Kill ‘Em All by John Niven

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Edition: Cornerstone, 2018, 352 pages.

…or The Art of the Deal by Stephen Stelfox.

Kill ‘Em All will appeal to fans of novels such as High Fidelity by Nick Hornby, the Vernon Subutex series by Virginie Despentes, and the film 24-Hour Party People (2002), directed by Michael Winterbottom.

Kill ‘Em All is the sequel to John Niven’s most well-known 2008 novel Kill Your Friends, that was adapted into the 2015 film of the same name, directed by Owen Harris, and starring Nicholas Hoult in the role of the main character Stephen Stelfox, a filthy rich, cynical, and cunning A&R rep. Whereas Kill Your Friends was set in the music industry at the height of the Britpop craze in the 90s, this book is set in 2017 and feels very of the moment since the events unfold on the backdrop of Brexit and the Trump era, and Stephen Stelfox feels like the poster boy of late-stage capitalism – an immoral playboy that uses any opportunity and measure to accumulate more personal wealth, and is aware of the inequalities that exist in society, but doesn’t really care about the struggles of the poor. At the same time, the  author manages to make the cynical inner monologues of a professional troll darkly comedic and fun to read, like, for example, this passage when Stephen is at the airport, preparing to board a private jet:

I send a couple of pro-Trump tweets from my troll accounts (‘#godonald! #MAGA #inauguration’) to take my mind off my pre-flight anxiety while Grahame deals with luggage and the whole check-in palaver, out there in the chill January dawn. Passport and security take all of two minutes. (‘Hi, Sir! Nice to see you again.’) When I do this, I spare a thought for you out there – the dear, the gentle – taking your belt and shoes off, furiously scrabbling through your bag for that laptop or iPad, wearily walking back through the scanner, then extending your arms skywards as the guy with the wand does his stuff, the whole thing taking an eternity because, in the queue ahead of you, there are people, who, today, in 2017, seemingly haven’t been on a plane since Mohamed Atta and his lads did their thing back in 2001. Who don’t understand about the whole laptop, belt and shoes deal. Who are utterly astonished when they are asked to take these things off/put them in a tray/ whatever. By the time you stumble out of security two hours later you’re needing that pint of Tits in the Dog and Lettuce. You’re suicidal and you haven’t even left the fucking airport yet.

After making a ton of money from an American Idol-type reality show, Stephen Stelfox is semi-retired at the age of 42 and is living the high life of the ridiculously rich, while also spending some time doing consulting work in order to avoid thinking about the fact that his life is essentially empty. One day, Stephen gets a call from his old friend James Trellick, president of a big US record label Unigram, asking him for help in dealing with a potentially huge blackmail scandal that is about come to light involving the ageing pop-star Lucius Du Pre. Stephen agrees to help and comes up with an elaborate and outrageous plan to “fix” the situation, but when it becomes clear that things will not go according to his plan, Stephen is forced to improvise…

Behind the fast-paced, over the top plot, somewhat stereotypical characters, and very dark humour, the book offers a scathing critique of the misogyny, racism, populism, greed, and abuse of power that seems to be thriving in modern-day society. It’s also a very compelling satire of the modern music industry and celebrity culture, but definitely not a book for readers, who are easily offended.

Although this is a sequel to Kill Your Friends, the novel stands on its own, and I thoroughly enjoyed it even though I haven’t read the previous book, and I will definitely need to pick that one up at some point in the future.

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Wait, Blink by Gunnhild Øyehaug

She looks at the cursor that’s blinking. She identifies with the cursor! Waiting, blinking, and without any real existence in the world, just on and off between blink and blink. Is this her light in the world?

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Edition: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018, 256 pages.

Longlisted for the 2018 National Book Award for Translated Literature

Wait, Blink: A Perfect Picture of Inner Life by Gunnhild Øyehaug, translated from the Norwegian by Kari Dickson, provides an intimate snapshot into the lives of a group of characters, mainly focusing on three women – Sigrid, a sheltered young literature student, Linnea, an aspiring film director, and Trine, a provocative performance artist. Written in very short chapters and constantly shifting between the different, loosely connected characters, Wait, Blink is an introspective, meandering novel that explores the inner lives of these people, their desires, hopes and fears.

Somewhere deep inside her body there’s a cry, which if it were replicated in color and not sound would be painted sheer black, the kind of darkness that might exist in a universe without stars. If it were a sound, you probably wouldn’t hear it, even though it’s loud, more like a howl, as it would still be locked up, as though inside a mountain. It’s the cry of loneliness.

Sigrid is a twenty-three-year-old woman, who feels lonely and adrift in life, and compares her isolated life to “a boat that’s frozen in the ice“. She worries that she has unwittingly become a recluse and that her adult life hasn’t truly started yet. She spends most of her time overanalyzing things and is trying to write a paper on the strange cliché that can be often observed in literature and film, whereby a woman is shown wearing an oversized man’s shirt as a way of conveying the idea of emotional vulnerability.

[…] wearing an oversized man’s shirt was a cliché in her opinion, a typical expression of male aesthetics, male perception, a perception that specifically objectivized women, he would make her into a cliché by doing that –  making her pad around being fragile and vulnerable in an oversized top and thus live up to all the myths – and, not least, by complying she would thereby undermine her own intellect and capacity for criticizing metaphors, wouldn’t she?

As a side note, curiously enough, I just saw this cliché used in a ballet production – a modern take on Shakespeare’s comedy The Taming of the Shrew. When Petruchio finally manages to win over the stubborn Katherina and make her “let her hair down”, she was portrayed wearing an oversized man’s button-down shirt, so there might actually be something to this theory, and I’m guessing that, from now on, every time I see this cliché, I’ll be reminded of this book.

Aspiring film director Linnea is also frustrated with her life. She was involved in an affair with a much older, married university professor, and tries to use the medium of film to express her feelings. She is basically longing to recreate the concept of Before Sunrise (1995) & Before Sunset (2004) in her real life. At the same time, the brazen and provocative performance artist Trine struggles to balance her artistic work with the responsibilities of motherhood both in practical and emotional terms.

The novel includes many references to music and films, such as Lost in Translation (2003), Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003), and Kill Bill: Vol. 2 (2004) that play an integral part in the narrative, as well as reveal the true mindsets and emotional states of the characters. I was particularly pleasantly surprised to find so many references to songs by one of my favourite musicians – PJ Harvey. I think the best way to read this book is while listening to PJ Harvey records, so that is exactly what I did, and it was fantastic!

Not much happens in this book in terms of plot but it offers some very interesting reflections on art, loneliness in modern society and the conflict between people’s expectations, mainly derived from clichés which are perpetuated by the media, and the realities of life. The characters in this book feel the need to hide their true inner selves and constantly fail to honestly communicate their feelings to each other. I think, in essence, the book tries to highlight the impossibility of establishing a meaningful connection with someone while also keeping your true inner self mostly hidden.

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Vernon Subutex, 2 by Virginie Despentes

“We are the defeated – and we are thousands. We are searching for a way.”

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Edition: MacLehose Press, 2018, 336 pages.

I picked up the first book in the Vernon Subutex series by Virginie Despentes, translated from the French by Frank Wynne, because I was drawn in by the synopsis that promised sharp social commentary of contemporary French society and references to 90s music. Moreover, Vernon Subutex, 1 made it onto the 2018 Man Booker International Prize shortlist, and while it wasn’t among my favourites from the shortlist, I was still curious to find out what happens next.

The second volume in the series seamlessly picks up where the first volume left off and follows the adventures of Vernon and the colourful group of characters from the previous book, while also providing some more insight into their backstories and introducing some new characters.

While it seems that the main purpose of the first volume was to provoke strong emotions in the reader, the narrative of the second book feels much more focused and controlled. Despentes has a great ear for dialogue and, although the book features quite a lot of characters (there’s even a helpful index at the beginning of the book to remind the reader who everyone is, in case you get lost), each of their voices is sufficiently distinct so that I never got confused by the consistently shifting narrative that switches from chapter to chapter between the different points of view. This book also provided that long-awaited sharp social commentary on present-day French society that I was expecting and didn’t quite get from the first book. By giving a voice to this assortment of characters from diverse backgrounds, the author unflinchingly tackles various complex issues such as race, class, poverty, privilege, corporate greed, violence against women, marriage, loneliness, political ideology, generational conflict, ageing, and mental illness. The most notable theme in this series that persistently comes up in the first two books is class struggle, and how oppression affects the mental state of the population. As one character observes:

The working class has been so brainwashed over the last decade that the only thing they care about is spewing hatred about bougnoules. They’ve been stripped of the self-respect it took centuries to win, there’s not a moment of the day when they don’t feel like they’re being fleeced, and they’ve been taught that the only thing they’ve got to make them feel a little less shit is to bang on about how they’re white so they have a right to put down darkies. In the same way that kids in the banlieue torch the cars outside their own tower blocks and never invade the sixteenth arrondissement, the Frenchman in dire straits takes it out on the person sitting next to him on the bus.

Vernon is still homeless and living rough, however, he seems to have become a sort of mad poet and spiritual leader for the group of his unhappy/frustrated friends and acquaintances. They flock to the Rosa Bonheur bar located in the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont in northeastern Paris just to see Vernon spin a set as the DJ, and suddenly you get a scene with some neo-fascist nutjobs, ex-porn stars, and a lesbian biker dancing to James Brown’s The Payback or singing along to David Bowie’s Heroes, while “off in a corner, lit by a pale green light, Vernon looks out at them, his eyes half closed, an enigmatic smile playing on his lips. He has become a sphinx.” This series is such a wild ride! 🙂

This book also finally reveals what exactly is on the much-coveted tapes featuring the final interview with the deceased rock star Alex Bleach which starts out quite poetically and acts as a catalyst for some of the events in the second half of the book.

WE ENTERED INTO ROCK MUSIC THE WAY YOU ENTER A CATHEDRAL, remember, Vernon, and our story was a spaceship. There were so many saints everywhere we didn’t know who to worship. We knew that as soon as they pulled out the jack plugs, musicians were human beings just like everyone else, people who went for a shit and blew their noses when they caught a cold. We didn’t give a fuck about heroes, all we cared about was that sound. It transfixed us, floored us, blew our minds. It existed, we all felt the same way in the beginning, Jesus fuck this thing exists? It was too big to be contained within our bodies.

Overall, I’m glad I gave the second book in this series a try. I found it much more enjoyable than the first volume, which I was very conflicted about. However, if you absolutely loathed the first one for the controversial or offensive opinions and coarse language, I wouldn’t really recommend continuing on with this series. For those of you who haven’t read the first volume, I would honestly suggest waiting until all three of the books have been published because this series is basically one long, continuous story that has been divided into three volumes, and, given the large cast of characters, I think it’s a good series to binge-read all the way through. I’m certainly looking forward to reading the final volume and finding out how all this is going to end!

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The Last Children of Tokyo by Yōko Tawada

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Edition: Portobello Books, 2018, 144 pages.

Winner of the 2018 National Book Award for Translated Literature

The Last Children of Tokyo by Yōko Tawada (published in the US as The Emissary), translated from the Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani, is a dystopian novel set in a near-future Japan that has isolated itself from the rest of the world, and gone even further by deliberately erasing foreign-origin, particularly English, words from the Japanese language and replacing them with alternatives. The ability to understand English is actually considered as evidence of old age.

Long ago, this sort of purposeless running had been referred to as jogging, but with foreign words falling out of use, it was now called loping down, an expression that had started out as a joke meaning “if you lope your blood pressure goes down,” but everybody called it that these days.

Moreover, for a reader who is passionate about translated fiction, the most terrifying thing about this near-future world is the fact that books, even picture books, are no longer being translated…

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As a result of an unexplained disaster, the elderly in this futuristic Japan seem to be immortal, while the younger generations are weak and disabled, and have very short lifespans which basically means that the aged have to do most of the physical labour and are forced to watch their grandchildren and great-grandchildren die. The first part of the novel mostly focuses on Yoshiro, a centenarian who is taking care of his very fragile great-grandson Mumei. For Mumei, performing even the smallest day-to-day tasks, such as putting on clothes and chewing his food, is very tiring for his weak body, so he heavily relies on his great-grandfather’s help. In the second half of the novel, the author introduces more characters, but their individual storylines were fairly underdeveloped. Also, very late in the novel, the author introduces a potentially interesting plot point, which kind of explains why the US title of this book is The Emissary, however, soon afterwards, the story just ended…

As you can probably tell by now, unfortunately, this book didn’t really work for me. The narrative felt disjointed at times but, more importantly, I thought that this book fell into the same trap that many speculative literary novels have fallen into before, whereby the various science fiction elements are used only as metaphors to make some kind of point and make little sense otherwise. I didn’t expect this to be hard science fiction, but I think that these types of speculative novels, as opposed to those that are labelled as genre fiction, are lacking in coherent world-building. I have a similar problem with the majority of literary fairytale retellings that have come out in recent years, in which the authors can often get away with lazy world-building by relying on the justification that the book is meant to be read from a literary standpoint, even though it includes science fiction or fantasy elements. I won’t really go into that here because that might be an interesting topic for a whole separate post.

Despite my issues with the book, Tawada is a skilful writer, and it’s a beautifully written novel that had a lot of potential. I’m willing to accept that I didn’t really get it, but it seems to me that the interesting futuristic setting only served the purpose of conveying, in a rather blunt manner, a message about the dangers of isolationism, environmental pollution, and exaggerated attempts to please everyone by, for example, renaming public holidays.

‘Labour Day’ became ‘Being Alive is Enough Day’

Clearly, the judging panel of the 2018 National Book Award for Translated Literature saw something more in this novel so you may want to give this one a try for yourself.

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Love by Hanne Ørstavik

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Edition: Archipelago Books, 2018, 180 pages.

Shortlisted for the 2018 National Book Award for Translated Literature

Set over one cold winter’s night in Norway, Love by Hanne Ørstavik, translated from the Norwegian by Martin Aitken, is a short and eerie story about a single mother, Vibeka, and her eight-year-old son, Jon, who, for reasons that never become entirely clear, have recently moved to a remote village in northern Norway.

The relationship between Vibeka and Jon is rather strange. They seem to be almost unaware of each other’s comings and goings, and their day-to-day interactions are very limited. The next day is Jon’s ninth birthday, and it soon becomes clear that Vibeka, who is preoccupied with her own concerns such as making herself look good and finding a man, has forgotten all about it. While throughout the book Jon often returns in his thoughts to his mother, daydreaming about the surprises that she might have planned for his birthday, Vibeka appears to be completely self-absorbed and shows almost no interest in the whereabouts of her son. It feels as if they’re both living it their own separate worlds and there is a palpable emotional distance between them.

She reaches out and smoothes her hand over his head.
   “Have you made any friends yet?”
   His hair is fine and soft.
   “Jon,” she says. “Dearest Jon.”
   She repeats the movement while studying her hand. Her nail polish is pale and sandy with just a hint of pink. She likes to be discreet at work. She remembers the new set that must still be in her bag, plum, or was it wine; a dark, sensual lipstick and nail polish the same shade. To go with a dark, brown-eyed man, she thinks with a little smile.

Beneath the seemingly mundane adventures of the central characters over the course of a single day there’s a layer of danger that keeps you, the reader, constantly on the edge of your seat. Both Vibeka and Jon are lonely souls longing for affection who, instead of communicating with each other, seek a connection with complete strangers. We see them interact with other people in the village, some of whom evoke a strong sense of unease that is heightened by the bleak and cold atmosphere of the setting. In all of their encounters with strangers, both of them come off as somewhat naive and overly trusting and that made this seemingly simple story into a very suspenseful read, in which something tragic might happen at any moment.

Ørstavik manages to successfully manipulate the reader and maintain a constant sense of tension by revealing the story in brief, alternating paragraphs that shift back-and-forth between Vibeka and Jon at the most dramatic points in their narrative, which leave the reader anxious to find out what happens next.

This short, haunting novella, written in spare and beautiful prose, will stay with me for quite some time, and now I’m also intrigued to check out her novel The Blue Room (translated by Deborah Dawkin) that was published by Peirene Press about a complicated mother-daughter relationship.

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August by Romina Paula

[…] the same thing happens every time I take a trip, that then I don’t want to return, that I always get entranced with some other life, that I fall in love with all those other women I am when I’m away, in other places, that what’s hard form me is commitment, that the alternative is easy, that starting from nothing is always easy […].

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Edition: The Feminist Press at CUNY, 2017, 224 pages.

August by Romina Paula, translated from the Spanish by Jennifer Croft, is a raw and poignant examination of grief, desire, and nostalgia.

The first person narrative, written in the form of a confession addressed to her deceased best friend Andrea, who committed suicide, gives us a glimpse into the conflicting thoughts of Emilia as she grieves the loss of her friend and also struggles to let go of her past.

Emilia lives in Buenos Aires and the return to her hometown in rural Patagonia to scatter the ashes of her friend evokes strong emotions in Emilia and forces her to confront the ghosts of her past that is very hard for her to do since she’s the type of person who typically chooses to deal with unpleasant situations by running away from them and maintaining past relationships in a permanent state of decay. She is discontent with her life but, at the same time, struggles to define what is it exactly that she wants, and because of that she, often unintentionally, manages to hurt the people in her life.

The book is very atmospheric and brilliantly portrays the raw, confusing, and conflicting emotions associated with trauma and the grieving process. While in Buenos Aires, the loss of her friend made Emilia feel that even the mundanities of life suddenly assumed a kind of dreamlike quality, but her trip to Patagonia, where everything reminds her of her friend and their shared experiences, has the effect of turning all these raw emotions up to 11.

I realize, I think I realize that I want to leave, but I also know I want to take you with me, and it’s impossible because you’re here, very here, I just now fully understood that. From there, from Buenos Aires, I can miss you very contemplatively, look at you, at us, as though through a glass in a shopwindow, our common/shared past, behind glass, get into a funk about it but at a safe remove, removed by that window pane. There, on the shelf, there’s a weak light that calms things down even further, and it gives it a halo of unreality, of something that happened far away and a long time ago, something one can step back from to observe, observe from afar, something one attends, as though it were something else, far away, removed from the body. But here it isn’t like that, I get here and you’re everywhere.

Another major theme of the book is desire. During her stay in Patagonia, Emilia tries to rekindle her relationship with her ex-boyfriend, who has a family now but still harbours some feelings for her, and Emilia honestly admits that, given the opportunity, she would probably give in to the temptation. However, the book makes us question, whether these feelings are real or is it just another way how Emilia is attempting to escape her feelings of sadness and abandonment?

August is a very honest and deeply moving novel, beautifully translated into English by Jennifer Croft, that succeeds at articulating the confusing emotions associated with the grieving process which are often very difficult to put into words. It’s a book about trying to put yourself back together after a traumatic event.

I’ve always found August, particularly the end of August, to be one of the most melancholy times of the year since it marks the end of summer, and announces the arrival of Autumn and the dark, cold days that are yet to come, so, to me, this was the perfect book to end the month of August.

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Trick by Domenico Starnone

This morning I don’t know if I’m scared for the child or scared of the child.

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 Edition: Europa Editions, 2018, 176 pages.

Shortlisted for the 2018 National Book Award for Translated Literature

On the surface, Trick by Domenico Starnone, translated from the Italian by Jhumpa Lahiri, is a relatively simple story about a successful yet grumpy illustrator, Daniele Mallarico, who reluctantly agrees to look after his precocious four-year-old grandson Mario for a few days, while his parents, who are going through some rather stupid relationship drama, are attending an academic conference. What ensues is a kind of “battle of wills” between the boy and the old man, as the grandfather tries to work on his latest project – a commission from his publisher to illustrate the short story The Jolly Corner by Henry James – while the grandson is testing his patience by incessantly demanding attention. However, as you read on, the book offers more than just a comedic “slice of life” story as it focuses on the theme of coming to terms with the process of ageing. Daniele struggles to accept the fact that he’s not the wild young man who used to roam the streets of Naples anymore since he feels that he hasn’t changed that much mentally, and it could even be said that he is haunted by memories of the past versions of himself.

The book plays out kind of like a “bottle episode” on television, where the whole story is set within the confines of a limited space (in this case – the few rooms of the apartment) and mostly consists of interactions between the two main characters and Daniele’s inner thoughts. Daniele spends most of the time ruminating on the struggles of his artistic life and the nature of success which, in the long-term, may sometimes lull people into a sense of false security, and lead to artistic stagnation. He feels that his imagination is worn-out and worries that the new generation may not understand or appreciate his work anymore. Moreover, his sense of decline is intensified by his grandson’s youth and vitality.

The artistic life had had its quiet mean, without visible peaks and therefore without sudden valleys. Success, when it had come, had seemed natural to me. I’d never done anything to obtain it or hang onto it: My work was simply deserving. Maybe this was the reason I still thought success was a long-lasting substance that would never deteriorate. 

Daniele has spent most of his life in Milan, and the return to his childhood home in Naples forces him to confront his lifelong self-doubt. His work is the essence of his life and a fundamental part of his identity, but, at the same time, he seems to suffer from a bad case of impostor syndrome.

[…] I’d gotten old with the conviction that, sooner or later, some incredible event would banish my doubts forever, thereby defining me with extreme precision. The event I’d always awaited was that some work of mine, undeniably huge, bursting into the world, would prove that I wasn’t presumptuous.

Trick is a deceptively simple and effective story that tackles the themes of ageing, generational conflict, creativity, success, and identity. I’m now curious to read the Henry James story that is referenced in this book to find out what are some of the links between these two stories.

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