TOP 10 BOOKS OF LITERATURE (PART 2)
(5) JOHN BIRMINGHAM – HE DIED WITH A FELAFEL IN HIS HAND (1994)
Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, oi, oi, oi!
Yes, it’s that famous Australian blank verse for the second of two Australian literary entries in our top ten. Of course, John Birmingham isn’t quite as highfalutin literary as Peter Carey – although damn it, He Died With a Felafel in His Hand deserves a Nobel Prize for Literature (who the hell are most of those laureates anyway?) – but he’s certainly more fun.
He was first published in Semper Floreat, student newspaper at the University in Queensland, where he studied law among ‘rat-faced bastards’ who wouldn’t lend him their notes. (Damn those University of Queensland law students!) Fortunately, Birmingham did not graduate to become a lawyer but instead became a published writer with his 1994 share-house living memoir He Died With a Felafel in His Hand. That book is an eclectic collection of “colorful anecdotes” about living in increasingly squalid share houses in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne – with increasingly dubious housemates (included the eponymous deceased felafel-holder). It’s since been adapted into the longest running stage play in Australian history (the share house setting is ideal for stage after all), an eminently quotable cult film in 2001 and a graphic novel – as well as arguably its own sequel The Tasmanian Babes Fiasco in 1997, which was less a sequel than a more straightforward fictionalization of the original (or ‘remake’).
Essentially, Birmingham is Australia’s own gonzo writer in the style of Hunter S. Thompson, although without the trunk full of acid and other drugs (or at least, not quite full). Of late, he’s adapted to writing highly entertaining pulp SF thrillers (which naturally I lap up) – the Axis of Time series, the Without Warning series, the Dave series and recently A Girl in Time.
RATING – IT’S A RAVE! 4 STARS****
(4) MARGARET ATWOOD – THE HANDMAID’S TALE (1985)
“Better never means better for everyone…It always means worse for some”.
And it certainly does if you’re a handmaid in the Republic of Gilead.
This entry crept into literature from science fiction, much like George Orwell’s 1984 (which ranks as special mention in my top ten) – a tagline for The Handmaid’s Tale might be 1984 for women (in 1985!). Margaret Atwood has flirted with science fiction on a few occasions, although she seems to be more open about the relationship these days. In fairness, all dystopian fiction tends to have science fiction elements, but the focus is on society. Atwood is a very prolific writer (from Canada, eh?) who deserves her own top ten – prize-winning novels, short story anthologies, poetry, non-fiction and literary criticism, all of it eminently readable. However, it’s to her credit that The Handmaid’s Tale looms over the others with its chillingly powerful impact, like other classics of dystopian fiction – even more so with its adaptation into a television series.
The Handmaid’s Tale is set in the near-future (or almost contemporary) Republic of Gilead (in the former United States) – a Christian fundamentalist totalitarian theocracy in which women have no rights, especially not the reproductive ‘handmaids’, who don’t even have permanent names. (They’re named for their male ‘owner’). And things get worse from there…
In the words of TV Tropes, the trope codifier for No Woman’s Land for the modern Western audience
RATING: IT’S A RAVE! 5 STARS*****
(3) DOUGLAS COUPLAND – GENERATION X: TALES FOR AN ACCELERATED CULTURE (1991)
“Kind of scary, kind of sexy, tainted by regret. A lot like life, wouldn’t you say?”
Another Canadian entry in our top ten (Canada, eh?), Douglas Coupland is a novelist and artist, the latter by formal training in design and visual art. The former commenced with this entry, his first novel and international bestseller.
From 1989 to 1990, Coupland lived in the Mojave Desert working on a handbook about the generation that followed the Baby Boom. He received a $22,500 advance from St. Martin’s Press to write the nonfiction handbook and wrote this novel instead. It popularized the term Generation X, as well as other thematic or topical neologisms scattered along with his designs in the margins, some of which have entered the vernacular, like McJob – “a low-pay, low-prestige, low-dignity, low-benefit, no-future job in the service sector. Frequently considered a satisfying career choice by people who have never held one”. (I have a soft spot for ‘veal-fattening pens’ as a neologism for office cubicles. Or ‘pull-the-plug, slice-the-pie’ for the “fantasy in which an offspring mentally tallies up the net worth of his parents”. I wonder if my mother still pops in here – hi, Mum!)
As for the book itself, it is a framed narrative (like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales) in which a group of youths (particularly the three central characters Dag, Claire and the narrator Andy) of the titular generation and varying dysfunction living together in the Coachella Valley in California “exchange heartfelt stories about themselves and fantastical stories of their creation”. The book is arranged into three parts – and chapters with titles such as “New Zealand Gets Nuked Too?”, which give something of the flavor of its ironic (and sardonic) humor.
RATING – IT’S A RAVE! 5 STARS*****
(2) JEREMY LEVEN – SATAN: HIS PSYCHOTHERAPY AND CURE BY THE UNFORTUNATE DR KASSLER J.S.P.S (1982)
Well this entry definitely crept in here from the fantasy section, although it is perhaps somewhat loosely a fantasy. Indeed, it is primarily black comedy and satire – a black comedy of life itself and a satire of religion (arguably a theological version of my top entry and as indelibly planted in my adolescent psyche). Although the central narrative premise is fantasy, with the Adversary himself or Satan, embodied in a computer (through implanting dreams of Einstein in physicist Leo Szylyck, providing the technical directions to Szylyck), it essentially is just the plot device for the rest of the novel.
And it is in the form of a computer that Satan seeks out the titular psychotherapy and cure from Dr Sy Kassler J.S.P.S – or Just Some Poor Schmuck. Indeed, this is an apt description for the hapless psychoanalyst. Much of the black comedy (and quite a few titillating scenes) come from Kassler’s train wreck of a life, as well as the various characters he and Satan encounter on their mutual journey towards each other – a journey that parallels Dante’s descent into hell in the Inferno (which is referenced by name a few times, including the name of an, ah, exotic club). Although Satan dismisses the accuracy of the specialization of sinners in Dante’s Inferno – “sinners tend to be general practitioners”.
And at the outset, Satan narrates that he is not the evil being (nor is hell the inferno) of mythology:
“The truth of the matter is, I am not the Father of Evil…I am not a seducer. Or an accuser. Or a destroyer…But let me tell you something. You never hear of a vengeful Satan, a Satan of wrath, a Satan who brings on pestilence and famine. That’s the other fellow. You should keep this in mind”.
Although it is devilishly funny in its entirety, the highlight (and centerpiece) of the book is undoubtedly the seven psychotherapy sessions with Kassler, agreed by the latter in a literal deal with the devil in exchange for Satan’s revelation of the Great Secret of Life. These sessions resemble a verbal (or theological) duel, in which, as you’d imagine, Satan generally has the upper hand – “If I wanted orthodox Freudian analysis, I’d be seeing Freud…Freud cured Hitler, you know. Hitler. He had the bastard weeping over his mother by the third session and studying the Talmud by the fifth”.
However, Kassler does on occasions hold his own – “You could ask God’s forgiveness, as I pointed out during our last session, but that would mean you’d have to give up some considerable status. You’d just be another glorious silver-winged, golden-haloed angel, rather humdrum if you ask me”.
And in the end, of course, he does find the cure for Satan – and Satan indeed repays him with the Great Secret of Life, although it is not quite to Kassler’s liking…
I and my sense of religion were never the same after reading this book – and Satan forever changed for me from a supernatural figure of childhood Catholic fear to a more mythic figure of the human condition, as forlorn and lost as any of us.
RATING: IT’S A RAVE – 5 STARS*****
(1) JOSEPH HELLER – CATCH-22 (1961)
“There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to.”
Yeah – this is the big one. This is the book that changed me forever. If you peel back the layers of my psyche, you’d find this book lodged deep in my adolescent mind (ego and id). Even more than any fantasy or science fiction book, this book is the lens by which I see the world – an absurdist and at times black comedy. Life is the laughter of the gods – but sometimes they have a black sense of humor…
A satirical antiwar novel written by Joseph Heller, Catch-22 focuses on Yossarian, an American bombardier in the Second World War, who would very much like to not be a bombardier in the Second World War – “He had decided to live forever or die in the attempt, and his only mission each time he went up was to come back down alive”.
It is anachronistic, both in satirizing more contemporary American society in the context of the Second World War, but also in its distinctive non-linear or “non-chronological omniscient third person” narrative, with the plot seemingly an assortment of random events on base, shifting focus across several characters (who are among the most humorous character vignettes in literary fiction) – although linked by the main focus on Yossarian and a mysterious recurring story arc of references to a Snowden (“I’m cold”), the latter being unveiled in the penultimate chapter.
“Many events in the book are repeatedly described from differing points of view, so the reader learns more about each event from each iteration, with the new information often completing a joke, the setup of which was told several chapters previously. The narrative’s events are out of sequence, but events are referred to as if the reader is already familiar with them so that the reader must ultimately piece together a timeline of events. Specific words, phrases, and questions are also repeated frequently, generally to comic effect.
Much of Heller’s prose in Catch-22 is circular and repetitive, exemplifying in its form the structure of a Catch-22. Circular reasoning is widely used by some characters to justify their actions and opinions. Heller revels in paradox, for example: “The Texan turned out to be good-natured, generous and likable. In three days no one could stand him”, and “The case against Clevinger was open and shut. The only thing missing was something to charge him with.” This atmosphere of apparently logical irrationality pervades the book”.
By the way, that last reference to the case against Clevinger is to the kangaroo court martial of one of the serviceman, one of my favorite comic passages in fiction – and in a satire of court process no less:
“…Now, where were we? Read me back the last line.”
“‘Read me back the last line,'” read back the corporal who could take shorthand.
“Not my last line, stupid!” the colonel shouted. “Somebody else’s.”
“‘Read me back the last line,'” read back the corporal.
“That’s my line again!” shrieked the colonel, turning purple with anger.
“Oh, no, sir,” corrected the corporal. “That’s my last line. I read it to you just a moment ago. Don’t you remember, sir? It was only a moment ago.”
“Oh, my god! Read me back his last line, stupid. Say, what the hell’s your name, anyway?”
“Well, you’re next, Popinjay. As soon as his trial ends, your trial begins. Get it?”
Most events or characters highlight the absurdities of government, society and war – and, well, life, the universe and everything. Many details that seem random become significant later on, often with much darker implications – “previously the reader had been cushioned from experiencing the full horror of events in war, but in the final section, the events are laid bare”, starting with the squadron bombing an undefended Italian mountain village (where the villagers wave at them) and getting darker (although it ends on an upbeat note).
And of course the novel originated the titular expression to describe a no-win situation or a double bind. (The number 22 itself has no actual significance and seems to have been chosen arbitrarily. The original title was Catch-18, and that didn’t have any significance either).
In the words of the New York Herald Tribune, “a wild, moving, shocking, hilarious, raging, exhilarating, giant roller-coaster of a book”.
RATING – IT’S A RAVE! 5 STARS***** (O YES – 5 STARS*****)