Books – like authors – are often compared to other things. And authors. Think about it. If you’ve read a good book and the people you are describing it to haven’t, you will often compare it to other books by other authors that your friends/ audience have read in a manner that is something like: ‘It’s a modern thriller that is based on a medieval mystery but it’s not implausible badly-written shite of the sort that Dan Brown would put his name to.’ Your friends – assuming you have the same sort of intelligent friends who have the same allergy to bad writing that you do – will know exactly what you mean. The thriller you’re describing is something like Iain Pear’s ‘An Instance of the Fingerpost’ but without Ye Olde English or is like a Neal Stephenson novel but without the esoteric, high-falutin’ physics and head-wiping plot-twists that leave you going ‘Huh?’
Books are also compared to objects, sensations, happy memories. If I say ‘Famous Five’ or ‘Magic Faraway Tree’, some readers will be immersed in a time of eternal summer, white-bread-and-jam sandwiches and fizzy pop while other readers will think ‘Enid Blyton? Wasn’t that the children’s author who loathed her own kids?’ If I mentioned William McIllvanney’s ‘Laidlaw’, some people would think ‘grumpy Weegie copper’, others would think ‘classic Scottish crime writing’, while others yet would wonder if it was true that this book was the basis for ‘Taggart’ and a hundred rubbish jokes from a thousand English stand-up comedians at The Fringe ‘doing a Scottish accent’.
To keep it short, the book I’m reading is called ‘Naive. Super‘ and it is like a hairball.
We’re not talking the sort of hairball that makes you go ‘yuck’, we’re talking the sort of hairball – and cat-lovers will know what I mean – that you find down the back of the sofa that leaves you thinking ‘How?’ or ‘What the f*ck?’ or simply ‘Oh. My…’
I picked up Erlend Loe’s debut novel in Borders in Glasgow (somebody needs to buy books from them after all) though I’d never seen a review for the book and as a debut author, I had no idea whether Erlend Loe (from Norway) had the chops to keep me – a very fussy reader – entertained but what the book does have is the Canongate glyph on the spine. So Borders managed to sell a book which is to say, it was on the shelf. Never bother asking for a recommendation in a chain book store unless you have a peculiar fascination for hobbits.
‘Naive. Super’ has sat on my shelf for months. And sat there for a bit longer. Just yesterday I picked it up and had a hairball moment, that is, I thought ‘How?’ and ‘What the f*ck?’ and ‘Oh’ all in the same instance of time. I started reading and I have to say it is good. It is very good. I haven’t yet finished ‘Naive. Super’ but here I am writing the review.
Hairballs then – to get back to our comparison – are both like and unlike owl pellets. Don’t know what an owl pellet is? Well, Mr Barn Owl may well eat Mrs Dormouse in one big gulp but Mr Barn Owl doesn’t have an appendix (if I remember this correctly. I could check it up on Wikipedia but hey, so could you). Mr Barn Owl can’t therefore digest Mrs Dormouse’s bones or fur, so after digesting her, Mrs Dormouse’s earthly remains are chucked up. I suppose it’s Nature’s way of letting the latch-key rodent children know she won’t be coming home from Tesco. Hairballs are different: they’re your cats way of telling you that she approves of you in a sort of ‘Home is where the Hairball is’ kind of way.
‘Naive. Super’ is both like and unlike any great novel you care to name. It is simplistic with a very docile, somewhat bemused narrator who, if he’d appeared 15 years ago, would have been described as being the epitome of ‘Generation Y’ (remember that now redundant marketing term?). The (as yet) unnamed narrator is 25 and eesentially puts his life on hold because everything has become so meaningless. Someone reviewing the book for The Times (the buy-line is on the back) compares this book to JD Salinger’s Holden Caulfield. This is a nonsense for any reader who has picked up a book since school.
The unnamed narrator is clearly in the foothills before some great depression (the regular list-making and general listlessness are good symptoms) but is wise enough to step back and take a good long look at life and in so doing, is finding that in the ordinary everyday hockum of life, there is much in which he can find humour and poignancy. If Holden Caulfield deserves little more than a slap for being a pre-ASBO potty-mouth then our narrator needs a slap-shot of ProPlus as someone sits down with him and makes a list of all the things he is doing right:
When the toy store opens, I’ve been standing waiting a good three-quarters of an hour. And I’ve got my list ready.
I want something that:
– can help me release aggression
– has striking colours
– can be used over and over and over
– makes a noise
– makes me forget about Kent and time
This is a lot to demand of an object in a toy store. It would be a lot to demand of an object in any store. But it might still work. I am taking my time. There are no other customers in the store. The staff follow me intently with their eyes while I walk around among the shelves. I’ve already told them I don’t want any help. I must do this on my own.
The breakthrough comes at the Brio section. There is a toy I recognise from when I was little. It has the potential to fulfil all the points on the list. It is a Hammer-and-Peg…
When all the pegs are knocked flush with the board, a sense of cohesion arises. Things join together. They have meaning. Then you turn the board over and hammer the pegs down again. It is an infinite-action machine that provides its user with a sense of cohesion.
I don’t demand more from anything. Neither people nor objects.
Without going all Booker-style on the reader, without sacrificing meaning for pretentious imagery, the author is simply pointing us toward that malaise that afflicts every adult at some time or another: ‘Why can’t everything be as simple as it was then?’
A hairball is a ragged tangle of fur. We know what it is. We know that it has no useful purpose beyond being fascinating in the sense of ‘How did that… not get stuck in my cat?’. The beauty of these otherwise ugly things is in the mystery it evokes. Good books are the same. We can see from the printed words exactly how an author has put a particular image in our minds but the endless fascination with a particularly good book – however apparently simplistic the storytelling – is that it leaves us reflecting not only on the mystery of the world but how humorous and baffling those mysteries can be.