Friday, November 4, 2011

New novels

Michel Houellebecq has a new book (new in English translation, that is) coming out, which sounds good. This review does a pretty good job of assessing his work's strengths and weaknesses (although amateurish plot devices feature in some pretty good literary works, I would think, so that criticism might be a little unfair).

My other favorite contemporary French writer, Fred Vargas, also has a new one out. I've mentioned Houellebecq before, but not Vargas, so let me say something about her books. She writes mysteries, and not particularly philosophical or literary ones. Just really good ones. It's a funny genre because the rules are so strict. The protagonist pretty much has to be a middle-aged man with a dead or divorced wife (the divorce should be because he worked too hard or too dangerously), the makings of a drinking problem, and a mess of a personal life. He should not play by the rules. (I wonder what it says about us that this is the model of our hero.) I used to like Ian Rankin's books, but it started to feel as though he was just churning them out, which perhaps he was. It can't be easy to stick to the required formula but still keep things fresh. Vargas is the only person I know of who can do it.

Unless you count Malcolm Pryce. (Who, I've just this minute discovered, also has a new book out!) His books are set in an alternate version of Wales, a sort of cross between the real Wales (which is something like the Appalachia of Britain) and a gritty, Hollywood version of the United States. It's surreal, funny, and sad. A big part of what makes it funny, after all, is the idea of great drama (Pryce's novels are noir-ish detective stories) taking place in such an inconsequential backwater. So what makes it funny also reminds you of what a nowhere place Wales can feel like, which is sad. But without that sadness the comedy wouldn't work. And it does work, so it's not so sad after all. Pryce pulls off the delicate balancing act incredibly well. I'm tempted to call his novels hilarious, and others have done so, but that might make them sound jollier than they are. They aren't depressing, but they are sort of dark. Philosophical too, which is always a plus.

In case I've made Pryce's comic stories sound sadder than they are, or insulted Wales, let me say a bit more. As I recall, Terry Wogan once remarked on the fact that it was impossible to imagine a song about a British city along the lines of songs about American cities such as Chicago and New York, New York. American cities can be taken seriously, partly because (enough) Americans do take them seriously , and partly because they are genuinely important places, which is related to the fact that the USA is a superpower. CSI: Miami sounds exciting (to some people, at least), but CSI: Birmingham just sounds like a joke. The places where British people live don't matter. And by this I mean mostly that they don't seem to matter to the people who live there, not that I judge them to be objectively insignificant. Everyone in Britain knows this (correct me if I'm wrong), and it is a fairly standard source of humor. Places that don't matter can't be taken too seriously, after all. So you have to laugh instead. This might sound bleak considered in the abstract, but I think it's pretty much part of daily life for a lot of people. Pryce's comedy is in this tradition, and neither particularly anti-Welsh nor gloomy.          


  1. Everyone in Britain knows this (correct me if I'm wrong), and it is a fairly standard source of humor.

    Well, perhaps not everyone. Silly joke coming up: These guys do not seem to think that the places where British people live don't matter. (They don't seem like a very humorous bunch either, for that matter.)

    I'm not particularly fond of mystery stories, but the ones I do like are invariably of the noir-ish sort, and if there is irony and humor in it, better still. So Malcolm Pryce' books seem just like my type. I'll have a look. Thanks for the tip.

    I don't know if you or anyone else remember, but a couple of months ago
    I made a tip about Cora Diamond appearing on Philosophy Talk. But nothing happened. I was fooled, it seems, by the announcement for the live show. The recorded program will be airing on November 13.

  2. Titles like Unbearable Lightness of Being in Aberystwyth, Don't Cry for Me Aberystwyth and Aberystwyth Mon Amour -- I just have to read them. Pryce' home page is also a very funny read.

  3. Yes, if Pryce's titles appeal to you then I'm sure the books will too. As I tell my children, you always have to judge a book (that you haven't read yet) by its cover.

    And you're quite right about the EDL, but they're living in a fantasy world.