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The Body Artist (Picador £13.99)
No one could ever have accused Don DeLillo of advocating the less is more philosophy of writing. Having made his debut in 1971 with Americana (though all his subsequent works could have had that title), this New Yorker has achieved nothing less than root canal work on what it means to be paranoid, obsessed, American and alienated and how these are shaped by technology, media, language and the self.
Sometimes he's done that in very long books (Libra, Underworld), often in leaner publications (End Zone, Running Dog); always with a scope and sensuality rarely matched by anyone else rattling around within his field today. Reviewing the 827-page Underworld in The New York Times, Martin Amis described DeLillo as a man whose art was ’suddenly filling the sky'. By comparison, you'd struggle to say that The Body Artist takes up the room on a postage stamp. At a mere 124 pages, there are perhaps a handful of noteworthy incidents; the beauty of the novel lies in what is nearly said and done, and what lies beneath.
It begins with the seemingly normal day of a married couple (a film director and a performance artist) in plush rented accommodation. She observes a bird at the window, he lights a cigarette, they contemplate their possessions and try to eke out their personal space (both physical and spiritual). And it's all done in blurred speech and wilful meanderings which casually stroll into creative cul-de-sacs: 'She used the old dented kettle instead of the new one she'd just bought because . . . she didn't know why'; ’She almost said "is that smart?" But then she didn't. Because what a needless thing. Because how petty it would be to say such a thing.’
At first, you think Don’s proof-readers have gone AWOL. Then you recognise this tool is making you feel very queasy; edgy at what's going on and ill at ease with what might blow up in our faces. lt reeks of Beckett, smokes like Pinter and can't help but remind a David Lynch fan of Lost Highway’s first half hour.
From this inauspicious opening, things move rapidly on (relatively speaking) to her ultimate solitude. Yet, a
Reeks of Beckett and smokes like Pinter
figure of a boy lives on in their house, speaking in her master's voice. A figment of her stressed imagination? A child we previously knew nothing of? A ghost from her, or someone else's past? As the figure makes its impression, her ‘self' goes into a spin. The Body Artist is weird yet genuinely wonderful. In the hands of this American master, less becomes an awful lot more.
Tim Moore Continental Drifter (Abacus £10.99)
Laugh-out-loud in a weedy way
110 THE LIST 15 Feb—l Mar 2001
Tourism was invented in the early 16005 by a court jester called Thomas Coryate who walked all the way to Venice and back, financed by a bet made with a draper. On his return, he wrote a travelogue, introduced dining forks to England and coined the word ’umbrella’.
Almost 400 years later, Tim Moore has retraced those footsteps. In a Rolls Royce. You can read all about this strange tale in Continental Drifter: Taking The Low Road With The First Grand Tourist. DeSpite his luxurious mode of transport, Moore still puts himself through some serious discomfort: prison cell conditions in France’s cheapo motels, hiking across sub-zero Germany in plastic footwear, tackling Venice’s rush hour in a small boat. It all makes you wonder whether he likes his travel a little S&M.
'Oh dear, that might be putting it a bit too far,’ says the former Observer and Esquire writer, somewhat taken
aback at an admittedly daft opening gambit. ’It’s partly that l was trying to do it in the spirit of Tom; he wasn’t remotely grand, travelling in a hand- to-mouth way. I’m a fearful weed about everything, but by forcing yourself to do this, you find things that end up being entertaining. Although they’re certainly not at the time.’
This brand of self-deprecating humour makes Moore's writing laugh- Out-IOUd hilarious. lnevrtably, comparisons have been made With Bill Bryson, but Moore’s style is a mite more eccentric. And by usmg a tour guide from the past, he’s hit upon a novel formula that's immensely readable; see also his previous laugh- a-logue, Frost On My Moustache.
Will there be another book? ’l’ve written it,’ he fires back. ’lt's the entire route of the Tour de France on a bike; maybe I am a masochist.’ The title? ’French Revolutions; peddles, wheels, geddit?’ Mais our (Miles Fielder)
Putting debut novelists under the microscope. This issue: Sylvia Smith Who she? Born in 1945, Sylvia Smith was an only child in the working class environs of East London, leaving school with no formal qualifications, her only ones to date are a school swimming certificate and a clean driving licence Aged 50, Smith realised that she hadn’t done very much with her life This was followed by a decision to have done ’something' by the time she was 60; so she set out writing a book Her debut Misadventures is essentially a most peculiar autobiography. Smith has meandered her way through a variety of office JObS, taken a clutch of lovers and resided with scores of housemates while not bothering to get a husband or children. On her seemineg limited travels, she has encountered a vast cast of weird, woeful and wonderful characters, Basically This is a linear charting of hundreds of microscopic events that happen in one woman's life; from finding her penSioner father wearing odd shoes and two ties to Witnessmg a car crash or befriending a cancer- ridden old lady. The crushing mundanin of it all becomes strangely involvmg and Smith’s matter of fact, deadpan delivery makes for oddly engaging reading. Av0iding eprOitative voyeurism, it can be likened to tall tales in the pub or those titbits of gOSSID your granny would divulge.
Compare and contrast The tales in Misadventures have been likened to those in Alan Bennett's Talking Heads and Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch.
First line test ’My father worked as a skilled Wire worker until his retirement. He made fireguards and cable grips by hand but today the same JOb is done
. by machinery.’
Dedicated _ . . ’to my parents, who had the good sense to start a family halfway through the Second World War.’ (Mark Robertson)
:1 Misadventures is published by Canongate priced £9. 99.