Review of The Nihilesthete, by Richard Kalich (Betimes Books)
When social-worker Haberman finds a limbless wheelchair-bound man observing a street artist, it’s as if all his birthdays have come at once. He can now set about the task that he may always have been destined for, to take this unfortunate victim under his monstrous wing and systematically abuse him (mentally and spiritually) until he is somehow sated.
Why does he do this? What unfortunate events in his past have compelled him to carry out such atrocities? Wrong question. It’s like asking how Winnie got buried in sand in Beckett’s “Happy Days”: the fact is that she just happens to be buried in sand; the fact is that Haberman just happens to be this way, like Simenon’s Frank Friedermaier in Dirty Snow perhaps, bad to the bone. Those looking for easy armchair-psychology rationalizations have come to the wrong anti-hero.
Sure, Haberman has his gripes with Mrs. Knox, his uptight colleague, but it’s hardly the reason to go this far into sadism, and yet somehow he remains thoroughly engaging; no matter how brutal he is willing to go, we stay with his wanton leanings, keen as we are to know just how far he is going to push his “project”.
Haberman does show brief moments of light, he does for example allow Brodski the quadriplegic to paint (and the poor man does so masterfully) by the use of prosthetic limbs, but he is then so enraged by the art produced that he slowly, painstakingly removes all his aids again. Perhaps it is this building up of hope and the consequent shattering of it that gives Haberman his kicks, but then that also is perhaps too simplistic a reading; it is imposable to know the true drives behind his act of cruelty, and the reader keeps wanting to know just how terribly it all will end.
Kafka, Gombrowicz and Beckett might all spring to mind as you read this short stab of a novel, but Kalich stands on his own feet in producing a twisted and often grotesque imagining. This novel has fortunately been brought back to life again by Betimes Books as the first part of the Central Park West Trilogy, and the publisher should be heralded for bringing to our attention a writer too long ignored.
A must then for readers interested in unusual fictions, excited by the idea of alternative (albeit horrible narrators) and those simply tired of the staid and banal. For those curious (and brave) enough to step over to the other side, Richard Kalich maybe be the writer you’ve always been searching for.
Like the character of Bernard in my debut novel, Killarney Blues, many of my friends are music obsessives, the kind of people who wouldn’t be out of place in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity.
These cardigan-wearers (to which I am a fully fledged and flouting member) often fire out pointless emails asking all kinds of random music questions. These have been happening for years, and the sad fact is that I have begun to cherish the arrival of these useless inquisitions.
Below are an example of some of the kinds of questions my muso buddies like to ask, and my deeply considered answers (we’re talking hours people, days). Please note also that these answers are liable to change. For example, when recently asked about my favourite Bowie album I instinctively answered Low, but on the following day could just have easily said Station to Station or Hunky Dory. Such is the kind of fickle minds we are dealing with.
So, here they are:
Favourite Rolling Stones song – “Street Fighting Man”
Favourite David Bowie song – “Sound and Vision”
Bass player you would most like to have in your band (if you were a musician yourself) – Bruce Thomas (The Attractions)
Favourite solo McCartney record – Ram
Favourite album artwork – Radiohead ‘s Amnesiac
Favourite opening to an album – “Debaser”, Pixies’ Doolittle
Female recording artist you would most like to go on a date with and have serious intellectual conversation – PJ Harvey
Female recording artist you would most like to have meaningless sexual relations with – Alicia Keys
Artist you would most like to share a bottle of whiskey with – Tom Waits
Favourite music magazine – Uncut
Favourite rhymer – Elvis Costello (manages to rhyme “failure” with “paraphernalia” on the Brutal Youth album)
Favourite Irish rock band of all time – The Fatima Mansions
Favourite Irish album – The Fatima Mansions’ Viva Dead Ponies
Favourite Neil Young album – On the Beach
Favorite depressing song – What becomes of the broken-hearted?
So there you have it. An award ceremony of the mind, where no one gets any awards and all participants (the cardigan boys…and me) have simply wasted our precious time.
Gotta go now, gotta check my inbox. See what utterly pointless inquiries await my attention.
A few people have turned to reading Niall Griffiths’ Sheepshagger after my recent recommendation, and I’m glad to have sent them that way.
One particularly enamoured friend said (and apologies if anyone is offended by the swearing): “Jesus fucking Christ, man. That was the most brutal fucking book I’ve ever subjected myself to. Just finished it. Horrifying. Monstrous… Definitely a book I’ll never forget.”
And that is the point I suppose, a book we’ll “never forget”. Asked to recommend a few more I came up with these other favourites:
The Sportswriter – Richard Ford
Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
Blood Meridian – Cormac McCarthy
The Book of Evidence– John Banville
The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert
The Stranger/The Fall – Albert Camus
The Beckett Trilogy
A Disaffection/How late it was how late – James Kelman
The Butcher Boy – Patrick McCabe
and any of Raymond Carver’s short story collections.
There are more of course, dozens more, but you have to draw the line somewhere I guess.
My fellow Betimes Books authors come just as wholeheartedly recommended. I’ve just started Richard Kalich’s The Nihilesthete (first part of Central Park West Trilogy) and am loving it.
“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for?” Franz Kafka
In an alternative translation of the above Kafka quote, “wound” and “stab” are written as “bite” and “sting”, Sheepshagger by Niall Griffiths does all these things to the reader, and then some.
In ecstatic prose and with raw energy and furious rhythms Griffiths brings you on a wild ride in the Welsh countryside with the unhinged “scruffy skinny spotty” Ianto, an almost mute, feral savant-ish youth who roams the mountains intoxicated not only with drink/drugs but with his own feverish imaginings. This is quite possibly the best British novel in the last twenty years, an exhilarating ride, and an unforgettable read.
You can have your Jonathan Franzens with their mild social comedies, but anyone who craves for their servings of viscera, then this is the real daring deal. Like all the best writers writing today (Banville, Delillo, Ford) he makes you care about sentences. In fact he makes you want to do two contradictory things: he makes you want to pick up a pen and try out your own rich metaphors (the purple-ness can be utterly inspiring), and he also makes you want to never pick up a pen again, because you can never do it this well.
Confrontational, often outrageous, criminally ignored (too dangerous for the Booker?), this is the kind of novel Kafka meant, so take a jaunt on the wild side.
It might have been lazily billed the Welsh Blood Meridian by some, but Sheepshagger stands singular in its own right, and it set the standard for writing excellence at the beginning of the new millennium.
I knew I hadn’t lost my mind. I knew they’d show up sooner or later. I had been writing poems about budgerigars (for no apparent reason) and they seemed to vanish from my computer. As if they had just flown away!
But they hadn’t.
They were somewhere else, they were just hiding.
Two poems about budgerigars (possibly, though not certainly, borne out of existential crisis or the beginning of a nervous breakdown).
The Obsession of the Budgerigar
He is obsessed
with his cage
I call him Franz.
When the door opens
he moves not,
what the world might bring.
I call him Franz.
He only stares.
And when I close the door again
The Consternation of the Budgerigar
You feathered fucks
with your raucous
and big bodies
miming the longpigs
at least my squeak…
we are all in the same way
(Bet you’re glad I found those two poems)
And remember a pet is not just for Xmas. You will probably just kill it after a few days anyway – most pets are annoying.
Get yourself a good book instead. How about a Xmas book?
“Gifts: Bittersweet Christmas Stories” from Betimes Books