Paperback reviews: Travelling Sprinkler, The Arch And The Butterfly, Casebook, A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To Heaven, Here We Stand

 

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Travelling Sprinkler by Nicholson Baker (Serpent’s Tail £8.99)

Paul Chowder, American poet, is going through a rough patch. His girlfriend has dumped him, he’s getting old (“very soon I’m going to be Fifty Fucking Five. The three Fs”), and even literature seems to have lost its power to enthral. Turning to music for consolation, he buys a home production kit and sets about making the world’s first great techno-pacifist anthem in his garden shed.

And that about sums up the plot of this weird, charming novel, the latest in a series of weird, charming novels from Nicholson Baker. Revisiting characters from an earlier work, The Anthologist, the book offers not so much a coherent narrative as a showcase for Paul’s roving digressions on everything from classical music and the perfidy of politicians to the delights of cigar-smoking and Wikipedia. His narration hops nimbly between high and low art, between the trivial and the profound: “Progress is possible. Drones on autopilot are not inevitable … Although she’s British, Minnie Driver can do a remarkably good American accent …”

Once you adjust to the novel’s peculiar transitions it becomes a compulsive joy to read. The prose has an amiable, folksy tone, but every so often you come across a line that takes the breath away – as when our hero sits beneath the stars on a summer evening, listening to “a cricket like a bartender with a rag in his hand, mopping the surfaces of sound”.

The title seems to refer to an extended metaphor – steadily uncoiling like a garden hose – about the difficulties of concentrating the mind when there’s always a YouTube clip or a spam email to distract us from life’s bigger questions. Then again, maybe Baker just really likes a good travelling sprinkler. This author’s particular genius lies in the fact that you never can tell.

*****

The Arch And The Butterfly by Mohammed Achaari (trs by Aida Bamia) (Bloomsbury Qatar £12.99)

The American writer Walker Percy once summed up the 20th century in five words: “Only the haters seem alive.” The phrase came to mind as I read this novel, in which religious fundamentalists seem to possess a vitality and conviction their moderate interlocutors struggle to match. 

As the novel begins, Youssef, a middle-aged Moroccan academic, discovers that his son, Yacine, has been killed in Afghanistan fighting with a militant Islamist group. Disgusted by his son’s actions, Youssef is nevertheless haunted by the loss, and wanders Marrakech anatomising everyday life in what amounts to a sort of phenomenology of grief.

In order to come to terms with his son’s death, Youssef conducts imaginary conversations with him, trying to determine how he might have  persuaded him to turn away from extremism; he concludes that his arguments would have made no difference. The result is an impressive, if bleak, fictional exploration into the roots of radical Islam – and the difficulties of challenging it.

***

Casebook by Mona Simpson (Corsair £8.99)

When Miles eavesdrops on his mother’s telephone conversations to hear the gossip from the latest episode of Survivor, he learns that she and his father are getting a divorce. As his family falls apart, Miles teams up with his best friend, Hector, to snoop on his separated parents in search of knowledge that will help him get them back together.

Mona Simpson’s novel begins well, with Miles’ touching observations on how divorce affects him and his siblings. But the narrative loses its initial impetus and begins to meander, and the footnoted interjections from Hector – the novel purports to be a manuscript in progress, scribbled over with comments and suggestions – feel like a literary gimmick.

**

A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To Heaven by Corey Taylor (Ebury Press £8.99)

Corey Taylor, lead singer of the rock band Slipknot, is fascinated by the paranormal. In this book he relates his experiences tracking down evidence of ghouls and spirits and argues that we should accept the existence of “intelligent energy” – a material manifestation of the “soul and mind”. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of ghost hunting, the problem here is that Taylor is a spectacularly bad writer. Half of this book is devoted to a rant against organised religion, and when he finally gets around to telling stories of his supernatural encounters he fails to convince: “It was like being possessed by the winds of Antarctica”; “That thing was framed in the doorway. .. I could feel its light on my face, understand?” Er no, Corey, not really.

*

Here We Stand edited by Helen Earnshaw and Angharad Penrhyn Jones (Honno £10.99)

In this important book, subtitled “Women Changing the World”, two political activists, Helen Earnshaw and Angharad Penrhyn Jones, interview 17 of their peers about what compels them to devote their lives to helping others. Among the stories they document are those of Jasvinder Sanghera, who campaigns against forced marriage and honour killings; and human rights lawyer Shauneen Lambe, who speaks movingly of her time spent defending inmates on death row in Louisiana. Wisely, the editors don’t try to draw any overarching themes or arguments from these women’s work, instead letting them speak for themselves. Their courage and commitment shines through.

****

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