Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Thursday 25 November 2010

"Stuart: A life backwards", Alexander Masters (Harper Perennial, 2006)

The biography of a sometimes homeless, sometimes psycho person who lived around Cambridge. The text is punctuated by extracts from newspapers, and there's a map. The chapters are in reverse chronological order - an idea by the main character

  • "'Do it the other way round. Make it more like a murder mystery. What murdered the boy I was? See? Write it backwards.'" (p.6)
  • "Stuart's backwards inspiration has turned out to be excellent. At a swoop, it has solved the major problem of writing biography of a man who is not famous ... introduce Stuart to readers as he is now, a fully-fledged gawd-help-us, and he may just grab their interest straight away" (p.11)

The main character also offers critique. The author wants to find reasons, explanations, turning points - "In biography most of the time, the real person is a nuisance. One wants them out of the way. If only they'd stop muddying the waters with inconsistencies, denials, forgetfulness and different interpretations of your language, you could extract their essence" (p.213) - but Stuart doesn't see things quite that way.

I know many of the places in this book. Here, for comparison is part of another map of Cambridge from a book (a medieval whodunnit by Suzanna Gregory). I know "Addenbrooke's, the hospital complex of beds, smoke stacks and research departments on the edge of Cambridge; it looks over the wheat fields and the train line to London, like a crematorium" (p.11) and used to know one of people ("Twice winner of a Mathematics Olympiad Gold Medal, co-author of "The Atlas of Finite Groups", my landlord is a generous, mild man, as brilliant as the sun, but a fraction odd. Women have a habit of shrieking when they come upon him unexpectedly, waxen and quiet, standing on the other side of the door. His hair is wild, his trousers, torn. But one of Stuart's most personable (and most annoying) qualities is his refusal to judge strangers until he knows them, especially if they're peculiar" (p.32)). By chance the same character appears in Marcus du Sautoy's "Finding Moonshine" ("I could see what looked like a tramp with wild black hair sprouting out all over his head, trousers frayed at the turn-ups, wearing a shirt full of holes. He was surrounded by plastic bags which seemed to contain his worldly possessions" (p.22)).

I wasn't as excited as Zadie Smith about the book ("It's been years since I''ve been so delighted by a book"). Perhaps this is because via friends I already knew something about life on the margins. Theories of identity are slipped in. "Going inside" leads to a loss of familiar surroundings and praise from others, which for some people weakens their feeling of identity and self-respect. The book has several people whose created public face hides less pleasant details. The main character's management of self (his mood swings more than multiple personalities) doesn't lead to an identity that fits well into society. The author doesn't go into these issue much, though in Cambridge there's research in that area, so he'd have an excuse.

On p.1 it said "Outside, it is getting dark; the trees in the garden have started to grow in size and lose their untended shapes" which distracted me - "grow in size?". That was about the only hiccup though. It's an interesting glance at an alternative culture and belief system - the writer doesn't hide himself and the writing's unobtrusive.

  • "I begin to see why bag ladies have bags. When life is this dull, you have to invent purpose ... Then one day you wake up and realise that it was all a con: what you had thought was an escape from madness was in fact the arrival" (p.87)
  • "Most smuggling ... is done over the perimeter fence ... Then the prisoners on gardening duty (known as 'Wombles') clean up the mess and get it back to the cells" (p.113 - about prisons)
  • "'If you took all the clothes off all the people in Cambridge,' declares Stuart, 'you'd be amazed how many of them had scars underneath.' " (p.123 - about self-damage)

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