Source of book: second recommendation from Fiona Stager at Avid Reader in Brisbane on 29 Dec 2013 (again I paid RRP)
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This is not the first book I’ve seen where someone in the publishing house has gone for something funky design-wise and cut out a chunk of the cover, but it’s a hardback and I think that’s less common. It is, though, the first book with all its back-cover text on a deliberately removable sticker, in case the aesthetics of a blurb, quotes and a barcode aren’t for you. I have a wardrobe full of T shirts that suggests aesthetics and I don’t usually see eye-to-eye, but I’m not going to object to people trying something different. The publisher in this case is McSweeney’s, so some rule-breaking when it comes to cover design is no surprise. It might add to the experience for some, and it didn’t detract from it for me (aside from a few wussy moments when the pointy bits of the front cover board spiked my hand).
So, to business. How about a blurb: ‘Lucy Corin’s dazzling new collection is powered by one hundred apocalypses: a series of short stories, many only a few lines, that illuminate moments of vexation and crisis, revelations and revolutions. An apocalypse might come in the form of the end of a relationship or the end of the world, but what it exposes is the tricky landscape of our longing for a clean slate. Three longer, equally visionary stories round out the collection.
At once mournful and explosively energetic, One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses makes manifest the troubled conscience of an uneasy time.’
Don’t expect normal from this book, and I mean that in a good way. This is way down the narrowest, pointiest, nichiest end of the niche I like to call my reading home.
Did you ever read Shelia Heti’s The Middle Stories? It was a festival pick-up for me in Calgary in 2001, and I shared my copy around a few agents and publishers in Australia in the hope that they’d want to get on board. Too nichey, apparently.
Anyway, One Hundred Apocalypses had me thinking of that, and almost nothing else in my reading experience. They’re both books that have dazzled me, each containing many great glinting feats in the guise of small pieces of prose. I love this writing, could easily envy it, and yet I’ll never even try to do anything like it. Again. Perhaps I should say again. Perhaps I tried something like it with Passion in the early nineties, but not really. After that I realised characters were one of the things that count most for me when I’m writing – I invest a lot in them and they repay it with hard work, giving me all kinds of details I didn’t have and helping me find the shape of my story and the shapes within it. (Don’t worry – when pressed, I do know they’re not real.)
That’s not how Lucy Corin seems to work at all. It might be, but it doesn’t look like it. And she’s probably able to do all of that stuff, even if she seems to choose not to. Probably able to do all that writing stuff I try to do with 100% of my brain, while she’s simultaneously watching Breaking Bad, making quality linguine from scratch, contemplating small and large ends to worlds, and juggling six unlike objects adeptly with her other hand.
When it comes to writing, she’s probably able to do anything, and yet she’s chosen to do this – to flip a reader’s normal expectations of characters and story on their head (with a hand I didn’t even see), to create something whole while showing you its odd pieces, and to write it all with the sharpness of a diamond saw.
Beginning, middle, end? Blah, triple blah. Most of the time, it feels like that’s not really the game here, at least not in the regular way (by choice, and a smart choice too). The end result is genuinely and successfully artful, and the writing is brilliant.
And, yes, she too teaches creative writing (at UC Davis, in her case), but her MFA is from Brown, not Iowa, so don’t try telling me I don’t ever mix things up a bit.
I can’t think of one person in my face-to-face life to recommend this book to, but I can think of a couple of people who are likely to see this post and might end up thinking it’s their book of the year. Because, as I said 6000 words ago, it’s personal.
There is such a thing as merit, but what a book does in our brains is about more than that. I buy into the idea of reviews and rewards for the obvious shallow reasons – I’ll welcome any accolade anyone’s willing to give me, and any cash or sale that comes my way as a consequence. I’ll even buy in with a little more conviction than that (they can play a useful role in connecting with readers … we can some to some kind of collective understanding about merit, I suppose … on a handful of occasions, a review has nudged me to realise there’s something in my writing I want to make more of, or less …), but I can’t believe in them wholeheartedly. Sour grapes from someone who misses out on awards far more often than he wins them? Maybe. I’m game to put it to the test. Go ahead and throw half-a-dozen major awards my way quickly and we’ll see how I feel then. Apart from richer and smug.
Ask anyone who the fastest ever person in the world is over 100 or 200m and the answer right now can only be Usain Bolt. Ask 50 brilliant writers around the world for their picks as best book of 2013 – note, ‘best’, not ‘favourite’ – and, as the Guardian found, you’ll get about 48 different answers. Because, where books are concerned, even ‘best’ is personal, to some degree at least.
Welcome to Normal made one critic’s list of the best books of 2012. That meant a lot to me, and not because I was on a list. It meant a lot because I had an idea of what he liked and what he valued in fiction. Before the book was published, he was in my mind as my test case, however much I tried to talk myself out of loading one person’s reading up with any hopes like that. But he got it. I hit my mark. That counts.
It counts for a lot any rare time you light the fuse that sets off that brain firecracker I mentioned on Monday. Some readers have a book club of one, some have influence privileges and the chance to spread their views to thousands. Their readings have different commercial and career implications for the writer but, food on the table aside, the pay-off is the firecracker. The greatest thing is hearing occasionally that you’ve paid forward the favour that books did you in the first place, and continue to do you when the right book lands in your brain.
I’m ¾ of the way through One Hundred Apocalypses now, still with a few apocalypses to go. I have no idea how Lucy Corin does it and, after a lifetime of reading and decades of writing, it comes as a relief to be reminded once again how far I am from knowing everything, and to know that there will be other books ahead that will surprise me too.
Thanks for joining me this week, and for indulging me. May 2014 bring you at least one book that knocks you sideways, in the best possible way.