MA Semester Two, Week Ten

For our Contemporary Fiction class this week, we had to read Don DeLillo's Falling Man.  I read it on the plane to Rome last Thursday.  Apt, eh?  Well, considering we thought we'd be driving across the continent, reading a book about the 9/11 attacks whilst airborne was a real barrel of laughs.  I'd read the book when it first came out, and though I didn't think it was fantastic, DeLillo's always readable, and I was happy enough to have another go-round.  This time, I liked it a little less - the sections about the terrorist seemed really inauthentic, and the European maybe-terrorist art-dealer dude, Martin, seemed like a deliberate thematic device to me.  It wasn't a very smooth or immersive read.  But still, again, DeLillo's always worth a go, and the sections with the kids, spying out of a high-rise building to find Bin Laden, were fantastic.

Topics we looked at in class included whether fiction-writers have the right to deal with such a traumatic event in lived memory (this question INFURIATED me - of course they do! wtf? Boo-urns to censorship in all its permutations); a summary of other American post-9/11 narratives (Updike's awful Terrorist came up); the representation of New York city in the book; DeLillo's use of time and memory (cyclical structure, repetition, memory-loss, forgetting, memorialising); whether the ending offers any sort of redemption; and a brief look at the ideas of American exceptionalism and manifest destiny.  It was a pretty good discussion, and our second-last CF seminar - next week we're being rescheduled to Wednesday to avoid the bank holiday, and we'll be looking at McEwan's Saturday, to get the UK response to the 9/11 attacks.

In the workshop, later, we looked at two novel extracts, anda good time was had by all.  After a pub-interlude, we headed over to a reading by novelist Giles Foden (of Last King of Scotland fame) and poet Leontia Flynn - she was brilliant, really funny and chatty and engaging.  If she's ever reading elsewhere, I'd recommend popping along - we all came out raving abut her.

So, good day had by all, yadda-yadda-yadda - but, really, I'd rather have stayed in Rome.  Look - doesn't this just totally kick the library's ass?

MA Semester Two, Week Nine

So this was our post-apocalyptic week.  Aside from reading Cormac McCarthy's The Road and watching the film adaptation, there was of course the giant evil cloud of volcanic ash that's devouring most of Europe.  Dramatic, huh?  Well, I'm supposed to be flying to Rome to a really good friend's wedding on Thursday, so if the ash doesn't continue to clear, we'll be driving there (I say 'we', I'll just be in charge of  changing the CDs; I wouldn't know how to even switch on a car) so all in all, I'm not sure the big McCarthy-fest was the best start to the post-Easter world.  Any fire I'd be carrying would be rage and possibly indigestion, so Viggo would be dead disappointed.  I don't even have a shopping trolley.


Film was watched, book was read, and the Contemporary Fiction seminar on Monday was about the rise in apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction and movies in the past couple of decades.  The millennium seems to be a factor here, as does terrorism and religious fundamentalism.  There's apparently a whole host of Rapture-themed books popular in the US, called the Left Behind series - Christian fiction where the Saved are, well, saved, and the damned have to stay on Earth and suffer torments, and some plucky chaps get to battle the Antichrist.  You can read excerpts on Amazon, it's hilarious.  (I've just been reading bits aloud in a very dramatic voice to poor Andy who's trying to do real work.)  I'd love to get my hands on those books; they sound like the religious-fiction equivalent of Jeremy Kyle.  Brilliantly annoying and fascinating.  There's been a huge surge, too, in survivalist literature - fiction and non-fiction texts about (you guessed it) how to survive in extreme situations.

So that was all very interesting, plus we got to talk about Mad Max, which always adds a certain something to an academic discussion.  Then it was on to The Road itself, and how it fits, or doesn't fit, within the post-apocalyptic genre.  We talked about McCarthy's ambiguous use of religion, the relationship between the man and the boy, what people thought about the ending, McCarthy's writing style (like Hemingway? or like Faulkner?), and the film adaptation.  Personally, I liked the film but still found it way schmaltzier than the book, with the rosy-coloured flashbacks and the Disney McFamily at the end, which is played way down in the book.  We also talked about Oprah and McCarthy's appearance on her show, and why he might have agreed to that - a line of enquiry I thought pretty pointless and gossipy - can't the man go on the telly if he fancies it?  Seriously.  Dude's about a hundred years old; perhaps he wanted to give it a go before it was too late.

That was about that; we had the fiction workshop as usual after lunch, and this time it was my go - my final MA workshop.  There should be a drumroll emoticon.  It went well - good feedback, useful suggestions, and now I just have to figure out what happens next in the novel.

Okay - back to hovering over the airline's website and wondering which and how many albums we can get through on a twenty-three hour drive.  Go.

edited catalogue of woes (Monday)

(1) my bike being robbed two weeks ago (now replaced, see below, feel the joy)
(2) boyfriend's bike being robbed on Saturday evening (replaced Sunday afternoon via gumtree, him being far less picky than me and simply requiring that it be a two-wheeled machine with a steering mechanism, not an absurdly pretty version of same)
(3) a dog mauled me while I was out jogging yesterday!  There was a big hole in my trousers and my dignity as I ran around Whalley Range trying not to let the natives see my white ass through the flapping fabric.  Cue SHAME and RAGE (but thankfully no damage to actual ass).


My new bike arrived today!  That is, it arrived in pieces in a giant cardboard box.

I've spent half the day downstairs in the hall assembling it.  I haven't made so much use of an allen key since I put together an Ikea wardrobe a couple of years ago, and that experience left me cut and bruised.  Today I've escaped with only a grazed knuckle and greasy dirt everywhere.  I also learned that in America, allen keys are called hex keys.  Isn't that clever?  Because I think the bike shipping bastards put some sort of hex on all the various components so that I wouldn't be able to figure out how the hell they went together until I'd almost reached the limit of my (short) fuse.  I was crouching on the floor with a wheel and a set of handlebars and a very loose brake cable and some pedals and some mysterious metal things and the allen key and two screwdrivers and a scissors and a vile temper, when some builders happened past.  Well, they didn't just happen past; the house here is on the verge of collapse and our landlord has hired them to do mysterious things to the chimney shaft.  They're up there right now - I've let them dangle an extension cable out the kitchen window, and I can hear ominous banging - but earlier, they watched me floundering with my allen key and incomprehensible instructions (no Rosetta Stone included), and they took pity on me.  They loaned me a spanner and tightened up the handlebars and fiddled with the brakes.  I offered to recompense them in the form of tea (I've dealt with builders before, I can do a very professional brew) before remembering we had no sugar - the lack of which might possibly have led to some sort of building-meltdown - so I had to hot-foot it to the cornershop. Sixty-nine pence that sugar cost me.  These handlebars better be the most securely affixed gadgets known to mankind.  (Though now that I have the sugar, I can get the power, and things might start to get rather exciting around here.)  So then I spent another million years or more putting the bell and the lights on and adjusting the saddle and giving it a test-drive down to Tesco and back.  Here he is, my Claud:

You'd think I'd go and wash now, to get rid of all the grease and crap, but it's forbidden.  The landlord came round to investigate a leak and left this notice (and mess) in the bath:

It's a glamorous life I lead.

MA Semester Two, Week Eight

I had a meeting with one of our fiction tutors on Tuesday, and we went over a chapter of my novel-in-progress.  It was a useful experience, both on the micro level (oh, all the words that shall be changed...) and on the macro (where the story might be heading).  I came away with quite a few decent ideas.  I'd met up with another tutor a couple of weeks ago and we'd discussed the overall (very vague!) structure of the book - the two meetings combined made me feel like I'm not entirely on the wrong track.  We'll find out who our dissertation supervisors will be soon enough, so I'll know which one of them will be thrashing it out with me over the summer.  Lucky them, eh... But this has all been happening during the Easter break, and there's only a week and a bit left of that, and I've long owed you guys my account of the last pre-Easter week of classes.  So here goes:

Contemporary Fiction this week was about post-colonialism and transnational feminisms, and the text was Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss. I'd read this before and I remembered being quite impressed by it (despite its utterly awful title) and this time round the actual writing still impressed me, but the meandering and weak plot was a disappointment.  It got a rather lukewarm reception in class, and people were a little sniffy about Desai's Booker win.  I don't think it's the best book to win in the past decade, but it's far from the worst (The White Tiger, anyone??) - and the prose is pretty luxurious all the same.

Issues we discussed:  the usual post-colonial banter - what did people understand by the term 'postcolonial', what does it mean for 'english literature', reasons to critique any particular approach to postcolonial studies or the whole project altogether, the possibly tokenistic nature of the Booker success by different 'postcolonial' authors in the last ten years, the reification of the postcolonial 'exotic'... It was a pretty wide-ranging discussion, from Said to current market forces.  Personally, I'm wary of the term, because to me, it's flabby enough to include in one definition or another almost anything written by anyone who's not white-British or possible white-American.  So you get the same hierarchies, the ones you claim to be critiquing, emerging all over again.   But I haven't read too widely into it; don;t quote me.  We also touched on the cultural tourism debate and I pointed the tutor towards Sara's Crowley's blog, where there's been a lively discussion on the topic.  We finished up by talking a little about transnational feminisms; gendered globalisation, identity as a signifying practice (Judith Butler), and other topics that I've since forgotten about.  Oops...

After lunch, in the workshop, we looked at one person's reworked first chapter, and a later chapter from somebody else.  It's fascinating to see how people's work develops over time.  It's occurred to me that I probably won't find out what happens to/in most of these embryonic novels once the course finishes, which is a real shame.  Well - I'll just have to keep an eye on the new releases in the bookshops over the next few years!

Then - after a sneaky pint in the ever-welcoming Big Hands (which never fails to remind me of Peep Show) - we headed down to the Whitworth to check out Jenn Ashworth and Jen Hadfield reading, respectively, fiction and poetry.  Jenn-with-two-Ns read excerpts from A Kind of Intimacy (Have you read this yet?  Because you should; it's great) and her new book, Cold Light, which isn't out yet, but she totally whetted our collective appetites.  Then Jen-with-one-N read a selection of poems from her two collections.  The whole thing took place in the middle of Thomas Demand's installation, part of the Whitworth's show, The Walls Are Talking - which is itself well worth a gander.  So all in all, a very arty evening.  And a very link-tastic paragraph, now that I look back over it.

Anyway, Jenn Ashworth came in to do a workshop with us the next morning - and she did very well by getting in for nine o'clock (in fact, we all did very well there, big round of applause for us) - about how to pull in an income as a writer.  She told us about her teaching, workshops, manuscript editing, Arts Council grants, and so on. It was very refreshing to hear about that side of things, because nobody else has really talked hard cash with us.  I mean, we're all aware we're setting out on a road to destitution, with gruel for dinner and nothing at all for lunch, but it was good to hear somebody lay out a budget for it all.

I'm off to eat a bowl of water.

I need a mind maker-up-er machine, not a bicycle.

I'm fickle and inconsistent and very swayed by pretty things.  Now I want this:

epic bike hunt '10

(Okay,  I owe you people an MA post from ten days ago.  I'm slack and slow, but it's the holidays now, and I'm rocking an Easterly lethargy.  It'll happen eventually.  Carry on bating your breath.)

Post last week's thievery, I've visited seven bike shops in the past three days, as well as hovering obsessively over gumtree and ebay, half-hoping my old bike would show up there and I could get all righteous on somebody's ass, but equally terrified that my own simmering rage would force me to confront a giant bastard brandishing boltcutters in my face and sneering.  No sign of the bike, though, so that particular scheme is on hold.  I did, however, get a solid education in south Manchester bike shops; the main lessons being that (a) even very cheap new bicycles seem to be way more expensive than they were thee years ago, and (b) all secondhand bikes are the hand-me-downs of very lanky men.  Us short-arsed ladies are not being catered for.  Anyway, I then retreated posthaste to the internet (my spiritual home) and eventually found a relative bargain.  I decided to sit on for a couple of days so that I could do some mulling, but needless to say, I quickly got bored of said mulling and yesterday afternoon I got the tram over to Heaton Park Cycles, as recommended by local shady character Adam Comstive.  And as it turns out, the very nice old man who runs the shop has a good cheap hybrid that should do the trick nicely.  Can you imagine - a real live shop outdoing the internet?  I was astounded, I tell you.  So I'll head back next week (once him indoors who can work the horseless carriage is available to ferry me about once more) and lay my money on the line.  The rest of that afternoon was spent buying new locks and lights on ebay.  I haven't reached the ripe old age of almost thirty by paying full price for things, oh no, siree!

Brad Watson review

My review of Brad Watson's Aliens In The Prime of Their Lives is live at Bookmunch.