The opening scene of the brilliant Berg by Ann Quin takes us to a post-war seaside boarding house, where Alistair Berg, hair-restorer salesman and furtive masturbator, lies uneasy in his bed. In the flimsily-partitioned room next door, Berg’s father resides with his flirtatious mistress, unaware of his son’s presence. A ‘scoundrel of the first order,’ the old man deserted Berg in babyhood, and now his vengeful son has come to kill him. In Quin’s 1964 absurdist cult classic, we follow Berg as his tendency towards vacillation causes his master plan to unravel, in the face of a string of farcical events and unhinged decisions.
... something funny
Professor Q is a somewhat dull academic, apathetically teaching literature at a middling university and uninterested in his wife, Maria. She, in turn, is just grateful that Q appears to have lost any carnal urges. Supposing that the andropause has come for him, Maria is unaware that her hitherto predictable husband is in love with a mechanical music-box ballerina. Her name is Aliss and he is willing her to life. Both a political allegory and a deep dive into the recesses of the human psyche, Owlish by Dorothy Tse is a subversive and exhilarating affair.
The New York Review of Books Classics series is a marvellous creation, an eclectic mix of fabulously-jacketed titles, invariably accompanied by compelling intros. A recent serendipitous dip into the collection blessed us with A Way of Life Like Any Other by Darcy O’Brien, the story of a young boy in 1950’s Hollywood, his movie star parents and their sordid and absurd descent into has-been territory. Irresistibly described as ‘completely bananas’, we find out what happens after the glitter fades, in a bizarre coming-of-age novel that combines hilarity with a dash of vinegar.
Shibata is 34-years-old and works in the paper core manufacturing industry (that’s cardboard tubes to you and me). As the only woman in her office, Shibata is eternally put-upon by her chauvinistic colleagues, who expect her to be the coffee maker and general dogsbody. One day, in a fit of pique, she falsely announces that she’s pregnant and therefore too nauseous to deal with dirty coffee cups. In Diary of a Void by Emi Yagi, we’re in for the full nine months, as Shibata learns to love sitting with her feet up, and the lies spiral out of control.
An amusing journey into the world of Greek gods and semi-gods has been the highlight of my holiday reading this Christmas. Stone Blind by Natalie Hayes is frivolous fun and a welcome distraction from family gatherings and dishwasher emptying. Hayes, a respected classicist whose mission it is to make Greek myths accessible and entertaining, takes a closer look at the infamous snake-headed Medusa and her lethal stare. Was she really as bad as her reputation? Why did her stare turn people into stone? And how did she end up with snakes as hair anyway?
The artist Marina Abramovic’s endorsement of Life for Sale by Yukio Mishima piqued my curiosity and, sure enough, this book really is something else. A fast-moving, surreal noir novel originally published in 1968, Life for Sale is about a man who offers his life up for sale. What he expects to be a carefree, albeit lethal, experiment, turns out to be a whole lot more complicated involving gangsters, vampires, hallucinogenic beetle powder and poisoned carrots. Darkly comic and totally twisted, this book will appeal to all fans of surreal fiction and Japanese literature.
The Tenants of Moonbloom by Edward Lewis Wallant is an unjustly neglected American gem. A deliciously peculiar novel, comic and melancholic in equal parts, it takes us to a down-at-heel New York at the turn of the 1950’s and the dreary life of daydreamer and rent collector, Norman Moonbloom. Norman’s days are spent chasing rent from hapless tenants, whilst attempting to dodge their numerous demands, complaints, and often riotous domestic dramas. Too sensitive for the world of the mercenary slumlord, he will undergo a quiet epiphany against a disintegrating backdrop of leaking taps and treacherous wiring.
If your experience of transformative insect fiction is limited to the Kafkaesque, then it’s high time you met the ‘heralding quiver’ of cockroach antennae in The Passion According to G.H. by Clarice Lispector. A novel that demands the utmost concentration, this Brazilian modern classic tells the story of a somewhat intense sculptress, who discovers a large cockroach in her home. Her initial attempt at extermination leaves the creature slowly dying in front of her eyes, a protracted process that sparks a full-blown existential crisis. Enlightenment, madness, or possibly both, await.
Winner of the prestigious Akutagawa literary prize, The Woman in the Purple Skirt by Natsuko Imamura is currently cresting the wave of novels by en vogue female Japanese writers. Set in an unnamed city in Japan, it tells the story of a narrator who refers to herself as the Woman in the Yellow Cardigan. Leading an isolated life, her only diversion appears to be a fascination with a neighbourhood local, the aforementioned Woman in the Purple Skirt. What initially appears to the reader as no more than an odd girl crush, becomes much darker, as our becardiganed storyteller decides to play puppet master with Purple Skirt’s life.
On paper, Martha should be happy. She’s a talented writer and married to a man whose love and patience know no bounds. So why is Martha so troubled and in conflict with everyone? And why can she never hold down a job? In Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason, we go inside the mind of a woman suffering from undiagnosed mental illness and get to feel the darkness and self-loathing. As devastating as this sounds, Sorrow and Bliss is more than tragedy, Mason’s acerbic wit and portrayal of a sweet on-off love-story make this read more than a sad one.