Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Not a Toilet Book

‘How I Escaped My Certain Fate: The Life and Deaths of a Stand-Up Comedian’ by Stewart Lee

Faber, £12.99

‘How I Escaped My Certain Fate’ is brilliant. Brilliant. It is part memoir, part comedy history lesson, and includes the transcripts for three of his shows. I laughed loudly and in public. I quoted bits to my family, and then quoted bits at them. This book has made me want to seek out some of the comedians he mentions and watch the fantastic documentary ‘The Aristocrats’ again. But as it’s the tenth most-reviewed book in the newspapers this week, according to ‘The Bookseller’, I thought I would share my perspective as a bookseller instead of simply writing a review.
I was amused to see that ‘How I Escaped My Certain Fate’ is published by Faber. It’s an interesting direction for the house, which is of course better known for publishing writers like Samuel Beckett and Sylvia Plath than stand-up comedians. But it fits, because Lee’s ambitions put his work into the realm of art. Characterised by its intricate structure and repetition, I have often thought that like Walter Pater’s description of the Mona Lisa, Lee’s stand-up might just work as verse. And although the three transcripts are in prose, we do get verse in ‘How I Escaped My Certain Fate’, in the long narrative poem “I’ll Only Go If You Throw Glass”, included in the appendices. This was apparently rejected for ‘Sit Down Comedy’, a book of writing by various comedians, until Lee took out the commas and resubmitted it as prose, but Faber are evidently less worried about putting off potential buyers.
Faber have produced some stunning books in recent years, including Thomas Levenson’s ‘Newton and the Counterfeiter’ and ‘Samuel Johnson: A Life’ by David Nokes and Chris Daunt. With the growing popularity of the ebook, there seems to be a new focus on the book as an object in itself, which has been really interesting to see. ‘How I Escaped My Certain Fate’ is both an embodiment of the new book beautiful and a step in a different direction. The well-designed but restrained cover of the B-format paperback distances the book from the rather more conventional presentation of comedians' books, with their bright shiny covers and large colour photographs (see Richard Herring’s ‘How Not Grow Up’) or indeed the sort of celebrity memoir Lee has made merry sport with (And Lee might be gratified to know about the 20+ copies of the latest Clarkson book at my bookshop that haven’t sold since we got them in for Christmas, and won’t be able to shift since it’s now out in paperback. But then it’s not exactly the right sort of market).
A publisher at Faber mentioned at an event held by the Society of Young Publishers mentioned that authors will often accept lower advances as the Faber name carries such prestige, and the house hasn’t the reputation for the marketing muscle of its larger rivals. But it looks as though the relationship between author and publisher is a symbiotic one. Although Lee mentions in occasional asides that he does not expect the book to be a commercial success, one can’t help but think that this is not one of Faber’s most risky ventures, given Lee’s BBC television show, his loyal fanbase and the amount of coverage the book has generated. I hope it does well.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

‘Room’ by Emma Donoghue

Picador, £12.99.

‘Room’, one of the highest profile acquisitions of 2009, is finally published this week. Already longlisted for the 2010 Man Booker prize and lauded by critics and other authors, I wanted to keep my reading of the novel as separate from these raised expectations as possible.
Five-year-old Jack has lived his whole life with his mother in a twelve by twelve foot room, held prisoner by a man they call Old Nick. This name turns out to be a macabre joke, as Jack confuses him with Santa because he occasionally comes into the room to bring them things. Inanimate objects in the room are proper nouns, capitalised and given genders, because apart from his mother, they are his only companions. Despite the presence of a television set, Jack is wholly unaware of the existence a world beyond Room’s soundproof walls until his mother enlightens him and then tells him that he is their only means of escape. It’s a bold idea, but Donoghue has the skill to pull it off. Jack’s voice is more or less believable as that of a young child who has had plenty of opportunity to build an unusually wide vocabulary (we see him parroting voices on the television) but has only had to make himself understood by one person. He doesn’t use correct verb forms but instead has developed an internal grammar with its own rules. Although at times this was annoying, it felt quite credible and never became so distracting as to be off-putting. There is a sort of duality to reading ‘Room’ as the reader fills in the gaps and mistakes in Jacks understanding of the world. Donoghue uses this dynamic masterfully, with Jack’s lack of awareness of the dangers he faces adding to the tension of an already suspenseful plot.
Because Jack does not yet understand the scale of the world, he cannot grasp the concept of fame, which is what awaits them when they emerge. Through snatches of conversation Donoghue effectively conveys the rabid media attention, which is almost as troubling as the original crime. Jack overhears people on television talking about him as a kind of noble savage, or a spectator of culture’s shadows flickering on the walls of Plato’s cave. This is perhaps a swipe at literary overanalysis, but could also be read as underscoring the place of fiction. ‘Room’ raises important questions, but this scene forces us to question our right to treat the real suffering of other people as some kind of thought-experiment.
The relationship between Jack and his mother is perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the book. Although at times he unwittingly hurts her because he is so ignorant about the world, he has been the main purpose in her life since his birth. Because he is so young, he has a complete lack of empathy with the people around him, even his mother, and at times has moments of pure selfishness. He tells Ma that she should have asked Old Nick for candles rather than the painkillers for her teeth, because it is only her who needs them, which fills her with shock and horror. Through Jack’s eyes a portrait of this woman gradually emerges: determined, resourceful, and devoted to her son. From the naive nineteen year old student she was at the time of her kidnapping, she has become an adult woman. Still, she has been deprived of a normal existence for seven years, and has emerged to find her contemporaries at another stage in their lives. While she is simply “Ma” to Jack (we never find out her given name, which would presumably be as recognisable as that of Natascha Kampusch or Elisabeth Fritzl), we see her struggling to reconcile her multiple identities as the student she used to be, the woman and mother she became and the sudden celebrity that she has been turned into.
I thought the novel’s ending was fantastic, almost perfect in its inevitability. Although the subject matter is exceedingly bleak, Donoghue closes on a hopeful note, moving without being saccharine.