canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

The Polysyllabic Spree
by Nick Hornby
McSweeney's, Believer Books, 2004

Reviewed by Alex Boyd

Nobody can accuse Nick Hornby of failing to be himself. A collection of fourteen months of his essays from Believer magazine, The Polysyllabic Spree is honest, smart, and down to earth. Every month he lists what he bought, what he read, and every month the list of what he bought outgrows his reading despite steady efforts, occasionally thrown off when he’s caught up in football matches, or his children. Readers knows there’s always a crowded bookshelf waiting, even as books we loved start to fade from memory and cry out to be read again ("But when I tried to recall anything about it other than its excellence, I failed. Maybe there was something about a peculiar stepfather?"). It’s an ongoing struggle. And as Hornby acknowledges later "Boredom and, very occasionally, despair are part of the reading life." So why do we bother, and why do we do the work?

The answers are pretty straightforward, I think. The books we’ve forgotten still made an impression on us, settled somewhere in the corners of our minds. And why do we do the work? We do the work for the rewards, and Hornby knows that too. He puts a logical, personal weight into these mini-reviews. A book of stories strikes a good balance for being "literary in the sense that they’re serious, and will probably be nominated for prizes, but they’re unliterary in the sense that they could end up mattering to people." Or, "We are never allowed to forget that some books are badly written; we should remember that sometimes they’re badly read, too." It’s as unpretentious and straightforward as a friend’s advice in a pub, so it gathers a little of that trustworthiness as well.

Hornby reads widely, so fiction, non-fiction and poetry are all covered here, and I was pleased to see poetry included. Tony Hoagland is "the sort of poet you dream of finding but almost never do. His work is relaxed, deceptively easy on the eye and ear, and it has jokes and unexpected little burst of melancholic resonance. Plus, I pretty much understand all of it, and yet it’s clever – as you almost certainly know, contemporary poetry is a kind of Reykjavik, a place where accessibility and intelligence have been fighting a Cold War by proxy for the last half-century. If something doesn’t give you a shot at comprehension in the first couple of readings, then my motto is ‘Fuck it.’" I think I might only add that accessibility and intelligence needn’t exclude each other, and ideally both are married. In any case, Hornby implies this. He feels distanced from overly literary novels where a character opens the door to discover their home has been newly trashed and immediately drops into reverie, thinking about another character for a page or so. His point is that he can’t imagine a character of his creation doing anything other than opening the door and saying, "Shit! Some bastard has trashed the house!" Is it possible novels need balance, that the overly serious literary novel can be its own worst enemy? I agree they can feel suffocating. Hornby’s no snob, and I can see him enjoying John LeCarre for the engaging plot as much as the "soggy chatter" of a motorbike. I also don’t think he’d march into a bookstore and insist LeCarre be bumped out of a genre section and into general fiction (as a well known Canadian author allegedly did) given that a truly talented writer should be allowed to elevate the genre, rather than graduate from it.

There are a few well-placed shots reserved for critics here too, and Hornby wisely declines the opportunity to take on his own: "Reviewers "complain that [Roddy] Doyle used to write short books, and now they’ve gone fat; another that he used to write books set in Dublin, and he should have kept them there; another that he used to write with a child’s-eye view, and now he’s writing for adults… you’re half expecting someone to point out that back in the day he used to write books that sold for a tenner, and now they’ve gone up to seventeen quid."

It also has to be said that Hornby is flat out funny. Here’s his description of the author fantasy colliding with reality:

You imagine spending your days under a parasol watching, transfixed and humbled, as a beautiful and intelligent young man or woman, almost certainly a future best friend, maybe even a spouse, weeps and guffaws through three hundred pages of your brilliant prose… I was cured of this particular fantasy a couple of years ago, when I spent a week watching a woman on the other side of the pool reading my first novel, High Fidelity. Unfortunately, however, I was on holiday with my sister and brother-in-law, and my brother-in-law provided a gleeful and frankly unfraternal running commentary. "Look! Her lips are moving!" "Ha! She’s fallen asleep! Again!" "I talked to her in the bar last night, not a bright woman, I’m afraid." At one point, alarmingly, she dropped the book and ran off. "She’s gone to put out her eyes!" my brother-in-law yelled triumphantly. I was glad when she’d finished it and moved on to Harry Potter or Dr Seuss or whatever else it was she’d packed.

Hornby is amusingly blunt when writing about a biography: "Please, biographers. Please, please, please. Have mercy. Select for us. We have jobs, kids, DVD players, season tickets. But that doesn’t mean we don’t want to know about stuff." So, if you’re pushing through something right now and not enjoying it, and will want something light, fresh and intelligent as a slight break when you’re done, consider this one. Not only did I end up with a list of titles I wanted to read, I was able to relate to the struggles of another reader. It’s also a good gift for someone trying to get back into reading – a kind of easy to swallow, literary vitamin.

Alex Boyd is co-editor of Northern Poetry Review.







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