Some Recent Reading

‘Like a Fiery Elephant’ – Jonathon Coe

An awesome book, magnificent. Anyone who cares about books, reading, and novels should have a look at this. It’s a biography of BS Johnson, the modernist author who killed himself in 1973. Johnson isn’t always a chap one can sympathise with, many of his views on the novel (‘telling stories is telling lies’) being rather difficult to agree with. But the story is presented so well by Coe that you’re gripped from the off. A brilliant, brilliant book, which will be the missing tenth in my Top Ten.

‘The Closed Circle’ – Jonathon Coe

This is the sequel to The Rotters’ Club, one of my Top 10 books, and continues the style of that book: plenty of narrative viewpoints, lots of uses of different forms (emails, letters, diaries, different perspectives) and big themes: war, terrorism, New Labour, the decline of industry in the UK, love, families, racism.

Indeed, many of the criticisms in the press about this book have been that it tries to do too much, and it is a valid one. But I don’t think he could have written it any other way. I think that it was always going to have its flaws and would never be a perfect book, but that doesn’t make it any the less enjoyable.

Most of the loose ends from the first book are tied up, though not always to the protagonists’ satisfaction, let alone the reader’s. Coe almost seems rushed at times, as if he knows he has a lot of stuff to get through by the end of the book. These two books were originally going to be six, and one wonders whether he has just crammed everything in he could.

I don’t want to be unduly negative – this is still a great book. It’s funny, moving, surprising and heartwarming, just like its predecessor. What Coe does brilliantly is that his characters are just so likeable, even the shallow Paul Trotter elicits sympathy rather than aversion. Benjamin Trotter is the heart and the soul of these novels, and in a way his life runs a parallel course with that of the ‘accidental woman’ of Coe’s first novel.

Anyway, it’s very good, if flawed. Read The Rotters’ Club, then this – you will feel a lot better for it.

Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry – BS Johnson

This is the first Johnson I have read, and it is widely considered to be his most accessible. It’s a breeze to read, only taking a few hours, and is often hilarious. Christie works in accounts in a bank, and later in a baker’s, and he develops a system of moral double entry book-keeping, where any slight or annoyance he suffers is a ‘debit’, and the revenge he takes is a ‘credit’. The first example of this is of a building Christie is forced to walk around to get to work – to counter this irritation he scratches the brickwork with a coin. Some of the ‘debits’ are hilarious: “Chagrin at learning no secrets” and “unpleasantness felt at presence of Reverand” being two pearls. But
what is obvious as the book progresses is that we are watching the development of a terrorist mindset, which results in Christie poisoning London’s water supply and killing 20,000 people to try and balance the debit “Socialism not given a chance”. The book is full of dark humour, and the odd Johnson-esque authorial interventions, one of which consists of the author talking to Christie, a conversation which offers a pretty bleak view of the novel as a form. Another example of this is when one character pauses for breath, in order that what might have been a daunting mass of type is broken up, and one character says to Christie, I’d tell you more about it, but we don’t have time, this is only a short novel (paraphrased). Then there are the Chapter
headings: ‘Not the Longest Chapter in the Novel’ etc. It’s very good, and recommend it to everyone.