Sunday 26 February 2023

Beautiful You - Chuck Palahniuk (2014)


Rating: Admirable

Palahniuk is known as a transgressional author, one who takes on taboo or controversial themes in a manner that pushes their boundaries to the extreme. Beautiful You is undoubtably thematically extreme, featuring weird sex, hyper capitalism and male emasculation. Penny Harrigan is the kind of female protagonist, hyperconscious and awkward, just getting by in corporate culture, who would helm an American sit-com across ten seasons, only learning her lessons in the last season. Only this is a Palahniuk novel and Harrigan ends up in the clutches of the worlds richest man, C. Linus Maxwell, who proceeds to experiment on her with an array of sex toys of his own devising. Harrigan is literally driven to life threatening physical extremes by his ministrations. At the same time she's drawn into the world of the super-rich and the attentions Maxwell's former sexual muses, a famous actress and a woman who has become the first female president of America. This is, at least initially, all quite entertaining stuff, especially as you anticipate what Maxwell's plans will do to society, virtually making men and their ineffectual penises and clumsy techniques, obsolete.

This does indeed occur (male obsolescence) and once Harrigan is freed from Maxwell's ministrations after a set amount of time (136 days), she realises just what trouble society is in as Maxwell's new line of sex toys takes the female population by storm. Maxwell is a true evil protagonist flexing his capitalist muscle. a walking cliche, but that's part of the point. In this regard the implacable logic of how he goes about his business in this age is high capitalism, surveillance capitalism and downright exploitative capitalism, really rings true. Harrigan's attempts to rectify the situation are entertaining enough, but about two thirds of the way through what was quite a good novel, things start to become slightly ridiculous, as Palahniuk turns up the dial of extremity. Beautiful You never promised to be an example of sober realism, but where the novel eventually goes to is absurd, particularly the denouement, which involves women driven to homelessness by their sex toy habits, a shotgun wedding, a naked sex guru from Tibet and death by a fiery flying dildo. This novel is a wild ride that fills in some time on the train-ride to work, but it also leaves you feeling a bit empty, kind like impulse buying, followed by buyers regret. Fortunately I didn't buy this novel, nor any sex toys.

Sunday 19 February 2023

A Moveable Feast - Ernest Hemingway (1964)


Rating: Excellent

I haven't read Hemingway for thirty years! I'm pleased that the book club has forced my hand in this case, as it has proved to be a most enjoyable read (most of the book club members concurred). Hemingway visited Paris in 1956 and recovered some storage trunks from the Hotel Ritz. Inside the trunks he found his journals written while living in Paris in the Twenties. He then pieced together A Moveable Feast as a memoir of that period before he died in 1961. It's fascinating reading, giving an evocative impression of life in Paris during a time when many artists from England, America and Europe lived in France due to the favourable exchange rate and its reputation as an artistic hub. Yet to pen a novel, Hemingway is making a transition from journalism to short-story writing. He rubs shoulders with an amazing array of important historical figures, such as James Joyce (who does not feature greatly in the memoir), Ezra Pound (who does), Ford Madox Ford, Gertrude Stein, Wyndham Lewis and most significantly, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald. The three chapters that feature the Fitzgeralds make for intriguing reading. Hemingway paints a picture of Fitzgerald that is both critical and flattering. Hemingway, on the other hand, makes it known that he despises Zelda, labelling her as mad and jealous of Scott Fitzgerald's writing.

Hemingway's life in Paris, and latterly for a brief period, Austria, is beautifully portrayed. The characters he interacts with are all rendered fully alive throughout. Interwar Paris was undoubtably a colourful time, but what really makes this book special is the quality and style of Hemingway's prose, something that he is still famous for (other than his apparent 'outdoors man ' machismo). His short, declarative sentences, pared back to the bone, are a pleasure to read. The fact that he talks about writing and trying to become a writer of fiction, rather than to continue as a journalist, makes reading A Moveable Feast all the more compelling. During the time that I haven't read any Hemingway, I've read some of his imitators, or at least those who were inspired by his style, such as Charles Bukowski. Finally reading him again makes me want to go right back to the Hemingway source and read some of his novels. A Movable Feast would make a fine introduction to his writing for those who have never read him, after all, it goes right back to a time when he was a struggling writer, swaying through the streets of Paris after a few too many wines, and associating with writers who had been published already. Now I truly know why Bukowski said that when he was on fire, Hemingway was simply untouchable.