Adam Mars-Jones’ Greatest Hits
He may prefer the term “scalpel job”, but our first Hatchet Job of the Year Award winner Adam Mars-Jones has never been a mincer of words.
Here are a few of his choice cuts:
1. On Jeanette Winterson and her memoirs WHY BE HAPPY WHEN YOU COULD BE NORMAL in the LRB:
The cadences of therapy are used to suggest self-analysis while sliding over it: ‘And if we hate her [mother] later, we take that rage with us into other lovers.’ In the space of half a dozen words, hatred has become rage, though rage is rather different. Rage has glamour. Rage is hatred with a press agent. It’s much more Winterson’s style to glorify an impulse than to examine it. Lament for past mistakes keeps modulating into self-praise … Martyrs at the stake have spoken with more diffidence. In this new book the contradictions of Jeanette Winterson’s character are more evident than any perspective on them.
2. On Nobel prize winner Orhan Pamuk’s THE NAIVE AND SENTIMENTAL NOVELIST in the Observer:
It’s almost a thrill to come across expository prose that combines so many defects, plodding and tendentious by turns. Pamuk’s lifeless generalisations don’t satisfy for a moment: “The best way to study the novel is to read the great novels and aspire to write something like them.”
3. On Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s short story collection APRICOT JAM AND OTHER STORIES, in the Observer:
A posthumous collection of rather hefty, lumpen chronicles written in the 1990s – I say “chronicles” rather than “stories” because there’s so little sign of the ruthless shaping the short form requires … [But] this is the oddest experience for readers of Apricot Jam – to find Solzhenitsyn, scourge of state power, producing something so nostalgic for ideology, so flatly modelled, so strangely Soviet.
4. On CRUSADERS by Richard T. Kelly in the Observer:
This is prose with something like a death wish… The opening chapters read like a very odd Victorian pastiche and for a while this seems deliberate… Then the penny drops that this is supposed to be a neutral, all-purpose style… Kelly owns up to (or boasts about) borrowing phrases from Dostoyevsky, but the book he really needs on his shelves is a dictionary. If you’re going to use such words as ‘enjoin’ or ‘hence’, it’s best to know what they mean…
5. On the 2000 Booker prize winner, THE BLIND ASSASSIN by Margaret Atwood, in the Observer:
The truth that emerges is, in fact, eminently neat, in a murder-mystery sort of way. The surprises have the effect of further flattening out the characters, the villains becoming blacker, the martyrs yet more devoted. More of a grey area would be welcome. The demands of Atwood’s tricksy plot have produced a curiously reactionary world picture, in which men have political convictions, while women’s lives contain nothing more serious than love.
6. On JAMES JOYCE: A BIOGRAPHY by Gordon Bowker, in the Guardian:
Seeking to extract personal testimony from any novel whatever is like trying to tell the time from a clock in a painting. Doing the same thing with Finnegans Wake is like trying to tell the time from the soft watch in a Dali phantasmagoria, undeterred by the fact that it’s draped over a branch, if not crawling with ants.
7. On TELLING TIMES by Nadine Gordimer, in the Observer:
This fat selection of Nadine Gordimer’s non-fiction gets off to a slightly shaky start, and has a dismaying last couple of hundred pages. In a couple of early pieces, her touch is unsure where it matters most – and in most of the late ones the crown of wisdom, as represented by theNobel prize for literature, which she won in 1991, slips slowly over her eyes.
8. On A WRITER AT WAR: LETTERS AND DIARIES 1939 – 1945 BY IRIS MURDOCH edited by Peter J. Conradi, in the Observer:
This is a strange volume, poorly conceived as well as thoroughly self-sabotaged … The title doesn’t even fit particularly well, since it was the end of hostilities, bringing the chance of travel, and the accompanying sudden exposure to French thought, which had the real impact on Murdoch, but anything that can go wrong with the book editorially has done so. A single sentence can contain an erroneous correction (“Ruisdael” is an accepted spelling of the painter’s name) and an uncorrected error (“Ruben’s”).
9. On Woody Allen’s MERE ANARCHY in the Observer:
Is there a more depressing category than ‘humour’? I tried to be fair to this book by not reading the pieces back to back. Such skits and squibs function in a magazine (about half of these were first printed in the New Yorker) as light relief, palate-cleansers in prose. Putting them together in a volume is a severe test of the feuilletoniste, which only the most talented can hope to survive (among them Flann O’Brien, Paul Jennings and Michael Frayn). Even in the smallest doses, these lazy riffs and lame parodies do more to annoy than entertain.
10. On the latest pretender to the title of Great American Novel, THE ART OF FIELDING by Chad Harbach, in the Observer:
There are so many references to high culture that college baseball comes to resemble some sort of offshoot of Mensa. Mike Schwartz quotes Schiller in a pre-game pep talk. Owen reads Kierkegaard in the dugout. Introduced to Pella, Schwartz correctly identifies her name as that of a city sacked by the Romans in 168BC. Even Henry’s point of view dwells on Homer rather than Homer Simpson. All of this would be laughable if it was done with less conviction.
On the book’s first page there’s an elementary slip in the point of view, with a reference to Mike Schwartz letting “his huge aching back” relax against a chain-link fence. Any creative-writing instructor would point out that Mike may feel the ache but hardly the hugeness, which is information aimed squarely at the reader. Perhaps Harbach has let it stand with the affectionate confidence of a driver who decides, after passing his test, not to respray the scratch in the coachwork that happened the first time he took the wheel.
We know it was published a couple of years ago but, in the interests of balance, we’ve compiled some less than favourable reviews of Adam Mars-Jones’ second novel PILCROW:
Tim Martin in the Independent found much of it difficult to swallow:
If it were a memoir, one could imagine Pilcrow amassing a certain following, its author becoming a cult figure even – a sort of My Left Foot, perhaps, with bonus homosex and the odd dab of Zen. As a novel, however, despite a fairly constant felicity in the language, it feels by turns pointless and self-serving.
Patrick Ness in the Guardian thought aping Proust was a bad move:
Adam Mars-Jones is not a man to be rushed. Twice named one of Granta’s Best Young Novelists before he’d even produced his first novel (1993’s The Waters of Thirst), he then took another 15 years to write this follow-up. Unfortunately, that deliberateness has translated in the worst possible way to Pilcrow. Proustian in theme — a young, gay, disabled boy mostly unable to leave his bed — it is what people who haven’t read Proust always accuse Proust of being: irksomely fey, overlong and very boring.
On the other hand, PILCROW transported Margaret Drabble (reviewing the book for the TLS) to seventh heaven:
Pilcrow by Adam Mars-Jones is one of the most remarkable novels I have read in recent years. I would say it was a tour de force, if that didn’t make it sound formidable, which it is not. It is as intelligent, enjoyable, fluent, witty and engaging as his shorter fiction. How he contrives to make his obsession with ill health and his addiction to medical textbooks so life-enhancing is a mystery to me. Proust is the nearest parallel, and Mars-Jones’s narrator’s description of his grandmother’s virtuoso scrambling of eggs deserves to stand by Proust’s two-page description of the boiling of a pan of milk.