On Doublespeak, Lies and Literature

on Monday, April 5, 2010
So much for the power of inertia. March has sailed by and my posting has come to a grinding halt. Alas all is not lost. I completed the month's task of "Books I've Always Lied About Having Read" with a splash of added aplomb. As I made my through the list I found myself pondering other literary lies I have told, which led me to include another couple of books: Bulgakov's classic, The Master and Margarita, Paul Auster's debut The New York Trilogy and Thomas Mann's epic masterpiece The Magic Mountain. I also managed to sneak in a couple of non-list related books - Ian McEwan's new novel Solar, Friedrich Durrenmatt's creepy play The Visit and, for the sake of pure guilty pleasure, Belinda Bauer's Blacklands.

For the most part the March challenge gave me faith in my lit-radar. Although hailed as classics, many of the books I've lied about having read really weren't all that great. I was underwhelmed by authors and books I have previously trumpeted to the heavens in attempts to save (or gain) face - Adiche, Zusak, Bulgakov and, at the risk of doing the blog equivalent of when Jerry Seinfeld made out during a screening of Schindler's List, Anne Frank's diary. I don't intend to review them all here, but for what it's worth I want to wrap up a month of inactive blogging with a few brief thoughts on some books I now can truthfully say that I have read.

Nineteen Eighty Four by George Orwell
Forgive me Eric Arthur Blair, for I have sinned. Although I did rather enjoy your quackingly good fable of despotic swine I, for no reason I can rightly identify, always avoided your much-heralded speculative masterpiece. Indeed, I even went so far as to read the Russian precursor that you are said to have plagiarised and then, finding it frightfully boring, proclaimed at every possible opportunity a haughty certainty that I possessed some sort of hidden key to your creative inadequacy. Whenever I whinged about Zamyatin, I was invariably met with the question, "Yeah but have you read Orwell?". At which point, to my everlasting shame I would lie. "Yes, and Zamyatin was better." By the time that stupid TV show came and stole your name, I knew the snowball had reached avalanche proportions. I could not in good conscience walk into any bookstore and purchase the novel without feeling like a teenager in a porno store buying pictures of four-legged loving. All the while I was decrying the shameless commodification and misappropriation of the title - it was like portraits of Kafka on crockery in Prague or Che Guevara t-shirts hanging in the windows of designer stores. But I was wrong and, I will go so far as to say, an idiot. Nineteen Eighty Four is amazing. Sure, you might have pilfered the idea from a Russian sci-fi hack but you were so much the better writer that he almost ought to be apologising to you. Zamatyn has all the flair of a Siberian sleet storm. You took his unrelenting drudgery and taught us all a lesson. And that ending... genius! This book, more than any other I read during the March challenge taught me that not only can pride sometimes be swallowed, but on the rarest of occasions it even taste good!

The Catcher In The Rye by JD Salinger
A few weeks after Salinger died, I wrote about the hullabaloo surrounding the contents of his safe. I pondered the possibility of a lost novel or some more short stories, trumpeting the superiority of the latter over the one example we have of the former. I implied I had read all his meagre published works. It was something I was to do time and again over the weeks that followed, in all sorts of situations. During rehearsals for a play I was in, one of the other cast members came up to me and asked whether I had read Catcher In The Rye. I said that I had. "Isn't it the greatest book ever?," she followed. "Well, it's alright. Good. But hardly the best ever," I replied. God forbid anyone might have read an iconic book that I have not! Especially one that was suddenly back in the headlines. So much has been written and said about Catcher in The Rye that I assumed I knew enough simply through cultural osmosis. Now, having actually read the book I wish I could go back in time to when that fellow cast member proclaimed it the best ever and reply, "No!" It's pretty good. It's perfectly readable. And I'm sure it was dynamite at the time of its publication. But let's face it, Holden isn't some poster boy for disaffected youth. He's an annoying whinger, running away from a serious family tragedy who needs a good slap in the face with a wet, flaccid mullet. Take me to the fishmonger, Salinger acolytes!

The Dirt by Motley Crue
In my touring days, while everyone else was smoking weed, getting drunk or snorting blow off any available shiny surface, I would always be sitting in the corner reading. Sure, I had my vices, but my addiction was strictly of a literary kind. Occasionally, when supplies had run low and some poor schmuck was sent off to the bottleshop/pimp/dealer for a top up, people would try to make conversation with me to pass the time. I learned very early on in the piece that punk rock musicians as a whole had only ever read one book and that book was The Dirt by Motley Crue. Almost every conversation which began with "Whatchareeden?" turned to the glam rockers' exploits within three minutes. Now, if I was embarrassed that non-readers had read Catcher in The Rye and I hadn't, imagine my crushing shame whenever some drunken idiot with snot dribbling down their nose, pants half-fallen down and breath reeking of so many spirits that I suspected their mouth might have contained one of Dante's rings of Hell, could rattle off episode after memorable episode from the glorious rock n' roller's bible which I had never even bothered to skim. Thankfully these recurrent conversations caused me to know most of the stories and so pretty soon I could hold my own in any conversation that arose. But nothing prepared me for actually reading this testament to depravity. The Dirt is every bit as jaw-droppingly disgusting as legend would have it. And I mean that in the best possible way. How the members of that band are still alive is nothing short of astonishing. And I can safely say to everyone who I ever shared a backstage area with, we were all pretenders. And nobody else will ever be able to rise to the throne because Motley Crue well and truly trashed the palace. It may not be literature, but The Dirt is a true revelation.


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