Saturday, 8 April 2017

I Read That - To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris

On a radio programme I listened to recently about the old days of BBC comedy, a contributor mentioned that, after listening to something he'd produced, David Hatch, controller of comedy, called him into his office and said, angrily: "You used the word 'urine' on that programme we broadcast yesterday. Never be so vulgar again - I do not want urine coming out of my radio."

Oh David Hatch please come back and rescue us.  When it comes to vulgarity, things are getting worse and worse.

Take To Rise Again at a Decent Hour as an example. This novel is in many ways intriguing and enjoyable. It is told in the first person by a neurotic dentist (his father killed himself, leading to his repetitive desire to join other people's families - usually those of his girlfriends). At the start of the book, he discovers that his name is being used on the Internet by someone who is proselytising for a lost tribe called the Amalekites, who worship a God who appeared to them in order to tell them that they must never believe in him unconditionally and their main duty was to doubt, (their major religious holiday is The Feast of the Paradox):

"And Safek gathered us anew, and we sojourned with him in the land of Israel. And we had no city to give us name; neither had we king to appoint us captains, to make of us instruments of war; neither had we laws to follow, save one. Behold, make thine heart hallowed by doubt; for God, if God, only God may know. And we followed Safek, and were not consumed."

This Amalek doctrine that Ferris has dreamed up is very diverting and there are many other entertaining and thought-provoking aspects to the book, including a great set piece about people who rub hand cream into their hands regularly, reflections on the Internet and our constant attention to it, via what he cleverly terms our "me-machines", (plus of course our inability to control this thing that we have created as demonstrated by the way in which his identity is taken and used), and a wonderfully written section about the difficulty of getting absorbed in work but the pleasure, if you persist through the phase of being distracted, in becoming absorbed.

My problem, however, is one I am encountering more and more - the book is too vulgar. For the same reason, I've just had to return to Audible their recording of The Girl Before by JP Delaney, which I'd imagined might be a diverting lightweight thriller for the driving I'm doing a lot of at the moment, but which turned out to be basically pornography, in which the author seems to assume women like very, very bossy, utterly humourless men, (wrong - most women like funny, kind men above all else; kindness on its own is no good but kind and funny is the Holy Grail). Before that I picked a detective novel by Rennie Airth, set in the 1920s. It turned out to be riddled with "she took his member in her hand and stroked the tender skin, backwards and forw..." (you get the picture) gratuitous scenes.

Thus, with To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, the narrator feels the need to tell us that he masturbated in a cupboard, even though it really doesn't further any aspect of the plot or build his character to new heights of believability. Worse still, he insists on describing the way he feels when he truly falls in love as being "cunt gripped". Sadly, he does not fall in love - or as he prefers to say become "cunt gripped" - just once. It happens a lot and the phrase pops up (stop sniggering at the back) again and again and again.

You can call me Mrs Bowdler, but I don't care - just keep urine from coming out of my radio and remove the word "cunt" from the pages of my books (oh yes, and lay off the masturbation and the details of who is touching which sexual organs and whether any of those organs might be getting hard, firm or moist). If someone can give me an argument that justifies their inclusion on the grounds of an improved artwork, I'll be amazed. Meanwhile, I'm driving up to Sydney with Thomas Hardy and Far From the Madding Crowd for company. Thus far, it has been funnier than I'd expected and tremendously vivid, without the mention of a single drop of urine or any other bodily fluid. Strong emotions are felt, some of a sexual nature, but the reader is not asked to create a sequence of explicit images in their head. Why has that approach been put aside by publishers or writers? Do most people enjoy the things I loathe? Answers welcome, preferably in a plain brown envelope.

4 comments:

  1. Well, if one wished to get rid of a plainer word than "urine", one would rule out The Tempest and 1 Samuel, the latter in the Authorized Version, anyway. I will admit that I have never listened to either on the radio, and can't think of when I'd be likely to.

    For the rest, my years of reading have convinced me of a couple of propositions. First, that the sex scenes in modern literature derive less from the author's experience than from other literature, ultimately traceable perhaps to Henry Miller or one of his sources. Second, that the best sex scene in the English language may occur in Book XIII, ch. viii of Tom Jones: "It would be tedious to give the particular conversation, which consisted of very common and ordinary occurrences, and which lasted from two till six o'clock in the morning."

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    1. I do like that Tom Jones comment.

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