runs this year, at the Royal Court in January and the Duchess Theatre in February (the production now tours), differed markedly from the published text, though this is not a body of work where experimentation is welcomed. A literary estate is more like a guard dog than a pussy cat, and the Samuel Beckett estate has acquired a particular reputation for vigilance in defence of its author’s work ...

Oud, Saz and Kaman

Adam Mars-Jones: Mathias Enard, 24 January 2019

Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants 
by Mathias Enard, translated by Charlotte Mandell.
Fitzcarraldo, 144 pp., £10.99, November 2018, 978 1 910695 69 2
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... and without a protector, killed himself even before the famous ceiling where God gives life to an Adam whose face so resembles that of the Turkish poet was finished … Two extended fingers that don’t touch each other.This doesn’t seem much like a vision transformed by otherness. A novel that seemed to take aim squarely at the head, with its ...

Tweak my nipple

Adam Mars-Jones, 25 March 1993

Maybe the Moon 
by Armistead Maupin.
Bantam, 307 pp., £14.99, February 1993, 0 593 02765 5
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... Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, which started appearing as a newspaper serial in the mid-Seventies, and in volume form a few years later, are little classics of light literature: in their lightness they outweigh any number of more earnest enterprises. Maupin’s San Francisco is a carousel lightly disguised as a city, a continuous party where everyone is welcome without any tedious obligation to fit in, and even the hangovers are fun ...

His Socks, His Silences

Adam Mars-Jones, 3 October 1996

The Story of the Night 
by Colm Tóibín.
Picador, 312 pp., £15.99, September 1996, 0 330 34017 4
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... Colm Tóibín’s frustrating new novel starts from a pleasingly skewed perspective: its narrator Richard Garay (less often, Ricardo) was brought up in Buenos Aires, child of an Argentinian businessman and an English woman who never adjusted to her new surroundings and clung in imagination to a country she had left in the early Twenties. She spoke to Richard always in English, and the combination of his flawless accent and fair colouring ensured that he grew up thinking of himself as English ...

Diary

Adam Mars-Jones: Dad’s Apology, 20 November 2014

... My father​ ’s background in congregationalist Denbighshire was teetotalitarian: his own father took only one alcoholic drink in his life, and that was (fair play) a glass of champagne at my parents’ wedding reception. I imagine him choking it down as if it were sparkling rat poison. The early prohibition left traces: not having a taste for beer, Dad rather disapproved of pubs, but had no objection to drinking at home or on classier premises ...

‘I worry a bit, Joanne’

Adam Mars-Jones: ‘The Casual Vacancy’, 25 October 2012

The Casual Vacancy 
by J.K. Rowling.
Little, Brown, 503 pp., £20, September 2012, 978 1 4087 0420 2
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... The Casual Vacancy is as much an event as a novel – J.K. Rowling’s first book for adults! – but only the novel aspect can be reviewed. Incidental atmospherics don’t come into it – an astronomer trying to establish the composition of a comet will try to look beyond the streak it makes in the sky. On one level, nothing could be more natural than that a successful writer should try something new ...

The Bloke Who Came Fifth

Adam Mars-Jones: Grayson Perry’s Manhood, 31 May 2017

The Descent of Man 
by Grayson Perry.
Penguin, 160 pp., £8.99, April 2017, 978 0 14 198174 1
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... John Maltby​ , the studio potter and sculptor, used to say that you can’t make a teapot about your father’s death. Grayson Perry’s whole career assumes the opposite, that you can express any amount of personal and social comment through traditional forms of craft, not just pottery but tapestry and textile design: the Tate sells a printed silk headscarf of his that wouldn’t look out of place in a county town on market day, but represents contemporary art as a sort of board game, with arrival at the Bankside holy of holies (above the cheeky caption ‘Tat Moderne’) the winner’s reward ...

Beating the Bounds

Adam Mars-Jones: Jim Crace, 21 February 2013

Harvest 
by Jim Crace.
Picador, 273 pp., £16.99, February 2013, 978 0 330 44566 5
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... Jim Crace is as much ‘out-of-pattern’ as the narrator of his new novel, a settled outsider. He can hardly even be said to resist the pull of publishing convention, any more than aluminium resists a magnet. He’s attracted to unlabelled, marginal or parenthetical times and places, environments that might seem unpromising as settings for fiction, even actively hostile to the growth of narrative ...

The screams were silver

Adam Mars-Jones: Rupert Thomson, 25 April 2013

Secrecy 
by Rupert Thomson.
Granta, 312 pp., £14.99, March 2013, 978 1 84708 163 6
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... Where Jim Crace’s Harvest refused all the conventions of the historical novel, Rupert Thomson’s Secrecy seems to run eagerly towards them, and yet the effect once again is of a genre being unpicked and rewoven.* A superabundance of signposts, it turns out, can be as disorienting as their absolute absence. Exposition of period and person is almost caricaturally lucid in Secrecy, with ‘The year was 1701’ the book’s second sentence, and the narrator (of what is in fact a frame rather than the story proper) addressing herself helpfully on the second page: ‘at least I’d lived ...

Peroxide and Paracetamol

Adam Mars-Jones: Alison MacLeod, 12 September 2013

Unexploded 
by Alison MacLeod.
Hamish Hamilton, 340 pp., £16.99, July 2013, 978 0 241 14263 9
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... Hindsight is the way we make sense of the world, and the events and impressions of the morning are reworked any number of times before evening, with the result that any historical novel is bound to be as processed as spray-on cheese. What makes a narrative come alive is the Stendhal touch, a flick of the tail that propels the reader up past the rapids to a pool where things haven’t happened yet and Waterloo is just a place name ...

Room 6 at the Moonstone

Adam Mars-Jones: Bill Clegg, 5 November 2015

Did You Ever Have a Family 
by Bill Clegg.
Cape, 293 pp., £12.99, August 2015, 978 0 224 10235 3
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... mother’s house, and although there was some dispute earlier in the day about whether her father, Adam, would be allowed by June to stay there as a house guest, it was resolved in favour of a qualified welcome. But hours later everything turned to ash and ruin. The absoluteness of the blast makes it a disaster with some of the character of an apotheosis, as ...

Sleepwalker on a Windowledge

Adam Mars-Jones: Carmen Maria Machado, 7 March 2019

Her Body & Other Parties 
by Carmen Maria Machado.
Serpent’s Tail, 245 pp., £8.99, January 2019, 978 1 78125 953 5
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... In​ the acknowledgments to Her Body & Other Parties Carmen Maria Machado strikes a note of respect for her predecessors that isn’t far from abasement: ‘Every woman artist who has come before me. I am speechless in the face of their courage.’ The stories in the book don’t really match this, their attitude being closer to a productive impertinence ...

Howl

Adam Mars-Jones, 21 September 1995

Fullalove 
by Gordon Burn.
Secker, 231 pp., £14.99, August 1995, 0 436 20059 7
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... When novelists tell us that the world is made of God’s love or the same green cheese as the moon, we expect them to dramatise their perception – to force their philosophy on us as a magician forces a card – so that we can see how it feels to share it, if only for as long as it takes to read the hook. The same expectation holds good when a novelist proposes, as Gordon Burn does in his new novel Fullalove, that not green cheese or God’s love but black pus – meaningless suffering, and an appetite for meaningless suffering – is the basic building-block of the universe ...

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