The Sellout

Tonight I finished The Sellout, last year’s Booker prizewinner, and as demented a book as I’ve read this year. I’m not sure what to make of it; is it this decade’s A Confederacy of Dunces ? (Without a dead author, that is.) I’m not even sure if, on some level, I really know what it’s about. 

It begins with the narrator under trial at the Supreme Court before going back to his childhood, raised by a terrific parody of a clinical psychologist. There’s a deft mishmash of Skinner boxes and antebellum monstrosity like the best ravings of a basement-dwelling internet troll, and as the book continues, a seemingly never ending spray of racism and profanity. I found myself laughing but not sure if I should be laughing. The hero reintroduces segregation, inadvertently acquires a slave, and grows citrus fruit in California – none of which are great moral choices. Then with twenty pages to go, Beatty shifts tack and has a go at skewering the whole concept of race relations in America, which is the point where you realise that as a middle aged middle class white British man living a life of privilege in Singapore, you really have little to bring to the conversation. 

It’s beautifully written; trouble is, quoting almost any of it out of context of the book would make me appear like the worst person on earth. And since I borrowed a physical copy from the Singapore Public Library, rather than read on the Kindle, it’s too dark in the room I write this in to copy out the more uplifting quotations. 

So, go read it. It’s an anomalous Booker winner, not because it’s short (288 pages) but because it’s not an utter miseryfest from start to finish. 

Marathon training – week 9 of 14 – half measures

I ran 6 hours longer this week than I did the previous week. Unfortunately, I was meant to run ten hours longer than I did last week, so we’re not exactly perfect at this point.
Continue reading “Marathon training – week 9 of 14 – half measures”

Today We Die A Little

Two weeks ago, I finished reading Today We Die A Little, a biography of Emil Zatopek, the Czech runner, and it seems appropriate, now I’m lying on my bed with my legs aching from today’s run, that I get round to reviewing it. 

I have three favourite books about Czechoslovakia; The Good Soldier Svejk, Under The Frog, and now Today We Die A Little. Two of these are reliable ways to make me cry. With Under The Frog it’s a comic novel that turns tragic in the final chapters; likewise with Zatopek’s story the end has you welling up. 

Viewed from today, as we approach the two-hour marathon, Zatopek’s times are rendered less incredible, but at the time his achievements, setting record after record and winning multiple medals at each Olympics were unprecedented. Today we have better nutrition, better equipment and tracks, and more understanding of physiology, which makes Zatopek’s abilities more remarkable. You only have to read about some of his interval training (sessions of 40 laps of the track as hard as possible) to understand what a phenomenon he was. 

But it’s clear from the story that he wasn’t just a great athlete; there’s story after story of his good deeds to his fellow athletes, and his sincere belief (up until the Prague Spring) of the Communist project. 

There’s an amazing quotation attributed to him, explaiming why he didn’t care about setting records; if they were the best he’d ever be, then he’d never surpass them, so why celebrate? And if he was going to break them in the future, why care for what they are now? Did some kind of Zen Buddhism make its way to middle Europe?

In the late 90s he was smeared as a collaborator with the old regime, and it’s clear was accusations hurt the author too, so attached by that point is he to his subject. It’s too long ago and too difficult to say what was really the truth now. 

What made me cry as I read the final pages were the last days of Zatopek. In his 70s, bereft of his athleticism, and losing his mind, it’s a reminder of the inevitable mortality of all of us, and yet it seems supremely sad in the case of Zatopek. Is this because I’m growing older and more fearful of senescence? Is it because we assume the greatest among us shouldn’t suffer in this way, and so when they do it’s harder to handle?  Who’s to say

La La Land

After John Wick 2, we watched La La Land. I wouldn’t recommend doing this in reverse order; very loud gunfights aren’t a great way to recover from a nuanced sing song about jazz and beautiful people. I’m also not sure, even with 24 hours’ perspective, whether La La Land is just a tremendous piss-take or not. 

The evidence for that is strongest in the opening scene, an over-the-top dance sequence which plumbs the depths of shameless mugging to the audience, jazz hands, fancy footwork, shimmy-shimmy-shim-shim-sheree nonsense. It’s very funny to watch people cavorting around a traffic jam, and highly impressive that this scene could be achieved, but it’s also one of those look-at-me aren’t-I-great moments that draws your attention to the artifice of the whole enterprise. 

That remains true for the rest of the film: it’s a wonderful confection but you never forget that is what it is. Perhaps it’s wrong of me to think of John Wick as realistic, when both films have in common a certain stylisation, and definitely both are films where the colour palette has been very carefully thought about. But with John Wick 2 the plot goes along so fast that you’re sucked into it, whereas with La La Land you’re perpetually sliding off something beautifully crafted. 

Is it then, without a soul? I think the ending proves that not to be the case, a magnificent final ten minutes that ties the film together and that I won’t write about here. It looks lovely, it sounds very nice (though I can’t say Emma Stone’s voice is as big as the role demands – too breathy and ethereal) and nobody gets shot. What more do you want from a film?

John Wick 2

Tonight we went to the cinema to see the latest Keanu Reeves extravaganza, John Wick 2. For anyone who’s seen John Wick, this is more of the same: hyperkinetic gun fights with Keanu turning opponents into an obstacle course, bonecrunching, skull exploding nonsense for two hours. 

The advantage of seeing this in the cinema is that it’s so damn loud: we watched the first installment at home and to really appreciate the violent idiocy, you need eviction-instigating volume, every gunshot becoming full power percussion so after the film ends you’re battered and deafened by it. The constant maiming and death continues at such a high, unwavering velocity that it goes beyond absurdity into a commentary on the banality of violence, and then back into Keanu shooting lots of people again. 

There’s a dog in it, but it survives, unlike the puppy from the first episode. Lovejoy returns, and there’s an unexpected and unexpectedly gory suicide about a third of the way through, but the only other thing I found offensive was Keanu managing to change the direction of a car he was driving, while travelling through the air. But this isn’t really a film for physics aficionadoes. 

After a while, you stop counting how many bullets are in Keanu’s gun and concentrate on counting down henchmen to zero, but I guess basing a drinking game on that would get you to liver failure too damn fast. And what would be relaxing about that?

What a Carrie on

As usual, I took La Serpiente to school today. We had the usual struggle getting her out the door because we couldn’t agree on footwear. La Serpiente has been demanding to wear a pair of Havianas that are slightly too big for her. Aesthetically this troubles me because I don’t like the shuffling gait it induces in her, and it’s not entirely safe. Usually sure footed, today she fell off one of the low walls she loves to walk on and would have capsized completely if I hadn’t been holding her hand. 

We stopped for pain au chocolat and then walked up the alleyway to her school. Right outside her school there’s a little set of steps and she walked up those, then called to me to follow. Because I have to show I have some mind of my own, I told her I was staying on the lower path; so she came down, and then sprinted toward me. And then the Havianas claimed another victi, as she slipped and went straight down on the ground. 

Normally, she’s robust enough to leap back up immediately, shouting “I’m ok! I’m ok!” so having her lie prone and silent was worrying enough. Then she began to howl, and I could see she’d cut either her forehead or her mouth, so I gathered her up and took her into school, where they’d have a first aid kit.

There were various gasps seized by other parents dropping their kids off and at first I thought they were just being squeamish and hadn’t seen a child cry before. Then I set La Serpiente down on a chair and took a second look, and almost fainted. So much blood, so much blood. You never really appreciate how much a head wound bleeds until you see it. My daughter looked like Carrie in the details Palma film, just after a bucket of pig’s blood has been dropped on her head at the prom. She howled and howled as we wiped some of the blood off, and then howled some more as we waited for her mother to arrive.  

Thankfully, the children’s hospital is super efficient, and I guess 9:30 am isn’t a peak time. She got triaged and in front of a doctor within 45 minutes, daubed with anaesthetic and then stitched up 45 minutes after that, and was home and in bed by midday.

Her sister, not wanting to be outdone, spent the whole time running around the waiting room and falling flat on her face, although without breaking the skin at all. And now I discover she’s capable of climbing onto the top bunk of La Serpiente’s bed, roughly four times her height. Couldn’t either of my children have some level of risk avoidance?

Quality time

I’ve not been very good at reading stories to the girls this week; tonight I went to the track for my monthly 30 minute run-as-hard-as-you-can test, and didn’t get home until La Serpiente was down. Destroyer was happily bumbling around the house, trying to climb onto the kitchen worktops and generally being cute. That .Add it extra heart-rending when I took her to her bedroom and she instantly began screaming for her mother.

The rage lasted for a while, and then came the singing. Cute though it is to hear her going “mummy mummy mummy bun bun bun” (“Mother, mother, mother, bunny rabbit, bunny rabbit, bunny rabbit”) the joy does pale when you’re desperate for dinner and bed. She flopped around, playing with her George Pig nightlight, or with her sheep, or her pink bunny, for a good 45 minutes and then, a propos of nothing, rolled over and went to sleep. I’ll never fully understand my kids. 

This does rather cut into the quality time of the parents. My wife passed out, leaving me to watch movie trailers on YouTube in the dark on my own. Yes, this is what constitutes quality time, allegedly. Why I didn’t cut my losses and go to sleep too an hour ago I just don’t understand. Maybe I feel I need more sleep deprivation, not less.