Wednesday, 21 December 2011

A Christmas Smoking story

The Birds, The Man

After the fire, we moved in with my sister. The two of us cramped into her attic room, the smoke still burned into everything we’d salvaged. Julia said that she would never smell anything else but the fumes; that the memory of it would never be erased. I told her to stop being melodramatic, but she was right. A year later and still it clings. Occasionally I apologise for stinking out my sister’s house; she shakes her head and tells me not to worry.

My sister is a good woman. There is no doubting that, but she wears her goodness like a starched uniform. It feels somehow professional, and it does not make her popular. Alex’s warmth and civility, her commitment to others’ happiness is commendable, but Julia has never quite trusted her. We are thankful, nothing more. Twice, three times a week, Julia and I go back home, watch the builders at work and are reminded of her goodness. If she were in the same situation, would we do the same? It’s not a question we ask, for which, again, we are thankful.

Alex rents a small house – she calls it a cottage – in the outer stretches of the city: not quite suburbia, but close enough to give Julia hives. There is a small garden where we smoke, a living room where we watch terrestrial television, a bathroom that isn't quite adequate. In the winter it is too hot inside; in the summer too bright from the sun. We have come to tolerate it. I wish we could say more than that. It would be good to tell Alex that we have loved staying with her, that her house feels like a home. Instead we pore over catalogues and brochures, argue over splashback colours and the shape of door handles; imagine packing our three suitcases and putting them in the back of a taxi.

For all Julia’s disdain for the cottage, it is close to her work. A rail link gets her to the office in a little over twelve minutes. I am not so fortunate. I kiss her goodbye as she sleeps, dress in the living room, leave the house without coffee or listening to the radio. It is some distance to the bus stop, a meander through the estate and then through the park. There are several possible routes, but I always follow the same directions. I read somewhere that this is not good for the brain: that a lack of variation can cause dementia later in life. Despite the risks, I stick to the same streets, the same pathway through the park. This is for two reasons: the birds and the man.

The birds. By a stand of trees, just after the football pitch, a pair of magpies skitter each morning. Not most days, or the majority of the time, each and every morning. Or at least whenever I walk through the park. They peck at the ground, preen, flap wings. They look like lovers pausing after taking a morning stroll. I often wonder what would happen if they were not there, or there were just the one. It has never happened. There is always the two of them. Always pecking at the ground, preening, flapping wings.

The man. On exiting the park, there is a small parade of shops, always closed. I take a right, then a left and on the corner the man waits: a bag on his shoulder, his eyes on the road. His clothes are licked with paint; rips in his boots expose steel toe caps. He wears a hooded sweatshirt in all weathers and puts up the hood when it gets cold. Like the birds, he was there on the first day I walked to the bus stop, and has been there every morning since: waiting, I assume, for his lift to arrive. I never see a car approach.

When I draw near, he turns away from me and looks into a privet hedge. Then as I am about to turn right, he says, “You got a spare cigarette?” He asks me and I ignore him. I estimate that this has happened in excess of 250 times. Exactly the same, each and every working day. He never asks me to my face, never asks sooner rather than later. I never respond, never even turn around. “You got a spare cigarette?” Silence, a pull on my cigarette, the turn onto Hardwick Street.

I told Julia about the birds and the man and she thought I was making too much out of it. Don’t be so melodramatic, she said, wagging a finger, it’s not every day, you just think it is. But she was wrong about that. I was fastidious in looking for them, every time they appeared a little victory. I didn’t tell Julia about it. It was between me and the birds and the man.

On Christmas Eve there was snow and the birds’ wings looked bluish against the unbroken settling. I stood and watched them for a time, glanced back at my lone footprints on the path. The house would be ready for the new year; it was good to see them that last, final time. I walked through the park and out the other side. I could see him standing there, waiting.

The man had his hood up, his sleeves pulled down over his hands. I walked past him. There was a crackly pause and then, finally, he asked me for a cigarette. I relaxed so much I stopped. I smiled and turned around.

‘Why don’t you buy your own?’ I said.


‘Every day, every single day, you ask me for a cigarette. Why don’t you just buy your own?’

‘I do what?’ he said. I put my hands deeper in my pockets.

‘You ask me for a cigarette.’

‘I do?’ he said. ‘Really?’

‘Every day,’ I said.

‘Really? I can't say as I've noticed that.’

I laughed.

‘You’ve not noticed that you ask me for a cigarette every time I walk past you?’

‘No. Never occurred to me.’

He smiled. He had chapped lips and needed a shave. His whiskers were grey and chestnut , slightly squirrelish.

‘Do I really?’

‘Yes,’ I said.

‘Well do you?’

‘Do I what?’

‘Have a spare cigarette?’ He smiled again. ‘After all, it is Christmas.’

I felt the packet and the lighter in my pocket. The cool steel of the Zippo, the bevelled edge of the pack of Winstons. A van turned the corner and beeped its horn. The cab door slid open and the man got inside. I took the pack from my pocket as the van lurched away. I shouted Merry Christmas to its exhaust pipe.

The birds were there in January. The man was there too. He asked me for a cigarette and I ignored him. They were there in February and March too. I don’t know who will disappear first: the birds, the man or me.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

My Books of the Year

I’ve probably read fewer books this year than is customary. This is the fact of writing both a novel and having something published, or that seems like a fairly plausible excuse. I’ve also read slightly fewer new novels than I’d have liked – this is not due to their being enough interesting titles out there, but just the way things have fallen. Still, there has been more than enough to make it an interesting year, even if you discount the pettiness that surrounded the Booker prize.

American novel of the year: The Illumination – Kevin Brockmeier

My full review of this ran in the Independent (read it here) but some seven months after having read it, my appreciation of it has if anything deepened. A strange, quiet and wilfully opaque novel, it is a book that deserves a wider audience, the kind of novel you hope a stranger will press on you while waiting for a night bus in the rain.

Non-American novel of the year: Open City – Teju Cole

With echoes of Aleksander Hemon and WG Sebald set against the backdrop of a peeling New York, Open City already seemed destined to be a book I would admire. It did more than that; it enveloped me. The central character, Julius, is a flanuer with a taste for solipsism, for uncommon views on familiar architecture and intellectual ideas. The book that should have been this year’s Booker Winner. In another year, it may well have done.

Short stories of the year: The Angel Esmeralda – Don Delillo

No other book has made me seriously think about the nature and purpose of fiction more than this collection of nine stories. Collated from over three decades, this chart Delillo’s trajectory, map out his themes and shine a light on some of the best prose written in this and the last century.

Discovery of the year: Jernigan – David Gates

Gates’s debut novel was first published in 1991 and is a dark, downbeat yet always viciously funny account of a man heading for a very public breakdown. Like Yates before him, Gates tears lumps of his characters, all of whom are ignorant, unpleasant, deluded and yet utterly believable and real. At the centre of the book, however, is the voice: Jernigan’s. Short and shocking, it is a classic that deserves to be dusted off just as Yates was ten years ago.

Biggest disappointment of the year: IQ84 – Haruki Murakami

I finished it. Some of it I actually enjoyed. Some of it was well written; some of it utterly wretched. Finishing it was shrug-inducing. I wanted to love it. I wanted to proudly say it was better than the Wind-up Bird. Instead, it made me wonder whether my memory of his work was in any way reliable…

Monday, 25 July 2011

For what it's worth, pt 2

Last year I correctly predicted 8 out of 13 of the Booker Longlist. Last year was, however, a somwhat leaner year that 2011 and I'd be surprised if I got anywhere near as many. Anyway...

1. At Last – Edward St Aubyn
2. Chinaman – Shehan Karunatilaka
3. Gillespie and I – Jane Harris
4. Last Man in Tower – Aravind Adiga
5. Mr Fox – Helen Oyeyemi
6. Open City – Teju Cole
7. Pure – Andrew Miller
8. Snowdrops – AD Miller
9. The Blue Book – AL Kennedy
10. The Stranger’s Child – Alan Hollinghurst
11. There but for the – Ali Smith
12. Waterline – Ross Raisin
13. What they do in the dark – Amanda Coe

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Tell me the Truth About Roth

I didn’t think I, or indeed anyone else, would ever be in a position where it seemed somehow necessary to defend Philip Roth's literary worth.

Not that he has ever engendered consensus: his 50-year writing life has been soundtracked by accusations: misogyny, the most prominent and most persistent; anti-Semitism, at least at the beginning; mining other people's lives, and his own, for his own literary purposes. But amongst all the white-noise of white-hot controversy, doubts were rarely, if ever, expressed about his abilities as a novelist.

Roth’s sentences, his precision, his acute eye for masculine hubris and weakness, his feral rage and comic timing always proved the counter-balance to those who were firmly, staunchly against him. Now, in the wake of Carmen Callil’s protest at his winning of the Man International Booker, even this seems up for debate. A host of commentators over on the Guardian are queuing up to thank Callil for voicing the opinion they always knew was right: that Roth is an overrated bore, a writer with whom readers today, let alone in 20 years, should not bother. It is a position I find both laughable and indefensible.

American Pastoral was the first of Roth’s books I came across, and it remains, to my mind, his defining work: intelligent, fierce, beautiful, sad and deeply felt. I’ve gone on to read almost everything he’s written and no matter how bad (The Humbling, Our Gang, The Great American Novel) there is always something to be gleaned, a few scattered moments where the dormant, sleeping grandeur of his style shines through. In his best work (The Counterlife, Sabbath’s Theater, The American Trilogy), however, he seems to be writing at another level entirely; as though he has access to something that other writers – other people – do not.

In his essay published in Faber’s The Good of the Novel, Ian Sansom recounts a creative writing course he is teaching. He tells his students to read Roth, to read American Pastoral: ‘Roth should create a rage in you,’ he says. ‘He should make you ashamed. He makes me ashamed to be human and to pretend to call myself a writer; because in comparison to this sort of writer I am nothing: you are nothing.’

Roth can do that to you, you can read a passage, a chapter and just wonder how the hell he did it, and how he made it look so simple. But that comes later, much later; what happens  first is you marvel at the sentences, their weighty construction, their perfect word choice, then fall headlong into his characters and places. And in his best work he sustains this alchemy over the course of an entire novel; characters yawning into life, their own lives blasted and buffeted by a world that neither understands them, nor cares; men and (the occasional) women who have the complexity of authenticity, who rage and fight and fuck and cry just like real people do.

Roth writes almost solely about middle-class white American Jews – this is a common criticism – but his concerns are the human experience, the effect of place on personality, the pressure of family, love and tradition on the individual, and also the dark power of aspiration and the delicacy of contentment. These are not exclusive to New Jersey, not exclusive to Semites – but their exploration, depiction and examination are exclusive to Roth.

To call Roth a bad writer is to be a bad reader. It’s perfectly possible to not like his books, absolutely justifiable to dislike his portrayal of women, but to accuse him of a lack of talent is just being willful. Read the reunion party at the beginning of American Pastoral, and the dinner party at its end; the scenes by the graveside in Sabbath’s Theater, the reveal of Coleman Silk in The Human Stain . . . read them and tell me you’re not in the cradling, wrinkled hands of a master; tell me that they don’t delve into the heart of what it is to be human, to love, to hurt, to die; tell me that the prose doesn’t swell and burn, that you can’t almost smell the warm, slightly sour breath of his characters as they speak; tell me that he doesn’t confront the darkness of our lives with candour, rage and vigour; tell me that there is no beauty; tell me you don’t want to read on; tell me that this is average, run of the mill, boring, solipsistic tripe; tell me, show me, explain it to me. And I’ll call you a liar. And mean it.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Here is my German jacket. Comments very much appreciated

Thursday, 24 March 2011

On Perec and Memory

I’ve been talking about Georges Perec an awful lot recently; about how his strictures and magpie-ish mind, have, however tangentially, influenced me; about my love for his great work, Life: a User’s Manual. Last night I ended up talking about him twice, and I think I’ve ended up mentioning him in every interview I’ve conducted. It’s a funny kind of reverence, one borne out of memory rather than hard knowledge. When quizzed on the book itself, I find myself hazily recalling jigsaws and static rooms, curious men in curious positions just off the floor.

Over the last few months I’ve picked it up several times, wondering whether to embark on re-reading it: though I know that ultimately I won’t. The memory is like that of a drunken, impromptu night out; the feeling of the euphoria remaining but the details sketchy. I have no doubt that I’d fall in love with it again – just reading random pages gives me a glowing feeling of pleasure – but I’m not entirely sure that I want to be close enough to remember more than that glorious way the novel proper begins: ‘yes, it could begin that way . . .’

Books are unique in this way, and perhaps why they are the art form most attuned to life. Just as we can remember a good day, but not, perhaps, the exact itinerary; books, once read, become less physical objects, works of art or airport trash, but part of us. Film and theatre, any visual media at all, gives us stimuli that help with the remembering; for books we rely on ourselves utterly.

I have a visceral memory, for example, of one particular scene in Delillo’s Underworld, where they’re driving through the desert and reach the top of the ridge, the B52 bombers, painted and de-militarised, shining below in the hazy heat. I can’t recall the words, but can still feel the bump and judder of the jeep as Delillo drives us out into his imagination. At a seminar at the Manchester Literary Festival, a passage from the novel was printed out and I didn’t recall a single word; this from a book I considered a passion ever since I read it.

It is a deficiency as a reader, this lack of exacting memory. My girlfriend is the opposite: she can recall whole lines and paragraphs years after having read something. I envy this, wish that I could quote long from that Delillo passage that so excited me; remember exactly the jokes from Confederacy of Dunces, the swooning melancholy of The Great Gatsby. But that’s not how it works, at least not for me, so for holiday this year, I will be taking Life: a User’s Manual and heading back into Perec’s world. I can’t wait.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Being Jordan

Emma Young, who was emcee at the recent World Book Night evening, described the act of moving from writing about books to actually writing books as ‘like a Sun journalist suddenly turning into Jordan.’ I’ve been trying to find a more apposite kind of comparison, but have failed. I am therefore, Katie Price – which at least makes it easy to give up masturbation for Lent.

I was prepared for little coverage, if I’m honest. There are so many books out this month, so many novels that publishers have pinned their hopes upon, so many novels that their editors and agents can only pray will rise above the sheer volume of hopeful titles. Trying to get heard over the noise is difficult; there is a danger that truly important, wonderful books (such as the stunningly, swooningly good The Illumination by Kevin Brockmeier) will be left unheard, standing at the far corner of the bar, ignored by the pretty boys and girls serving the drinks. I’ve been stupidly lucky in comparison; the box format intriguing enough reviewers to unwrap the cellophane and actually read the stories.

They’ve been nice reviews too:

“Evers happily acknowledges the influence of such American masters of short fiction as Raymond Carver, John Cheever and Richard Yates. Yet, by applying the same unshowy precision to alarmingly recognisable British lives, he achieves something both original and quietly devastating.” Daily Telegraph

“Brilliantly restrained and emotionally mature, I wish this had been a packet of 20, not ten” Scotland on Sunday

“Evers's writing is sequined with sparkling descriptions, usually of urban settings or human foibles . . . haunting.’ Independent on Sunday

“The humour is black as tar. That Evers manages to sustain our interest in these wretched lives is tribute to his skill. His writing is like the cigarette smoke that suffuses it - insidious and addictive . . . This exquisite slice of Anglo-Americana deserves to be read” New Statesman

“A Swindon motel, a pub in Benidorm and a Las Vegas casino are among the settings for these wistful tales of white-collar heartache.” Metro

“Inhaling each story is a hauntingly wonderful experience . . . Moving and thought provoking, there's a beautiful delicacy to the way these tales of disaffection burn down to the filter, searing to the core of fragile human sensitivity like a butt stubbed out on the flesh.” Easy Living

‘The best pieces here have surreal flourishes and the deadpan observational eye of the chronic doorway lurker.” Time Out

“Ten Stories about Smoking is a remarkably assured collection. Evers has developed a subtle, minimalist style loaded with implication - a versatile instrument capable of expressing humour and pathos in equal measure.” GQ

“Evers’s deadpan prose shows a casual knack for getting under the reader’s skins . . . the solid construction and Evers’s confidence are impressive. His next move will be worth watching” Financial Times

And to end on Being Jordan, nothing I think will ever top being reviewed by the Daily Sport, just underneath an article entitled: ‘Boobs, Glorious Boobs’ . . .

Friday, 28 January 2011

They Shoot Sharks, Don't They?

There was a brief lull in the phone interview; a quiet crackle on the audio file as I played it back. Wells Tower had been talking about the writers whom he admired, people like Barry Hannah and Nicholson Baker; authors who write beautiful, fibrous sentences. Then he mentioned someone I’d not only never read, but had never heard of. Hence the pause. I assumed that the writer concerned, Charles Portis, was obscure; a cult American writer, perhaps, one of those writers’-writers; instead, reading my pause for ignorance, Tower helped me out: ‘He wrote True Grit,’ he said.

With the Coen brothers' Oscar-nomination-sprayed version currently doing the rounds, and a glossy-coated tie-in edition stacked up in Waterstone’s 3 for 2, it looks like Portis may be ripe for reappraisal – though this is only possible through Hollywood’s patronage. No matter what the quality of the prose, without the 1969 film adaptation starring everyone’s favourite race-baiting, bullet-shitting, former-Marion, John Wayne, there’s no doubt that Wells or the Coen brothers wouldn’t have found a copy in their local Barnes and Noble.

Despite writing five novels over a period of twenty-five years, Portis’s name has been completely overshadowed by the film that gave John ‘I believe in White Supremacy’ Wayne his only Oscar. I haven’t seen it. I can honestly say I’ve never watched a John Wayne movie – probably because I’m afraid I’ll be brainwashed into shooting wild animals, having suspect views towards all people who don’t shoot wild animals, and walking like I’ve just been anally penetrated by a Stars and Stripes dildo – but it must be okay: it’s kept Portis in print ever since.

True Grit belongs to a shady subset of novels; novels that owe their continued publication to their movie interpretations. It’s an odd roll call of the overlooked and the awful, a club that includes Peter Benchley’s Jaws, Robert Bloch’s Psycho, Jerzy Kosinski’s Being There, Mario Puzo’s The Godfather and James Dickey’s Deliverance. Actually, they’re mainly awful. Especially Jaws, a book so cock-clenchingly bad that the true horror lies in the leaden, barely readable prose, rather than threat of a barely believable man-eating shark.

For the most part, these books don’t really deserve the longevity they have enjoyed. They might have provided the inspiration, but read in relation to the films that they’ve spawned, they are a very poor cousin. A cousin you don’t even like. A cousin, in fact, that makes inappropriate jokes at Christmas and once hit on you when they were drunk.

Of this rather grubby genre, there is one book that doesn’t pale next to the resultant film. They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? by Horace McCoy.

It takes less time to read the book than it does to watch the 1969 film version; but despite its brevity it remains a brutal, intense and provocative psychological thriller. Set during the Great Depression, the book centres on Robert and Gloria, two lost and broke would-be actors, competing in a marathon dance competition. It is an uncompromising read, in that McCoy seems determined to undermine reader expectation at all times. The novel opens with Robert’s trial for Gloria’s murder, and there is no mystery: he definitely did it. There is no conventional narrative arc, no growing appreciation of each other, no suggestion of love blossoming. Instead, as the competition becomes more gruelling and more grotesque, McCoy offers no respite to the misery.

There are some great lines in They Shoot Horses... – Gloria’s suggestion that they ‘go to the park and hate a bunch of people’ king among them – but it is the compelling oddness of the narrative which really resonates, the slow descent into madness, the claustrophobic atmosphere, the sense of it never ending. The film version is similarly bleak, but though the story follows the same shape and arc, the sheer ugliness and despair of McCoy’s book make it a quite different experience. It’s a very quick read, and is by no stretch of the imagination perfect; but it refuses to be any short of memorable. Read the book, then watch the film. Don’t read Jaws. Ever.