24 themed chapters, each with 10 numbered paragraphs of exactly 120 words. Each chapter seems chronologically ordered (sometimes the final section of a chapter harks back to the start) but there's little attempt at continuity between paragraphs, nor are the paragraphs self-sufficient Flash. Themes and time are the warp and woof of an essentially 2D structure. It's not technically hard to do compared to more Oulipian constraints - the sections are the size of a postcard/diary-entry (my notebooks have many similar snippets), and the themed (rather than chronological) structure isn't so uncommon, especially in non-fiction books. David Lodge in his "The Art of Fiction" writes "Spatial Form (modernist poetics) gives unity to a literary work by a pattern of interconnected motifs that can only be perceived by 'reading over'", which is what readers need to do here. Despite appearances, it's not a book you can dip into if you want to get the most out of it.
There are other constraints at play though - episodes aren't stretched over two units if one doesn't suffice; each episode only has one chance. And there's little self-analysis or reference to other sections. Parents' deaths and his marriage are covered, but readers shouldn't expect cliff-hangers - they're not needed anyway; the quality of the prose will suffice. Readers can piece together longer strands if they wish - the gay strand weaves through from childhood (his girl friends) through Cambridge to Italy. Just occasionally scenes recur - "Money" (para 2), "Work" (para 2) and "Fear" (para 4) belong to the same thread.
Nothing contradicts the possibility that it's all true, though in an interview he writes "I did use material from my own life, although I sneaked across borders occasionally to poach an episode from other people’s lives if I felt it made sense, but the life that’s presented in the book isn’t mine, but ‘his’".
In an interview with Isabel Costello he writes "I’d written the first ten themes when my mother died, in June 2011, ... (It was important to me that I’d shared many of the earlier stories with my mother before she died, and seen her smile as her own memories were triggered by mine.) ... The second half of the book – a further 14 themes – grew out of these very different circumstances". I found "Theft" the funniest section. "Home" might be the best. Here are some of my favourite paragraphs -
- From "Travel"
The first flight he ever takes is to Milan. It is a charter flight; some of the seats face backwards, like a train, an arrangement he will never see again. The food is dreadful but exciting; the drink is free and plentiful. He has a sick bag, which he folds and slides into his pocket when no one is looking. He stands in the bathroom, too cramped to turn, and flushes the lavatory experimentally to see what will happen, if some bright hole will open up in the plane itself. He stares through the window and wonders if what he sees are the Alps or some artful film projected onto the walls of a hangar as big as the world.
- From "Home"
His first sense is smell. The smell of apples in an attic. But also sight, because what he can see in the darkness of his head is a floor, uneven, the russet and gold of apples, the whole floor covered with fruit. And then there is touch, as he places his shoe on the edge of this living, scented carpet and feels it move away and then give, with a crunch, beneath his weight. And so hearing is the fourth sense to be woken. He bends down and picks up the ruined apple, its glistening flesh, the bright black of the seeds against the white. He no longer wants to taste it. The fifth sense, he thinks, must be guilt.
- From "Waiting" (sometimes things get weird)
He is lying in bed, his hand in the hand of a woman on the floor beside him. Her cat is dead and she has needs he can only deflect. He should have left the country immediately after Christmas but he's been threatened by a man with a gun and his flat is being used illicitly by football fans who can see the stadium from his kitchen balcony. He still hasn't learned a word of the language that has purchase outside bars or restaurants. Refugees along the coast are waiting for homes to be provided, their children wrapped in knotted shawls. Everyone is singing fado and eating sausages flambés. He's been here long enough, he says, but she's fast asleep.
- From "Correspondence"
The letters are the hardest thing to deal with. They are squeezed into shoeboxes, or chocolate boxes, or have holes punched into their margins to be organised into lever arch files recycled from his father's office. Handwritten letters with lies in them, and half-lies, letters he remembers writing and letters penned by someone else, surely, and given to him to sign, his own deceitful conniving secretary. Himself, his grudging confidant. Postcards scribbled in foreign bars, their stamps steamed off and saved elsewhere, pictures of flowers and sepia castles like small sawtooth-edged tokens of love. And then there are those that meant everything, the truthful ones, the heartfelt ones, bundled in with the rest, indistinguishable in all ways from the rest.
And here are some shorter quotes -
- "He's presented with three white mice in a plywood box, divided by a wall with a zero at its heart" (p.38)
- "He's thrilled by the way he looks in photos, like a dissident in a gulag. He dreams about money the way other people dream about alien abductions" (p.54)
- When he tells the art teacher he tried to do the homework (drawing shoes) but nothing inspired him - "His first lesson. I didn't ask for inspiration, his teacher says, clipping him round the ear, I asked for shoes" (p.63)
- "He's known what he wants for as long as he can remember wanting. He is eight when the builders next door catch his eye. He stands, dry-mouthed, behind his bedroom curtains, watching the muscles move beneath their skin, praying for sun" (p.118)
- James Smart (elegantly written and carries considerable emotional clout)
- savidgereads (It is also a book very much about books, writing and the power of words and language. Through both the experimental form, showing us what words can do in varied and unusual ways and the fact that the prose is so short, sharp and beautifully pristine. ... It is of course also the story of a young man who becomes a writer and creator of stories themselves.)
- Colin Stewart
- Sue Sheard
- Frank Babics (Our unnamed protagonist is revealed through flashes of memory, and from childhood memories and parental relations we move onto addiction and sexual experimentation, branching a wide array of emotion. While the book succeeds in maintaining its voice and rhythm, occasional moments of unevenness creep through via some weaker chapters, for instance “Danger” and “Colours.”)