And, since the pile of books I've read without having had the chance or the time to review is growing out of control, I thought I'd just do a quick roundup here.
John Lanchester - Mr. Phillips (2000)
I loved Lanchester's The Debt To Pleasure, so I approached MP apprehensively - but while it doesn't have the same refined nastiness which is one of my favourite things in a novel, it's still worthwhile. The story follows the eponymous accountant, who, rather than going to work, spends a day wandering around London, thinking about sex, and quantifying everything, while stumbling into various more and less dramatic situations. Lanchester has a gift for knifesharp observation of the minutiae of everyday reality which is apparent here - and the very English tone of the work, its workmanlike but Larkinesque language, the exploration of the bleak and sordid without being depressing, and of London as an environment - made it both an easy and an interesting read.
Maurice Gee - The Halfmen of O (1982)
Not, as you may think, a children's version of The Story of O - I seemed to remember this book from my childhood - but, sadly, it doesn't live up to the work of the New Zealand children's fantasy author who I most think of when I think of childhood reading, Margaret Mahy. It's not a bad work, but not entirely gripping - and the premise is problematic: that, in an alternate world, an act of power hungriness has divided human beings into those who are purely good and those who are purely evil. Not terrible, but disappointing.
Hilary Mantel - Vacant Possession (1986)
I love Bernice Rubens and Alice Thomas Ellis, so to complete the square of politely dark and nasty Thatcher-era English comedies of manners I needed Beryl Bainbridge, and Hilary Mantel. Vacant Possession is the story of Muriel Axon, unhinged and just released into society as part of the era of de-institutionalisation - with dangerous consequences for those with whom her former life had become entangled: Colin Sidney and Isabel Field. This novel is very much concerned with class, and no class avoids a satirical serve from Mantel's poison pen; its other concern is the nature of intimate relationships. I enjoyed the novel, though not as much as I do either Ellis or Rubens - and it gained momentum as the story unfolded and events folded together - my main criticism was the ending - I wasn't sure if it was intentionally ambiguous, or if my intellect wasn't up to understanding what had happened. Still, very much my kind of thing, and recommended to those who share my literary proclivities.
Catharine Arnold - Necropolis: London and its Dead (2006)
This work takes us through burial practice in London, from the earliest records to the present day. For the most part, however, we find ourselves in the pre-Victorian and Victorian eras, exploring a growing cultural obsession with death and burial and changes in discourse around these issues - and the gruesome consequences of the burgeoning field of medicine, and of the massive disparities in wealth which meant that the rich had a black couch and eight while the poor were thrown into huge, open mass graves to decay. Arnold's writing isn't perfect, which sometimes bogs down the narrative. However, her subject matter is easily interesting enough to hold the work, and to hold the reader's interest. A fascinating work of cultural history which not only explores the enthralling intricacies and historical trivia of death and dying, physically and culturally, but which also has a great deal to tell us about the more general nature of societies through its exploration of its subject.
Hubert Selby Jr. - Last Exit To Brooklyn (1964)
I hadn't read Selby, as I'd classed him, along with Bukowski and the Beats, as one of those substance-addled, masculinist chroniclers of alternative life who have little to offer anyone except the adolescent, or mentally adolescent, male. How wrong I was! While I often like my darkness with lashings of the fantastic, rather than grimy reality, that's been changing over the last few years with my growing interest in figures like Jean Genet, Lydia Lunch, and now Selby. The book is a series of connected stories, sometimes vignettes, treating the seamy sexual, narcotic, criminal underside of life in Brooklyn in the forties and fifties through a series of characters. The writing is absolutely gorgeous, spare but poetic, as is the dialogue and observation - and I must say, if it wasn't for this, the depressing and awful nature of the lives depicted would have had me closing the book long before. This is a work which in one sense is entirely located historically, but in another is still entirely relevant to and reflective of the dark underbelly of civil society - in particular, how its outcasts inflict their pain upon each other. It still reads like a paean, an indictment, and a slap in the face. I'll be reading more Selby - when I'm emotionally recovered.