So, as I mentioned in my last post, I’ve embarked upon a probably ill-fated project to finish my old shit before buying any new shit.
I’m actually quite enjoying it so far. But then I’m also being careful not to turn the whole affair into a self-beating stick – I mean, if I super, super want something, I’m going to get it and if I hate something, I’m not going to force myself through it. But I’ve called a halt to general acquisitions.
And, some ways, it’s actually relaxing. There’s just so much … culture out there available for consumption that it often feels simultaneously over and underwhelming. Basically I have this problem, except with books:
But having my choices gently curtailed means I spend time less filled with existential dread over the fact I’ll definitely die before I’ve read everything I want to read. And more time actually reading.
So, here is an update on, um, my shit.
The Lessons by Naomi Alderman
I think I picked this up because it was an Oxford book, and I have a weakness for Oxford books. It’s sort of half The Secret History half Brideshead Revisited, while not being nearly as good as either. It’s readable enough, I guess, and the intricacies and insularities of Oxford are well-depicted but it all felt very been-there-done-that to me. The narrator is ye typical ‘normal’ outsider person who gets drawn into a circle of fabulous Bohemians, led by a damaged homosexual. The problem is, this sort of book turns on that character being as fascinating to the reader as they are to the narrator. And despite Mark Winters having all the designated attributes—beauty, money, promiscuity, Catholic guilt—I kind of failed spectacularly to give any fucks about him. And the rest of the cast is similarly un-fuck inspiring.
I think part of the problem was a lacklustre dismantling. These novels have a particular trajectory: The Normal comes to university, full of hopes and dreams, is initially disappointed to discover the place isn’t what they imagined. Then they find their low door in the wall and are for a little while blessed, dazzled, enraptured, believing they have what they didn’t originally realise they were searching for. Then it all goes horribly wrong. In The Secret History it’s because they literally murder someone. In Brideshead Revisited Sebastian’s descent into ruin mirrors the destruction caused by the coming war. In The Lessons … it’s more just kind of an eh. Things are a bit depressing. People make ill-advised choices and are sad. Oh, the narrator is gay outta nowhere. That must have been one hell of a handjob.
There’s some really well-articulated stuff about Oxford itself though:
What is Oxford? It is like a magician, dazzling viewers with bustle and glitter, misdirecting our attention. What was it for me? Indifferent tuition, uncomfortable accommodation, uninterested pastoral care. It has style: the gowns, cobbled streets, domed libraries and sixteenth-century portraits. It is old and it is beautiful and it is grand. And it is unfair and it is narrow and it is cold. Walking in Oxford, one catches a glimpse through each college doorway, a flash of tended green lawn and ancient courtyards. But the doorways are guarded and the guardians are suspicious and hostile.
And I appreciated the shout-out to the St Giles toilets.
I Am Not Myself These Days by Josh Kilmer Purcell
Wow, this was awful. Awfully sad and awfully funny. And I liked it awfully. Like The Lessons above it’s a familiar story—this time the subgenre ‘being fucked up with another fuck up’—but, to my mind, it was a lot more successful. Because while “I’m messed up and I’m in love with someone messed up and no matter how hard we try we keep messing each other up” is familiar ground for a memoir, especially a queer memoir, the devil is in the details.
Set in New York in the 90s, Kilmer Purcell works as an advertising executive by day. By night, he performs as his alter-ego Aquadisiac. Though, mainly he drinks. Then he meets an escort called Jack, who keeps a penthouse apartment and helps Josh bring his life fleetingly into some kind of order. And, of course, it unravels with Jack spiralling into drug addiction, and then both of them falling apart together.
Despite the fact that the narrative has one direction, and the direction is down, I still found this really readable: it’s defiant and cynical and unsentimental and charming. I sometimes struggle with memoirs that want to wring a structure from the chaos of being alive. To me, it can feel too neat, too much like fiction. Not everything has meaning, a lesson to learn, a conclusion to find. IANMTD, by contrast, is very much about a particular time and a particular place—the legacy of something real, half-revealed and half-concealed by the artifice surrounding it. If it is “about” anything, I’d say it’s about love. Not in the sweeping romance, HEA way. But love as a thing that happens to you. The ways it changes you and the ways it doesn’t. All the ghosts we leave behind us of the people we were when we were in love.
The last chapter, in particular… eeesh. Left me full of unexpected feels.
This Charming Man by Ajax Bell
Hurrah! I enjoyed this very much. I don’t want to make sweeping generalisations about the genre (genrelisations?) but if we accept m/m is a complicated spectrum of voices and agendas and presumed/preferred audiences … this felt consciously queer to me. And, yes, I’m aware this is an arbitrary and entirely subjective judgement.
It’s a coming-of-age story set in … um … somewhere in America … um … Seattle in the 90s? Omg, I’m rubbish. We follow our hero Steven as he grows from aimless party boy to a young man who has decided the sort of life he wants to live. As you can probably tell from my attempt to summarise the plot, most of the action is internal and emotional, but it broadly works. I mean, I could have done with slightly less “Steven talking to everyone about the same things over and over again” but I was sufficiently invested in him as a character that the occasional pace-slowing conversation didn’t trouble me too much.
Steven’s two main relationships are with John, an older man he has as crush on, and Adrian, his fabulous but bad-for-him best friend. Adrian is, well, we’ve all met this character, a few times in life, repeatedly in fiction: beautiful, stylish, shallow, promiscuous, cruel, wounded. Steven starts the book entangled with him, entranced and frustrated, at least half in love with him, while knowing deep down that Adrian will never be with him the way he wants. I feel kind of ambivalent about Adrian. I found him a more successful depiction of someone I was supposed to be attracted to than Mark Winters in The Lessons but I never felt as if I had any direct access to whatever it was that drew Steven to him beyond the generic appeal of someone who is like that. Basically it was like Steven was responding to a fictional archetype he understood to be tempting rather than something specific about Adrian. I mean, possibly that was the point but, in my experience, when we do get tangled up with someone bewitching but destructive it’s highly personal. Otherwise we’d get out of there much more quickly.
I was braced for Adriaan to die horribly at some point because characters like Aidan always die … but (spoiler) he didn’t! In fact, I found the novel generally balanced in its portrayal of queer life and choices. Drug-taking and partying and having casual sex is bad for Steven in the long-term because it interferes with what he wants to with his life and stops making him happy, but I never got the sense that was part of a broader commentary on the lifestyle. It wasn’t that buckling down, getting a degree and going steady with John was better per se. More that, as Steven figured out his life, it became what he wanted.
In fact, Steven has quite a lot of casual sex and, while sex with someone you love is portrayed as demonstrably different to sex with someone you don’t, I liked that casual sex had a place in the book. And while it wasn’t always completely healthy (like when Steven fucks Adrian in the first chapter) it never crossed the line into bad, abusive or wrong. There’s even some fulfilling friendsex in the middle that is good for both parties. This is actually pretty rare in romance and while it may cross the NOPE line for some readers … I appreciated it very much. Sex is many things. Can be about many things. I personally don’t like the idea that the only valid sex is love-of-life-HEA-sex.
As for the romance … it was … fine. It was nice. Gently kinky, which was a touch surprising since Steven-is-a-bit-of-a-sub kind of emerges slightly untethered towards the middle of the book. But the romance isn’t really the focus here. And mostly that’s okay—except John is a very distant figure sometimes. Their ‘big misunderstanding’ such as it is involves John not phoning Steven because of some shit he’s got going on in his head about not being ready for a potentially complicated relationship with a younger man. And this leads to them spending literally months apart and only gets explained via direct dialogue—which was both understandable, as a natural consequence of limited third person narration, and emotionally unsatisfying to me.
A Charming Man is a bit ragged in places—I wish the pacing was tighter, I’d have liked more emotional depth to Adrian and more access to John. But I loved the sense of place and time—I was teeny-tiny when this book is set, and I’ve never been to Seattle, so I have no idea if it’s authentic or not. But it felt like it had been written with love. Much like the book as a whole: queer and compassionate and unique in many ways.
PS – isn’t this cover pretty? Also A+ Smiths reference.
Alphabet of Thorn by Patricia A McKillip
I burned out on fantasy quite a few years ago, but there was a lot I enjoyed about this. The fact it wasn’t eighty thousand gazillion pages long, for example, and it’s not the first book of a trilogy, which ends on a cliff-hanger, and book two of which is due for release in 2046. Also there are women in it, which fantasy as a genre is still working on—a variety of women and they get to do cool stuff. It’s a multi-viewpoint thing, bringing together a young scribe, left orphaned outside the library, a trainee wizard, a young queen, and a terrifying sorcerer from beyond space and time.
It took me a while to get into this because you don’t really figure out what’s happening until about halfway through. The stories feel disconnected and the characters a little distant (Bourne, in particular, the trainee wizard remains an attractive cipher throughout) … but once the pieces snap into place, it’s fucking awesome. It’s got all the usual fantasy type tropes in here—magic, war, politics!—but in the end they fall away to tell a very personal story about love and language, and the power of both to control people and save them and tear them apart.
I also loved the depth of the world-building here. While the book never bogs down in detailed explanation—there’s a floating school for magicians, a vast library built into a cliff, a warrior-king sleeping in a cave—there’s an intense sense of place, history and myth. This is very much my personal preference because I know some fantasy readers want six thousand years of timeline and a map. But, me, I want a fantasy author to make me believe they know how the magic works, and what happened 543 years ago, without necessarily feeling obliged to tell me about it.
And the writing, oh the writing is incredibly pretty. So this one was a win for me.
Every moment is like a wheel with a hundred spokes in it. We ride always at the hub of the wheel and go forward as it turns. We ignore the array of other moments constantly turning around us. We are surrounded by doorways; we never open them
And – well, that’s my shit. Come back some other time for some more shit.
Oh, I forgot disclosure and stuff: I know none of these people either personally or on social media.