The future of physical book shops is not looking bright. Apart from the fact that many people couldn’t be bothered to read (or, even in developed countries, can’t read), there is the entire digital thing. Books are cheaper and quicker to get in electronic form, and a variety of websites deliver cutting edge references on any subject you can imagine.
I love browsing book shops as much as anyone, but I have joined the ranks of Kindle users (using the Android tablet I bought last month). According to Amazon, by May 2011 they had sold more book downloads than they did in all of 2010!
The thing is this. Yes, it’s half the price, but the immediacy is so damn appealing. Last week I was reading an FT interview with Nicholson Baker, the author of House of Holes, and was able to buy the book without walking more than three steps.
House of Holes is an exercise in unbounded sexual fantasy. Think Roald Dahl (in adult short story format), Enid Blyton fairies and Alice in Wonderland, all of it viewed through a light mist of psychedelia. One reviewer has even tossed a little bit of Tellytubbies into the mix.
The book is largely about body parts – the book even opens with a pleasure-giving arm that has parted company with its host body – that are driven by pleasurable sensations. In the context of this book, the pleasure is all sexual, and no holds are barred.
Baker manages to keep it all light, comical even, with rhythmical narrative that at times is more reminiscent of poetry than prose. Writing about sex also brings up the weighty issue of how one describes it, and the body parts involved.
I haven’t been able to work out why one character refers to his penis (as in John Thomas) as his Malcolm Gladwell, but Baker trots out an impressive sequence of euphemistic references. I found myself chuckling at some of these.
One of the other ways he keeps the book light, I suspect, is by not making much effort to develop any characters. House of Holes is an entertaining read, which is sexual, but not necessarily pornographic.
Last Living Slut, on the other hand, is a real story, about a real person’s sexual exploits. I was exposed to it in a real book shop, but bought it electronically (yes, I know I was leeching off their overheads). The Slutwalk movement has given new meaning to the word slut, and the author, Roxana Shirazi, is at pains to defend the position of (often promiscuous) women who match men’s interest in sex. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, can’t argue with that.
And, with a surname that is one vowel away from being the name of one of my favourite grape varieties – Shiraz – my curiosity was piqued. I should also add, at this point, that the Facebook page for The Very Sexy Shiraz (one of the products I created at Cloof) has been inhabited by a large number of Iranians (you can read more that here).
Roxana Shirazi lived in Iran until she was 10, and then moved to the UK with her grandmother to get away from the revolution. A lay psychologist (upon reflection ‘lay’ is perhaps not the ideal word) could have a field day extrapolating an absent, opium-addicted father, physically abusive stepfather and a sexually abusive lodger, into the rock groupie that she grew into.
I can’t say that I found Last Living Slut a satisfying read. Yes, the book is littered with explicit descriptions of her (and friends’) uninhibited exploits with rockers, but once that component is removed, not much remains. I couldn’t say that the book goes anywhere with its potentially fertile material; there must – surely – have been scope for greater examination of deeper issues. Various themes or episodes are left dangling, which include her attempted suicide, and, to some extent, her abortion.
I would fault the book, also, on a generally staccato, if not chaotic, flow, which is also somewhat sloppy (OK, given the context, perhaps this is also not the ideal word). She starts one (short) chapter aged 21, and ends it a few pages later aged 24, without any sense of a passage of time. Perhaps it is what one would expect from a rock groupie, but this one has a Masters degree.
I’ve never been able to sing, nor can I play any musical instruments. But for these basic requirements I could happily have been a rock star. If nothing else, Roxana Shirazi has shown us some of the – admittedly transient – perks of being the object of young women’s adulation (if she ever pitches up at my house I’ll instantly start bashing away at my son’s drums!).
I’m sure she could have done a better job of writing her story. Perhaps she’ll come back to it all at some point in the future and have another stab at it.
Until then, I have to declare the work of fantasy as the winner of this month’s read-off.