Sunday 11 September 2011

Last Exit to Brooklyn - a bit of a Julia Roberts

Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr (Calder and Boyars: 1967). A book that was initially banned for its obscenity in 1967, it’s set in the gutters of New York City and follows a cast that embody all that is not well about America. It explores most of the bad sides of human nature and some of the good, and sparks sympathy for the unlikeliest of characters caught in bad situations.
Hi guys.
I’ve spent the last two weeks trying to finish a book that just doesn’t want to be finished. It’s not its fault, it’s entirely mine. It’s a pretty good book, but for one reason or another, I’ve ended up reading it in snatched five minutes here and there.
So instead of reviewing what I wanted to review this week, I’ve ended up staring at my bookshelf looking for an old read that is worthwhile telling you about. And I settled on Last Exit to Brooklyn.
And it’s for one very specific reason. This is one of the few books that, regardless of the setting in which I read it, sucked.
Julia Roberts - I don't like her, but you might (idiot)
I like to think I’m fairly generous of mind. Pretty open to new things. If I don’t like something, I try to at least recognise why someone else might. I hate Julia Roberts’ films for instance, but I get that some people might find her funny and pretty and deep and all that stuff. I don’t. I think she’s rubbish. But I can see why you might think she’s not.
Last Exit to Brooklyn, though, I just don’t get. I picked it up in the first place for a few reasons. First – I’m a big fan of America, and New York in particular. I think it’s probably one of the best cities on earth, and one of the biggest and best muse’s the world’s ever created. Second – this is supposed to be a major modern classic. In the words of one reviewer, it will “still be eagerly read in 100 years time.” That intrigued me. I like the idea of books that survive.
So I was looking forward to this.
But it just did not work for me. It’s written in an incredibly distinctive way. It’s been lauded for its poetic qualities. It has a pace and a feel that is intent on carrying you along with it. Selby didn’t just sit down and start describing the stuff he wanted to – he chose the structure of his sentences and his paragraphs and his chapters in such a way as to create a fierce rhythm.
I tried, honest I tried. I tried reading it in short bursts. I tried reading it in quiet places. I tried reading it in loud places. I tried reading it the right way up and upside down (OK, I didn’t do that). But I just did not get it.
OK, I understand it’s supposed to be pretty chaotic. I understand it’s supposed to be uncomfortable to read. But I’ve read psychedelic books, and I’ve read disturbing books, and I got through them fine. This, I struggled with. The stream of consciousness style meant I just never found anything to anchor my interest on.
The sad thing is that the characters and the setting are pretty amazing. The New York that’s being described is a version that really does compel me. The characters that Selby jumps between really are wonderful and complex. The point that Selby is trying to thrust home with every breath of the book is important, but for me, it’s simply lost in the utter confusion.
I know the style of the book is supposed to reflect the depravity and disorder of the world that Selby is presenting. But instead of making me truly feel the spirit of the book, it just ended up making me bored.
Words are a wonderful thing. Instead of using them for their meaning, Selby uses them for their rhythm. Which could work in poetry, but for a novel, it just ends up in a creation that you need your dad’s size 14 wellington boots to wade through.
I didn’t enjoy this. But I can’t give it a zero. I get that it’s an important book. And I still get excited by its premise. Maybe I need to pick it up again and see if it makes more sense with a second run. I probably won’t though. It’s rugby world cup month, so I have better things to do with my time than read a book again that I didn’t enjoy first time around
Next time, the book that I’ve been trying to finish for ages. I promise.

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