Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Cloud Atlas Trailer #2

Okay, it's best if you prepare yourself for a Book Catapult Cloud Atlas Onslaught® over the next month+, because it's all I'm thinking about. I'm reading the book again, even though I read it for the second time in May. I'm also planning out a fairly extensive series of posts on the intricacies of the book coming soon, as well as the possibility of a very public, film-related spectacle of some sort. So brace yourselves.

But for the moment, let's watch the second Cloud Atlas trailer, shall we?



Except for the opening sequence, here's nothing in this trailer that wasn't in the extended one that was released in July - and in fact, this one doesn't have the same emotional heft that the other does. Yes, I'm talking about the "emotional heft" of a movie preview. I told you to brace yourself. 

For one thing - and I'm just going to say what we're all thinking - I'm starting to think that Halle Berry is kind of an awful choice for this multiple-character role shit. Could she act her way out of a paper bag if the need presented itself? Right, right, yeah, yeah, she won an Oscar, but... I will see your Oscar and raise you one Swordfish. And I will slap a Catwoman down on the table, just for good measure. Regardless of her checkered past, there are already a couple of scenes in Cloud Atlas - admittedly just from the trailer, so not necessarily in the completed film - that make me feel a little queasy:

The scene (:15-:19 seconds in trailer #2) where she's playing Luisa Rey trying to track down Robert Frobisher's Cloud Atlas Sextet. Here she's seen thinking reeeeeaaaallly hard, breathing through her mouth.






And this other one really bugs me for some reason. At 1:30 of trailer #2 (also seen somewhere in the first trailer) she's playing Meronym in the "Sloosha's Crossin'" section, gazing wistfully at Zachry. And tenderly holding his hand. Barf. PLUS (nerd alert!) I don't recall such a scene in the book. (Of course, this may just be clever trailer-editing.) I know, I know, there are bound to be plenty of scenes like this in the film, but I can already smell the "star-crossed lovers" thing goin' on between Hanks and Halle. And I don't like it. 

"You're so handsome with your silver eyepatch."

Yes, there is sort of a love-story element to each section, if you want to spin it that way. But don't do that, man, c'mon. I can only speak for the book - and I will take this unsolicited opportunity to do so - but, in my view, after 2 1/2 readings, what it is NOT about (deep breath) is how love can be so strong that it crosses generations and reincarnations and hundreds of years to blah blah blah emerge so strong with Daniel Day Lewis yelling under a waterfall, "You stay alive, no matter what occurs! I will find you." (Too far?) To me, it's about the subtle threads that connect our lives (or the potential for those threads to exist, at least) and also about the eternal theme of "predator versus prey," of pursuit and obsession.  Each section features a predator and a prey who carry the plot to the apex and it seems that this is more of a linking structure between the narratives than any Nicholas Sparks-ian love affair thread. Mitchell, the man himself, from a 2004 Washington Post Q&A
"Perhaps all human interaction is about wanting and getting. (This needn't be as bleak as it sounds - a consequence of getting can be giving, which presumably is what love is about.) Once I had these two ideas I looked for other variations on the theme of predatory behavior - in the political, economic and personal arenas. Each block of narrative is subsumed by the next, like a row of ever-bigger fish eating the one in front."
DM's assessment aside, this is all just idle speculation, of course, and I thank you for humoring me by reading this far into this post. I'm excited to see this movie, what can I say? Will there be differences between the book and the film? Of course. (I already know that there are characters added to the film to make connections between narratives that were not necessarily there in the book - seemingly to connect roles played by Hanks and Berry, but whatever.) I think I'm going to approach this as if the Wachowskis are simply different readers who may have gotten something different from the book than I did. (And it would seem that they loved it just as much, if not more, than I did.) Maybe they saw the reincarnated-lovers-thing as the driving force to the narrative. Maybe they didn't see the predator-prey theme as strongly as I did. Who am I to argue? Maybe they think Halle Berry is the world's greatest actress. Well, I'm gonna have to call bullshit on that one, but you see my point.

Enough negative thoughts. At least one thing I did like from the trailer (in addition to Tom Hanks digging for teeth on the beach) is the slow-mo shot of the china shop:

I admittedly had to go back to the text to sort that one out: it's from the opening letter from Robert Frobisher to Rufus Sixsmith (Letters From Zedelghem) in which he describes a dream he had about being in a china shop. It was so tightly packed that the slightest movement would send "porcelain antiquities" smashing to the floor - but rather than a cacophonous crash, they release musical notes. "Knew I'd become the greatest composer of the century if I could only make this music mine." It blows me away that the directors saw the necessity to include this very, very subtle scene. Gives me hope...

One last Atlas tidbit (and the source of even greater hope): there was a great piece by Alexander Hemon in the September 10th New Yorker about the Wachowskis and the film. Lana Wachowski: “We decided...that - as hard and as long as it might take to write this script - if David (Mitchell) didn’t like it, we were just going to kill the project."

Friday, September 21, 2012

50 Shades of My Thoughts on 50 Shades of Grey

*For your enjoyment, a guest blog post by Municipal Bond Lawyer and friend of the Catapult, Bradley Neal.

For my recreational literature I almost exclusively read non-fiction (although I pounded through all five Game of Thrones books in the last year), but the book that seems to be everywhere right now is the “steamy sex thriller” by E.L. James, Fifty Shades of Grey and its two sequels.  Fifty Shades is at the water cooler, the author is on the Today show, the book is on the New York Times best seller list, etc... So I decided the next up book in my rotation, Steve Jobs, could wait and I’d give Fifty Shades a read. 

SPOILER ALERT!

If you want to read the book and don’t want the experience ruined... stop reading. (*Note: if you're thinking about reading this book, how did you end up on the Book Catapult? I'm just sayin'. -Seth)

Well alright!  You’re still here!  Let’s get WEIRD.


When I was in Junior High, I read Jaws IV:  The Revenge (which was turned into a movie that Richard Jeni did a tremendous rant on).  In Jaws IV, a shark kills a woman’s son, and she believes the shark is intentionally targeting her and the rest of her family, so she packs up and leaves New England and heads for... (wait for it)... The Bahamas.  As opposed to, say, Topeka, Kansas, where even a shark intentionally targeting your family would have a bitch of a time eating you.  Sure enough, the shark does, in fact, follow her to the Bahamas and tries to eat her and her family.  I laughed as I read it, knowing I would never read a book with a less believable plot than Jaws IV.  And I haven’t.  Until I read Fifty Shades of Grey.

Fifty Shades is BAD, yo.  I mean REALLY BAD, an Unintentional Comedy Treasure Trove of BAD.  In Fifty Shades, nothing gets tied up and beaten into submission more than Common Sense.  For a story like this to work, the characters themselves must be believable even while unbelievable things are happening (although given the popularity of this book, I might be in the minority on this point.)  So let’s pop the hood and take a peek at the Protagonist and the sexy, Oh So Sexy, Antagonist in Fifty Shades, shall we?

Let’s start with the Antagonist.  My greatest source of amusement from Fifty Shades was reading the author’s attempt at crafting Every Girl’s Fantasy Guy from whole cloth.  Want to meet him?  He’s Christian Grey, a 27-year-old self-made billionaire who employs 40,000 people over his vast business empire.  27 years old.  Self-made billionaire.  Whoa.  So he must be like a tech geek or something, like Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg, right?  Nope.  He is HotHotHAWT and has a body so good (and I’m quoting the author here) “Michelangelo’s David has nothing on him.”  Dayam!  OK, so he’s a 27-year-old billionaire workout nut.  He’s also a workaholic with little time for hobbies, right?  I mean, how else could you become a self-made billionaire at 27?  Nope. He’s got all sorts of hobbies, and plenty of time for them all. He’s an expert helicopter pilot, maestro piano player, an avid and astute art collector and a hiking enthusiast. He’s involved in many charities, including being a benefactor to his alma mater.  His tastes in music are eclectic and wide ranging - he likes opera, classical music, rock and (I’m not making this up) 16th-century European church chanting.  Oh, and he’s got a sadomasochistic torture chamber (he can land his helicopter on top of his house, did I mention that?) crammed with such an unbelievable array of devices that even the Marquis de Sade would put down his handcuffs and golf clap in approval.

Free rides for the ladies!
In sum, this guy is FREAKING SPECIAL. To give you an idea about how Special, on this planet of over 7 billion people, separate out all the “Under 30 Self-Made Billionaire Expert Helicopter Pilots.” Now take that group of zero people and discard all but the concert level pianists. Now keep only the brutally hot ones. This guy is a zebra striped leopard.

So, with so many of life’s blessings, he must be a super happy, well-adjusted guy with lots of friends and girlfriends, right?  Uh, no.  He’s dark, mysterious, moody, a control freak... and DANGEROUS (but, I dunno, the right girl could reach into his heart, touch him in ways he’s never been touched and show him happiness through love, right?  RIGHT?)  How do we know he’s dangerous?  There are subtle warning signs.  He tells the Protagonist (Anastasia Steele, more on her in a minute) “Stay away from me, I’m no good for you, I’m dangerous.”  Her roommate tells her “there’s something about that guy.  He seems dangerous.”  Her “inner goddess” (whatever the F that is) warns her he’s dangerous.  And he literally tries to make her sign a contract acknowledging she understands he’s really dangerous.  I’ll be honest, there’s a coin flip’s chance this dude will end up killing the Protagonist, but not until he’s given her, like, a thousand orgasms.  It’s a risk she’s just gotta take.  He’s that freaking HOT.

The comical caricature of the antagonist in Fifty Shades made me wonder what the female equivalent of Christian Grey might be like.  So here it goes.  She’s Amanda Russo, she put herself through college doing lingerie modeling until she dropped out to make her first billions inventing Birth Control Beer.  But she sold her beer company (for billlllllllions!) to buy her NFL Franchise AND her NBA Franchise.  She likes to lay around her enormous beach house naked watching Rocky I through Rocky IV back-to-back-to-back-to-back.  It makes her horny.  She doesn’t acknowledge that Rocky V or Rocky Balboa exist (you’re damn right she doesn’t acknowledge that Rocky V or Rocky Balboa exist!)  She likes to watch Family Guy post-coitus.  She’s a yoga expert, so she’s as supple as she is hot, which is extremely for both.  Yoga makes her horny, but it’s tough to tell because she’s generally pretty horny.  Her favorite food?  Tacos. Tacos make her... uh... she enjoys tacos.  She’s 23, but she prefers witty older men with glasses (author’s prerogative on that one).  Those guys make her horny.

So what kind of girl is Christian, The 27 Year-Old-Self-Made Billionaire-Helicopter Pilot-Piano Maestro-Art Collector-Sadist looking for?  A starlet?  A socialite?  An aristocrat?  A titaness of industry?  Someone as hot, smart and dynamic?  Lots of different women?  Nope.

Innocent Anastasia or billionaire sadist?
Let’s meet her.  The Protagonist is Anastasia Steele.  She’s a recent graduate of Washington State University, Vancouver, WA campus.  She’s decent looking and reasonably intelligent, but she’s not even the smartest and hottest girl in her own apartment.  She prefers jeans, t-shirt and Converse to dresses. She works at a hardware store, has little sexual confidence and even less sexual experience. Actually, she has zero sexual experience.  She loses her virginity to the billionaire sadist, and, after he’s given her multiple orgasms on her first time, he walks naked to the low lit baby grand piano and starts masterfully playing a gorgeous, melodic concerto for her.  I think we’ve all been there before.

The most offensive scene in Fifty Shades, at least for me, was when Anastasia considers signing the Dominant/Submissive Contract without having her lawyer review it first.  You don’t sign ANY contract without your lawyer reviewing it, much less a contract which allows the counterparty to hog tie you and hang you from the dining room chandelier if he so chooses.  At a minimum, I would have tried to negotiate for her three full Timeouts and three 20 second Timeouts per torture session, like an NBA game.

My favorite scene in Fifty Shades is where Christian dishes out some coital punishment to Ana.  In this scene Christian is angry with Ana (I forget why – I think Ana had an independent thought or took out her ben wah balls without permission or something), and, as punishment, Christian tells Ana to turn around to get banged from behind, but... (wait for it)... she’s not allowed to enjoy it.  Solid!  Best laugh I had since Christian landed his ‘copter on the roof.  Reading this scene made me wonder how this “sex as punishment” concept might go over at home with my wife:  “Honey, I think we both know you over-cooked the salmon tonight...”  Let’s just say that’s not our current “relationship dynamic.”  She’d laugh herself silly, then send me to the store for more salmon.

Fifty Shades includes one of the “Rich Guy, New Girl Romance” tools that always makes me laugh.  It's when the rich guy whisks the girl away impromptu to some incredible destination…but she didn't have time to pack a THING.  But it’s okay, you see, because the rich guy knows her size, thought ahead, sent his assistant to buy her an entire wardrobe, replete with daywear, evening wear, beachwear, lingerie, bras, underwear, every conceivable hair/skin/eye/eyelash/nail product and makeup, and when they arrive at the impromptu destination, all of her stuff is exactly what she likes and is already put away and hung up, prêt-a-porter.  It goes something like this:

RICH GUY: “Baby, I'm dying to take you to my place on the French Riviera, we’ll be at my private jet in half an hour.”

NEW GIRL: “Wait, WHAT?!?  I would love to... but I haven't packed and, besides, I have to work tonight!”

RICH GUY: “No you don’t.  I bought the restaurant you work at, fired the manager you hate, and Shelly is covering your shifts until we get back.  I sent my assistant Claudia ahead to make sure you have an entire wardrobe for the week.  We just met and I’m just guessing, but you seem like you’re about 5 5”, 113.5 pounds, size 2, 27-inch inseam.  Unfortunately, there wasn’t time to get the evening gown I need to see you in, so I’m flying Vera Wang out to meet us there.”

NEW GIRL, getting light headed, “OH MY!”

Editor's note: I just thought this needed
to be in here somewhere. -Seth
When they get there, everything fits, she loves EVERYTHING.  I can’t stress how impossible this seems to me.  I’ve been with my wife since 1999.  I know what she likes and I’d be terrified to try to pack her for a weekend in Vegas WITH HER OWN WARDROBE, much less buy all new stuff.  If you offered me a thousand dollars if I could go to the store and buy the shampoo, conditioner and moisturizer that my wife is currently using, you’d be putting your money back into your pocket.  I’m not sure I could even get myself to the STORE where those products are offered for sale.

How crappy is Fifty Shades?  Wall-to-wall crap.  Literally.  The author references crap 85 times, including 35 Holy Craps, six Double Craps, one Triple Crap and one Crapola.  I had trouble deciphering the respective weight of each of these crappy expletives.  Similar to the strength of hands in poker, it’s pretty easy to slot the relative weight of Crap, Double Crap and Triple Crap, one, two, three.  But where do Crapola and Holy Crap fit in?  Holy Crap sounds the weightiest, so I’m going to make that the royal flush of crap.  But what to do with Crapola?  To me it sounds weightier than Double Crap, but less so than Triple Crap. That’s completely arbitrary, reasonable minds may differ.  So my ranking goes, from least crappy to most crappy:

1. Crap
2. Double Crap
3. Crapola
4. Triple Crap
5. Holy Crap

Add in the 85 shits (including one shitload) the author references, and, scatologically speaking, Fifty Shades includes a shitload of crap.

Well, that's about all I've got.  I feel better now.  Time to get back to work for all of us I guess.  Crap.  No.  Double Crap.

-Bradley Neal

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving

Before we go any further, I strongly suggest that you listen to Jonathan Evison (also author of the 2011 Catapult Notable Book, West of Here) read an excerpt from The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving - his third novel - from the NPR podcast, The Dinner Party. Then we'll talk.



Lots of the early reviews for Caregiving seem to use some variation of the word "funny," but while Johnny E is certainly a witty gentleman, this is by no means a straight-up comic novel. Or, at least, I wouldn't shelve it in the humor section with the I Could Pee on This and the Sedaris kids. That would be selling it short. It has flashes of farce, perhaps, and a healthy amount of comedic mayhem that made me laugh out loud fifty times, but all in all, it is a tragedy at its heart. Now "heart..." that is something this story definitely has in spades.

Ben Benjamin has lost everything - his home, his job, his wife, his kids, his friends - all stemming from an as-yet-unnamed tragedy involving his two young children. Drifting along, he takes a 28-hour course on caregiving at a local church and gets himself a job taking care of a cantankerous, waffle-eating, sexually frustrated 19-year-old with Duchenne muscular dystrophy named Trev. Everything with Trev is about routine: khaki cargo shorts, black t-shirts, Weather Channel, waffles, video games, a new pair of shoes bought at the mall on the second Thursday of every month. It turns out, taking care of someone else is pretty much just what Ben needs, even though it takes him awhile to come around to fully embrace that conclusion.
According the the Fundamentals of Caregiving, Trev doesn't need to know what happened to my daughter or my son or why my wife left me or how I lost my house. Or how I contemplated killing myself as recently as last week but didn't have the guts. My guilt, my self contempt, my aversion to other people's children, Trev doesn't need to know about any of them. Trev only needs to know that I am here to serve his needs.
Part of their routine - for whatever reason - becomes the mapping out all of the bizarre roadside attractions across America. Ben buys a huge wall map and they stick pins in all the spots on the landscape that have two-story outhouses, ("double dumpers") Hitler's stamp collection, the Virgin Mary in a stump, two-headed farm animals, the World's Oldest Cured Ham. Another big part of their days is occupied by Trev's general horniness, partly by being 19, but partly by being a wheelchair-bound "pretzel with a perfectly healthy imagination." Most exchanges go like this - you'd be well-advised to NOT Google any of these:
"So, did you give her a Moroccan Meatball?"
"Nope."
"Fishhook?"
"Nope."
"Pasadena Mudslide?"
"Hey now," I caution. "She's a classy girl."
"C'mon," he persists. "What'd you give her?"
"I really shouldn't kiss and tell."
"Disappearing Panda?"
"No condom."
"Pittsburgh Platter?"
"No coffee table."
"Change Machine?"
"Only had bills."
"C'mon, I give up. I know you gave her something."
"Okay, okay," I relent. "I gave her a Minivan. I would've given her a Snowmobile, but she lives on the bottom floor."
Trev's father, Bob, fled the scene when Trev was three - just after he was diagnosed - and has been periodically attempting to reinsert his clumsy, oafish self back into Trev's life ever since, much to the dismay of Trev's mother, Elsa. For as tragic as Ben's life is, Bob's is comically awful. He consistently shows up unannounced, his fly is perpetually open, he steps on the cat, he spills KFC and mashed potatoes all over himself in the driveway, he keeps a scrap of his own baby blanket in his pocket (that he caresses when he's nervous.) Yet when he crashes his car into a billboard in the middle of the Utah desert, he unwittingly sets the course of the novel by just being that mythical, elusive father figure for Trev.

After much convincing of Elsa, Ben and Trev set out in the van to visit Bob in his Utah hospital, collecting wayward souls along the way (including a potential girlfriend for Trev), getting thrown in jail, and being pursued by a mysterious Buick Skylark. The roadtrip is a cathartic act for Ben, as by wrangling all these people together and taking care of Trev, he gradually comes around to face the facts of his own shattered life. Every time you want to laugh at the absurdity of (most of) Ben's circumstances, it all gets tempered by the straight facts - his life is a humongous mess and he can't seem to break out of the cavernous rut he's in to move on with it. All along, through the farce of it all, you know that the gradually unfolding backstory to Ben's life - involving this not-quite-yet ex-wife and a pair of young children who are quite obviously not around any more - is going to reveal itself as insanely tragic, but the allusions to the events that set Ben on his current course come early and often, softening the impact when it ultimately hits. That's not to say that the tragedy itself isn't epic - oh, it is, friend - but perhaps by drawing Ben's story out over the course of the whole narrative, for one, the reader ends up more emotionally invested in Ben, but also that Ben is better able to reach the horizon point in his own life - on his own terms, so to speak - helping him to move forward in a cathartic sense.

In the end, Caregiving is all about that cathartic healing, whether for Ben or his creator. Evison wrote this great short essay on why he wrote this novel that will break your fucking heart: www.revisedfundamentals.com/author-essay.html.  (It kills me every time I read it, honestly.)
This book represents nothing less than an emotional catharsis for its author. I wrote this book because I needed to. This novel is about the imperative of getting in that van, because you have no choice but to push yourself and drive on, and keep driving in the face of life's terrible surprises. It's about the people and the things you gather along that rough road back to humanity.
Once Ben finally decides to get in that van, it's that driving force of having no other choice that keeps him moving, knowing that he has to see his trip through to the end if he's ever going to be able to move forward in life. The pervasive sadness in him is so visceral, so very close to the surface, that you are left with the same ache in your heart that he feels by the end of his tale. But having heartache and living with it is a very different thing than succumbing to the heartache - and therein lies the core of Ben's journey, for he is a far healthier (if still somewhat broken) man when his trip concludes than he was when it first began. Perfecting that balance between this story of a shattered, grieving man and a comic farce/road trip/buddy novel is what Evison tasked himself with. And, man, did he pull it together into a fantastic novel.  

I often talk on this blog about how there often seems to be a perfect time and place for the books we read - at least in how they affect us differently at different times in our lives. Sometimes we're just not ready to hear a certain type of story, depending on the circumstances of our own lives. Other times, a book comes along in just the right way for you so that it hits in a much more personal and powerful way. The latter seems to be the case with me and Caregiving, although I've struggled with the exact reasons why that might be. I actually read this book back in June - three full months before this writing - and have just now come around to be able to get my thoughts out on it. I've read all or parts of 19 other books since then, but I never stopped thinking about Ben Benjamin. When some of those early reviews started coming out, I started to wonder about my own reading of Caregiving, as I found it to be far more sobering - as a whole piece - than other readers seemed to think. Which is not to say, again, that it didn't made me laugh a whole hell of a lot, but it just touched something else in me that moved my general feelings about it in a different direction. 

Well, regardless of how you find yourself reading The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving - whether you read it as straight comic farce or find yourself bawling over it - it is a testament to Evison's strengths as a writer that he can put so much of his own personal history and emotion into a book like this and still have it seem as if it was almost written with you in mind. And for that, I thank him.

*As further proof of the author's dire seriousness at all times, please enjoy this Jonathan Evison training video:

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Cloud Cover

"Hey, hey, hey, finally people are listening to me!" he said into the internet megaphone he keeps at his bedside.

Cloud Atlas has spent the last 5 weeks hanging around on the New York Times bestseller list - presumably because the book is awesome and they found out about it on the Book Catapult, not because of Tom Hanks and his Mike Tyson face tattoo. Regardless of how you found Mr. Mitchell's Magnum Opus, don't buy this silly edition pictured here, pal. You'll look like a jerk and everyone on the bus will judge you.

See why eBooks are no fun?

Where should I buy this amazing book? Shop Indie Bookstores

Monday, September 10, 2012

Golf Is Not A Sport: The Yips and the Strange Madness of Truth

In the interest of the expansion and broadening of horizons here on the Book Catapult (ahem), I offer up this, the first ever guest post, written by long-time Catapulteer, fellow bookseller, and generally smart-assed book snob, Scott Ehrig-Burgess. Enjoy. -Seth
“First thing you must learn is this game ain't about hitting a little ball in some yonder hole. It's about inner demons, self-doubt, human frailty and overcoming that shit. What kind of doctor did you say you were?” -Roy McAvoy, Tin Cup
As anyone who has spent any reasonable amount of time around me knows, I am of the freely offered opinion that golf is not a sport. This quasi-intellectual pose of mine has the advantage of appearing dogmatic, inflexible, pig-headed, anti-intellectual in an intellectually pretentious way, and, at the end of the day, is about as pointless as debating whether or not Gregor Samsa was actually a cockroach or just imagined himself one. The Golf Is Not A Sport argument has the advantage of quickly manufacturing entrenched positions on either side, which often become fungible as the discussion continues aimlessly down predictable tangents - what about NASCAR? Is driving in a circle at 200mph an athletic endeavor? What to do with billiards or Ping-Pong? It’s just random enough for both good friends and strangers to discuss at an informal gathering and can be rehashed again and again. It’s a great way to talk about sports when you’re surrounded by people who don’t care much about sports without exposing yourself as a sports nerd, as would mentioning, say, the Arizona Wildcats basketball recruiting class of 2012 (Top three, people, top three!). The Golf Is Not A Sport argument goes something like this: Any ‘sport’ that other professional athletes play on their day off is not a sport. Period. End of debate. See how that works? Now let me stop you before you go down the rabbit hole: The ‘Tiger Woods is an athlete therefore all other golfers must be athletes’ argument is even weaker now that we know Tiger spent most of his rounds sexting, beating his opponents with one hand and himself with the other, metaphorically speaking, as it were.

In any case, it was a great shock to this conceit of mine to learn that one of my favorite writers, Nicola Barker, has at last written the first great, gulp, Golf Novel, of the Twenty-First Century. This novel, The Yips, has recently been long-listed for the 2012 Man Booker Prize and will hopefully be short-listed when the finalists are released tomorrow. (*Editor's note: Nope, didn't make the cut. But keep reading!) Barker’s publication history in the States has been erratic - her books often dismissed as ‘Too English’, which, as Ms. Barker has said, is better than being thought of as ‘Too Pungent’ or ‘Too Stupid’ - and The Yips has yet to be picked up by an American publisher, so it was with a good deal of anxiety that I purchased the novel online for around $50, including shipping, then waited a fortnight (English term) for The Yips to finally arrive. Having just finished the novel, I can, at last, tell you with a great deal of relief, that The Yips is not only a great novel and a cracking good read (another Briticism), but it features very little actual golfing. One could say none, in fact. There is an errant practice drive, a discussion of the merits of a sport - err, game - called Turbo Golf (which is basically nine holes instead of eighteen), and various references throughout to Nick Faldo, Tiger Woods, et al., but not a single scene of actual drama on the Golf Course. No climactic 18th green birdie putt, no getting up and down from a sand trap due to divine intervention, no Tin-Cup moment - “This is for Venturi who thinks I should lay up!” - though the professional golfer of the novel, Stuart Ransom, does share some of Roy McAvoy’s foibles, while lacking Roy’s self-confidence. This golf void, if you will, only further enforces my prejudice that golf is not a sport (as if the mere fact that the mediocre Tin Cup has entered the lexicon of golf wasn’t damning enough). 

So, if The Yips isn’t about golf, what exactly is it about? The novel is vintage Nicola Barker. As those of you who have read Nicola Barker before have figured out, a Nicola Barker novel is about the journey itself, rather than the road map, but just to humor us, I’ll give the plot a try. Basically, The Yips is about a crude, self-absorbed ex-surfer turned world-class golfer, now washed up, bankrupt and suffering from the yips (despite his embarrassing use of a belly-putter), holed up in a hotel in Luton (think somewhere in the Midwest for a touchstone) in preparation for a minor golf tournament we never see, and the odd characters who orbit this human wreckage and have all been somehow touched (inappropriately, one can imagine) or damaged by him, or as Ransom puts it, 
“Bottom line: the only truly indispensable person in this set-up is Stuart Ransom. End of. Everything rests on these two broad shoulders.... It’s a huge, friggin’ responsibility, Gino, believe me. A massive strain. And the last thing I need - the last thing these two, broad shoulders need - is haters in my troupe. I don’t need people on my journey worrying about their journey.” 
There’s Esther, Ransom’s overbearing Jamaican PA, whom he fires while she is in labor, Toby Whitaker, a self-described idea man, whose most enduring idea seems to be Turbo-Golf, Gene, a Job-like cancer survivor (not just cancer, but seven different types of cancer seven different times) who is the moral center of the novel, which becomes a problem when he has an affair with Valentine - an agoraphobic tattoo artist who specializes in Merkins, or, as another character puts it, “Twinkles... minnies... Lady Gardens” (Stay with me readers!) - whose mother thinks she is French since being struck on the head by one of Ransom’s stray golf balls. Do I dare mention her Muslim sex therapist? - a sex therapist not because he specializes in curing sexual dysfunctions, but because his method of dealing therapeutically with a patient’s trauma is by having sex with them - or his wife, one of two, who wears a burqa, despite her husband’s vehement disapproval? No, probably best not to. And finally there is Jen, a young barmaid that the dust jacket describes as having a “P.H.D. in bullshit”, who is eventually locked inside the boot (Briticism) of a car where she shits herself whilst wearing “an eye-wateringly tight white catsuit” and is most likely Stuart Ransom’s soul mate. 


That’s not to say Barker's novels are aimless and meandering, far from it. There is clearly a scaffolding set up by the author, but much like the matchstick cathedral a young character in her Booker Short-Listed Darkmans painstakingly constructs over the course of 800 pages, things often seem haphazard or willfully obscure until one is able to step back and have a good look at the cathedral Barker has put together. This structure is impressive on re-reading, but Barker’s ‘eccentricities’ are often cited as a reason for readers putting her books aside part way. This scaffolding, in her strongest work, often manifests itself as a sort of malevolent hand hovering over the proceedings - I often think of that big green hand from the old Star Trek series - whether it be the spirit of the jester Scogins in Darkmans, the rules of the ‘Loiter’ in Behindlings or the confluence of bizarre coincidences that keeps The Yips together, just. It’s that shambolic feeling that everything could completely fall apart (any of this sound like life, or the way fate operates in the real world?) by the next page that makes reading Nicola Barker unsettling to some and absolutely vital to her devotees. 

These traits have also led to a critical schism: There are the reviewers who see her as a modern Dickens, chronicling the absurdities of everyday life with absolutely mesmerizing set pieces full of surreal, witty, Pinter-esque dialogue, exposing us to the uncomfortable, unspoken, internal truths each of us is made of and constantly hoping to obscure - a good recent example of such a critical approach being Sam Leith’s review in the Guardian. In the Guardian review, which I encourage you to read, Mr. Leith suggests that Jen’s stated philosophy (possibly spurious, since she’s a bullshitter throughout the novel, I’d like to add) of “No philosophy. No guidance. No structure. No pay-off. No real consequences. Just stuff and then more stuff” is the perfect summation of Nicola Barker’s work. When Gene suggests this philosophy sounds inherently unstable Jen agrees, saying, “That's part of the fun. It's constantly threatening to topple over – to crash.” It is fitting, in a Nicola Barker novel, that the serial liar in the book is the one who speaks the most profound truth about the book itself. Then there is the critical camp that begrudgingly accepts Barker’s place in modern English fiction but complains that her work is too weird, too chaotic, too unrestrained, and just plain tedious. Stephen Abell’s review in the Telegraph is a perfect example of this, tepidly detailing “Nicola Barker’s customarily exhausting blurt of eccentricity”. Sort of like Tolstoy with Tourette’s, I suppose, though I prefer Justin Cartwright’s phrase from his glowing Spectator review: “Harold Pinter on crack.” An oft-quoted example of Nicola’s writing ‘excess’ being the wonderful phrase to describe a character’s frantic heartbeat as it resounds in their head: “like a tiny but strenuous game of tennis being played by two wasps using gongs for rackets.” 

I understand those who dismiss Nicola Barker as too British, or too eccentric, but I also wonder if these same critics have actually had a good look around recently. I understand that though art imitates life it shouldn’t be as random as some of life is, and that it is a bit of an artistic cop-out to use verisimilitude as an excuse, but on a daily basis I encounter absurd moments that would be dismissed as pointless or overly eccentric if they were between the pages of a novel. During the time I was reading The Yips I was at the post office when a gentleman walked in with a barely bubble-wrapped surf board. The clerk and I joked about the very idea of mailing an unpacked surf board but as we did she began to stare wistfully off into space, saying that she wished she was at North Shore. I asked her if she surfed and she said no, but quickly began an agonizing, dramatic, slightly incoherent account of going swimming in Hawaii on a gloomy evening at some surfer’s beach and being tossed out to sea and drowning, not nearly, but actually drowning. As she chuckled nervously, she mentioned that she should have known better when the parking lot was empty and there wasn’t a surfer in the water. The account ended with the postal worker more or less surrendering to the power of the sea, her body slowly drifting under, all around her dark and silent. In the last moment she says she woke as if from a dream and decided that she didn’t want to die this way and made one last desperate push towards the surface. As she rose a final time her husband’s hand grabbed her by the wrist and pulled her from the water. She continued to laugh nervously, nodding her head in approval at her own resurrection. I swiped my credit card and took my receipt and never did find out what happened when the guy tried to mail his surfboard, but I left thinking that maybe Nicola Barker isn’t so eccentric after all and maybe Roy McAvoy was right not to lay it up.
 
*Editor's Note: For those looking for even more Tin Cup, behold the climactic final sequence: (Also note, Cheech Marin as the caddy.)