“My Legendary Girlfriend” by Mike Gayle (1998)

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“Mr Kelly, which football team do you support?”

Recently I’ve been having a bit of a wobble regarding the bigger questions in my life. Am I where I thought I’d be at this age (not helped by my birthday looming over me)? Have I made the right choices? Am I on the path to something better? Should I have another drink? When you feel low, it’s all too easy to sink even deeper, and Will Kelly, the protagonist of My Legendary Girlfriend, has just about reached rock bottom.

Stuck in a job he hates, a flat that should be condemned, and a mindset that has ruined his last three years, Will is desperately unhappy. The weekend approaches once more with no plans, despite Sunday being his birthday. His only source of entertainment and companionship is his phone. Over the course of one weekend, Will introduces us to his world and the people who populate it on the other end of the line. There’s his best friend, Alice, who remembers his birthday; Simon, his oldest friend, who he may not be speaking to anymore; Martina, the one-night stand who won’t go away; Kate, the former occupant of his hovel; and Aggi, the one who got away, his legendary girlfriend, the one he has been pining over for the last three years. As Will wallows, he begins to think about changing his life, but does one go about that? And is he about to do something very rash?

People complain that there’s no realism in fiction. No one in Star Wars ever pops to the toilet, for example, and no one in any of Jane Austen’s work ever gets an itch on their back they can’t reach. Here, the realism is dialled up to eleven. The entire novel takes place between Friday night and Monday morning, with long periods of loneliness and depression interspersed with phone calls from the people who aren’t in his life quite as much as he’d like (and Martina). Gayle, already showing signs of being a master of the genre in his debut novel, does great work in highlighting the excruciating boredom of a weekend stuck at home. Will’s flat is a squalid pit, and he does little to tidy it up, and over the course of the book it gets messier and grubbier. In the hands of another writer, he could be extremely unlikable, but while there is something a bit sad and pitiful about him, I found myself wanting to stick around.

It’s very much of its time, as these days the whole thing would have to be conducted via WhatsApp conversations, but the concept of basically having Will be the only character on the page for much of the time is great fun and well-executed. Gayle writes with a humourist’s touch, too, and while not laugh out loud funny, it’s sharp and witty in a way that reminds me of Victoria Wood, with very specific brand names mentioned that really populate the story. Also like Wood, it manages to balance the humour with some genuinely heartbreaking moments, as you are pretty sure you’re witnessing a man having a breakdown and you just want to get him to sort himself out. As anyone who’s struggled with depression knows, though, it’s not quite as simple as that.

I’ve read pretty much all of Gayle’s work, and this is my second time on this one, and I think I can safely say that while it’s still an entertaining story, he’s still learning and they get better. Still, if my debut had been as good as this, you wouldn’t have been able to beat the smugness out of me with a crowbar. Entertaining, honest, and very raw, it’s well worth checking out.

Did you know that as well as reviewing everything I read, I also write novels, too? My books blend black humour with light horror, crossing genres with ordinary characters dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Head over to wherever you buy books to take a look at my two offerings. The first, The Atomic Blood-stained Bus, introduces you to a cannibal, an ex-god and the last witches of Britain, while the second, The Third Wheel, follows a man who is tired of being single while all his friends get married, but has a change of priority when aliens invade the planet. I hope you enjoy!

“In The Miso Soup” by Ryu Murakami (1997)

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“My name is Kenji.”

I’m always a little bit sad that I never had to write a dissertation at university. Having done a degree in Creative Writing, my final project was instead to write 15,000 words of a novel. I still wonder to this day what subject I would have written it on. I wasn’t yet a Christie lover, so she’s out, meaning I probably would have written something about the Mr Men’s approach to cultural norms. Because I don’t have my own, I’m always fascinated by what other people wrote their dissertations on, and I learnt earlier this year that one of my colleagues wrote hers on post-war Japanese fiction. After we’d compared notes on Kazuo Ishiguro, Genki Kawamura and Haruki Murakami, she asked if I’d ever read Ryu Murakami. So here I am.

Kenji is a young tour guide, specialising in taking visitors around the various sex clubs that make up parts of Tokyo’s nightlife. Just before New Year, he has been hired by Frank, an overweight American who wants to experience some of the seedier parts of the city. Frank, however, is unlike anyone Kenji has ever met, odd even by American standards, and Kenji begins to doubt the man’s authenticity. As they spend more time together, Kenji finds himself pulled down into a pit of evil where Frank reveals his true intentions, with the only hope of rescue in the form of Kenji’s girlfriend, Jun.

While it all starts off quite interesting, and Frank is immediately portrayed as an unusual man, there’s nothing that sets your heart racing to begin with. We are sucked in because Kenji can’t shake the feeling that there’s something very wrong indeed with Frank, and it’s only when it’s too late that we realise he was right. Comparisons to American Psycho are just, although it’s much shorter, and I found that even as someone who writes a good deal of gore into their stories, it’s somehow harder to read from someone else. The characters introduce us to a world unlike many of us in the West will ever experience or understand, where sex is a commodity sold far more openly than here. Kenji himself notes that while this sort of thing is taken for granted in Japan, and much of it is certainly illegal to some degree, no one in Japan actually questions why it happens, so they can’t really explain it to foreigners.

The writing is succinct and it’s a fascinating translation, with the whole thing feeling claustrophobic and intense. You join the characters in the dark, damp and cold back alleys of Tokyo, a city that always seems to be burning brightly with artificial lights and advertising hoardings, and everything feels like it’s encroaching on you. There’s an unrealness to it that leaves you unsure what’s actually happened, but whether it all really happened or not, you’re never going to be quite the same coming out the other side.

A shocking and staggering read.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll take a look!

“Suddenly, A Knock On The Door” by Etgar Keret (2012)

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“‘Tell me a story,’ the bearded man sitting on my living-room sofa commands.”

Short story collections remain, like sketch shows, somewhat hit and miss. When a writer packages together a lot of their work in one go, it is easier to compare them and see what you do and don’t like. That’s not to say that there aren’t some good stories in here, but some of them definitely left a bit to be desired.

The title story of Suddenly, A Knock On The Door features a writer being held at gunpoint by a man who demands he tell a story, which begins to fold in on itself as every time he tries, someone else arrives with the same plea. In the dark “Teamwork”, a divorced man tries to work out a way to save his son from an abusive grandmother. In “A Good One”, a board game designer arrives to a meeting with a bloodied nose and a briefcase containing nothing but a half-eaten apple. In “Surprise Party”, a wife tries to make her distant husband happy but ends up spending time with some distant acquaintances instead. And then there’s “What, of this Goldfish, Would You Wish?” where a man begins a documentary project about the wishes people would ask for if they had the power.

Set mostly in Israel, the stories have a large focus on uncertainty, loneliness, divorce, family and sadness. Few characters in the stories are happy and a lot of them seem to be trapped and unable (or unwilling) to prise themselves out of their ruts. A lot of the stories end abruptly or without giving us a firm resolution, leaving us to make up our own minds about what happens next. Sometimes this works, sometimes I wanted a solid answer.

“Pick a Colour” was a particular favourite story, highlighting in a very clever way the truth of racism, immigration and intolerance. “Lieland” was also interesting, and is one of the many stories to dabble in magic realism, with a compulsive liar finding out that all of his lies have come true and now he has to deal with the consequences. “Healthy Start” is also an interesting one, about a lonely man who has breakfast in the same cafe every morning by himself. Whenever he sees someone come in who is looking for someone, he waves them over and pretends to be whoever it is they’re meant to be meeting, be it a wife’s lover or a business partner.

It’s hard to know quite what else to say about this collection. Yes, there are some great ideas in here – some dark, some funny – and the prose style is easy, but then again it’s a translation, so as ever, I don’t know what’s been lost. Overall, though, I feel there’s something lacking and it didn’t resonate with me as much as I perhaps hoped it would. You might have better luck.

My second novel, The Third Wheel, is now available on Amazon and Waterstones! It tells the story of Dexter, a twenty-something teacher who is struggling with the fact that he alone among his friends is single and isn’t ready to grow up. But when aliens invade, it puts a lot of his problems into perspective. Mixing comedy, science fiction and horror, the novel promises to have something for everyone. I hope you’ll check it out!

“Spill Simmer Falter Wither” by Sara Baume (2015)

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“He is running, running, running.”

Once again, I turn my attention to a book about loneliness. I didn’t really intend to so early into the year, but here we are.

Ray is fifty-seven and can easily be defined as a loner. Treated as something of a pariah in his village – although how much of this is self-inflicted is up for debate – he knows that people think he’s weird and don’t like having anything to do with him. Since his father died, he’s been alone in his house and keeps his interactions with other people to a minimum. But then he meets One Eye, a vicious little dog looking for some company, but who is also used to being alone and ignored.

Now bound together, Ray and One Eye begin to explore the village and the beach together, growing accustomed to one another’s company. But when One Eye attacks a smaller dog on the beach, it seems that Ray might suddenly lose the one thing in his life that he actually cares about. That is, if he doesn’t do something drastic to stop it…

Baume has, to all intents and purposes, written a prose poem here. I’m exaggerating a little, but in truth this is an astonishingly beautiful piece of writing. The heartstrings are tugged for both Ray and One Eye, who might not be the most appealing characters, somehow still are written with a certain warmth that ensures you’re invested in them. Every page is laced with metaphors and images that stagger over and over again with a beautiful simplicity.  The small world around Ray feels vivid and thoroughly realised. All five senses are in play, with Baume really seeming to enjoy describing the minutia of the landscape. She’s not afraid to spend a sentence focusing on a banana skin, or a withered plant.

The lack of dialogue is a little disconcerting at first, as I’m someone who’s big on characters and their interactions, but in this case there can’t be too many or it ruins the whole thing. What there is, works perfectly. It all adds to the sense of loneliness, and the general unease. In fact, uneasiness is definitely a key element here. You never get the impression that Ray is a bad man, but there are definitely things that he’s choosing not to tell you, and while some of them do eventually come out, there are still some answers that he takes with him beyond the final pages. He is human without question, and Baume manages to resists anthropomorphising One Eye, instead never letting us into his mind. We only have Ray’s interpretation of the dog’s actions to take a guess at how he feels. As such, he gets to remain a wild thing, unfathomable and undomesticated.

An utterly tragic tale that delves deep into a man on the fringes of society.

Looking for something different to read in the new year? My second novel, The Third Wheel, is available to pre-order at Amazon and Waterstones now, ready for launch on January 17th. If you like tongue-in-cheek stories about aliens and the struggles of being single in a world built for couples, it might just be up your alley. I hope you’ll take a look and enjoy it! Thanks!

“Less” by Andrew Sean Greer (2017)

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“From where I sit, the story of Arthur Less is not so bad.”

The advice for dealing with your problems is often to suck it up and deal with them as best you can, rather than hiding away under the duvet, never mind which you’d rather do. I, however, am of the belief that aside from things like earthquakes, forest fires, or the person you were about to break up with kneeling in front of you with a wedding ring in hand, there aren’t many problems you can run away from, just for a little bit, or just until you’re stronger and have been able to regroup your thoughts. Arthur Less, the hero of this Pulitzer Prize winning novel, appears to be of a similar opinion.

Less is about to turn fifty and not handling it very well. His publisher has just turned down his latest novel, and the man he loved for nine years is about to marry someone else. When Less receives an invitation to the wedding, he is faced with a conundrum. If he accepts, it would be too awkward. If he turns it down, it looks like defeat. Instead, he turns to a stack of other invitations he’s been ignoring; an interview panel in New York, an article in Japan, a series of lectures in Germany, an award ceremony in Italy. Apologising that he’ll be out of the country, Less heads off on a world tour.

You can, however, only run so far, and Less discovers that maybe he’s not so happy away from the action. As he catapults himself across continents, he finds himself continually struggling against misunderstandings, language barriers, lost suitcases and the barbed comments of old acquaintances. And rumours follow him too, of a scandal at the wedding he’s missing, but no one will tell him what happened. Less is left with a lot of time to think about his past and what really matters in life.

Simultaneously tragic and comical, it’s rare that a comic novel wins such a prestigious award. It’s not a fast book, and reads rather like much other literary fiction, but in a delightful twist of fate, it actually has some jokes in it. Less is immensely likeable – an innocent, sweet and nice man, who is beset by misfortune as wherever he arrives he gets the wrong end of the stick, loses something important, mistakes a situation, and is never on time to see or experience the best of the place he’s at. For example, he’s in Mexico on the day their grandest museum is closed. He’s too early in Japan for the cherry blossom, and too late in Germany for the autumn festivals.

As Less puts more and more distance between himself and the problems he’s trying to ignore, they do their best to make sure he can’t forget about them entirely. Indeed, the further away he goes, the more intense his emotions become. He tries to have affairs, and works on his rejected novel, but mostly he worries about his age. Fifty isn’t particularly old, especially not today, but at one point he laments that being fifty is like you’ve only just understood youth, and then it’s snatched away from you, like how on the last day of a holiday you finally work out where to get the best lunch or see the best views, but it’s too late and you’ll never be going back. Greer paints beautiful landscapes too, making the cities that Less visits a big part of the story in themselves, almost characters too.

While it is funny, above all I found the book very poignant. I came close to tears a few times with the sheer sadness and feeling of loss and loneliness that saturates the pages. Those around Less aren’t nearly as sympathetic as he is, adding to how alone he feels surrounded by people he views as being more attractive, more successful and more wanted than he is. He’s one of the most endearing characters I’ve come across all year, and I feel a huge amount of affection for him. The novel ends with several unanswered questions, and I really do hope that he is happy once the book is over. But it’s not for us to see.

Charming, funny and very moving.

“Bleaker House” by Nell Stevens (2017)

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“This is a landscape an art-therapy patient might paint to represent depression: grey sky and a sweep of featureless peat rising out of the sea.”

I seem to have an unfortunate attraction to books about loneliness. They have in the past caused my own feelings to become exacerbated, but occasionally they do the opposite and make me feel less alone. Bleaker House is definitely one that falls into the latter category.

This book – which I first picked up thinking it was fiction – follows Nell Stevens to the Falkland Islands in her quest to become a writer. Convinced that if she spends six weeks on the remote Bleaker Island (human population: two), she will have enough time and freedom from distractions to pen the novel she’s been meaning to write forever and finally become a writer. The twenty-something sets off, packing up rations for the duration and is convinced that this is the answer to her problems.

However, once there, she realises just how remote the islands are. With nothing but some penguins, sea lions and a potato for company, she begins writing. But more than that. She begins to learn who she is when no one is around. She analyses her past and explores her mistakes. And, most importantly, she learns that plans don’t always work out the way you expect them to.

The narrative is haphazard, but in the way that one’s thoughts do skitter about with snooker balls in a hurricane when you’ve no distractions or company, and it adds to the mania that pervades the premise of Nell’s situation. Chapters alternate between talking about her experiences on the Falkland Islands (particularly Bleaker, but also visiting briefly the capital Stanley), her times back in London and Boston, and her own fiction, either excerpts from the novel-in-progress or previous short stories. I saw one reviewer complain that the book seemed only to serve as a vehicle for Nell to publish stories that had otherwise been rejected, but I disagree. The stories are great, and a vital part of the narrative. After all, it would be almost cheating to send a writer all the way out to the edge of civilisation and then not see their work.

Nell is a comforting, compelling narrator who has by all accounts lived an interesting life. Before her journey, she travelled and tried to be a good person, taking up positions teaching in war-torn nations or helping – as best she was able – a boyfriend with depression. She does, however, have a knack of always being right in the middle of some of the most dramatic moments in the last ten years, including the Boston Marathon bombing, the London riots of 2011, and the shelling of Beirut by Israeli forces. It’s frankly a wonder she’s as balanced as she seems – and for a writer that’s not bad going, as none of us are that balanced – or perhaps it was all the horror she got caught up in that caused her to vanish to the remote wilderness.

As I said at the top, some books about loneliness make me feel lonely. This one did not. It was curiously comforting, honest and beautiful. Frank Turner sings in his song “Be More Kind”, “When you go out searching don’t decide what you will find” and that feels apt here. No matter how excellent your plans seem, there is never a guarantee that they’ll come to fruition. Or, at least, maybe not in the way you expect.

“The Lonely City” by Olivia Laing (2016)

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“Imagine standing by a window at night, on the sixth or seventeenth or forty-third floor of a building.”

Like many readers, I am in many ways an introvert, happy to spend a fair amount of time by myself indulging in particularly solitary activities – reading, writing, watching series on Netflix that no one else wants to. However, while hell may be other people, sometimes they’re necessary and there’s no denying I’m no stranger to loneliness. I often seem to find myself draw to books on the topic, which is often accidental. It also crops up as a central theme in my upcoming novel, The Third Wheel. A friend of mine recommended this book to me, though, suggesting it might help me understand things a little better and see that I’m not the only one suffering.

Olivia Laing moved to New York City in her mid-thirties and quickly found that loneliness had taken her over in a city that was too big and where she knew no one. Rather than wallowing, she decided to use the time to explore this emotion through art, taking a look at some of the artists who have struggled with loneliness in one way or another. Through Laing, we meet – among others – Edward Hopper, whose paintings such as Nighthawks show a raw form of loneliness; Andy Warhol, who seemed married to his tape recorder and struggled in social situations; David Wojnarowicz, who survived an intensely abusive childhood to create some remarkable pieces of work; and Henry Darger, who locked himself away and only after his death was it revealed what a prolific artist he had been.

Each story is laced with pathos and true emotion, and there are powerful lines on every page that finally describe ways you’ve been feeling without being able to put words to them. When talking about how impossible it is to explain how loneliness feels to someone who has never experienced it, Laing says:

Loneliness, in its quintessential form, is of a nature that is incommunicable by the one who suffers it. Nor, unlike other non-communicable emotional experiences, can it be shared via empathy. It may well be that the second person’s empathic abilities are obstructed by the anxiety-arousing quality of the mere emanations of the first person’s loneliness.

She’s also honest about people choosing to ignore rather than help, after speaking to a homeless man on the street:

What is it about the pain of others? Easier to pretend that it doesn’t exist. Easier to refuse to make the effort of empathy, to believe instead that the stranger’s body on the sidewalk is simply a render ghost, an accumulation of coloured pixels, which winks out of existence when we turn our head, changing the channel of our gaze.

There are discussions here not only on loneliness, but also loss, pain, acceptance, privacy, technology, the AIDS crisis and, of course, art. I’m not someone who is particularly interested in art or knows much about it, but it was interesting to learn a little more about some of these painters and their work. I knew some of Hopper and Warhol’s work, of course, but I don’t think I knew anything about them personally. Warhol to me was just a tin of Campbell’s soup and a bad wig – I didn’t know he’d been shot and spent most of his life wearing medical corsets to stop his organs, basically, falling out. The other artists mentioned I’d never heard of at all, but they’re all fascinating beings, their work often bizarre but somehow compelling.

It’s a brave book, and an important one. Loneliness is often seen as shameful, and it’s refreshing to see someone hold it up to the light and examine it for once, rather than skirt around the edges. A vital read for anyone who wants to know more about humanity.

I leave off here with another line from Laing herself:

We are in this together, this accumulation of scars, this world of objects, this physical and temporary heaven that so often takes on the countenance of hell. What matters is kindness; what matters is solidarity. What matters is staying alert, staying open, because if we know anything from what has gone before us, it is that the time for feeling will not last.

 

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