12 August 2004

Reviewing Cliches

In The Telegraph, Tom Payne offers an exhaustive, not to say exhausting, list of book reviewers' cliches. The article has it all: edgy attitude, amphetamine-fueled listmaking like William S. Burroughs on acid, a searing indictment with countless penetrating insights you won't want to miss. Payne hits the ground running in the deceptively simple, inimitable style of Edgar Allen Poe meets Margaret Thatcher:
When did you last come across the words "coruscating" or "magisterial"? It's unlikely to have been in a holiday brochure or a recipe. Surely it was on the back of a book or in a book review.
Continuing at a breakneck speed by this stage, each paragraph becomes an achingly beautiful emotional rollercoaster of high-octane panoramic sweep with "fluent prose" written all over it. At its core, Payne's article is a tour de force of literary scholarship that is as good as any novel -- truly magisterial.

The dogged investigation of the article's first section moves at a cracking pace toward an epic, laughoutloud funny list of politically correct terms that should be required reading for George W. Bush and his advisers. It is a coruscating litany of pure, complete, unadulterated codswallop bliss that demonstrates an epoch-making lightness of touch that is darkly comic and reads like a Who's Who of contemporary poetry from fin-de-siecle Vienna. It's a rattling good read and a cultural event divided like the state of India itself between deadly earnest icons and warts-and-all erudition worn lightly.

I do have a few minor quibbles. Bursting to get out of this cocktail of Henry and Jesse James is a leafy, feisty workmanlike biography revved up on Viagra. Though the article holds the reader's attention in an iron grip, Payne does not in true postmodernist fashion constantly invent and reinvent himself, proving his editor should be shot for not encouraging a heady mix of searingly honest reportage with that rare thing, a surreal and sympathetic portrait of things not as they seem. Construed thus, the article would have been an overnight sensation, a stunning debut, unputdownable.

Nonetheless, Payne writes like a dream and the fact that truth is often stranger than fiction shines through. In fact, the article bears an uncanny resemblance to Douglas Coupland's novels of twentysomething angst, those vast, sprawling epics that were, in effect, the first conservationist/feminist/Communist/librarian chronicles that were simultaneously wickedly funny and woefully inadequate. Take one part Wallace Stevens, mix in some W.C. Fields, add a dash of Stephen King, leave to simmer, and what do you have? A vibrantly alive, poetic man who will appeal to the serious scholar and general reader alike, will stay with you long after the last page is turned, and will resemble a young German corporal by the name of Adolf Hitler.

The rest, as they say, is history.

1 comment:

  1. "Matthew Cheney is fast, funny and going places. Try him!"

    -Piers Anthony

    ReplyDelete