I've been reading, giggling over and in general thoroughly enjoying Elise Blackwell's 2007 novel Grub, an ARC of which I picked up from the Toby Press stand at last year's BookExpo America. Any time I can get to BookExpo I make a point of going by this stand: Toby has to be close to my favourite publisher, if not the favourite. They just seem never to publish duds. I'm sure there must be other publishers out there who achieve the same, but I haven't yet found them.
Anyway, Grub is a quasi-updating of a novel that occupies a special place in my own personal literary pantheon, George Gissing's scathing 1891 portrayal of the contemporary literary and not-so-literary landscape, New Grub Street. I must confess I was slightly nervous of Blackwell's version for precisely this reason -- and envious of her courage in attempting it: when the source is such a masterpiece, the creator of any homage is likely to find the effort drawing nothing but unflattering comparisons, even from people who haven't in fact read the original. I needn't have worried, though. Grub stands up as a wonderfully funny and astringent piece of work in its own right; Blackwell pierces the pretensions and corruptions of today's supposedly literary scene with the same zeal and precision that Gissing directed towards the one he knew.
I kind of wish Blackwell had retained Gissing's names for the central characters rather than marginally changing them; "Jasper Milvain", for example, far better conjures up the somewhat sleazy, mercenary opportunist who's a focus of both books than does "Jackson Miller". I also wish she'd spent a bit more time directing her satirical laser towards the book-trade side of the equation, towards the devastation of fiction publishing by (a) the monopolistic market dominance of bookselling by the chains and (b) the very similar situation in publishing, where a few massive conglomerates attempt to control our reading tastes. When Blackwell does do this in the book, she's very effective at it -- a young novelist's first lunch with her agent and editor, Lane and Lana, both of whom are identical and identically ghastly, is wonderfully funny and depressingly recognizable at the same time, and a highlight of the novel. In reality, writers' lives today are very much coloured by the existence of these commercial behemoths; the writers in Grub escape much of it. As a final minor criticism, I had a certain unease on occasion with the book's internal chronology: sometimes, while a mere weekend passed for one set of characters, in the next chapter it'd seem that months had rushed by for another.
These are small quibbles. Overall, an excellent book that I may very likely be drawn to reread in years to come.
This is, I'd suggest, not entirely the translator's fault; he has clearly produced a sort of working translation which his publisher has chosen to put into print without benefit of copyediting (or, possibly, proofreading; perhaps the proofreader got as bored as I eventually did). Here's an example (page 57) of the opacity one encounters all too often:
"I'm not surprised you asked," the doctor replied. "Harald Guntlieb obviously practiced body modification, as it is called in the countries where the habit originated. At first we thought that the state of his tongue was connected with the disfiguration of the body, but then we noticed it had healed so much that he must have had it done some time before -- it's in a different league from tongue studs in perversity, I really must say."
There's a lot here to puzzle over, such as: ". . . it's in a different league from tongue studs in perversity . . ." What exactly is meant by this? The dead Harald is fairly youthful, so could we be talking about adolescent perversity: put studs in your tongue to piss off the parents? Or are we talking about tongue studs as a sexual perversion? Nearly seventy pages later, having checked back several times to refresh my memory of the passage, I still am not certain.
Elsewhere the text reads, on occasion for pages on end, like the kind of piece which might inspire the tutor of a creative-writing evening class to write "Promising!" in the margin even as s/he knew the student was going to have to work some years yet before producing anything a publisher might seriously look at. And, after over 120 pages of it, I decided I'd persevered long enough; if the original were as interesting and challenging as the Indridason novel I might have kept on going, but Last Rituals is (at least, to judge by the first 124pp) an entertainment rather than anything deeper. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but entertainments should be smooth, palatable, easy reads rather than protracted struggles. Perhaps whoever publishes the mass market paperback will take the trouble to give the text the copyedit it so sorely needs; perhaps pigs might fly.
** Next up: Grub (2007), by Elise Blackwell, a new version of one of my favourite novels, George Gissing's 1891 masterpiece New Grub Street.