Saturday, 27 October 2012

The Red House – Mark Haddon (2012)

The Red House is a very adult novel from an author who had principally produced books for children. His big literary hit came with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003), a book that was marketed to both adults and young adults. It is notable due to the narrator being a boy with Aspergers syndrome. The Red House seems to be the complete opposite, with its themes of familial dysfunction and frustrated desires. But with closer inspection it is apparent that Haddon is still exploring the subjectivity of individual perspective and the alienation this can engender.

Siblings Richard and Angela were estranged, but the death of their alcoholic mother brings them together and at Richard’s behest they embark on a seven-day holiday in the Welsh county-side in order to bring the family together. An ensemble of eight family members makes for a complicated representation of humanity. In fact the whole human life cycle is covered and it is almost like Haddon wanted use this family to examine each age group’s particular problems. There’s a stillborn baby; Benjy is a typical eight year-old; Daisy, Melissa and Alex represent the teenage years and middle age by Dominic, Lauren and Angela. Old age is covered by the adults parents, which they often refer to and blame for most of their problems.

Using a third person omniscient point of view, Haddon switches back and forth between characters, revealing their thoughts and desires, most of which are thwarted ones. Haddon takes his cues from Modernism, with thoughts and dialogue giving the impression of flowing together and merging with the often abstract narration. This anachronistic form takes a bit of getting used to, as often it is not obvious which character is present in the narrative. The dialogue is presented in italics, rather then in quotations, a convention that further enhances the blurred narrative boundaries.

The Red House is not overtly plot-driven; instead it’s a vehicle for an exploration of the characters particular problems. There’s the usual palette of human dysfunctions, frustrations and yearnings. The younger characters are the strongest; Daisey, Melissa and Alex are convincing teenagers complete with sexual confusion, identity issues and a general disconnect with their parents worlds. Haddon explores outright teenage lust via Alex’s fantasies and clumsy attempts to seduce Melissa and flirt with Richard’s middle-aged wife – Lauren. It’s all pretty accurate stuff.

The adults are curiously bland, although Angela is the most convincing due to her strong back-story, which involves a stillborn baby and a troubled childhood. As the adults muddle through their problems a certain level of tedium develops and when Richard is injured and caught in a storm whilst out jogging the reader is a passive observer rather than emotionally involved with his plight. The characters are not psychologically interesting enough and the writing does not quite live up to Haddon’s Modernist ambitions.

In comparison other books I’ve read recently that explore the theme of familial dysfunction were compelling and intense. The Man Who Loved Children (1940) is both unique and intensely psychologically disturbing. Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (2010) featured convincing characters with problems that connected with the wider dysfunction of the nation. The Red House unfortunately pales in comparison. Perhaps I’ve been spoilt by the quality of the above-mentioned novels, but The Red House failed to spark the synapses and was merely an exercise in reading rather than a compelling engagement with a strong narrative. This was a book club book and true to form some people thought the novel was absolutely brilliant, which is very different to my point of view, but if the Modernists were anything to go by then each viewpoint is equally valid.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Charles Bukowski’s Scarlet: A Memoir - Pamela “Cupcakes” Wood (2010)

Bukowski and Wood

During the 1970’s Charles Bukowski had gained enough notoriety from his street-smart writing to attract the attention of ‘fans’ that wanted to meet him, party with him or in the case of some women, to find out if he really was a dirty old man. Although Bukowski was essentially a misanthropic loner, he mostly let these people into his life and many of these experiences ended up in his writing. In Absence of the Hero (2010) he knowingly refers to this period as ‘research.’

Pamela Wood first met Charles Bukowski in 1975 when her and her friend, Georgia, were out late at night celebrating the latter’s birthday. Inspired by her friend’s love of Bukowski’s writing she rang him from a public phone booth and Bukowski invited them around. That night began two years of involvement in Bukowski’s life and Wood went on to be featured in his great novel Women (1978), inspired a volume of love poems called Scarlet (1976) and many other poems that featured in books such as Love is a Dog From Hell (1977).

Scarlet is a fascinating memoir for Bukowski fans because Wood tells us the story from the other side. Bukowski’s writing was essentially autobiographical, so we know his side of the story only too well. When Pamela Wood met Bukowski she was a young mother struggling to make sense of her life and was partying hard on uppers and alcohol. What you learn from Scarlet is both how Wood changed as a person during the years she knew Bukowski and also the intimate minutiae of her relationship with Bukowski. As fascinating as her time with Bukowski is, Scarlet is also about Wood’s life and like Bukowski she is perceptive and honest about herself and the people in her life at that time.

Bukowski with Georgia

Wood wrote Scarlet herself and although she is no great stylist she manages to project what it was like for a young woman to be thrust into the intense world of Charles Bukowski without resorting to sensationalism. Scarlet helps to bring Bukowski further into focus as a sensitive and complex man who also had a no bullshit attitude. There’s pathos, bathos and serial dysfunction throughout the memoir, but what is interesting is that it mostly comes from Georgia, Wood and her brother, Larry. In fact Bukowski emerges as a voice of reason; admonishing Wood for not being careful with her money, being a stickler for punctuality and displaying a strong work ethic. He did have his flaws of course, such as his irrational jealousy and his alcoholism – of which Wood recalls without much judgment.

Scarlet offers many joys for the Bukowski fan. Wood recounts several poetry readings she attended, where she took pride of place at the front, giving the reader valuable insight into Bukowski the reluctant performer. At one poetry reading in New York Bukowski gives a visiting poet short shrift and at another Wood drinks too much and ends up making a fool of herself in front of the great Jack Nitzsche (Nitzsche also turns up at Bukowski’s bungalow – the two seemed to be great friends.) There are also many intimate photos throughout the book, many of them unseen and taken with the Polaroid camera bought by Bukowski for Wood.

Wood entered Bukowski’s life just after Linda King and Bukowski parted ways for the final time. Bukowski tells an amazed Wood about King’s jealous rage, in which she smashed his beloved typewriter, all caused by Bukowski talking about Wood to King. Of course anyone who has read Women will be already familiar with this and many of the other events Wood recalls. That book almost ruined a relationship for Wood, when years later her soon to be husband read the book and nearly called off the wedding because of her portrayal as a wild and sexy pill popper.

Despite the dysfunction and general craziness of Bukowski and Wood’s relationship, Wood ends up looking back with genuine fondness for Bukowski. Bukowski suffered a great deal because of his love for Wood, which she acknowledges without coming over as being defensive - in fact Wood is both insightful and genuine. At the end it is extremely touching when she talks about how it felt to hear about Bukowski’s death on the radio after having not seen him for nearly twenty years. She went from someone who couldn’t understand why people loved his writing to someone who was angered when the radio announcer referred to Bukowski as a “pornographic poet.” Wood, like Bukowski’s admirers, knew that he was much more than that and through Scarlet she confirms this fact emphatically.

You know who this is...

Sunday, 7 October 2012


Two nights ago I went and checked out Nathaniel Moncrieff’s play – Tinkertown. I’m no theatre critic but I know what I like. The play ran for an hour and quarter and was tightly scripted and directed. The dialogue was funny and was delivered extremely well by the actors. The pacing was excellent and I ended up being surprised when I realized that it was about to end. Felicity Groom’s music complemented the action perfectly, particularly in an extended scene in which Chester was trying out his hold up moves in some appropriately eerie light. Towards the end of the play it was a bit unnerving to have a gun, even one that was prop, pointed in my direction by Tammy. I must have been convinced by the excellent makeup in the previous scene.

Tinkertown is running until Saturday 13th of October, so if you live in Perth and feel like trying out some theatre, then head down to The Blue Room in Northbridge, you will not regret it.